Signals in football enable a field captain to transmit his orders to his team in terms unintelligible to the opponents. The signalled commands are given in three ways: By signs, letters and numbers. At present, however, the number signals are most generally employed.
Whatever the system, it must primarily be plain and simple. It is, of course, absolutely necessary that the opposing team be unable to interpret the code employed. Still, this is a difficulty easily surmounted, for, when a team is executing plays with proper rapidity, the opponents do not have much time to think about signals other than their own which may be in use to assist them in stopping the attack. However, since the interpretation of signals is always possible to occur, and since the offensive team is very much weakened by the belief that its signals are known or likely to become known, an arrangement can easily be agreed upon for a change of the whole code, through the use of a new key number. Simple systems, too, allow such changes to be more easily made than do complicated ones.
The most important result of a system of simple signals is the rapidity with which it enables a team to play the game. The simplicity of the code should always be such that every member of the team can quickly grasp the meaning. Complicated signals necessarily make a team slow. Not only does a quarter find it difficult to accurately and quickly call the plays, but the men themselves will also have trouble in carrying out the complex commands. To secure quickness and smoothness of play it is imperative, even with the plainest signals, that each man on the team shall thoroughly know and understand each command and be able to respond as readily, as he would to his own name and with just as little thought.
The men must be constantly drilled until the signals become a part of their very being. They must be so familiar with the entire code that there is no conscious mental action in connecting the signal with the play it calls for and the part they are to take in it. When the command is given each man should be ready instantly to start doing his work. Practically no time should elapse between the calling of the command and the comprehension by every member of the eleven of the play indicated. Not until the time that a team can grasp the plays instantly will it be able to play with machine-like quickness and precision and reach a stage of effectiveness otherwise impossible.
Since the quarter must start every play, it is best that it originate in his own mind and be signalled to the rest of the team by him and by no one else. Both theory and experience teach that a team can play faster if the quarter runs the game than if some other member is in charge.
Signals should never be drawled out slowly. They should be given in a clear-cut, snappy tone of voice. A team will always be much affected by the way in which a quarter calls his signals. One who is slow in this respect will have a slow-moving team behind him, while one who calls out his commands with a vigorous, decisive ring will find these same qualities imaged in the performance of his men in the succeeding plays.
The quarter should, as a rule, call a signal but once. Such a practice will find every man of the team alert to catch it as soon as it is given. When the signals are habitually repeated the team will soon become careless about catching the command the first time it is given, relying on the repetition, which accordingly becomes a very pernicious practice as, of necessity, the offense must wait until the signal is reiterated.
Sequence plays are a series of formations coming in a pre-arranged order and called for by one signal, which tells the players what series is to be used. They should not be used repeatedly in a game, because it is impossible to tell what results any one play may produce, while the sequence is likely to include plays with which the team finds it impossible to make headway against the opponents. Sequences can often be used to advantage, however, especially at the start of a game, for the purpose of speeding up the attack and sweeping the opponents off their feet before they realize what is happening. Again, a series is sometimes valuable when the cheering is at its highest, with the play near the sideline and the commands of the quarter back more difficult for his men to hear.
In arranging sequence plays attention should always be given to the possession of a series which can be used in each distinct part of the field, one near the sideline, one in the center of the field and one near the goal line of the opponents. Only plays that are good and sure ground-gainers should be employed in the sequence, and no series should include over four or five plays.
The following is an easy and practical set of signals: Let each play be numbered, one number only being needed to give the men their cue. Number the first play "five," the next "six," and so on. For example, let "five" and "six" represent the play that will send the respective half backs straight into the line from their regular positions. All even numbers will call for plays that go to the left of center. while all odd numbers call for attack on the right. The reverse, of course, is just as effective. Then continue to number the plays as follows: "Seven," full back buck on the right of center; "eight," full back to the left of center, and so on, to include all the varieties of attack that the team may learn all through the season.
The following illustrates how the plan may be used:
"Three" - Left half cross-bucks outside right tackle.
"Four" - Right half cross-bucks outside left tackle.
"Five" - Right half straight ahead.
"Six" - Left half straight ahead.
"Seven" - Full back bucks center on the right.
"Eight" - Full back bucks center on the left.
"Nine" - Left tackle around through right tackle from regular position.
"Ten" - Right tackle around through left tackle from regular position.
"Eleven" - Left half back cross-bucks outside of right tackle with left tackle back.
"Twelve" - Right half cross-bucks outside of left tackle with right tackle back.
The tackle-back formation on the right can be called "formation A;" tackle-back on the left Can be called "formation B," and so on for each of the other formations desired.
Formation signals, calling for changes from the regular positions, should be called before the men line up for the play after the preceding down. This saves much time, and there is no excuse for the quarter's permitting the men to take their regular places only to change from one position into another before the play can be started.
The numbers 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and other multiples of ten should never be actual signal numbers, as their use will interfere with the intelligibility of the signals, from the ambiguity which might arise in the game.
The calling of the working signal may be guarded in different ways. For instance, it may be the second number called in the series by the quarter back. In such a case, "11-(7)-9-8" would call for play No. 7, which is the full back through on right of center. Again, "7-(3)-18-4" would send the left half back cross-bucking outside of right tackle. Both of these plays are shown in the accompanying diagram.
If the quarter comes to suspect his signs have been noted by the opponents, he can readily change the real signal number to the third or even the first number which he calls out. With this added precaution it becomes practically impossible for an enemy to maintain a knowledge of the signals to an extent which will assist in pre-determining the direction of the plays.
Another code of signals, the basic principle of which is in common use, is as follows:
It will be noticed in this diagram that the men are all numbered, those on the left side of the line being odd while those on the right are even numbers. There are also numbers 13, 14, 7 and 8, which do not represent men but are necessary to show the point of attack. The point of attack will sometimes be the number of the player occupying the position indicated, but in this instance will represent the hole or position just outside the player.
Suppose that the left half back is to carry the ball between left guard and left tackle, the signal given will be "12-(10-5)-4. (See diagram.) The second number given is 10, the number of the left half back. The third number, 5, it that of the left guard and the play is therefore an attack outside of the man playing the position of the third number given.
In the same way the signal "18-(12-13)-6" directs the right half back to carry the ball around position 13, which is outside of the opposing end. The signal "6-(3-4)-8" accordingly means that the left tackle is to carry the ball around from his position through tackle. Similarly, "12-(11-7)-6" indicates that the full back is to buck the center on the left side, while "i8-(ii-8)-4" would call for a center buck on the right side.
It is necessary to use in connection with such a system of signals a series of formation commands. "Formation A" would thus represent a tackle-back play as seen in the following diagram:
From this formation the signal "8-(10-2)-4" might be given, which would send the left half back with the ball just outside the right end position, while "7-(3-6)-9-11" would mean that the left tackle is to carry the ball straight ahead between right guard and right tackle.
From these illustrations it can easily be seen how any number of plays and formations can be worked out from this system.