call a play [in American football]


Senior Member
'The game is all Eagles after that, and at the start of the fourth quarter the Eagles are up 24-7. Jake and Scott are so happy, and I am beginning to imagine the conversation I am going to have with my father when I get home--how proud he will be of my yelling whenever Eli Manning was trying to call a play.'

from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

What does 'call a play' mean in American football?
Please help. Thank you.
  • Fabulist

    American English
    I can't think of a simple way to explain this to someone who doesn't know much about American football.

    American football is played in spurts called "downs." A "down" begins when the "center," more or less the middle player on the line of the time with the ball, hands it to the quarterback, and ends when a player with the ball has been "tackled" and forced to touch at least one knee to the ground, or until he scores. To advance the ball, the team on "offense"—the team whose center is going to hand the ball to its quarterback—has many different schemes in which players go in different direction with different assignments. Some of them stay where they are to keep defending players away from the quarterback, some move to places where they can knock down or otherwise interfere with ("block") defensive players trying to tackle the offensive player carrying the ball, some of them run downfield to be in a position to catch the ball if the quarterback throws it (a "pass"). Each individual scheme, in which each of the 11 offensive players has a specific assignment, is a "play." A football team has many plays with many variations.

    Only if all of the players are carrying out the same scheme will the team advance the ball and eventually score. The head coach or, more usually, an "offensive coordinator" decides which play to use for each down. He radios it to the quarterback, who has to tell the other defensive players about it. However, the quarterback also has authority to change the play if he thinks the defense is in a good position to thwart it (the defensive team members can move around, too). Whereas he tells the players about the play radioed by the offensive coordinator in a "huddle," with all of the players grouped closely around him, for an "audible" he has to yell code words for a different play to members of his team who might be spread all over the field.

    Even for the play conveyed to his teammates in a huddle, it is very important that the offensive players all begin to move at the same time as the center hands the ball to the quarterback. If they move too early, that's an "offsides" penalty and the team loses ground. If they move too late, it is easier for the defenders to outmaneuver them. Part of the "play" is a "cadence," in which the quarterback shouts a series of sounds (something like "hut!") in a pattern. For instance, the cadence for a particular play might be "hut, (pause), hut-HUT!" with the play starting on the third "hut!" The offensive players have an advantage in knowing this, and that the play will not begin, say, with the cadence "hut, (pause), hut, hut, (pause) HUT!"

    But if the crowd makes enough noise, the offensive players can't hear the quarterback. That will especially be true of the "wide receivers," who might be 20 or 30 meters from the quarterback. When the home team is on defense, their fans—usually most of the crowd—can all yell at once and make enough noise to prevent the visiting offensive players from hearing the quarterback "call the play," whether he is trying to "call an audible" or just call his "cadence." If some of them don't hear the audible, or hear it wrong, they will make the wrong moves and the play will fail. If they can't hear the cadence, they might "jump offsides" by moving too early, or the defensive players might be able to outmaneuver them because they don't move early enough.

    "Eli Manning" is a quarterback for the New York Giants, a football team located near the Philadelphia Eagles and a long-time rival. The narrator is proud of the fact that he was one of the Eagles fans yelling at a game between the Giants and Eagles at the Eagles' stadium. He was trying to disrupt the play calling by the Giants quarterback.


    Senior Member
    Fabulist, thank you so much for all the detailed information. Now it's easier for me to imagine how things actually go in American football.
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