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The crafting of a practice plan


To say NFL playbooks are voluminous would be an understatement. Tome-size binders are often lugged around by Bills players during training camp from meeting to meeting as they sit with coaches and go over the innumerable nuances of offense, defense and special teams. All of those plays must be installed in the practice setting and repeated several times over depending on how successful the unit is executing it to adequately prepare for the regular season.

The problem is there is a finite number of practices and a finite number of plays that can be run between the start of camp and the season opener. How does Buffalo's coaching staff and those of 31 other NFL clubs decide, what goes into a practice script and what has to wait for another day? talked to some of the coaches that are at the center of the decision making as well as those that handle the grunt work of making sure the script is clear, concise and capable of being completed in a two-plus hour practice.

PreparationWhen players begin their six week vacation between the end of spring minicamp and the start of training camp, the coaching staff spends an extra week or so at the end of June putting together the installation plans for their offense, defense and special teams for training camp.

For the most part the Bills stick to the plan, but the installation plan differs from the practice plan.

"Coach Marrone puts together the plan for practice," said Bills defensive quality control coach Brian Fleury. "So each team period has a different focus, whether it's going to be base personnel groups, first and second down, third down, red zone, two minute all that stuff."

Whatever aspect of play is chosen as an emphasis it's incorporated into the plays that are chosen by offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. He does not give the exact play calls he's chosen for the team periods of practice to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, just the basic information.

"I give them the down and distance and the personnel," said Hackett. "Then I put the plays in and he calls his defense off of that."

"That essentially gives coach Pettine the information he would have prior to the play on game day and he puts in the defensive calls based on that," said Fleury.

DecisionsWhat Hackett puts in the script for a given day might not seem like an arduous task. It's logical to think that whatever he cannot get to on one day can be repped the next day. Buffalo's offensive coordinator quickly outlines how the number of plays can quickly overwhelm the length of practice time that the coaches have to get their respective sides of the ball ready to play.

"Let's take 10 plays, so if you're going to run those 10 plays, technically you're going to run one to the right and to the left. So that's 20 plays," said Hackett. "Then you have to change the personnel groupings, so if you have multiple personnel groupings and there are three personnel groupings, now you have to rep that and all of a sudden we're up to 60 plays. Then you have to ask what if you get a different front each time or a different look?

"For me it's very numbers oriented, which was great because I'm a numbers guy. But even when I was a quality control coach I was saying to myself, 'Wait you're calling this play in this situation only on this hash so it's there, but nobody else is going to get to rep it. So now I'm always asking am I preparing people the right way?'

"It's different for a quarterback to throw it to his left than to his right. It's different for a wide receiver to run a route to his left or his right. And it's different versus every single look. Now you change the personnel. Is Stevie out there? Is Brad out there? Is Robert out there? So you see how with the numbers just with one play exponentially starts skyrocketing."

What Hackett has done to combat the numbers of plays getting away from him is develop an outline program so he knows who, what and how often certain plays are run practice by practice.

"I try to chart between the ones and the twos and personnel and where it goes and who is doing what and what hash mark it could be on, so I overdo it," he said. "I try to get up to about eight days so I have the installation and then I try to get it as many times I can within the different personnel so everybody gets a feel for it and the coaches can coach off of that personnel and what might show up.

"It's dramatic. It's not an easy thing where you go in there and just type in plays."

The defensive side of the ball tracks plays in much the same way.

"All of the data is analyzed and we keep track of how many times throughout the course of camp that we're running each individual huddle call," said Fleury.

AdjustmentsThrough the course of camp head coach Doug Marrone will call for certain plays or fronts or alignments or shifts to be repeated because he feels they need more work or refinement. So adjustments are made to the practice script on a specific day.

The cross talk between the two sides of the ball for team segments of practice however, is extremely limited.

"Very rarely," said Fleury with a grin. "There are instances where we'll tell the other side of the ball, 'Hey we need to see something on this play can you help us out?' Or we might need to see something against a particular defensive front. Most of the time there isn't much collaboration between the two because then it comes down who has the pen last and it gets really competitive."

Coach Marrone himself has been on coaching staffs where there were instances where the practice script became hard evidence in a flurry of accusations between the offensive and defensive staffs.

"I've got some stories," said Marrone. "Offensively we would put in a script and I was a coach and then the basic elements of that script go to the defense. But then you're accusing the defense that they're looking at our script and what we're running. And the defense says the same thing. I'm laughing because I can tell you stories. Sometimes there were two scripts. The offense would get one script. The defense would get another. It was crazy."

Marrone said none of that exists with the Bills and occasionally there will be some cooperation with a practice script based on the needs of the defense or offense.

"It's one of those things where you work together on something if you definitely have to," said Hackett. "Coach Pettine will come over and say, 'I need this route.' So I'll throw that in. Or I'll say, 'I really need this front I want to take a look at this play.' And he'll put it in."

High volumeWhat helps Hackett in his quest to rep every part of his playbook sufficiently is the speed at which the Bills coaching staff runs practice. Buffalo runs practice significantly faster than they have in the past. That allows them to run a lot more plays than a typical NFL practice.

In their live scrimmage last week the players ran 123 plays in the two and a half hour session. Typically they run a bit fewer than that.

"Usually we're around 80-90 plays," said Fleury.

With more plays being run the coaches can repeat the plays that need more refining more often.

"I just think from the management standpoint of the team it's a good thing," said Marrone. "We practice fast so we get more reps and that caters to better learning. When you're doubling your reps now you're getting good evaluations and seeing the players out on the field quite a bit."

Marrone and his staff's approach appears to be very effective coming off a preseason opener in which their execution was pretty consistent. Buffalo's head coach, like any other in the NFL, is a detail-oriented planner, but he also seems to have a good sense of when and where adjustments need to be made. That's a great asset to have when trying to properly prepare a roster with an awful lot of youth.

"Doug does a great job of meeting with his coordinators and working with them to get the best work done for our team," said Fleury.

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