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Two Concepts in One: The Erhardt Perkins Playcalling Language

Green Bay Packers v Cleveland Browns Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

So far in this series on playcalling languages, we’ve looked at the language structures of the Coryell, West Coast, and Air Raid offenses. Today we’ll be looking at the last NFL language: the Erhardt-Perkins system.

The Erndhart-Perkins sytem was developed in the 1970s by Ray Perkins and Ron Ernhardt who were coaching for the New England Patriots under head coach Chuck Fairbanks. That trio of coaches did fairly well in New England, but their system has been thrust into the spotlight by the success of another Patriots coach: Bill Belichick.

At this point we all know who Belichick and Tom Brady are and what they’ve done. They’re arguably the best QB-Coach combo in NFL history. But on their way to all those Super Bowls they have set records by being essentially playbook chameleons.

One year they were spreading the field with 4 WR and throwing it to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, fast forward a few years and they were running 2 TE sets with Gronk and Hernandez (obligatory note here that Hernandez was an extremely troubled individual and convicted murderer, which is bad) or 2 back sets with Ridley or Vereen or Woodhead or Kevan Faulk, or whichever successful backs they happened to have.

The Patriots offense was built to do seemingly anything that would give the opposing defense the most trouble. And it was built that way from the language-up.

Concepts Left and Right

The Ernhardt-Perkins system (specifically, its passing game) is built entirely on “concepts”: groupings of routes that fit together. This is similar to the idea of “concepts” in the West Coast Offense, except the West Coast terminology sometimes names plays after the primary receiver’s route, like “Y Spot”.

Let’s take the “INC” concept, for example. “INC” = In + Curl, so in this concept...the outside receiver runs an in and the next receiver inside runs a curl (surprise!)

Image via
Image via

It doesn’t matter what motion the offense runs, what formation they are in, which specific receivers are on that side (e.g. Moss vs Welker vs Edelman), or what position those receivers play (e.g. RB, TE, or WR), “INC” just means the inside guy runs a 10 yard curl and the outside guy runs an in over the top of him.

Let’s take a look at an entire playcall:

F Right 72 Ghost/Tosser

This is probably the most blogged-about call in the Ernhardt Perkins system, and it also happens to be a play the Patriots spam up and down the field. If you want to learn more about Ghost/Tosser, you can check out Chris B Brown, Cover 1, or Big Blue View. I’m sure there is another Ghost/Tosser breakdown I’m missing. On to the play:

“F Right” is the formation in this call. Every formation in the Erhardt Perkins system is simply memorized, so the call can be short and all the eligible receivers know where to go.

“72” is the protection. Anything in the 70s are 5-step drop protections from under center. All of the odd numbers mean that the strength is to the right with even numbers to the left (so 72 and 73 are the same protection, just flipped). In “72/3” protection, the line will be in a full slide, and they will be sliding to the weak side (to the left for 72). In 72/3 the line does not get any help from backs or TEs, so the quarterback must understand who the line will block and find a hot route if there is a blitzer the protection can’t account for.

In the 70 series, the QB can read the defense and change the protection–if you have ever heard Brady walk up to the line and shout “Rita!” or “Linda!” he is shifting the protection to the right or left, respectively.

That leaves the terms “Ghost/Tosser”. These are two passing concepts, with one being run to either side of the formation.

“Ghost” means that the outside receiver will run a fade/go route with an outside release. The 2nd receiver will run a 10 yard out, and the third receiver if there is one will run a route into the flat:

This creates a great triangle stretch against Cover 3, and the out and go routes can be good against the right matchup vs person to person coverage.

“Tosser” is a very common concept, which is just double slants. This concept is great against Cover 2, and the slants are good vs the right matchup as well. This makes for an ideal pairing with “Ghost”, so that the QB can read the rotation of the safeties and use the side of the field that works best against the defense.

Simplistic = Fast

Because the Erhardt Perkins system is so flexible and simple, it allows an offense to expand in a few dimensions. First, as mentioned above, the system is built to allow for multiplicity. Flexible players can align in multiple positions, but as long as everyone understands the concept it’s still simple to the offense. Simple to us, complicated to you.

Another dimension that the Erhardt Perkins system allows an offense to explore is the uptempo, no-huddle offense. We’ve all seen the Patriots catch their opponent in a series of plays or a personnel grouping or a formation that they just can’t stop. We’ve all seen them run a 2 minute situation like a well-oiled machine to make a comeback or capitalize on an extra possession at the end of the first half.

With its simple terminology, the E-P system is built for speed. Brady only has to rush back to the line and call out “ICE!” to his left or “PAR!” to his right, and he’s able to create any play he wants in seconds. If you’re having trouble adjusting to Gronkowski being lined up as a WR, they are going to keep you in trouble. And the Erhardt Perkins system allows them to do it smoothly.

The E-P system requires memorization for players as they are learning the offense: every formation and route concept must be memorized, though they are often given names like “INC” that help. But once players get it down, it is built to adapt to almost any situation and it is built for speed.