A given NFL or college football team has a large variety of plays. How do players remember them all? I don't think I could remember all those plays if I spent years studying those playbooks.
When you call a football play it is a sequenced code. Each section of the code refers to a certain function.
Let's take something simple on the offensive side that I have called for a college program.
pro-right split 897 F motion right option zone right
pro-right | split | 8 | 9 | 7 | F motion right | option zone right |
pro-right - formation. Typical playbook might have 10-12 different formations. Players will pick this up after 1-2 practices. It is expected that almost all players on offense understand every formation. For this formation we had one receiver out left, one receiver out right, TE right, FB shading right, and HB 5 yards deep.
split - formation-variation. This is probably the most confusing thing about the play call. Split in this case is that my "Y" concept receiver will be split out wider than normal to give space between TE and himself. I might have 4-5 variations on our common formations. The variations might effect only WRs as in this case but could also affect lineman and the variations can be stacked. For example in this call I could have said split-feet. Split telling my Y to move out an extra 5 yards and feet telling my lineman that they are not to have any splits (might do this against a team with a good DL and longer pattern concepts). In pee-wee football we have variations, maybe just one or two per formation. In high school and college you could have 5-8 per but the NFL gets whacky with this and have heard playbooks having 20+ variations.
897 - These are the patterns the receivers will run. There is also a lot of variance in how these are called. In my example the "X" will run an 8, the "Y" will run a 9, and the "Z" (TE) will run a 7. If the RB/FB were running patterns they would need calls. In this sequence I would adding "halfback flat" after the 897. Without any sort of pass cue my FB and RB should know that they are blocking. I have also coached where we would call 897 backs 00. The zeroes signify no route for the backs. And then I have coached where we call WR patterns going from left to right. So if we have trips right we might call 4378 and the WR on left gets the 4, first trip WR on right gets 3, second trips WR gets 7, and end WR on right gets 8. This might sound hard but it is quite easy for players once rules are in place. This is actually only hard on the coach trying to call the play.
f motion right - motion and extras. I am telling my fullback to motion right. In this playcall he will motion facing line of scrimmage very slowly and will end up over the tackle. How does he know that? Because the fullback only has a few motion calls and he has practiced it 100 times. He doesn't just run right until he hits the sideline. He will motion to the tackle and will get the first man around the tackle. This motion actually impacts everyone on the line and the RB too! Since the FB has motion right, he will pick up the edge. Meaning that the right side of my line will squeeze in knowing they have help outside. My RB knows that he will step up to the left since there is already help on the right. The left side of my line will block "normal" knowing that the RB is probably better off taking on a leaker than someone on the edge.
option zone right - check down play Basically if my QB checks out of the pass we will run this run play. Note that we have the FB in motion going here.
Now if the play is a staple of your offense your team may just give it a nickname. One of the schools I was at simply called this "pro-right/left chuck or dive". The players knew the play call based on the nickname. I actually remember the FB coming over to me asking me if he should motion on the "chuck or dive". Which then we went over several scenarios on when he should or shouldn't motion and it was basically his option... unless he saw the not motion hand signal.
Back to your question. Learning a playbook is really only rocket science for QBs. They have to know all of the terminology for every position. If you have a dumb QB you better pick 5-10 plays and create an option off that and go with that. Each player is only worried about their part generally. I would expect a player to be able to run any play after 3-4 practices without much of a problem. Your smart players will learn everything through repetition in a couple of weeks. I love it when a tackle smacks a receiver on the back of the head and tells him to run the right route and it happens all the time.
Really learning a playbook is only super complex at the pro-level. And then it is only really hard if you are just thrown into new terminology. See in general a high school will have a pretty easy playbook. When a player gets to college it will be a lot harder and a lot different. The player adjusts through repetition and generally they use the same system their entire time at college (I know this isn't always true for bigtime college amidst coaching carousel). So really no big deal for players. QBs might have a tough time at first but that is why not many freshman QBs start.
Now pro terminology might be sort of close to college - because a lot of the NFL players came from bigtime colleges with pro concepts on offense. So rookies may be in for a shock because the are learning the same thing in a different way. As a college player you learned "how to speak" and now you go to the NFL and someone is telling you that green tomatoes are now tomate verde. Just like a language certain terminology that you used is mixed in but there are new things, so things do get confusing. And then the pros have one more thing to add on to that. They can be traded from team to team and every team will have a slightly different dialect or speak its own language.
So how hard is it to learn a playbook? At pee-wee through most colleges you will learn 80% of the playbook concepts in one week and be fine if you are average intellect. The hard part isn't learning the play. The hard part is remember your task on the play in question when you are out of breathe and just had your ass handed to you. I find that 90% of the "Responsibilities" errors come from mental mistakes of forgetting than it is from a player not knowing. And if a player doesn't know it is generally the coaches fault for playing him there - I would "quiz" my players all practices and throw them some booby trap play calls.
According to an ex NFL player:
I'm not sure many players memorize it per se; it's more about understanding the concepts rather than just knowing every single individual play call. I'd liken it to learning a new language- it's easier to understand the basic structure of it than it is to memorize the dictionary.
So basically it's not about memorizing every play step for step, it's about memorizing the base logistics of play sets(Nickle defense, dime defense, 4-3 defense, etc). It'd be very hard to memorize every step of every play, but I'm sure there are guys out there who it comes natural to. You gotta remember as well that teams practice these plays every single day of the season, and quite a bit of the offseason, so while you might not remember plays perfectly, you'll remember the gist of what you're supposed to do. Case in point is when you see a Quarterback throw the ball and the WR goes the opposite direction, just might have gotten their plays mixed up a bit.
Very simply, there are very few offensive plays that require players other than the QB to memorize exactly what everyone else on the field will be doing. Nine plays out of ten, each player just has to remember what he's supposed to do:
- Blocking assignments. The offensive lineman draws his paycheck for protecting the QB, and other positions like the tight end and running back typically get their hits in too. It's not a flashy job but it pays well, especially on the QB's "blind side". But, doing it well requires knowing who to hit first, or even when to hit. Defensive formations usually don't mirror the offensive line; they'll put three or four linemen against five OL, with two to four linebackers behind that. That requires each offensive lineman to know whether he's blocking to his inside, his outside, or in some cases pushing downfield to block in the secondary.
- Snap count. The offense cannot move for one full second before the snap of the ball, with the exception of a single "man in motion" who must be a "back" and cannot be moving toward the line of scrimmage as of the snap. Violating any of this is an "illegal shift", "illegal motion" or "false start" depending on exactly what happened when. These penalties are most often whistled on a player that doesn't know or doesn't remember the "snapcount", which is the pre-arranged signal on which the center should snap the ball; the QB will say several other things while the offense is "down" in an attempt to draw the defense off-sides, but it will backfire if an offensive player "jumps".
Passing routes. Wide receivers have nine basic routes they run; the exact path can vary as the player attempts to evade the defense, but they are:
You'll hear of some variations, but they're all based on one of these 9 routes.
Notice that the "outside" routes are odd, while the "inside" routes are even; it's typical for two wide receivers lining up on the same side to have routes that don't interfere; the outside receiver will run an odd route while the inside receiver runs an even route. However, one of the most basic offensive tricks is to set up a "crossing route"; the inside receiver will run a corner or fade route, while the outside receiver runs a post, dig or slant. If done correctly, the defense will be caught on their heels and the player cutting inside will get space from his defender to make a play happen. However, this is one case where the receivers have to know what the other is doing, so they run close enough at the start to keep the defenders close to each other, without the cross tripping up one or both receivers.
Running routes. In addition to variations on the above pass routes and a few more "screen" routes where the RB squeezes through the line before catching a pass, the RB can also receive a handoff, and most running plays are designed to give him a specific hole at the line of scrimmage to run through. It isn't always there, so the star running backs in the NFL draw their pay for being quick thinkers and movers to find the hole, but the blockers will know where the RB will be looking to go and will try to open the hole by changing their blocking direction, moving inside instead of outside or even moving through the defense to block in the secondary.
Downfield tactics. Once the play "develops", offensive players who have moved downfield should assist the ball carrier any way they can, primarily by blocking downfield defenders so the ball carrier has room to run, or in some circumstances being available to catch a "pitch".
There's an enormous selection bias going on by the time players reach the NFL - if they can't remember lots of plays, they're not going to do well in college and therefore they won't get drafted into the NFL, so the only players you see in the NFL are automatically those that can remember lots of plays.