Lombardi Rules

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“I can almost go page by page,” former quarterback Zeke Bratkowski recalls. “It was the length of about a legal pad, green, with a very flexible cover. Obviously it had tabs—you know, by topic, starting with basic information, formations, cadence—then got into definition of defenses and so forth.”

Lombardi wouldn’t simply hand his athletes a full playbook each summer. Instead he would start at the beginning—a painfully deliberate process for some of the veterans—and the players were expected to copy the plays for themselves as he scribbled on a chalkboard. “You were responsible for drawing everything up as he drew it up on the board,” former receiver Boyd Dowler remembers. “He’d draw up plays against different fronts and coverages. And in longhand, he’d give you different coaching points. You learned it by doing it.”

In meetings every day, his offensive players would insert another page, additional packages of runs or passes. The defense went through a similar process, though their playbooks were simpler and less hallowed. At the end of the year, the players would give the pages back, lest they leave the team and be tempted to offer Lombardi’s plays to an opponent.

During the season, the Packers carried these playbooks around like dog-eared, coffee-stained bibles, studying them in the evenings and turning them into flesh-and-blood plays on the practice field. “I can still remember like it was yesterday,” says Ron Kramer. “I can tell you any defense they play, how to block it. And that’s mostly due to Vince Lombardi’s thoroughness.”

Lombardi used colors to denote formations—brown meant the fullback was stationed directly behind the quarterback, for instance, while red meant split backs—a system he brought with him from his days as an assistant with the New York Giants. His numbering system on running plays was just as basic: one number for the ball carrier, another for the hole. If Starr called “43 Double Pinch,” the 4 back would run through the 3 hole. The “Double Pinch” defined a blocking pattern. At the beginning of Lombardi’s first season, 2 stood for the left halfback, 3 for the fullback, and 4 for the right halfback. He soon changed to a two-back system, and thereafter used 2 for the fullback and 4 for the halfback.

Any words in the play call tended to refer to blocking assignments or pass routes. “Easy” told an end to block the outside linebacker on his side. “Take” put a tackle on the outside linebacker. “Snapper” meant the center blocked a linebacker. It was a welcome simplification over the Packers’ previous system of terminology. “In the years before Lombardi, the quarterback came into the huddle and he might call ‘49 B-0 Pop George Greg,’” Kramer recalls. “That means the on-guard pulls, the off-guard pulls. B is ‘the back blocks.’ The quarterback had to call everybody’s block. It made it so complicated, it was unbelievable.”

Imagine communicating those long strings of words under the ticking pressure of a two-minute drill. Instead of making the quarterback verbalize all the assignments, Lombardi diffused responsibility to all 11 players. The quarterback would say one word, and the other 10 had to know their splits or blocking responsibilities on the play. “So Bart could come in and say, ‘OK, Red Right 49 on two,’” Kramer explains.

“It gave us the responsibility of knowing the whole play,” Dowler says. “We had better knowledge of the big picture, rather than, ‘All I have to worry about is what I’m doing.’ It gave us ownership of the offense, so to speak.”

Lombardi foisted just one fundamental change on his offense. With his team struggling in 1959, the first-year head coach went from a three-back base set to a two-back set, converting one halfback into a flanker. The result was much more like the offenses we see today. Other than that, a player like Starr who stuck around for all of Lombardi’s nine seasons in Green Bay saw little change to his offense.

Lombardi never believed that “outcoaching” an opponent meant coming up with a play they’d never seen before. Rather he wanted his players to be technically sound, maybe even perfect, in the limited number of plays they ran. “Some people try to find things in this game or put things into it which don’t exist,” Lombardi once remarked. “Football is two things. It’s blocking and tackling. I don’t care anything about formations or new offenses or tricks on defense. You block and tackle better than the team you’re playing, you win.”

The Packers drove opponents crazy. Defensive coaches would break down their film and see that Lombardi wasn’t doing anything too innovative. Yet no one could stop him. “I knew a lot of guys from Texas,” says Dowler. “The Cowboys had all this computer stuff. I’d hear, ‘You can line up in split backs, and we know what you do.’ Finally I’d say, ‘Yeah, well do something about it.’ We weren’t tricking anybody.”