NEW YORK (AP) — A big dry erase board hangs on the wall of one side of the meeting room. It has rows and rows of numbers and words handwritten in blue marker that only make sense to someone who speaks the language of football.
On the opposite wall sits another big white board, mostly empty with a few categories written in red marker: 3rd and 1-2; 3rd and 3-6; Red Zone; Goal Line.
The task for Fordham’s offensive staff, led by 33-year-old coach Andrew Breiner, on this muggy summer day in the Bronx is to mark up most of that board and finish the second phase of the first run of game-planning for the Rams’ opening game of the season.
Or, as Breiner puts it: “Let’s try to find a way to score some points against Army.”
Putting together a game plan is an elaborate exercise in the art — and science — of analyzing an opponent’s tendencies and patterns, and determining how best to exploit them. It’s mixing and matching. What do we like to do and when? What do they like to do and when? Throw out the stuff that won’t work, keep what should and then figure out what are (hopefully) the best plays to run in the upcoming game.
The process can vary from staff to staff and coach to coach, but the template is generally the same.
Breiner, considered one of the bright young offensive minds in college coaching, let the AP sit in on a summer game-planning meeting, and then explained how he and his staff do it during the season.
Summer game-planning is a way to get a jump on the early part of the schedule. Breiner and his staff planned for the first three opponents this summer, but they will go back and do the whole process again the week before each game.
During the season, the prep work starts the week before the week leading up to the game. While the coaches and players are practicing for Saturday’s game, graduate assistants are breaking down film for the following week’s opponent.
Breiner wants that completed by Friday afternoon so all that needs to be added Sunday is the game that was just played.
Of course, these days film is not film. It is all digital recordings, and computer software from companies such as XOS allow for easy filtering and on-screen labeling. Each play is sorted by down and distance and labeled for personnel groupings. For studying defenses that would be the number of defensive backs, linebackers and linemen on the field. The front is identified (How many players are lined up over the offensive linemen and where?), coverage (How many players are dropping deep helps determine man-to-man or zones) and pressure (Who is blitzing and from where?).
On Sunday, the coaches will dive into film and data reports of the next opponent on their own.
At Fordham, where the Rams have gone 40-11 the last four seasons, there is no practice Monday so coaches put in a long day of game-planning.
“The first thing we do when we sit down to start an opponent is we have the personnel discussion,” said Briener, who was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach when Joe Moorhead left to become Penn State’s offensive coordinator.
That’s tricky for the first opponent of the season, but using last year’s depth chart, coaches take an educated guess at who will be playing. Rarely does an opposing player drastically change a game plan.
Then begins the work of coming up with plays to run on first and second down. Some of the work is simple process of elimination. For example: Against a 4-3 defense, how the interior linemen line up — shaded left or right — helps narrow down the running plays. Coverages determine what passing plays get thrown out, and some are obvious.
“So if you’re a cover-four team (basically, four players dropping deep), we’re probably not going to run play-action, four verticals at you because it’s not a good concept against cover-four,” Breiner said.
Generally, teams use their base defense on first and second down and switch things up on third down. Breiner said one of the first things he will try to determine is whether an opponent defends second down by distance.
“The first thing I’ll look for on second down is second-and-long,” he said. “Are they really trying to treat that as a pass down? Or are they treating that as what I would call normal down. Seven or less.”
Breiner said for one opponent last season, he set up his call sheet completely based on distances. “Because I found a pattern within their defensive calls that I knew on these certain distances I was going to get certain things,” he said.
The results of Monday’s game-planning are implemented on the practice field Tuesday. That day’s game-plan meeting goes about two hours and is focused on third-down plays, sorted by distance needed for a first down.
Generally, this is when defenses mix things up and use distance as a defender. Breiner said it is important to avoid getting bogged down in looks that rarely show up on film. He tells his staff: “Don’t chase ghosts.”
“Often times when you find things that just show up a couple times for the defense that was game-plan specific for the opponent they were seeing that week,” he said “Whereas when you see things that show up across the board, this is who they are.”
Tuesday’s work goes to the practice field on Wednesday, while coaches game-plan for special situations such as backed up against the goal line, 2-point plays and fourth down. It is also the last chance to tweak what is already in place.
Breiner prefers to go into a game with a relatively small list of plays. He would rather not say the exact number. Breiner’s offense is loaded with run-pass option plays, where the quarterback reads the defense after the snap to determine whether to hand off or throw. Having multiple answers baked into one play means fewer total plays are necessary. That means fewer for players to learn and more time for them to master what Breiner wants the Rams to do best.
Of course, it’s not uncommon — especially against offenses that have been as good as Fordham’s have been under Moorhead and Breiner — for an opponent to spring a big surprise on Saturday.
To prepare for that, Breiner uses a “cheat sheet,” a tip he took from a talk given by Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez during a clinic.
“He listed different coverages and different fronts and just a call or two that were his favorite calls against those,” Breiner said. “So that if he ever got into a game and they showed him something different or they were stuck and couldn’t seem to get the right plays called, he would go back to that cheat sheet.”
Wednesday’s work is installed at practice and players get the entire plan — printed out.
“I’m old school,” Breiner said.
The day before a game is mostly about studying up, with a walk-through in the afternoon or early evening and meetings for the players. Hopefully, they do some cramming before bed.
Game day. Time to see if the plan worked.
Last year, Fordham averaged 6.63 yards per play (eighth-best in FCS) and 40.1 points per game (fourth in FCS). Usually, it worked quite well.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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