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Speaking Stefanski’s Language

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NFL: Cleveland Browns-Head Coach Kevin Stefanski Press Conference Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It’s just still once a year, isn’t it?

-Phil Connors, Groundhog’s Day

Another year, another head coach. In the wake of Baker Mayfield’s promising rookie season we watched yet another dumpster fire in 2019. The former #1 overall pick will have his third head coach and fourth offensive coordinator this fall, and we can only hope that Kevin Stefanski is finally the head coach who can provide stability, development, and success.

Stefanski will presumably bring with him a variant of the West Coast offense and zone blocking system. But before players learn Stefanski’s actual offense, they will need to learn the terminology of Stefanski’s offense. Learning this new language will be among the first things the offensive players learn from any new coaching staff.

Hue, Freddie, and Don

Under Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens, the Browns likely utilized terminology that evolved from the Air Coryell system. Named after Don Coryell who pioneered the system with QB Dan Fouts, WR Charlie Joyner, and TE Kellen Winslow Sr. and the San Diego Chargers, an example playcall would go something like this:

Split Right, 435 F Cross/Swing

The first part of that call is the formation. “Split” in Coryell terms means an under center formation with 21 personnel, the backs split left/right in the backfield, and the TE on the line of scrimmage, as seen above. “Right” denotes that the TE and F will align to the right.

The next part of that playcall is the defining piece of the Coryell language: the three-digit number. The three digits refer to the routes run by the X, Y, and Z receivers, in that order. Each individual digit indicates which route the receivers run based on their route tree:

Also note that the route tree numbers are different for the inside receivers:

(route trees vary slightly from team to team)

The last part of the playcall names the routes run by the backs: the F is to run a Cross, and the remaining player (in this case the H) runs a Swing route. Again, the terms here will vary slightly from team to team, but the backs’ routes are named after the three digit number. If a back is to stay in protection, there is no route named for him.

There are adjustments and further wrinkles to the Air Coryell terminology, and each team uses their own flavor. But this is the basis of the language.

Stefanski’s Likely Language

New Head Coach Kevin Stefanski is likely to bring with him an offense that has evolved from the Bill Walsh West Coast Offense, through Mike Shannahan and Gary Kubiak. Walsh was a key part of transforming football as we know it as he implemented and expanded upon ideas from Paul Brown and Sid Gilman, systematizing everything in an NFL organization. His success with teams led by Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Brent Jones among others speaks for itself.

Here is the same playcall in Walsh’s terminology:

Red Right, 22 Texas Y Out

Like the Coryell system, the first part of the playcall is the formation. The color “Red” refers to this split back under center formation, while the direction refers to the passing strength (i.e. where the TE sets up). This is a minor change from the Coryell system, where colors are substituted for more descriptive formations names like “Split” or “I”.

(in the modern day NFL the West Coast terminology has evolved to also include formations named after things other than colors)

“Red Right” are words that haunt the Browns to this day, so this formation is probably familiar to some. But the “88” part of that infamous play is changed for “22” here, and in this context it refers to the protection as well as the type of play.

The “20 series” of plays in the Walsh terminology will all be passes with split flow by the backs (one going left, the other right). The second “2” in “22” indicates the direction of the protection (odd numbers left, even to the right), as well as some specifics: the FB will release to the strong side of the play with no pass blocking responsibility (in this case the right, as in “Red Right”), while the HB blocks backside (left) before releasing.

Finally, we are left with “Texas Y Out” which encompasses the entire route concept. “Texas” means a clear out downfield route by X, a 10-12 yard hitch by Z, and a 12-14 yard post/middle read route by Y, as seen above.

This combination of routes is known as “Texas” because it is said to leave “a hole the size of Texas” for the back, who runs a short fake to the outside before cutting back over the middle. The best West Coast offenses have similar play names that help players with memorization.

The “Y-Out” modifier to the play signifies that...Y (the TE) will run an Out route. Typically this would run right into Z’s route, so Z converts to a comeback, fade, or streak instead.

And there you have it, the same play by two names.

Split Right, 435 F Cross/Swing

Red Right, 22 Texas Y Out

The Cost of Turnover

It simply isn’t ideal to have to keep spending valuable time learning new terminology and installing a new system each year. The time and energy spent on learning this new language could otherwise be spent on more beneficial things, so Browns fans everywhere can hope that Sfefanski does well enough to avoid even more turnover in the coming years.

The silver lining in this cloud is that our core offensive players should have some experience with this language: Joe Philbin likely used it when Jarvis Landry played for the Dolphins, Odell Beckham Jr. likely knows it from Pat Shurmur’s offense, and Baker Mayfield played in a hyper-evolved form of the offense in Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid. Even Kareem Hunt (if he remains with the team and out of trouble) likely had similar language in Kansas City under Andy Reid.

Hopefully that familiarity enables a smooth transition into a much more effective scheme, and we can all wake up to a new era in Cleveland.