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Contrary to popular belief, being an offensive coordinator is the hardest job in sports

Fans love to think they could call plays, but it isn’t as easy as you may think.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The recent dismissal of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has been met with joy throughout Steelers Nation. Fichtner was widely regarded as an ineffective play-caller who served more as Ben Roethlisberger’s caddy than as a legitimate coordinator. His firing triggered a slew of remarks in the comments sections of numerous articles here at Behind The Steel Curtain and elsewhere that suggested, given the talent the Steelers possess, anyone with a remedial understanding of offense could have done a better job calling plays.

Granted, Fichtner struggled mightily in Pittsburgh. The rushing attack disappeared, finishing last in the league in 2020, and the scheme devolved into a simple menu of quick passes from static 11-personnel formations. As opposing defenses caught on, Fichtner had no Plan B, and a once-promising season that began with an 11-0 start flamed out spectacularly.

Fans were right to be angry. They deserve more from their coordinator than Pittsburgh got from Fichtner. His dismissal was justified.

The perception many have of what it takes to be an offensive coordinator, however, is misguided. Again, there is legitimate reason for frustration with the offense in Pittsburgh. But to suggest nearly anyone could have done better is naïve. I don’t write that to be demeaning or condescending. It’s simply true.

The coordinator position is, in a word, grueling. It requires a tireless work ethic and a mastery of organization, anticipation, attention to detail, strategy and, on game day, high-level thinking not found in many individuals. It requires abnormally thick skin, too. Few jobs in America are second-guessed as frequently as NFL play-caller. Randy Fichtner failed in Pittsburgh, but the thing at which he failed is something few are qualified to do. It is the most challenging coaching job in sports.

To understand why that is, and why being a coordinator is so much more than simply calling plays, it’s worth taking a closer look at exactly what the job entails. I reached out to Paul Callahan, who is the offensive coordinator at the high school where I coach, and asked him to summarize his task-list as he prepares for an opponent. Paul has over 30 years of coaching experience and is one of the brightest football minds, at any level, I have ever been around. He is a former high school head coach, has coached for several successful college programs and, at our school, has been the offensive coordinator for the past six seasons. Under Paul’s guidance, we have produced four consecutive All-Conference quarterbacks and a host of school records. We refer to him as “The Quarterback Whisperer” for his ability to develop players at the game’s most important position.

“The key to being a good coordinator,” Paul said, “other than putting in the work, is to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses. You have to work towards both of those - playing to the strengths and working around the weaknesses.

“For instance, I might like throwing to the backs but if the backs aren’t great at that, we don’t do it. Or we may like throwing intermediate routes but bad things happen when we do — sacks, incompletions, interceptions — so we stop throwing them. It’s not about what you want to do, it’s about what you can do. The goal is to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.”

Paul’s comments about strengths and weaknesses resonate as they pertain to the 2020 Steelers. Early on, as they bolted out to their 10-0 start, the Steelers were mitigating their weaknesses (a middling run game, an immobile quarterback with diminishing deep-ball skills) by getting the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hand quickly, targeting rookie Chase Claypool on deep throws and mixing the pass with the run. As the season progressed, defenses caught on and adjusted. Fichtner eliminated the corresponding weaknesses but never identified or developed a strength to replace them. This crippled the offense by making the Steelers simple to defend.

As for Paul’s comment about “putting in the work,” it is mind-boggling how much study and preparation running an offense requires. Paul assembled a list of his weekly duties in order to have us prepared for our games on Friday nights, which I have posted below. This is a list for a high school coordinator, mind you, where time is limited. For professional coaches, the prep work runs much deeper.

Offensive Coordinator - Weekly Duties

Saturday

  • Watch game from previous night; break down details to discuss with team and individual players
  • Speak to individual players about the game - mostly QB-related or things needing to be addressed immediately
  • Watch film of upcoming opposition - just to get a feel for their defense
  • Start preliminary list of new formations, motions, shifts, pass/run schemes for this week

Sunday

  • Break down opposition’s defense - focusing on the front vs formations and coverages - how will they defend us? Who have they played that is most like us? What is their philosophy on defense?
  • Study opposition’s defensive personnel - Who are their best players?
  • Study opposition’s scheme and players for weaknesses
  • Continue preliminary list of new formations, motions, shifts, pass/run schemes for this week
  • Break down Friday’s game film for Efficiency study - Situations, run/pass, field position
  • Compare efficiency of game to previous games - Identify areas in need of improvement
  • Grade position groups and make notes on Hudl for the different position groups from Friday night’s game - send notes to players
  • Make notes on opposition’s film for our players - send notes to players

Monday

  • Study opponent’s defense based on situations and field positions
  • Put yourself in opposing Defensive Coordinator’s shoes - Big question: How would I defend us, if I were their DC based on their philosophy?
  • Start preliminary game-plan based on situation and field position
  • Narrow down list of new formations, motions, shifts, pass/run schemes for this week
  • Prepare practice outline for the week - which plays will be emphasized on what days - what individual position work needs to be addressed based on new things and past week’s game?
  • Check protection scheme for potential problems with opponent’s blitz/stunt
  • Prepare practice schedule and script for Monday’s practice
  • Finalize new install for week
  • Speak with QBs about install
  • Install new offense with team
  • Drill new install with team
  • Drill with position groups things that need to be addressed
  • Watch film to finalize game plan for the week
  • Compile a list of run and pass plays for the week and from what formations/shifts/motions they will be run - Continue to game-plan plays based on situations/field position
  • Compile preliminary list of plays to run in Tuesday’s practice scripts (Group Run, Pass Skelly, & Team)

Tuesday

  • Finalize Tuesday practice schedule: times and individual periods/areas of emphasis
  • Plan Routes on Air (QB/Receivers) and Run Frame (QB/RB)
  • Finalize Tuesday scripts for Group Run, Skelly and Team
  • Script Group Run, Skelly and Team based on formation, field position and hash
  • Finalize Pass Protection and script Defensive Stunts/Blitzes for OL/RB Pass Protection Period
  • Script scout defense coverages/blitzes for Pass Skelly
  • Script scout defense front, blitzes/stunts and coverages for Team offense
  • Practice with QB/RB in option run game
  • Practice with QB/WR/TE in Pass Routes on Air
  • Practice with QB/RB/OL in Group Run
  • Practice with QB/RB/Receivers in Pass Skelly
  • Practice with Team
  • Meet with individual players and coaches after practice if necessary
  • Watch Practice Film of Group Run, Skelly and Team
  • Put comments on Skelly and Team for QB, RB and WRs on Hudl
  • Compile Preliminary list of plays to run in Wednesday’s practice scripts (Group Run, Pass Skelly, & Team)

Wednesday

  • Finalize Wednesday practice schedule - times and individual periods areas of emphasis
  • Plan out Routes on Air (QB/Receivers) and Run Frame (QB/RB)
  • Finalize Wednesday scripts for Group Run, Skelly and Team
  • Script Group Run, Skelly and Team based on formation, field position and hash
  • Make any changes to Pass Protection and Script Defensive Stunts/Blitzes for OL/RB Pass Protection Period
  • Script scout defense coverages/blitzes for Pass Skelly
  • Script scout defense front, blitzes/stunts and coverages for Team offense
  • Practice with QB/RB in option run game
  • Practice with QB/WR/TE in Pass Routes on Air
  • Practice with QB/RB/OL in Group Run
  • Practice with QB/RB/Receivers in Pass Skelly
  • Practice with Team
  • Talk with QB about call sheet - likes and dislikes
  • Meet with individual players and coaches after practice if necessary
  • Watch Practice Film of Group Run, Skelly and Team
  • Put comments on Skelly and Team for QB, RB and WRs on Hudl
  • Compile Preliminary list of plays to run in Thursday’s practice scripts (Group Run, Pass Skelly, & Team)

Thursday

  • Finalize & Script Red Zone/Goal Line Offense based on hash mark
  • Narrow down offense to 48 plays (including Red Zone/Goal Line) for Thursday’s walk-through practice
  • Script Team offense practice schedule based on field position/hash/formation and situation
  • Eliminate plays/formations from game-plan based on practice this week
  • Finalize gadget plays for game-plan
  • Script scout defense front, blitzes/stunts and coverages for Team offense and Red Zone/Goal Line
  • Practice with Team
  • Meet with individual players and coaches after practice as needed
  • Watch Practice film and contact individual players or coaches via Hudl for anything that needs to be addressed
  • Eliminate plays from game-plan based on Thursday’s practice
  • Begin to finalize game-plan based on situations

Friday

  • Finalize run game/RPO plan based on formations/motions/shifts
  • Finalize pass game-plan based on formations/motions/shifts
  • Finalize shot-plays in game-plan based on formations/motions/shifts
  • Finalize situations in game-plan based on formations/motions/shifts
  • Finalize field position game-plan based on formations/motions/shifts
  • Finalize openers in game-plan based on formations/motions/shifts
  • Finalize game-plan against other potential defenses/coverages
  • Finalize ways to get ball to best players in game-plan based on formations/motions/shifts
  • Finalize Script - 1st play must be good vs any potential look
  • Fill out call sheet
  • Identify opposition’s defense ASAP on game day and make adjustments to game-plan as called for
  • Call the game

If you made it through all of that, you’ve probably realized it’s an incredible amount of work. Why is it so much work? Because defensive coaches are similarly detailed. If you aren’t pathologically thorough in your preparation, your weaknesses and tendencies will be exposed.

You may have noticed that the final item on Paul’s list — the very last thing — is the thing so many fans focus upon: calling the game. Clearly, this is not a spontaneous process. There are moments of spontaneity in real time, when decisions are made based upon instinct or sudden revelation. But calling a football game is the result of meticulous preparation. It is the culmination of a process, not its inception.

Still, an OC must be a great in-game play-caller. He can do all the prep in the world but if he can’t apply it to a live situation it’s worthless. To get an idea for how difficult play-calling in real time can be, try this exercise. The next time you’re watching a game (casually), try calling plays between snaps. Figure you have about eight seconds from the time a play is blown dead to the time you have to get a call to your quarterback. You have to include personnel group and formation in addition to the actual play-call and must consider down-and-distance and the likely defense you’re going to face. You also must think about the calls you’ve made previously so your opponent won’t anticipate them, as well as the calls you’ve made that have worked or not worked. Do all of that in eight seconds. Again and again and again.

I make no excuses for Randy Fichtner here. Even the most casual fan could see his offense was dysfunctional. Those who ascend to the coordinator level in the NFL are among the best in the world at what they do. We should expect from them a performance befitting those qualifications. Let’s not demean the job by suggesting it is simple, however. A resume built on playground football and Madden doesn’t disqualify anyone from criticizing poor play-calling. It doesn’t make them capable of running an NFL offense, either. Sometimes we forget that.