Who Are the NFL's Worst Play-Callers?

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterDecember 27, 2013

Tim Heitman/USA Today

Offensive and defensive coordinators are some of the most misunderstood people in all of sports.

Yes, while the buck often stops with the head coach and general manager, it doesn't take long after being hired that large segments of the fanbase start being unhappy with the new play-caller.

Play-calling—at least from the sideline or box—isn't what it used to be.

Package plays (as discussed in-depth here) and pre-snap set audibles have evolved far beyond what many fans might even realize. The "bad play call" that resulted in a three-and-out or a turnover may have been the quarterback's fault at the line.

Moreover, execution is a big part of the package. The play call is only designed to put players in positions to succeed. If a wide receiver doesn't get separation, or a quarterback makes the wrong read, or there's a communication breakdown, a poor play can look an awful lot like a poor play call, when nothing could be further from the truth.

This is where analysis of football often breaks down—even in an era when we have access to All-22 coaches tape. Without knowledge of what the exact play call was, and how the player was taught to operate within that play call, some amount of guessing is always going on. 

Thus, to be a truly terrible play-caller in the NFL is an ignominious honor.

It takes utter dedication to being dreadful and a commitment to being crappy. It means a year-after-year inability to have any idea what one is doing or how to win a game of football. Frankly, getting out of bed in the morning seems like an incredible accomplishment for these guys. 

Bill Musgrave Isn't the Only Problem in Minnesota, but He's Not Helping Either

Oct 27, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave during the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Packers defeated the Vikings 44-31. Mandatory Credit: Brace
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport
  • Minnesota Vikings Offensive Coordinator, 3rd season
  • Ranked 10th in Rushing Yardage, 127 ypg
  • Ranked 22nd in Passing Yardage, 217 ypg

Before quarterback Christian Ponder was drafted in the first round by Minnesota, I had him as a possibility for the Vikings in the second round. It wasn't that I was incredibly impressed with Ponder; it was simply that I felt he did a lot of things well that had been a hallmark of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's offenses in his previous stop at Atlanta. 

Minnesota Vikings Offense Under Bill Musgrave
YearOffensive RankPassing RankRushing Rank

Musgrave is known for the roll-out, or "moving pocket." At Florida State, Ponder was adept at throwing on the run and, when he was healthy, was a good enough athlete to pick up yardage when things broke down. Most importantly, the roll-out makes great use of play action and cuts down on the reads a quarterback has to make.

It was a doomed marriage from the start. 

Musgrave is also influenced by the West Coast offensive philosophy. Even when simplified—as Musgrave did for the Vikings—the WCO is not always easy for a young quarterback to pick up. Add in a lockout-shortened offseason, and all of a sudden the playbook had to be truncated to a point of absurdity for Ponder.

The whole issue was exacerbated by the presence of wide receiver Percy Harvin, who commanded a certain amount of plays designed to get him the ball in space. These weren't necessarily new or different plays, but they weren't part of a game plan built around Ponder's strengths and weaknesses.

Long story short, Ponder has failed in Minnesota, but some of the blame has to be laid at the feet of Musgrave, who has failed to utilize running back Adrian Peterson or any of the Vikings' other offensive weapons. The play calling has lacked rhyme, rhythm or reason.

Perhaps the best way to look at this situation is that Musgrave has no idea how to mesh his own personal philosophies with the players he has. Rather, he tries to engineer yardage by forcing the issue—first with Harvin and Peterson, now with Cordarrelle Patterson—rather than simply letting his offensive studs do what they do best as a unit. 

Bill Sheridan Not Putting Defensive Stars in Positions to Succeed

MIAMI, FL - CIRCA 2011: In this handout image provided by the NFL, Bill Sheridan of the Miami Dolphins poses for his NFL headshot circa 2011 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by NFL via Getty Images)
Handout/Getty Images
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator, 2nd season
  • Ranked 16th Against the Run, 111 ypg
  • Ranked 17th Against the Pass, 229 ypg

The worst thing one can do is look statistically at an offense or a defense and assume that's a complete commentary on the job that the coordinators are doing. For a team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who spent so much money and draft capital bringing in elite defensive talent, the middling statistical ranking is far more in spite of the scheme than because of it. 

Exhibit A was the inability to use cornerback Darrelle Revis in man coverage.

As the murmurings of smart fans and analysts grew, wondering why the elite corner was being "hidden" in zone coverage, Sheridan told fans that they could come take his job and do better. However, Sheridan also started running more and more man-coverage looks for Revis and—lo and behold—the defense improved. 

ESPN's Ron Jaworski broke down some of the tape:

Last week vs. the Eagles, Revis was given help on 20 of the Eagles 32 pass plays (62.5%), with only being singled up in man coverage on 12 snaps in the game (only 2 of those plays was he on “Revis Island” by himself)—this style of Defense is not a good fit for the best cover CB in the NFL with the high majority of zone coverage schemes they play with...

Tampa Bay’s defense has not maximized their potential with improperly using their personnel with the schemes they run, starting with the use of lockdown CB, Darrelle Revis who is unable to use his excellent coverage skills to take away an opposing offenses best receiving option.

So, instead of "Revis Island," Sheridan spent most of the year gerrymandering Revis into a district of his own design and "helping" a player who doesn't need nearly as much help as he was getting. 

The way he schemes players out of the position where they could excel doesn't end there, however.

Former Buccaneers defensive lineman Stephen White has called out Sheridan, repeatedly, for continually blitzing and running line stunts with no seeming purpose. One of my favorite lines from White, per SB Nation, is: "Here is the Bucs' problem on defense in a nutshell: Bill Sheridan is an idiot."

White has an issue, specifically, with the "Quick Tex" or "QTex" stunt, which is meant to be utilized by teams with fast defensive ends whom the coordinator wants to match up with the interior of the offensive line. For instance, Sheridan's New York Giants used (and still use) the "QTex" to perfection at times in order to open up rushing lanes for guys like Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck. 

"QTex" as part of the Tampa 2 scheme.
"QTex" as part of the Tampa 2 scheme.Matt Bowen

For the Buccaneers, though, this means a double-team for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. It's near insanity to scheme one's best player out of a play, but the Buccaneers do it frequently. 

Whether or not head coach Greg Schiano still has a job after the season is still (somehow) up in the air, but it is a certifiable fact that Sheridan should be looking for work again as soon as possible. 

Kevin Gilbride Hasn't Been Able to Stay Ahead of the Curve

HOUSTON - OCTOBER 10:  Quarterback Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants looks over plays with offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride during  a football game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on October 10, 2010 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bo
Bob Levey/Getty Images
  • New York Giants Offensive Coordinator, 7th season
  • Ranked 31st in Rushing Yardage, 81 ypg
  • Ranked 17th in Passing Yardage, 229 ypg

Speaking of head coaches who had late-season "pushes" to save their jobs, Tom Coughlin is far past his prime with the New York Giants. The team has lost his voice and tuned him out, and it shows. Week in and week out, win or lose, this team suffers from lack of effort more than lack of talent.

A good chunk of that, however, has to be because the schemes they are running on both offense and defense are so anachronistic in today's NFL that it's hard on the eyes.

Gilbride's scheme is almost an unholy alliance between the package-play principles we talked about earlier, the run-and-shoot, and the "Erhardt-Perkins" offensive system popularized by the New England Patriots.

This is where it can be difficult to draw the line. Gilbride could, conceivably, be calling a perfect game from his vantage point, but the way Eli Manning and his receivers execute and the decisions they make on the field could be messing things up. 

Could be? Yes...but I wouldn't absolve Gilbride entirely. 

A former NFL advance scout explained the Giants' situation to me in this way: "The best way to scout the Giants is simply to Xerox what you did against a lot of teams a decade ago." His point was that defenses know what's coming—even to the extent of aligning themselves in certain ways to draw a certain play call or throw from Manning. 

Kel Dansby of BigBlueBlitz and SNY.tv put it this way:

The Giants still only run three checks at the line of scrimmage, second year QB Andrew Luck has a package of over 15. Peyton Manning has two checks built into every play call and most of their plays are run using the no huddle. Gilbride only uses the no huddle as a last resort when the game is out of reach or when the Giants are in the two minute drill. Some of Eli's best work has been done in the no huddle and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that.

Simply put, Gilbride has rode a wave of timely success and has never been forced to adapt to the changes in the game of football.

It's been working.

Manning leads the NFL with 26 interceptions, and a lot of that can be traced to Gilbride simply not evolving along with the game of football.

Bill Callahan Needs to Coach the Team He Has, Not the Team He Wants

SAN DIEGO, CA - JANUARY 24:  Bill Callahan head coach of the AFC Champion Oakland Raiders answers questions during a press conference on January 24, 2003 at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California. The Oakland Raiders will face the Tampa
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
  • Dallas Cowboys Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, 1st season as OC
  • Ranked 24th in Rushing Yardage, 97 ypg
  • Ranked 14th in Passing Yardage, 240 ypg

We've come to the cream of the crop when it comes to poor play-callers in the NFL.

Bill Callahan is the man who showed up at Nebraska—Nebraska!—and promptly informed everyone how superior his version of the West Coast offense was, and that they didn't need to run the ball so much...at Nebraska! Not running the football at Nebraska is like showing up to Wisconsin and telling everyone the benefits of a low-cheese diet.

It's also like, oh, I don't know, refusing to run the ball against the run-defenseless Packers when you're up comfortably and have DeMarco freakin' Murray!

Rushing Attempts By DeMarco Murray Against the Packers
QuarterScoring Margin at Beginning of QuarterRushing Attempts
ESPN Drive Charts

Callahan's X's and O's heyday has long passed him by. Back when he was the Oakland Raiders' offensive coordinator and later head coach, his schemes worked well and were cutting-edge next-steps to Bill Walsh's West Coach scheme.

However, Callahan has not evolved. 

To make matters worse, the Cowboys have switched up offenses quite a bit and have been left with a bit of a mishmash that just doesn't seem to have much flow. To make reads easier, the Cowboys moved to an Erhardt-Perkins-style system and tried to mesh that with Jason Garrett's Air Coryell background. This, as previously discussed, is being coordinated and play-called by a strident West Coast aficionado. 

It's not working.

The biggest disconnect, however, is the inability to run the football when the situation calls for it. The Cowboys defense is so atrocious that anytime the team is up by a score or more, it should be looking to retain the lead and run out the clock. I'm not docking the Cowboys (or Callahan) for being aggressive, but being stupid is another matter entirely. 

If anything, Callahan taking over play-calling duties this year has resulted in another step back for the Cowboys offense and—along with looking at the rest of this list—has hopefully frightened any teams away from hiring any more coordinators named "Bill."

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.


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