Mike Munchak didn’t have a front-row seat for the revolution. But he could still feel the earth move under his feet every stinking summer.
As a player, Munchak watched — and groaned — as NFL playbooks in the 1980s ballooned in girth from the size of a Sears Wish Book (this was a thing, kids, the Amazon of its day) at the start of the decade to a beast more akin to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (that too was a thing), by the end of it.
“When I played, perhaps on first and second down, I played against one guy and on third down I saw another guy, and that’s it,” chuckles the Broncos’ offensive line coach, whose Hall of Fame career was spent as a left guard with the then-Houston Oilers from 1982-1993.
“Defenses just didn’t do as much stuff. Everyone wasn’t trying to out-trick each other. It was more of, we just lined up and played. So mentally, it was a lot easier.”
Only not for long. After his sixth season, zone blitz defensive concepts introduced to the league by former Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger in the ‘60s and ‘70s had been cranked up to 11 by Dick LeBeau in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The “fire zone” was all the rage, and offensive coordinators were compelled to counter with chess moves of their own.
“We were playing the run-and-shoot, so we saw all kinds of crap,” Munchak laughs, “and it just kind of evolved from there.”
By the time the Broncos were birthed in 1960, Paul Brown was the Bill Belichick and Nick Saban of his day — two steps ahead of the curve, admired in some circles, despised in others, and consistently kicking the holy stuffing out of his peers.
When the old AFC launched in 1960, Brown had already won four high-school national crowns, an NCAA title at Ohio State, and a combined seven pro football championships with the Cleveland Browns in the AAFC (four) and the NFL (three). What Enrico Fermi was to the atom, Brown was to the gridiron: a pioneering ninja who more or less invented the face mask, the draw play, the practice squad, full-time assistants, detailed film study — and the playbook as we know it.
“Before Paul Brown’s time, a lot of the head coaches let their quarterbacks call the plays,” notes Jon Kendle, director of archives and football information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Paul Brown was the type who wanted to call his own plays. Before radio receivers were invented — also by Brown — he used messenger guards, so he was always rotating guards, sending with the guard the play he wanted to run.”
As archivist at the Hall, Kendle is the keeper of the NFL’s most sacred scrolls. Among the most sacred is a collection of 8.5-by-12 inch graph paper that Brown used to detail plays with Cleveland in 1954.
He treated football as an academic pursuit, seeing himself as an instructor, and the players as pupils. Which is where the playbook as we know it really comes to pass, as Brown had required his savants during lectures to copy the plays he’d devised on the board into spiral notebooks, even going so far as to collect said notebooks and check their work at the end of the season.
“Brown wanted to put his stamp on everything that the team was doing,” Kendle says, “not (giving) them any room for error, or to manipulate those plays. ‘This play, it’s in the playbook, we’re going to study it, we’re going to write it out on the chalkboard in the meeting room and once you have a full grasp of it, mentally, then we’ll execute it.’”
To be clear, there were playbooks — of a sort — before Brown drop-kicked the NFL into the modern age after World War II. Although, technically, they were more sheets or cards than actual books, and before Brown an NFL team might only have a handful of copies around. If they were lucky.
When Wayne Millner was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles in 1951, to cite an example, one of his young charges was a kid named Bud Grant. On the occasions the future Minnesota Vikings coach or his teammates would have a question about a play, Grant recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, they had to sidle over to Millner, who would then “reach into his back pocket, unfold the playbook and look it up.”
We’ve come a long way, baby.
“It’s pretty much all done electronically now, which is nice, because you can not only go to a playbook, but you can pan back and forth between film,” Broncos rookie quarterback Brett Rypien says. “Which you couldn’t probably do (before).”
The Broncos joined the cutting-edge club roughly seven years ago. Instead of printing out and binding more than 120 copies of a traditional paper playbook, they dumped a 500-page binder in 2012 in favor of a fleet of iPads that featured tech provided by PlayerLync, a video software operation headquartered at the Denver Tech Center.
Since then, nearly half the NFL has adopted the same PlayerLync software, which provides not only playbooks — along with video breakdowns of said plays, all available at the push of a thumb or swipe of a finger — but also team schedules and other pertinent communication. The players can see the schematics of a play, then tap to open up videos of that play against a variety of opposing fronts.
“Now as coaches, we can overload them,” Munchak says. “For those guys, everything for them is so much easier to carry. And it’s good, because it’s more efficient — they have access to a lot more (data) than they had in the past. They can take it home with them, have it with them, they can practice with them, so there are a lot of pluses to it.
“Now, not everyone’s going to look at it. But some guys do appreciate (the convenience).”
While players are issued an iPad upon signing, it’s essentially a rental — the tablet must be returned if a player is cut, traded or leaves the franchise. As a failsafe, the software can be wiped remotely if the iPad isn’t given back immediately.
“I think it can be a little bit intimidating,” Rypien says. “You’ve got to know the looks, you’ve got to know when to get out of a bad play; you’ve got to know how you’re going to get into a good play. If you haven’t repped that stuff and you haven’t got that muscle memory, I think it is a little bit difficult.”
Rypien and fellow rookie quarterback Drew Lock crammed together during OTAs, quizzing each other on the finer points of Rich Scangarello’s system. For Rypien, who ran pro-style sets at Boise State, much of it was old hat. For Lock, who worked primarily out of the shotgun and spread formations at Missouri, a lot of it felt like learning a new language.
“Working together like that I think really helped us,” Rypien says. “And I think we’re definitely further along than we would be if you were going through that by yourself.”
* * *
If Brown were still teaching today, Kendle says, he thinks the NFL icon would be at the front of the line on innovations such as virtual reality goggles, the kind Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians introduced to quarterback Carson Palmer in Arizona a few years ago and, once he’d landed in Tampa Bay, pushed into the path of his new signal-caller, Jameis Winston.
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“It’s totally changed,” says Larry Kennan, a former CU assistant and an NFL veteran who worked on the staffs of six NFL franchises, including the Broncos, from 1982-97. “What’s interesting is, that every (NFL) coaching staff has about 20-22 guys (now) and they have all the computer stuff — it’s so much more advanced (compared) to what it used to be. It used to be, we had 10 guys on the staff, we didn’t have a computer, we just used hand-to-hand stuff.”
“And it worked about the same as it does now.”
Munchak still prefers the hand-to-hand stuff, to be honest — even though he’s got one of those nifty Broncos iPads, too, always within arm’s reach.
“It’s just (about) adapting to that,” he says. “That’s the hard part for me. I’m more, ‘I want to see the paper, I wanted to see the hard copy.’ I’m still the same way with stuff you get through the mail. People want to send me stuff that somebody’s scanned. I go, ‘Hey, I want some paper, send me a copy.’
“I like putting my stamps on stuff. It only feels real when I write it out. I feel the pain of paying the bill, you know? I think you feel it when you write it out.”