Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

How Those Play Cards on Football Sidelines Come to Be

September 21, 2020

Ever wonder how those play cards you see on football sidelines are born? Sometimes it’s as simple as a guy showing up with a couple images on a flash drive inspired by watching Hamilton.

Those big boards are seen all over college football. Usually, they’re used by offenses, designed to make complex calls easily and, more importantly, quickly digestible. Sometimes the images held up on oversized whiteboards have a tangential relation to sports. Oklahoma State has gone above and beyond with six-panel cards and hexagon-shaped boards. Oregon State a few years ago used the Crying Jordan meme; that was the card, nothing else. (*Jordan, in a dimly-lit room somewhere, writes a name in his notebook, Ryan the Temp style*)

Some in the NFL, otherwise known as the No Fun League for years and years, complained about the proliferation of the offensive aides.

On a Class C-1 high school football sideline in Kearney, Nebraska, these cards have come out for the first time this season, but they’re being used by the defense.

“We were kind of talking about it about two weeks before we got started this summer, and then we finally pulled the trigger a couple days before we started camp,” head coach Rashawn Harvey told me. “We might as well just give it a shot and see how it works. The whole goal of it was to cut down on our communication breakdowns in the secondary and also with our linebackers.”

In the past, Harvey and his coaching staff have relied on hand signals. But their defensive calls have multiple coverages that can be run based on what the offense is showing.

“We’d have multiple, multiple coverages—and it would be complex coverages where we’re doing this on one side and this on the other side—and we’d have guys who’d get it but they wouldn’t relate it to the other guys and so you’d have guys playing two different coverages and people running free,” assistant coach Mike Pacheco said.

So Harvey decided to pull together some images of his own choosing to create cards that would allow the defense to hear the call, look to the sideline, then go. Each member of the defense has a wristband with the call sheet as well, another first.

“Just trying to let our guys play fast, not think, and just see something and go,” Pacheco said.

I’ve often wondered who actually decides which images go up on those boards. At the college level, is it a graduate assistant? An overly-imaginative assistant coach with a free afternoon? Is there a random meeting where the staff gets together and votes for their choices? That would be one of the more important things they could use their time on, no doubt.

At Kearney Catholic, Harvey had creative liberty.

“We’ve got some college football teams, pictures we’ll rotate through, like their logos. For instance, we’ve got the Block N for the Huskers on there. We’ve got a picture of Notre Dame football,” he said. “We’ve got some fast-food restaurants on some boards. Also we’ve got some images of comedians on there. And we’ve got some wildlife on some also.

“We try to make it fun. We want to make it something they’re going to remember and identify with when they look over. It’s kinda strategic in what we choose, making sure they have some type of association with or recognize a picture and can match it with what we do.”

One of the cards has four comedians. Jim Gaffigan is up there. No one on the team knew who he was.

They didn’t know what Hamilton was either.

“This summer when Hamilton was released on Disney+, I joked with the kids like, ‘Hey let’s have a watch party,’ because I do really enjoy the production of Hamilton,” Harvey said. “Obviously we couldn’t get 52 kids together to do that because of COVID. It was something they’d remember because I talked about it and I’d play the soundtrack when we had summer weights.”

By the end of the lifting period, some kids knew the lyrics. Harvey saw the production when it came to Omaha over the summer, so that bit made Harvey smile.

Initially, the plan was to have images on only the fronts of boards, and only have a few. Would be pretty easy for teams to patch together which images correlated to which coverages. Four boards, each with sets of images on the front and on the back were created.

Four guys, usually freshmen and sophomores, are responsible for them during practice and on game days. One has the actual call, and three guys hold up dummy cards.

So far, so good. The latest loss notwithstanding—though Stars coaches agreed the defense held up well in the first half against St. Paul before just wearing down late—the defense has performed well to begin the season. Coverage breakdowns have been more technique than communication.

“It’s been pretty good,” Pacheco said. “Far fewer issues when it comes to that.”

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