Leistikow: Brian Ferentz tackles colossal challenge of play-calling mastery
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Since he was promoted in early January, Brian Ferentz has known that he would be responsible for calling every offensive play of Iowa’s 2017 football season.
The Hawkeyes' new offensive coordinator said recently it wasn’t something he aspired to do when he first got into coaching.
But, he quipped: “I can tell you this much: I aspire to continue to do it.”
Second-guessing play calls is something 99.9 percent of us who follow football do.
But 99.9 percent of us haven’t been in those shoes and will never be in those shoes — with that chattering headset covering our ears, with that catalog of plays racing through our heads, with that play clock that won’t stop ticking.
A fantastic article on Bill Simmons’ website, The Ringer, explored the art of play-calling with three coaches who possess considerable accomplishments at the NFL level: Bruce Arians (Arizona Cardinals), Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams) and Ken Whisenhunt (Los Angeles Chargers).
From the article:
Calling plays is equal parts probability, practiced precognition, and spur-of-the-moment improvisation.
The best play-callers are not only adept at crafting the ideal scripted approach to a given game; they also know when and how to abandon that plan.
“There’s nothing better than when you call a play, you get the look that you want, and you put your players in a position where they’re able to execute,” McVay told The Ringer.
Later in the article, Whisenhunt spoke of getting in a groove and “seeing two or three plays ahead.”
All this is to say: Being a masterful play-caller doesn't come as easily as it does in a game of Madden 18.
So, to expect Ferentz’s first when-the-games-count crack at play-calling to be without failures is unrealistic.
What will we see?
That’ll be half the fun Saturday when the Hawkeyes finally open the season against Wyoming (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).
In the past eight months, Ferentz has been asked a lot about how his offense will look.
Without giving specifics, it’s clear that the head coach's son has taken influence from his personal background (including four years on staff with Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots) and from the input of Iowa’s three new offensive assistants: Tim Polasek (North Dakota State), Kelton Copleand (Northern Illinois) and Ken O’Keefe (Miami Dolphins and previously at Iowa, of course).
“I think you have to be open to new ideas. And part of that process is (a) transfer of information,” said Ferentz, 34. “We’ve done things a certain way here. Culturally, we’re not going to change. We are who we are. But as you have this influx of knowledge and ideas, there’s different ways to do to things. There’s different ways to skin a cat.
"And a lot of them work.”
The best guesses?
More usage of the tight ends (that’s the Patriots’ influence), more variety in the run game (like at North Dakota State) and exploiting matchups (a big part of the NFL) by getting the ball to your best players in creative ways.
Adding to the mystery: There’s a new quarterback at the helm in sophomore Nate Stanley.
Saturday marks his first game running a college offense, too; the first time he’s been No. 1 during a week of gameplan installation.
“We’re obviously going to try to establish the run,” Stanley said, “and do everything that we’ve always done in the past.”
That makes a lot of sense. Wyoming struggled defensively a year ago, and the strength of Iowa’s offense is its line play and barrage of talented running backs.
How would newcomer James Butler describe what fans will see Saturday?
“Powerful. Smash-mouth football. We’re trying to get downhill,” the graduate transfer who faced Wyoming twice in his three years at Nevada. “And it’s not going to be easy to defend, because we can play from sideline to sideline.”
No doubt, the Cowboys will try to combat Iowa’s expected run-heavy attack and force Ferentz out of his comfort zone.
Again, from The Ringer article:
Building that perfect initial gameplan comprises a considerable portion of a play-caller’s job in the days before a game, but it can take one only so far. The need to react and riff on concepts is equally critical, and that’s where things can get dicey.
Ferentz is known to be diligent and thorough in his preparation.
But how he reacts on the fly to adversity will be fascinating to watch. What happens when second-and-2 suddenly becomes third-and-8? If the game's tight in the fourth quarter, do you go for ball control or for the jugular?
What happens if the gameplan doesn't work?
Wherever the plays are run and however they’re called each Saturday, Ferentz has made part of the plan clear.
He's going to lean on the three tenets of Hawkeye football: being tough, smart and physical.
“It’s Iowa football’s philosophy. It’s not unique to me. I’m just a cog in the machine,” Ferentz said. “… We want to be the toughest team on the field. We want to make the least amount of mistakes. And we want to beat you up.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.