June 21, 2024

Chicago quarterback Justin Fields complains quietly: too much information in his ear.

The crowd in Pittsburgh complains loudly: get rid of Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Through the first two weeks of the NFL season, a lot of confounded teams are groping for ways to move the football.

Cincinnati, two years removed from the Super Bowl, has scored just 20 points in two games. The longest reception by the lethal Ja’Marr Chase? Thirteen yards.

“Take a chance,” the exasperated receiver told reporters when asked about the down-the-field passing drought.

Is it time to cut quarterbacks loose and let them call the plays?

Once upon a time, they did.

The relative simplicity of football in the 1960s and ‘70s made it far easier for quarterbacks to call the plays. Football was less complex back then. Coaches didn’t have play sheets that looked like periodic tables. There were a few assistants, not today’s typical staff of two dozen coaches.

“I called all the plays,” Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton said. “I made sure I was prepared by the coaches to understand what defenses were doing and also to get their input on how do we attack a defense.”

Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton talks with coach Bud Grant in 1975.

Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton talks with coach Bud Grant in 1975.

(Bill Hudson / Associated Press)

Archie Manning called plays from his sophomore year at Ole Miss through the first half of his 14-year NFL career. When those duties were taken over by a coach, playing quarterback wasn’t quite as much fun for Manning.

“I kind of felt a little bit that instead of a quarterback, now I’m a guard,” Manning said. “I’m just running the play that’s called. Where before, that was 80% of my preparation. Home at night or after practice I was trying to think about all the situations that would come up in a game and what play I’m going to call.”

Hall of Famer Roger Staubach called the plays early in his career with the Dallas Cowboys, but was happy to hand over play-calling responsibilities to legendary coach Tom Landry.

“He said to me, `You need to do what you’re doing on reading defenses, but I want to call the plays,’ ” Staubach recalled. “It was a relief for me.”

By the early 1990s, there was at least one quarterback still calling plays: Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, who estimates he made 95% of the decisions but deferred to coach Marv Levy in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Both Kelly and Levy are in the Hall of Fame.

Kelly credits his quarterbacks coach, Jim Shofner, and his phenomenal cast of offensive teammates — Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton, Don Beebe and the like — for making the Bills’ hurry-up system work, and especially Levy for entrusting him to call the plays.

“We didn’t have that many plays,” he said. “We had 25, 30 plays. But the thing is, if one play worked, we’d run it over five, six, seven times during the course of a game.”

But much has changed since the heyday of quarterbacks calling plays, most notably the number of personnel groupings on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

“When I came into the league, whoever those 11 guys who were out there on defense on first down, it was the same 11 when it got to be third-and-18,” said Manning, 74, a rookie in 1971. “We had a tight end, two wide receivers and two backs. We didn’t bring in a third receiver. We never had a second tight end except on short-yardage.

“If the coach trusted the quarterback to call plays, you could do it.”

That started to change in the late 1970s with the advent of the nickel back, when defenses would replace a linebacker in certain situations with a fifth defensive back. After that, more tinkering.

“You could kind of plan on the nickel, the quarterback could see that coming,” Manning said. “But before you know it, there was a whole different package coming in. It might be six defensive backs, sometimes seven. You’re getting more coverages. You had nose guards that were playing just on first down then coming out.

“The specialization made it virtually impossible for the quarterback to call his own plays,” Manning said. “From the press box [coaches] could see what package was coming in on defense and you could send in your offensive package to combat that. But you had to send in a play with it.”

That’s not to suggest modern quarterbacks don’t have a thorough grasp of defenses, or can’t independently draw from an ever-expanding universe of plays. In certain situations, many are asked to do so.

Two years ago, in a playoff game against Tennessee, a technical meltdown led to a battlefield promotion for Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow. When his helmet radio went on the fritz, the Bengals quarterback temporarily had to call the plays.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow drops back to pass against the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was calling the shots in a playoff game against the Titans two seasons ago.

(Brett Carlsen / Associated Press)

“Never been in that position before,” Burrow said of the headset malfunction after the 19-16 AFC divisional victory. “That was kind of exciting for me. [Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor] always jokes, `Don’t pretend like the headset goes out so you can call your own plays.’ All of them worked. That was fun.”

But the task of a quarterback calling plays for an entire game in today’s NFL would be mind-boggling in its complexities.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford said that regardless of yesteryear’s playbook being thinner, it’s still impressive that quarterbacks were able to call games on their own.

“To be able to go out there, feel the game and get your team into some plays that are going to work, and go out there and make plays is pretty awesome,” Stafford said.

In today’s NFL, it requires many sets of eyes to consistently put a quarterback in the best position to succeed.

“I think quarterbacks do like having an element of ownership, have a little bit of freedom and ability to make the adjustments they feel are necessary when they see something,” said Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who came from the Dallas Cowboys and has worked with elite quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert.

“I think you always want to give the QB the confidence that he has that in his pocket.”

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger — all masters of receiving multiple play options via the coach-to-quarterback radio, surveying the defense before the snap and dialing up the right play call for a given situation.

The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger talks with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in 2011.

The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger gets instructions from offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in 2011. Arians let the quarterback call the plays when the offense went into no-huddle mode.

(Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

When the Steelers were in their hurry-up offense, Roethlisberger was calling the shots. Because the offense was moving so quickly, the defense wasn’t afforded the time to insert different personnel groups.

“Every time we would go no-huddle with Ben, I would let him just go,” said former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians of the star quarterback who retired after the 2021 season. “I let him have it and said, `Just run the plays you love.’ ”

Maybe that’s the answer in Chicago, where Fields is trying to get the 0-2 Bears on track. He told reporters this week that he’s thinking too much instead of relying on instincts.

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields readies to don his football helmet.

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields believes too much information is thwarting his performances.

(Peter Joneleit / Associated Press)

“My goal this week is to say, `eff it’ and go out there and play football how I know how to play football,” he said. “That includes thinking less and just going out there and playing off of instincts, rather than say so much info in my head and data in my head, and clearly just going out there and playing football.

“That’s when I play my best is when I’m out there playing free and being myself. So I’m going to say kind of bump all the what I should, this and that, like pocket stuff. I’m going to go out there and be me.”

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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