Believe it or not, studying your playbook is one of the most overblown narratives we hear about during this time of year. NFL training camps are in full force now. This is a critical time for rookies and teams learning a new system. Nearly every play they will utilize throughout the season will be discussed and taught during these pivotal weeks in the summer heat.
Obviously there’s value to a playbook, and of course every professional athlete should take his job seriously enough to be as prepared as possible—but in reality, trying to learn a system by studying a playbook on your own is both terribly limiting and equally as inefficient. You may be surprised to know that a large majority of NFL athletes rarely spend their solo time reading the playbook.
Most players use their playbook only as a reference guide or as a quick refresher just before position meetings or during brief windows before and after practice.
Even still, a large percentage of players never read their playbook outside of the meeting rooms.
Why is that?
The reason has less to do with how much a guy cares about learning and more to do with the way in which players process and retain information.
Although some guys are able to successfully extract information from a playbook on their own and transfer that knowledge onto the field, most rely on the film review and interactions with their coaches to build the foundation for learning a new system. They then depend on actual reps in practice and walkthroughs for the information to be preserved.
There’s a huge difference between grasping a concept from a series of squiggles on a piece of paper and engaging all five senses on a practice field in order to bring real-life application to an otherwise abstract system.
For me, there were several attempts throughout my career where I would open up the playbook while lying in my hotel, hoping to jump ahead of the curve by learning the plays beforehand. However, these efforts would prove futile on multiple attempts.
I knew back then I was not alone in feeling this way about the playbook, and yet, to this day, both coaches and players alike continue to perpetuate a false perception that guys spend hours in their room with their head buried in the playbook.
To be clear, a playbook is obviously not completely useless. It did serve as great reference material during meetings. General concepts, terminology and basic review were also things that could be more naturally absorbed on your own time without a coach explaining everything.
As for Jace Amaro and Tajh Boyd, two rookies trying to survive their first training camp with the New York Jets, they moved beyond trying to read the playbook on their own and decided to work together to better familiarize themselves with the offense, according to BThe New York Times.
To quote from Shpigel's article:
[Boyd] would read a call off a flashcard and Amaro would respond with his responsibilities on the play. They did this over and over again. It took weeks for Amaro to learn the terminology and the system, to feel comfortable.
It was frustrating to walk into a meeting feeling confident that you might have learned something the night before, only to discover that most of what you spent time trying to process was nearly all misinterpreted. Trying to grasp even a fraction of the playbook to the point of being able to implement it on a football field or even regurgitate the concepts in a meeting would be an incredibly draining process.
So draining, in fact, that it would probably consume more valuable training camp energy than it’s worth.
So you have to respect the way Amaro and Boyd have handled these challenges by working together. After all, working together may end up being something these two do a lot more of on Sundays.
In case you didn’t know already, coaches are generally a lot better at explaining a concept in person than trying to write it all down on a piece of paper. In addition, training camp is an intensely fatiguing time of year for NFL players. These guys are forced to the brink of their physical and mental limitations from sunrise to sunset every day for a month straight.
In that type of environment, the best you can do is merely glance at the book for a few minutes at a time and just let the information soak in through team meetings, reps in practice and film review afterward.
This is the reality of an NFL training camp, despite the narrative spun in the media that a hardworking player has his head in the playbook constantly. This doesn’t mean guys don’t spend time studying; it just means that the playbook is rarely the source for that extra work at the end of the day.
A more efficient use of free time, and one that is more popular among the players (especially now that most teams use iPads instead of books) is watching film. Players can get a lot out of reviewing the day of practice by focusing exclusively on their own reps or on the reps of a player they can learn from.
This makes sense when you consider the limited amount of time a coach has to focus on a single individual during film review in meetings.
The benefits of having access to film at all times via a personal iPad gives players a valuable resource that was not around just a few years earlier. These same iPads also contain the playbook but are not likely to be of much use during solo study time.
It’s difficult to explain, but every play has an endless amount of variables, checks, rules and subrules to remember—not to mention one has to implement proper technique all while trying to make split-second decisions in a high-pressure environment.
Visualizing the field, the reactions, the movement of the players and dedicating it all to muscle memory is why about 75 percent of a system is learned on the field at practice. Of the remaining 25 percent, maybe 5 percent of that system install is actually learned through reading a playbook on your own time.
For those reading this thinking I’m just an idiot with a learning disability, let me just say that at the scouting combine, I had the highest Wonderlic score of any defensive player that year.
Perhaps the stuff I’m saying only applies to defensive players who don’t have to learn as much? That's not true, either.
My roommate during training camp was a rookie quarterback. As you can imagine, a rookie quarterback is easily burdened with the largest learning curve of any player in training camp. Despite this, I rarely saw my roommate studying his playbook on his own time back in the hotel. Yet he somehow managed to learn Norv Turner’s complex offensive system without dedicating himself to extensive playbook study.
It’s important to understand that I’m in no way implying that it was easy to learn an NFL system. What I am saying, though, is that a playbook by itself does not do a whole lot in teaching a player the practicalities of said system.
Playbooks are similar to a transcript written in a foreign language that needs to be translated by the author. Trying to understand and remember the nuances of each detail of a single play is completely overwhelming when done alone without anyone to bounce a question off.
Apparently, Rams second-year wideout Tavon Austin would agree with this concept. In a recent article, per The Associated Press, Austin was quoted as saying "I didn't really know what was going on. Everything looked like Spanish and sounded like Spanish to me."
So, the next time you hear someone questioning what Johnny Manziel is doing with his spare time, don’t buy into the idea that he should be in his playbook. Watching film? Maybe—but his playbook is not going to do a whole lot for him on its own.
If you hear a player or a coach talking about how much a guy is studying his playbook, just remember, they’re probably spending more time trying to figure out what they’re reading than actually retaining information to be used on the field.
Lastly, hard work and preparation in the NFL is unquestionably valuable. But working smart and prioritizing your time is probably the most important skill to have in order to gain an edge over the competition.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who writes for Bleacher Report.