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Bengals Coaches Give Voice To New Era Of Playbooks

Brian Callahan coaching at the Senior Bowl before the offseason took a historic turn.
Brian Callahan coaching at the Senior Bowl before the offseason took a historic turn.

Travis Brammer broke into the NFL as a hustling utilityman alternating dropping video cassettes into VCRs with dropping off cartons of orange soda to Paul Brown's dorm room. So if there is anyone that can Zoom in on how the virtual offseason has given a voice to voice-over coaching and changed his team's playbook forever, it is Brammer, the Bengals' long-time video director.

"It's just another way to do it remotely and it took off this year because it's just a nice tool to have in your back pocket," Brammer says. "Without even having anybody in attendance, a player can basically have his own classroom session.

"We have some smart coaches that have really embraced technology and they've come up with some ideas of their own. They've been able to adapt."

During this untouchable and unprecedented offseason the Voice-Over has cleared its throat and gone from concept to staple for the Bengals coaches led by Zac Taylor, the team's first head coach with a mobile computer desk, and his coordinators.

Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan watched Jon Gruden craft voice-overs with his Monday Night TV flair in Oakland, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo toyed with them back in the day on the old DVDs with his defensive backs and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons saw mentor Scott O'Brien try to do the same thing just as the tapes were curling up and dying 20 years ago. Now they're all starring in Taylor's vocal sessions.

"I should have been doing this for a long time. I just didn't have the time or the means," says Simmons, the longest-tenured teams coach in the league after Marvin Lewis hired him in 2003.

"I've done it this year just in case there's any kind of technical glitches with either my internet or someone else's internet, but it's also going to be a good reference for the young players because we don't have the ability to be with them right now, but they can go back and look at them at any point."

Time is always key for coaches and the pandemic gave it to them by wiping out most scouting trips and all physical meetings. Giving a guy like Callahan more time in front of a computer is like giving Billy The Kid more banks and he has made it pay off in what he believes is the start of an archived legacy at Paul Brown Stadium.

Taylor, who is his own play-caller, has set the tone by stationing his camera in front of him and going through plays and everyone's responsibility in them for no more than five minutes to record a single file for each play.

"We're trying to use as many avenues as we can to reach the players and give them the information," Taylor says. "We do the actual live teaching and on top of that we've videoed coaches presenting the plays and then (the coordinators) have done some voice-overs on concepts as they're coaching it up."

After getting a figment of the idea last season, Callahan has been a driving force for the voice-overs on a go pattern with Brammer and his staff.

And if you want to see all the go routes, you can't because they belong only in the Bengals playbooks. But now they are in a video link that has been shipped to all the offensive players' iPads via Brammer's downloads and overseen by Callahan, Simmons and Anarumo.

"We're just looking to make sure they get what information we can give them at their fingertips," Callahan says. "We're still limited on how much we can meet with them. You hope they also look at it on their own time. I try to make them short, less than 10 minutes so it doesn't feel daunting when you turn it on. Say a guy is sitting in his house and he says, 'I'm in the mood to review some football. Let me pop on one of these for ten minutes.' I try to cover one subject per voice over. Quick bits of information. That's how these guys learn."

Some of the PBS offices opened this week, according to Ohio and NFL guidelines. The facility is still closed to coaches and players with access limited to two-hour virtual meetings four times a week. Those virtual meetings have been the foundation of the off-season coaching with the voice-overs meant to be a supplemental tool.

"When this offseason is done, we'll have most of our installation and playbook in some form of voice-over or our install has been recorded," says Callahan, the old UCLA backup from his quarterback-themed basement. "It will be good for future years when you want to give guys material. It helps in the short term and the long term. We'll have an expansive library for future generations of Bengals."

Callahan, who turns 36 next month, looks like a wedding disc jockey when he executes one of these voice-overs, complete with headsets while tapping on his laptop and narrating as he clicks in various film clips. Sometimes he even plays a DJ, relying on everyone from '50s crooners to current hip-hop belters to help his players remember code names and calls.

No subject or names are off-limits to jog the memory and that includes sportswriters, Callahan warns. If the concept matches, he's been known to fire up clips from '80s movies complete with short tutorials on the stars or scenes. He'll also post pictures of cartoon characters or famous people to feed the memory drive.

"On offense, there are so many calls and a lot of the words come from non-football stuff," says wide receiver Alex Erickson. "And, yeah, they work. It definitely helps your mind go right to what you have to do."

Callahan got the idea for his voice-over concept from the one season he was quarterbacks coach for Gruden in Oakland during Gruden's first year out of the Monday Night Football booth two years ago.

"Keep it short. Try to keep their attention," Callahan says. "Everyone learns differently and we're trying to hit everyone.

"I think Jon did it for the (MNF) crew to give them an idea on what each player was about. It was probably more entertainment than it was teaching, but he brought it to Oakland and used it a little bit with the players and it was a great way to present information."

On this day Callahan is taking us on a virtual tour though one of his countless voice-overs. Most involve the pass game because the offensive line spends so much time on the run plays.

He breaks up his files by concepts, so we're looking at a pair of screen passes from what he calls the same family. These are big families. It can be a tight end screen. It can be a play-action screen. These two (and we won't say what family has been adopted on this tour) take a total of 14 minutes.

Callahan begins by introducing the concept, which plays apply and what they're trying to accomplish. He has a drawing of the play. He shows clips on how another team runs the same play. Then he shows a rep or two on how the Bengals ran it last season. Then he'll show the same play from a couple of teams. The Saints are always a good one. Even with Drew Brees or Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.

"A lot of the teaching comes from what happens in practice, the good and the bad," Erickson says. "For years growing up in football, we've learned in the classroom, then taken it to the field and come back to the classroom to review it. Now, we can only go from classroom to classroom. It's just another way to fill the void, another way to study it." 

 All the while, quickly (the goal is always succinct) Callahan is reminding each player of their responsibility. For instance, he tells the X receiver what they're trying to sell on that route to create space. On this play, he's advising the backs to be urgent getting into their routes and be ready to flip their shoulders as soon as possible to the quarterback.

When he looks at another team's left tackle, he compliments him on his decision-making to attack the end. When he looks at the Bengals' snap, he praises how center Trey Hopkins, left guard Billy Price and left tackle John Jerry react, but the play isn't executed physically in other spots and Callahan points out why.

"Nobody here from the end zone can make this play," Callahan says. "We missed a huge opportunity. Our execution has to be better. That's why we're going through all these things in a little more detail."

Near the end of the voice-over, the rules each position must follow appear on the screen in written form, and Callahan urges them to pause it so they can take notes if they want.

"If you put (the rules) up right away, you may not get their attention the rest of the way," Callahan says. "They enjoy seeing themselves. But they're also competitors. They like to see how other players are doing the same thing."

 Wide receiver Auden Tate agrees.

"I just want to see it done well. I really don't care who is doing it," Tate says. "I'm looking at how I did things and how I could have it better with more technique or run a better route."

Tate counts himself as a visual learner and he thinks most football players are, so he's checking out the voice-overs regularly. He says he'll probably look at them before the daily Zoom meeting.

"The thing is, we're just not around the building," Erickson says. "So we're losing a lot of opportunity to learn and this is just another way we can hear and see what the coaches are trying to get across. It's extra."

Simmons is making sure Erickson and Tate have plenty of special teams snaps to view. Brammer has also uploaded plenty of kicking game files. Simmons figures he's got "seven or eight edits" (instead of files he calls them edits) filled with 20 to 25 plays each for each one of the kicking game's four phases. For instance, for the punt team he'll have 20 or so plays on six-man protections and about the same number of plays for, say, eight-man protections.

He'll run through the responsibilities, but he won't single out every position, Teams is no different than offense or defense.

"If the edits are too long," Simmons says, "they're just not going to watch it."

Simmons sends the video clips to each guy on that respective unit, which gets to the heart of why he really loves the voice-overs. He envisions picking up a new player in the middle of training camp.

"I can just tell him, 'Go look at Punt, Install Meeting One, Meeting Two, Meeting Three, Meeting Four.' So he can use that as a reference, too. I can't spend all day with one player."

He can now. But, and maybe most importantly, he's spending time with players not even here yet.

"We'll get back to meetings at some point in the offseason," Callahan says. "But we'll also have these in a library we can keep building."