Halftime Adjustmentsby: Mike KucharSenior Writer, American Football Monthly
© November 2008
Halftime…It may be the most under coached aspect of a football game, and it usually separates average coaches from good coaches and good coaches from great coaches. It’s thinking on the run at its best, when everything else fails – when everything you worked on the entire week isn’t going the way you want it to – and you only have twenty minutes to get it all worked out. You either come out of that tunnel with redemption or suffer continuing onslaught. It’s always interesting to watch when a team comes out in the second half after being pounded for the first half and makes a complete turnaround. What’s even more interesting, and perhaps even comical, is how we hear reporters talk about “the speech that the coach must’ve made at halftime” to get his boys fired up. We all know there is no “rah rah” halftime speech impactful enough to motivate our players for the rest of the day. There are no sightings of Knute Rockne standing up on a chair in the locker room. But what does make a difference is how, after struggling through an entire two quarters, you can get with your players and make the necessary adjustments to come back and win the football game.
It’s usually halftime when all that preparation comes to fruition. It’s when Plan A goes out the window and now you’re working with Plan B. Not all coaches have a Plan B; they are so hell-bent on working the game plan regardless of what they see in front of them. But then there are some of the best coaches in the country that know exactly what to do when their original plan crumbles before their eyes. Rich Rodriguez, the head coach at Michigan, has an entire sheet of “What if’s” that he enters into a game with, and often has to call upon that document when his opponent is shutting down a particular aspect of his scheme. And he’s not alone.
Crunch Time: The first five minutes
A typical halftime, homecoming and Super Bowl not included, lasts twenty minutes, so coaches need to work quickly. So quickly, that Skip Holtz and his staff at ECU start the process three minutes before when he sends his GA’s down into the locker room to diagram what they’ve seen. “We’ll get them going down into the locker room to chart up on the whiteboard every formation and tendency that we’ve seen,” said Holtz. “Halftime adjustments rely mainly on the competence of the guys in the box – so you really have to train those guys to look for what you want them to. I’ve been fortunate enough to have those same guys since I started here and they are excellent coaches. You have to train yourself not to watch the game, and that is hard especially as a young coach.” It’s a lesson he learned the hard way, coaching for one of the game’s legends, father Lou, at South Carolina. “I remember being an assistant with him at South Carolina and I would get caught watching the game from the press box when I needed to be helping him,” said Skip. “We would fumble the ball and my dad would ask ‘what happened?’ and I’d say ‘I don’t know – we just fumbled.’ I was caught watching the defense. That would fire him up more than anything.”
So he makes sure that the first five minutes in the locker room he spends reviewing the fronts and coverage’s that his opponent has played. Then, Holtz and his staff will examine what he calls the D.N.E. or “Did not expect” category. “I’ll look at what hurt us defensively and what hurt us offensively. Which routes, runs, pass protections did we execute to par? I look at our first and third down charts that the GA’s kept with them in the box. What did they hurt us with? Instead of expecting them to run four verts against our three deep zone they may be instead getting us sealed on the power play? So, maybe we’ll say okay fellas let’s get into a three (technique), seven (technique) and drop our Sam into a 9 (technique) to stop the play. That’s mainly what I want to know right away.”
Hal Wasson, the head coach at prep powerhouse Southlake Carroll High School in Texas, relies on the same timetable at the half. “Defensively, we just try and patch the bleeding if we’re getting beat,” said Wasson. “We come as offensive coaches and meet for five minutes and the defensive coaches meet for five minutes just to discuss exactly what is hurting us. Many times it could be as simple as getting away from a play that has been productive for us. On our play sheet we have the formation, the play and whether it was a negative or positive result. If a play has been productive for us and we’ve only run it twice, then we’d better get back to it.” Perhaps you wouldn’t think it could be as simple as getting away from what’s been working, but it seems a lot of us fall victim to the tendency of over coaching.
Adam Dorrel, the offensive coordinator at Northwest Missouri State, a Division II school, takes it a step further by compiling a “touch chart” that tracks how many times his playmakers get the ball. “We have our playmaker touch sheet to quantify how many times our main guy gets the ball,” said Dorrel. “We always look to get him twenty touches a game. If we have him at two touches at the half, then when we get into the locker room that is something we need to adjust.” Dorrel, who is up in the booth on game days, charts everything from the run game to some pass concepts and distributes during halftime. “It’s so hard to keep track of those things mentally. We tend to over coach ourselves and get away from things that have been working. If we’re averaging 7.2 yards on a play we need to know that.” Holtz even looks at what he calls an explosive play chart: a run over twelve yards and a pass over 20 yards that was effective with the purpose of going back to what has been working.
Meeting with Coaches (10 minutes)
After the compiling of data is done, these staffs will get together with their coaches for another eight to ten minutes in the locker room. Each staff varies their time on this but the subject matter remains pretty constant. “Here we’ll get into the nuts and bolts on what actual changes we are going to make,” said Holtz. “Let’s say they are able to stop our power play. One of my guys has been noticing that seven technique on the defensive end is getting penetration and blowing up the fullback’s block at the point of attack. We might want to adjust that by doubling the seven and kicking out the nine technique, or outside LB. Or maybe we’re noticing that every time we run our outside zone scheme the backside corner is chasing it from the backside. Then we may want to run a zone boot and hit him with a backside comeback to get him to play more honest. It’s all in the way you package plays as well.”
Packaging the same types of plays is key to making the adjustments that Wasson makes at halftime. The Dragons run a spread offensive scheme that consists of three types of formations: 2x2, 3x1 and 3x2 and eight separate passing families – the quick game, smash, choice, vertical, high/low combo, slant and screen concepts. If a team is taking away one of those schemes, Wasson just goes to the bullpen. “We’ll just bring another family to the party,” said Wasson. “If we have seen cover two on film and now we’re seeing cover four we make our adjustments and base our routes and how we will break off them differently. Anytime someone stops us it’s really only a leverage problem or a coverage issue that we’re dealing with.
“We have our coverage beaters for all types of schemes already written down and we just pull from our research. We may need to add a combo route to exploit something in their defense. Let’s say we are running our smash concept and they are doing a good job of stopping it. We may say ‘instead of smash we run a deep smash with a china route behind it.’ It may sound like a lot but the kids just flip a page in the playbook. It’s just a tweak.”
Dorrel stays within the same type of concepts to make his adjustments with his offensive staff in the pass game. “One of our pass concepts is a typical five step drop scheme out of pro trips. We may run a dig by number one, a curl by number two and an arrow route by number three. We may notice that the corner is sitting on the arrow route. If he is, we would run an “in” by number two instead of a curl in order to high/low and occupy that corner. It’s just a simple adjustment to your base plays. You’re not restricting your entire offense.”
Relying on your players (The final five)
After all the adjustments are made and the blueprint is tweaked, the minutes before taking the field for the second half is usually spent talking with players and finding out first-hand accounts of what is occurring. Perhaps years ago, this was never a consideration but now the trust that some coaches are placing on their players make the decision making process a collaborative effort.
“I think we trust our kids more than anybody because we have a good relationship with them,” said Dorrel. “I have no problem taking suggestions from them. If one of my veteran players says that he thinks he can blow up that defensive tackle on power and we’ll get four yards every time we run it to his side than I’d be stupid not to believe him. It gives them some accountability in the program. A lot of coaches just don’t give their guys enough credit.”
Wasson isn’t one of those coaches – he sits on the same side as Dorrel. “We tell them all week that on game days they should take a visual snapshot of what they see in front of them and store it mentally. What kind of technique are they getting? Or, what are they seeing predominantly? We may need to double team a player rather than single block him. Our staff wouldn’t know those things because we’re not the ones playing the game.”
Okay, this may be all well and good when you’re trailing. But what happens, when you’re defeating your opponent into submission, and there are no adjustments to make? According to these coaches that’s never the case. “Sometimes it’s not about the scheme that needs to be addressed,” said Holtz. “I’ve gone in during halftime and ripped them apart and I’ve gone in and applauded them or gave them confidence. I’ll just talk to them for one or two minutes about what we need to do in the second half and then I’d like to get back out on the field with three minutes to spare so we can properly get our legs going again. The bottom line is that as coaches we try to always have an answer. If that answer works, well that is something totally different. You just kind of hope it does.”