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Coordinators hold power to script opening plays

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Posted Feb. 01, 2012 @ 3:06 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

INDIANAPOLIS — Bill O'Brien and Kevin Gilbride have spent their careers coaching to be a part of games such as this. It's their livelihood to come up with offensive game plans. Sunday's scripts will be two of the offensive coordinators' biggest plans ever.

And yet there are only so many plays they can cram into the script. After they come up with the first few series' worth of offensive plays, it's chaos after that. All the calls come off the cuff from that point on.

The Patriots, O'Brien said, typically plan what they call "openers," not restricted to a first 15 plays as other teams do it. And it's all hands on deck: O'Brien consults with OL coach Dante Scarnecchia, who talks with head coach Bill Belichick, who checks with Tom Brady, who talks with O'Brien. Again and again and again, throughout the week.

"Here in New England it's an ongoing process right up until kickoff. Tommy and I spend a lot of time together. He's sick of me, and I am sick of him," O'Brien said with a laugh and a wink. "But it's really good communication with the offensive staff. We're well on the way, but I would say we really could use these next 3-4 days.

"You've got a guy who has been playing quarterback for 12 years. It's not like it's a rookie quarterback. He's a big part of the process."

Gilbride is a little more traditional in his approach. Call it old-fashioned if you will, but he likes to have a first 15 plays in mind, and it's the way many other coordinators approach a game.

"I think it's fairly common," he said. "Most guys start the game with a preplanned idea. We'll do a couple of different formations, a couple of different personnel groupings to try to get a sense of what (the Patriots) are trying to do.

"You try to accomplish two goals: one, get in the endzone, but two, try to see what their adjustments are going to be to certain personnel groupings or this motion, whatever you are trying to see. And of course, you're running something (early) to try to maybe set them up for something different later in the game."

For instance, a split end running an out route out of a certain personnel package and formation could then run an out-and-go out of the same personnel setup, to prevent the cornerback from squatting on the route and to try to hit him for a big play up top. Likewise, a run play out of another formation could end up later being play-action. And vice versa.

It's the game within the game, the minutiae that coordinators dissect until they are blue in the face. But of course, things rarely go as planned when the game starts. O'Brien and Gilbride are ready for that, too, and are not afraid to go off the script if the situation warrants it.

"We definitely do," Gilbride said. "You keep your third down (plays) separate. Let's say you get a great kick return, or even a penalty and you're backed up inside the 10-yard line, which is more common. Then we'd go to either our 'backed-up' offense or our red-zone offense."

O'Brien is ready to scrap his openers list, depending on what happens on special teams.

"I can remember in 2009 — I forget the game, but we kicked off, the other team fumbled it and we got the ball (to start the game) on the six-yard line," he said. "You're not calling your openers at that point. You have to be prepared for every weird situation like that."

Of course, there is another side of the coin: the players. When the game plan is released — this week it will be Saturday for the Giants — the first thing the skill-position players do is look through it to find out where they might be featured. Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw says he gets with Brandon Jacobs and picks through the plays to find out where they are involved.

"That's what any running back does," Bradshaw said. "You want more running than passing naturally."

Bradshaw said he has mentioned to Gilbride in the past that he is ready and willing to take the ball earlier in games.

"Earlier in the season we got on him a little about how he passes it all the time (early in games)," Bradshaw said, laughing. "So he switched it up and started with one run to start the game. Then it was right back to the pass."

The Patriots often come out to start games in the no-huddle offense, and sometimes that means a rhythm passing game with few run plays installed. For a running back such as Stevan Ridley, he might have five straight run plays called early — or he might not even be dressed for the game. Everything the Patriots do offensively is game-plan-specific, aimed at attacking the weakness of the opponent.

"It's how things are run around here," Ridley said. "It's called being a fluent offense. When they call your number, you have to be ready to make a play. You never know when you might get it again."

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