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Playbook Confidential: Personnel and Playcalling

(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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I have this system that I use when watching Charger games where I chart Norv's playcalling by what personnel grouping he has in the game.  For example, "11 personnel" (1 RB, 1 TE) and if Norv calls a run or pass from that personnel grouping.  It is a quick and easy way to get move involved in the game, but also to easily see tendencies develop in the offensive playcalling. 

Why do I chart by personnel grouping instead of formations, you ask?  Because the first thing that a Defensive Coordinator looks at before he makes a defensive play call is what personnel grouping that the offense is sending into the game.  This is the first move in the chess match that develops for each play call, and is largely what the Defensive Coordinator makes his play call based off of since it is too late to call a play when the offense has lined up in their formation.

However, breaking playcalls down by formation is also a very worthwhile way to identify playcalling tendencies, and Orz did a great job breaking that down yesterday over here.

I used this same system in Charger games last season, and it was very interesting to see how Norv would set up a defense for explosive plays using personnel groupings.  For example, many times you would see Norv run for up to 80% of the playcalls out of "21 personnel" (2 RB, 1 TE) in the first half.  The defensive coordinator would take notice of this, and scheme to stop the run every time he saw the "21 personnel" grouping in the second half.  Norv would then dial up a deep pass from the "21 personnel" grouping when he needed a big play...and he would get it.

After the jump, I'll show you my results from the first half of the Cowboys preseason game.  I didn't chart the whole game, but only the plays in which Rivers and Volek were playing with the starters on offense.

Before I show the chart, I'll break down each personnel grouping for easy reference.  It seems a bit overwhelming at first, but each personnel grouping is referred to by only two numbers: the number of RB's in the game and the number of TE's in the game.  Since there are only 5 skill positions on the field (after you take away the 5 OL and 1 QB), you can also easily deduce the number of WR's in the game.

Personnel RB TE WR
00 0 0 5
01 0 1 4
02 0 2 3
10 1 0 4
11 1 1 3
12 1 2 2
13 1 3 1
20 2 0 3
21 2 1 2
22 2 2 1
23 2 3 0


Something to note is that it doesn't matter where a player lines up in formation when charting by personnel grouping.  When Randy McMichael and Mike Tolbert both line up in the backfield in Shotgun, it is still an "11 personnel" grouping because there is 1 RB and 1 TE.  Incomplete passes and sacks get tallied in the "pass" column as well.

So now that you can easily reference the personnel groupings, I'll show you the results from the first half of the Cowboys preseason game and see what conclusions we can make from this.

Personnel Run Pass
10   1
11 3 14
12 3 3
21 5 4
22 3  


The first thing that we notice is that Norv did not run any empty backfield sets.  The second thing is that Norv called up 12 plays with 2 RB's in the backfield, and 24 plays with only 1 RB in the backfield.  That's twice as many plays without a FB as with one.

Up until the last drive at the end of the first half, there had been 13 passes and only 1 run out of "11 personnel": that's roughly 93% pass from that personnel grouping.  Since "11 personnel" has 3 WR's, we can guess that Norv will continue to call a lot of passes from 3 WR sets as he did last season.

Ideally, one would think that an offensive coordinator would strive for a 50/50 balance in their playcalling, but Norv doesn't always follow that line of thought. 

If this were a regular season game, I would be very interested to see what Norv did from "11 personnel" in the second half of this game.  Either he would call a lot of runs, thinking that the defensive coordinator would adjust to defend the pass since he called the vast majority of his pass plays from "11 personnel."  Or, he might continue to call pass plays, if he thought that the defensive coordinator would know that he would anticipate his adjustment and do the can see how quickly this turns into a chess match between coaching staffs.

Other than that, we can't read too much into these tendencies since it is preseason, but if this were the regular season, I would track not only the tendencies for the past week's game, but also a cumulative tally for the entire season to really analyze the trends.

What do you think?

So, I would like to get your opinions on if you would like to see this breakdown after every game, or if you think it is too much info that bores you.  Please leave a comment on whether you would like to see breakdown this continue or not.  I am going to continue to chart it regardless because I like to do it, but we would really like your opinions since we have been throwing around the idea of doing weekly breakdowns analyzing the past week's game like this article and Orz's article from yesterday.

If you want to give personnel charting a try, feel free to try it yourself.  It is very low maintenance, just look at what personnel are in the game when the offense lines up, and keep that in mind then when the play is over just make a tally in the appropriate column.  I can't take credit for the idea, I picked it up from a book written by Pat Kirwan, a former NFL GM/coach/scout and highly recommend his book as well if you want to learn more about the inner workings of teams in the NFL.