The signals which inform the players of their various moves might be termed a number language. By calling off a series of numbers the quarterback tells his team-mates which man is to take the ball, where they are to go, and, in case a starting signal is used, when they are to start. The system of signals employed should be essentially simple, and yet should have sufficient complexity to baffle opponents in their efforts to understand them. A starting signal increases the mental burden of the players, yet the advantages to be derived from it more than compensate. By a fore-knowledge of when the ball is to be snapped the linemen are enabled to start, through the agency of the ear rather than the eye, thus allowing them to focus their whole attention on their opponents. Furthermore, if the signal is rhythmic the whole team can by anticipation start more easily and more in unison than if they are left unawares until they actually see the ball in motion. But the starting signal is a dangerous toy. The men are apt to "beat the ball" in their anxiety to be on time; thus causing offside play, and more often upsetting the delicate timing between the quarterback, who has to wait for the ball from center, and the rest of the backfield, who have already started.
To assimilate a set of signals thoroughly takes long practice. To players who are not familiar with a given system they appear like so much Greek, but after a long period of rehearsing they become more effective than spoken directions. An old player, who had graduated twenty-five years before, told the author he could vividly recollect the signals of certain plays in which he took the ball.
After a team has perfected a play in signal practice, the next step is to run the play against real opposition. Scrimmages, whether in practice or in games, are complicated affairs. There are so many rules and players involved that they should always be carefully supervised. In practice scrimmages it is well to have coaches or managers act in the capacity of officials, to see that the various rules are observed at all times. Only in this way can a proper respect for the rules be instilled.
Rather than plunge into the confusion of a live scrimmage it is well to indulge in so-called dummy scrimmages, until the players are thoroughly conversant with their respective duties and are in good enough physical condition to stand the wear and tear of actual scrimmage. A dummy scrimmage is football minus the tackle. It gives the players a chance to learn their tasks more thoroughly and with a greatly minimized risk of injury.
When the groundwork has been completed by this means, the first real scrimmage can be tried. It is surprising how much confusion ensues. There is always a great deal of offside, or starting before the ball is put in play. The execution of the plays is crude because the men are awkward in handling themselves and also because they have not yet learned the plays perfectly. Coaches and players make a great deal of noise, and in general there is an undue amount of excitement. Furthermore, a good deal of physical suffering results from bumps and falls, and from the lack of "wind" which all players experience when violent exercise is indulged in for the first time. Added to these discomforts a great deal of dust is apt to arise from the field of play. How, then, can players learn anything in these surroundings? The solution is for players and coaches to keep quiet until an interval occurs in the scrimmage; and these intervals should be frequent at first, decreasing as order is gained and the endurance of the men increases.
When the team has learned the execution of the various plays, the next problem of the coach is to teach the quarterback when and where to use them.
There is always marked difference between theory and practice in football. The greatest precision is planned in the execution of plays, yet in the great majority of cases the defense spoil it. Only by continual striving after a perfect performance can one occasionally be made to occur. At other times quite unwarranted gains and losses result from the defense not doing as they are expected. In this respect football closely resembles a battle, which has been planned with great preparation, but which, soon after contact between the opposing forces takes place, resolves itself into utter confusion. Unexpected situations develop in unexpected places. New elements of strength and weakness appear on either side. Unlooked-for dis-positions of the enemy call for instant changes of tactics. Such conditions can be successfully met only by men whose previous intensive training prompts them instinctively to do the correct thing.
Reference has been made in a former chapter to the A B C of field tactics. Of course, conditions often necessitate changes even in the fundamental principles of field play. For example, if a team is particularly adept in forward passing and weak in kicking, it would be foolhardy for it to adopt the punt as a means of getting out of its own territory. Some teams regularly try a long forward pass instead of the punt, for this purpose. In case the defense are lined up in an unorthodox fashion, the quarterback should take advantage of this weakness by using the play which fits the immediate situation, irrespective of where the ball happens to be on the field of play. Of course, when the wind is against the offense they are, perforce, compelled to rush the ball when in their own territory, as it would be suicidal to exchange punts, assuming that both kickers have equal ability. Still again, the score must always be kept in mind. If a team is behind, and is in its own territory, it is quite proper for it to indulge in plays involving risks, such as forward passes and tricks, in the hope that one play will take them to a more advantageous position. The quarterback should also use his formations to threaten more than one kind of play, i. e., kick, run, or pass. He can also utilize his star back by putting him in the kicker's position for this same purpose, but he should always endeavor to play to the opponent's weakest point, varying his attack at this point by manipulating his various plays and formations to assault this weakness in different ways.
That the reader may in some fashion visualize the probable results of the various kinds of plays, the following table, which does not pretend to be accurate, but simply approximates the relative percentage of gains of plays of the various kinds, is appended:
Should gain two yards, three times out of four. On other attempt, no gain.
Slants: -Should gain two and one-half yards, three times out of four. On other attempt, one yard loss.
Sweeps: -Should gain five yards two times out of four. Third attempt, no gain; fourth attempt, two yards loss.
Forward Pass: -
Should gain ten yards one time out of four. On two other attempts, will be incomplete resulting in no gain, on the other try intercepted by defense causing lost ball.
Should average thirty five to forty yards net.
Drop Kicks: -
Of all kicks, an equal number of which are tried from the twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five and forty yard lines, fifty per cent, should score.
Placements from free kick: -
Of all kicks, an equal number of which are tried from the twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, and forty yard lines, seventy-five per cent. should score. These figures are used simply for the purpose of demonstrating the relative value of the various plays. In other words, if the offense must gain two and one-half yards in one try to make a first down, the percentage, according to the table, is in favor of employing a slant. To illustrate again, it is easily seen that an employment of plunges from a team's twenty yard line to the opposing goal line is hardly practicable, because the risk of penalties and fumbles is ever present, and the defense would soon find that because no other plays were being used they could concentrate their entire strength on a narrow front. Better judgment would utilize plays which might gain greater distance and in this way arrive at scoring distance with less effort and in a shorter space of time.
There has always been mystery as to why the tackle is so frequently attacked. It should be kept in mind that the tackle has to cover a great deal of ground laterally on either side of his position. The offense usually so arrange their linemen as to have one man directly engaged with him and another on his outside flank. It so happens that plays run from standard formations against tackle utilize all of the backfield except the runner to best advantage as interferes. In the case of a plunge, one and sometimes two of the backfield are wasted. Furthermore, plays at tackle reach the line of scrimmage quickly enough to prevent many of the defense coming to his rescue. Last, as has been intimated, it is good policy not to vary the attack on a given point provided a sufficient assortment of plays can be used. It so happens that the strongest type of plays can all be used against the opposing tackle position. For this reason quarterbacks are prone to use plays directed at this position, not only because of the inherent strength of the plays themselves, but because of the physical effect upon the tackle in question.