To call your own plays, or not to call your own plays

Stanford coach David Shaw is widely known as media friendly, a conversationalist and a great quote. Like most coaches, however, he doesn't like to be second-guessed, and if you question his play calling, well, he might just get a bit crispy with you. Not Nick Saban belligerent. But unquestionably irritated.

During the Pac-12 teleconference Tuesday, a reporter began a question about the Stanford offense -- which scored just a pair of field goals in an upset defeat at Northwestern on Saturday -- with the term "media overreaction," and Shaw didn't have the patience to wait for the question.

"No really? I've never had that here," he said. "Every single game that we've lost in my four-plus years as the head coach, I've answered the same four questions."

Those questions centered on play calling, which inspired the follow-up: Why remain one of the 17 Power 5 head coaches, including four in the Pac-12, who call plays on either side of the ball?

"No one asked me that question when we set a Stanford school record for points after the bowl game [last season] and after we scored 56 points on USC a few years ago in triple overtime," Shaw replied.

He's right. Even the snappy response of noting that Andrew Luck would make life easy for any playcaller -- and Luck had more freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage than a wide majority of college QBs -- could be countered with a simple 'Players make plays.' The playcaller can't be blamed for dropped passes or overthrown open receivers, characteristics of Stanford's offensive failure on Saturday.

The wisdom of a head coach calling his own plays has long been debated, and not just by media and fans. It's often an issue for the coach himself when he takes his first head job and labors with the myriad demands outside of X's and O's.

In 2012, Florida State fans were questioning Jimbo Fisher for calling his own offensive plays. Then Jameis Winston took over behind center. Fisher looked a lot smarter thereafter.

Fisher has talked about yielding play-calling duties at some point. He just hasn't arrived at that point. One reason, he noted, is that he's not eager to hand over his offense and then have to reset his scheme when the coordinator uses the Seminoles' talent to help him leapfrog to a head-coaching job elsewhere.

"As a head coach, when offensive and defensive coordinators leave and your schemes change constantly, it keeps changing for your team," Fisher said. "When one guy can have control of one side of the ball, it cuts it in half when you have coaching transition and guys get new jobs, all that stuff. As a head coach, knowing the temperament of your team, how you want the game played -- I'm very happy with what I'm doing right now. I always say evaluate, but I'm very comfortable calling the plays and doing what I'm doing right now."

The biggest reason head coaches call the signals? The competitive intensity is fun for them.

Said Arizona's Rich Rodriguez: "I enjoy it so I'm going to keep doing it."

Shaw was Stanford's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, but it's no secret the two sometimes didn't see eye-to-eye, and Harbaugh took away Shaw's autonomy calling plays. When Shaw replaced Harbaugh, his first offense -- led by Luck -- averaged a stout 43.2 points per game.

In 2012, the Cardinal averaged 27.9 points per game and ranked seventh in the Pac-12, but Shaw was mostly given a pass because he was finding a new QB -- then-redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan didn't win the job until the first weekend of November -- and, well, Stanford won the Pac-12, winning at Oregon in the process. The next year, Shaw again steered the Cardinal to a Pac-12 title, and the offense improved to 32.3 points per game.

Last season, the offense struggled much of the year, particularly Hogan. Even with a late-season surge that fueled optimism heading into 2015, the Cardinal ranked 11th in the conference with 27.2 points per game.

Saturday's 16-6 loss at Northwestern again provoked the gripes and tweaks from media and fans that so bothered Shaw in 2014.

"I'm going to lean on our track record," Shaw said. "It's the same play-calling group that played against a great UCLA defense last year and played great [in a 31-10 victory]."

"It was like a teenager not being able to play video games. That's really the way it was, but it was something I felt was best for our football team -- for me to be more of an organizer of the big picture in recruiting and marketing and the media and different things."
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy

It's not easy for a coach attached to calling plays to give it up, but it happens: USC's Steve Sarkisian did so just this season, and Georgia's Mark Richt and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy are two other examples.

"It was extremely difficult," Gundy said. "It was like a teenager not being able to play video games. That's really the way it was, but it was something I felt was best for our football team -- for me to be more of an organizer of the big picture in recruiting and marketing and the media and different things."

Sarkisian told his coordinator, Clay Helton, that his plan was to hand off play calling in his second season, though that plan wasn't made public.

"When he offered me the job, he goes, 'Going into Year 1, I know how I want it called, Clay. I want you to learn how it goes. I want you to learn the exact system that I want.' And I was fine with that," Helton said. "I wanted to be a part of the system. I wanted to see how he called plays. We've done that for a year now and he feels comfortable enough to move to the next step."

Time management is the top reason coaches give for yielding play-calling duties, and is also cited by promoted coordinators who hand off those responsibilities as head coaches. That point, though, is almost always followed by a coach talking about trust. Oregon's Mark Helfrich gave way to Scott Frost because he knew and trusted Frost. Same with California's Sonny Dykes and his offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, though it's not always easy to keep your hands off the joystick.

"[We] think so much alike," Dykes said. "It's hard because I get too involved at times, but at the end of the day, I have complete, 100 percent trust in him. I try to stay out of it as much as I can. For me to come in and mess up his flow, mess up his rhythm, I think is counterproductive."

If it's working, the play-calling arrangement isn't questioned. Stanford was 34-7 in Shaw's first three seasons, so gripes about conservative play calling were muted. But the Cardinal have lost six of its past 14 games.

Don't expect a change anytime soon, though.

Said Shaw, "Yes, it is a bit of an overreaction after Game 1. I say let's play a few games and see where we are."