Learning a playbook can be an absolutely daunting challenge for a quarterback. Whereas other position players only need to know their own responsibilities on a given play, quarterbacks must know the duties of every offensive player at all times.
If anyone knows how to learn a playbook quickly, it’s Jordan Palmer. An 8-year NFL veteran, Palmer exhibited an ability to quickly master a playbook, helping him play at the highest level. After a mid-season signing, he once learned the Tennessee Titans’ playbook in two and a half days. He now works as a quarterback coach for players like Christian Hackenberg and Deshaun Watson.
To help you better learn your playbook, STACK got the inside scoop’s on Palmer’s methods.
1. The Goal is To Own Your System, Not Just Know It
Palmer says there’s a definitive difference between knowing a playbook and owning a playbook. The latter demonstrates a mastery of the system and allows a QB to play with unshakeable confidence. The former does not. The more sure a QB is in what he’s doing, the more effective he’ll be.
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“I see a difference between knowing something and owning something. My name is Jordan William Palmer—I’ll never screw it up, I will never say ‘um’, I will never say it out of order. I own that information. A lot of quarterbacks play knowing the system but not owning it,” Palmer says. “And if you don’t own it, it slows down your process. The ball doesn’t come out as quick. You’re not as accurate. You’re not as sure. When you watch the best quarterbacks play—Brady, Brees, Carson—they’re not really reading stuff. They know the offense so well and they know the coverages so well, they’re essentially just waiting for defenders to get out of the way so they can throw it.”
2. Don’t Read Your Playbook Like a Novel
One of the biggest mistakes a quarterback makes when trying to learn a playbook is cracking open the cover with the intent of reading page 1, then page 2, then page 3, and so on.
Palmer compares a playbook to a cookbook or the Bible. Unlike a novel, these texts aren’t necessarily meant to be read from front to back. “The Bible, cookbooks and a playbook are all the same,” Palmer says. “The reason I lump them together is because we don’t open those up and read them cover and cover. Most guys entering the league don’t understand that principle. They just open up their playbook from the beginning and try to start learning everything.”
Instead, Palmer teaches his QB clients to learn a playbook in four sequential steps—formations, concepts, protections and miscellaneous.
3. First, Own Your Formations
Palmer recommends that a QB own his formations before moving on to anything else.
To help you do this, Palmer recommends getting five checkers and marking each one with a different position, then sliding them around to correspond with a given formation.
“Don’t look at anything until you own the formations,” Palmer says. “The trick is to buy some checkers and write X,Y,Z,F,H,Q on them. Those are all the offensive skill positions. When I say Trips Right, you move those checkers into Trips Right. When I say Divide Left, you switch them around. Then you go Empty Right, then you go Full Left, then you go Twins Right. You just switch the checkers around over and over again. The way to learn a playbook is to turn the playbook into pictures in your mind.”
Manipulating three-dimensional objects (such as checkers) can help a player better visualize a play rather than simply staring at a flat piece of paper.
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How do you know when you own the formations? Simply make a checklist of every formation and see if you’re capable of moving the checkers into the right spots time and time again without error. If you’re able to do that without thinking twice, you own the formations.
4. Next, Own Your Concepts
After you’re 100 percent confident that you own your formations, you can move onto concepts, which refer to the combination of routes used in plays. Palmer suggests that instead of trying to remember every player’s entire route, hone in on where they end up. He says, “The second thing is concepts. You memorize concepts in terms of the end result—where people end up. Now, because you own the formations, you can start moving checkers around and you can run these concepts out of any formation. You’re essentially learning more than what the playbook is.”
If you find yourself struggling with formations while trying to master the concepts, guess what? Stop trying to learn the concepts and go back to focusing on the formations. But if you find yourself capable of sliding checkers around to correspond with concepts out of every formation, you’ve already learned a massive chunk of your playbook. Once you own the concepts, you can move onto the next step—protections.
5. Third, Own Your Protections
Once you own the formations and concepts of your playbook, you can move onto the protections.
Protections refer to the blocking schemes an offense uses. Knowing your protections and how they can counter a defense can help your offense move down the field efficiently and avoid negative yardage plays.
“If you don’t learn the protections, you’re going to get sacked and you’re just not going to play very well,” Palmer says. “Every protection that a defense is trying to attack, they’re trying to do one of three things. One, they’re trying to get an offensive lineman to block nobody. Two, they’re trying to get a mismatch on your running back—get them to block a D-lineman or something like that. Or three, they’re trying to get two on your running back, have your running back be responsible for either the Mike or the Sam, and the Mike and the Sam both come. Understanding the intricacies of your protection will help you solve for those problems. The second part is, once you learn the protection, you need to figure out who the offensive linemen are responsible for. To know that, you have to figure out who your secondary blockers are. Is it a 7-man protection with a tight end and a running back? Or two running backs? Or is it a 6-man protection? And third, who’s the quarterback responsible for? When you truly understand all of those things, you own the protections. Now it’s just about calls and slides and adjustments.”
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Protections are undoubtedly a huge component of an offense, and it takes some time to master them. But once you own your formations, concepts and protections, you essentially know the vast majority of your offense. The only thing left is fill in the gaps with “miscellaneous” knowledge.
6. Finally, Own The Extra Stuff
After you own the formations, concepts and protections in your playbook, all that’s left to do is learn the extra tidbits. Palmer refers to these odds and ends as the “miscellaneous components” of an offense.
“One is formations, two is concepts, three is protections and four is just miscellaneous—shifts, motions, trick plays, dummy cadences, etc. That’s all that other stuff,” Palmer says.
Trying to learn things like motions or formation shifts before you own the formations, concepts and protections is a recipe for confusion. But if you own those three major components, you should be able to quickly get a handle on the miscellaneous components of an offense.
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