Learning an NFL Playbook: A Rookie’s Perspective
Rookie tight end Dalton Schultz is a Stanford-educated smart guy who played in a pro-style offense in college. He’s worked diligently to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to learning his playbook.
But as QBs coach Kellen Moore told 5 Points Blue during Minicamp, the Cowboys’ playbook has hundreds of plays but “almost feels unlimited because of all the moving parts and different variations you can do within those plays”.
James D. Smith via AP
So how is a rookie supposed to assimilate all that information during one short offseason that consists of 9 days of OTA practices and 3 days of Minicamp?
Schultz took time following Minicamp to explain the process of learning an NFL playbook.
SCHULTZ: It’s been a whirlwind. These OTAs and minicamp went really, really quick. To start off, we installed our base run plays, that’s Day 1 install type of stuff. At the end of the day, we have an offensive meeting and we get into our install. The offensive linemen break off into their own meeting, and the tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs all stay in the big meeting room to go over pass concepts.
When we get to the season, I’m told that on Wednesdays after practice we’ll be in the big room watching film of 7-on-7. We will install game plans for the upcoming opponent throughout the week. We may install ‘red zone’ offensive plays on a certain day and address certain situations like ‘goal line’ later in the week as we lead up to the game. It’s very structured. It was the same way in college, so it’s something that I’m used to.
Coming in as a brand new player, looking back at some of the growth process, I can say I have a certain comfort level with the offense. There still is a long way to go, but I’m now working on polishing technique rather than learning what to do. That’s been a big step. I’m also trying to learn from the other guys. Geoff (Swaim), Blake (Jarwin), and Rico (Gathers) are setting great examples with their work ethic.
Q: Even when you’ve spent time learning the playbook, it’s hard for a young guy to put that knowledge into action because the veteran starters will get the majority of practice reps as we progress through training camp and get closer to preseason games. I’ve heard backup quarterbacks use the term “mental rep” which is pretending, inside his mind, that he’s the quarterback on the practice play, even though it’s the starter who is on the field. Do all backups players, including tight ends, do something similar with “mental reps”?
SCHULTZ: Yes, because there are no plays off, even if you’re a rookie backup who is standing on the sideline. Coach always says, “EVERY REP IS YOUR REP!” If you’re a 3rd-stringer waiting your turn – or if you’re the #1 starter who is taking a bunch of reps – you can use every rep to your advantage.
You can listen for the play call and put yourself mentally into that play by thinking, “Okay, what is my footwork? What is my assignment? Where’s my landmark? Where should my hat target be?” Those mental reps are extremely helpful, especially for young players to get more work during practice.
Q: It must be mentally exhausting for young NFL players to face a steep learning curve and to remain patient, especially in the offseason when NFL rules prohibit hitting and tackling and full contact. It’s like the focus is not the physical aspect of football, but the mental aspect.
SCHULTZ: Absolutely, the mental part is 100% important, especially during OTAs and Minicamp when there are no pads and all drills are non-contact. The same is true on certain days of training camp. You get on the field and work on technique such as route-running and your blocking assignments and your footwork. So, a lot of the offseason work was geared to the young guys
At the same time, everybody – including the veterans – are going through the offense again. There’s an old term: “Use it or lose it!” I think that what the process is about: make sure you’re staying in the playbook as you’re getting more chances to go through things, even if you already know it. It’s a great learning process for everyone.
Q: At Stanford, you were in a college program that ran a pro-style offense and you had to be a blocking tight end, not just a receiving tight end. That definitely gives you an advantage over some other rookie tight ends who may have played in different systems in college. Even so, have you been able to pinpoint certain pitfalls as you make this difficult transition from college-to-pro football?
SCHULTZ: I think one of the biggest mistakes that young players make is trying to do too much and step out of their role and what’s expected of them. It’s one thing to go above & beyond. But we talk about the importance of this one thing: DO YOUR JOB! Don’t try to do somebody else’s job. Don’t try to do too much.
Being a young player in this offense, I don’t have the expertise of a guy like Geoff Swaim who is a veteran that has been here 4 or 5 years. He’s had the opportunity to really learn the ins-and-outs of the offense. So, learning the basic techniques and making sure I’m accomplishing what’s expected of me — to the best of my ability — is my focus going into camp.