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Tuesday, February 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: Football coaches learning to love slimmer playbook

Steve christilaw

The football playbook is a sacred thing.

Football players are expected to know them inside and out and guard them with their lives. If the house catches fire, they’re expected to grab the playbook first.

And it’s the first thing a professional team asks for when they cut a player.

“Coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook” used to be the way players were notified that their career as a professional football player was over.

In the early days of football, the playbook was skinny. You lined up and ran the football. Up the middle, around an end or sprinting around the corner and down the sideline.  The option was invented, which meant you could be more creative on the field as you ran up the middle, around the end or around the corner and down the sideline.

The emphasis was on how well players executed their assignments play after play.

But with the forward pass, things changed. Playbooks got thicker as plays got more and more complicated. Players were tasked with memorizing more and more plays, each with differing assignments.

It turned out that the ideal football player was able to bench press a piano, outrun a greyhound and had an eidetic memory.

Guys like that are hard to find.

And so the game is evolving once more.

Washington State University running backs coach Jim Mastro is part of a new trend in football offenses – a trend that believes less is more.

Mastro spent 11 seasons at the University of Nevada in Reno, helping coach Chris Ault develop the pistol offense. He spent a season in Los Angeles helping Rick Neuheisel install the pistol at UCLA before joining his old friend, Mike Leach, in Pullman.

He recently was asked to spend a few days at an NFL training camp, to explain how some of those offensive schemes he helped devise came into being.

As he tells the story, he sat down with the offensive coordinator and he brought out a thick, thick binder and dropped it on the table.

“Is that your playbook?” Mastro asked.

“That’s our playbook for our game with New England,” he said.

The coaches began looking at game film, Mastro goes on.

“I would ask, ‘What went wrong on this play and that play?’ ” he says. The answers all had a theme. This player missed an assignment, that player missed a key read.

“There were at least 15 or 20 missed assignments in every game,” Mastro said. “I said, ‘Guys, I think I can see your problem.’ ”

And that would be why offenses like Leach’s air raid and Ault’s pistol are gaining in popularity at all levels of the game, especially at the high school and college level.

It’s not that they throw the ball three out of every four times they snap the football that makes them so popular, although they are exciting and adaptable.

It’s about keeping the game simple. They don’t ask players to execute dozens and dozens of plays. They ask them to execute a small handful of plays perfectly, snap after snap.

  “This offense is all about execution,” Mastro explained. “I’ve been fortunate to work with two of the most innovative offenses in football, the pistol and this one (Leach’s air raid). The pistol has 12 plays. This one has 17.”

It’s about making the game rely on proficiency instead of innovation. It’s about executing a handful of plays perfectly snap after snap. It’s about how good your athletes are at doing their jobs instead of how clever your offensive coordinator is at doing his.

It turns out that simple is also a smart way to go.

Steve Christilaw is a longtime freelance sportswriter and reporter. He can be reached at

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