Some sports are sufficiently dynamic and with few enough players that coaches make up plays during the game. But American football seems sufficiently complicated I would imagine it's hard to do that as much as other sports.

To what extent do elite American coaches modify set plays during a game to adapt to new situations? Like if the defense is doing something new, how does the coach get everyone on the same page given that so many guys play on a team?

  • Does calling an audible or a hot-read count? IE, taking a pre-defined play and modifying it slightly at the line.
    – Joe
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:29
  • That's not what I had in mind. Because audibles seem like they could be prepared. So no. But like if there's a continuum between prepared and spontaneous, audibles definitely are a gray area. But they would lean more to the prepared side even though they have a spontaneous element. At least to me. Feb 10, 2015 at 8:18

2 Answers 2


From my experience and reading, it doesn't seem like many "spontaneous" plays are made up during the course of a game, at least in most situations. A coach sits down with his playbook, and film of the other team, and narrows his playlist down to a certain number of plays he thinks will work against said team. He then sits down with his Quarterback and various coaches and goes through what they think will work, and narrow the list down further.

Now obviously there are going to be variations of plays called, like the same play can be run from any set(ie: single back set, i formation, spread, etc.) and there will also be variations on the actual plays, like a WR going right instead of left on a given play depending on the tendency of the other teams defense, etc.

A coaches gameplan is very particular and they usually hash out everything before the game, as it'd be tough to just draw up a random play and have all the players understand it and make it work on the fly. The play's the coach draws up for any given game are usually run quite a bit in practice the week before the game.

Here is a small article that kind of explains what goes into planning for a particular game. Doesn't say anything about making plays up on the fly, but it will give you specifics on what goes on during gameplanning in general.

  • I agree. The offense may figure out a formation that results in a mismatch for them and call a play from another formation in that one. Each play has a certain scheme, so calling it in another formation shouldn't take more than some clarification between series. Also a coach may tell a receiver that a play now means a different route than it originally did. There is so much time put into the play book in the preseason and week leading up to a game to start making things up.
    – diggers3
    Feb 11, 2015 at 6:53

That's why they have dry erase boards on the sidelines. They may be diagramming the play as they practiced it, but also to make adjustments.

Especially in the NFL, these guys have played for many years and have developed terminology that helps them make adjustments. Instead of combo blocking the 3 technique, fold block it. Or don't pull on the sweep, pick up the Mike instead. They know what this means.

Halftime is another opportunity to do a lot of this.

Individual routes on pass plays get changed often and even by the QB in the huddle or an audible.

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