By Thomas Paterniti
All Pro Football (APF) is not real football; certainly this is not a revelation to any readers. However, the Simulation Football League (SFL) offensive coordinator must both understand basic football principles and be able to apply them to a scouted opponent as well as understand how the mechanics of the game work in order to put together an effective offensive game plan.
Offense and Defense
In simulation mode (which is how SFL games are played), the APF game system (CPU) attempts to appropriately pair defensive formations and play calls with their offensive counterparts. It accomplishes this by matching offensive packages with defensive formations as follows:
Base formations, which mainly include Pro (HB, FB, 2WR, TE), Ace (HB, 2WR, 2TE), Jokers (HB, FB, WR, 2TE), and Jacks (HB, FB, 3TE), as well as some other lesser used “big” formations like Load, will draw a base defense (4-3, 3-4, 4-4, sometimes Bear). The computer is not as consistent about calling Bear versus these packages.
3WR formations will draw a nickel defense (Nickel, Nickel 3-3).
4-5WR formations will draw a dime defense (Dime, Dime 3-2).
Goalline defenses (Goalline, 5-2, sometimes Bear) are called situationally, usually inside the 5 yard line. However, they may occasionally get called in a 3rd/4th and short situation, resulting in odd pairings. For example, I have seen Goalline called against Gun: Straight (4WR, TE) in a 3rd and inches situation.
If an opponent has no base (4-3, 3-4, 4-4, Bear) defense in their playbook, then the CPU will either call a nickel or a dime defense against base offensive formations.
The CPU is sometimes unsure what to call in goalline situations. I believe this is the result of the CPU trying to call a goalline defense, and when there isn’t one in the playbook, it randomly calls one of the available defensive formations instead. Thus, if you do not have a goalline defense in your playbook, you will see Nickel and Dime occasionally called in goalline situations, which can be problematic.
Scouting and Game Planning
Knowledge of which defensive formations will be called against which offensive formations is critical, as scouting an opponent and creating a game plan is essentially an endeavor in creating three game plans, one versus your opponent’s base defense, a second versus their nickle defense, and a third versus their dime defense.
Tempering this approach, however, is a coach’s consideration of to what degree they wish to be proactive versus reactive. A purely proactive coach says, in essence, “This is the type of offense I want to have, this is the type of offense I built my team to run. We are going to run it and force the defense to try and stop it.” A purely reactive coach, on the other hand, says, “Every play is available to me. I am going to scout my opponent and call plays that seem to exploit their defenses, regardless of what those plays are and regardless of how our team is built.”
A purely proactive approach has the advantage of a strong offensive identity that is well-suited to the team’s personnel, with the disadvantage of not using plays that could potentially work against an opponent because they are outside of the identity of the team’s offense. Such an approach may also cause a team to struggle to move the ball if they match up poorly against an opponent, or in the likely event that an opponent scouts them and puts in a specialized game plan to stop the plays that they are known for running.
A purely reactive approach has the advantage of being able to maximally exploit weaknesses in an opponent’s defense by considering any play available to be used if the scouting dictates it, with the disadvantage of lacking an offensive identity and of trying to run plays for which the team’s personnel are ill suited. For example, if a team has a bronze or copper RB, even if an opponent seems vulnerable to inside power runs, this may still not be a viable offensive strategy to adopt based on the team’s personnel.
Of course, the experienced coach must balance these considerations and choose the style that best suits both the personnel of their team (versatile offensive personnel can run almost any play, but perhaps not as well as more specialized offensive personnel can run a more limited set of plays) as well as their own personnel style. The latter point cannot be overstated. Football should be fun, so if the thought of never having an offensive identity ruins the fun of football for you, then you should take a more proactive approach! Nearly any approach or point on the spectrum between proactivity and reactivity can work given the right circumstances; beyond that it is a matter of personal preference.
Situational Play Calling
Disclaimer: I am not a 2K employee, I did not program the game. Thus, this section is full of conjecture on my part albeit based on years of observation (so not wild conjecture). Take everything written here with a grain of salt, so to speak, and consider it all up for debate.
There are three primary factors that seem to determine which offensive play the CPU calls:
1.) Formation compared to situation
2.) Play type compared to situation
3.) Team run/pass preference
By far the first factor (formation compared to situation) seems to predominate. Let’s discuss each.
1.) Formation compared to situation
One key to play calling is to realize that the CPU usually calls the formation first then the play (below I will discuss possible exceptions to this rule). So if you put running plays in a 4WR set, the CPU may call a run on 3rd down, because most of the time it doesn’t ask, “What is a good play for this situation?” It asks first, “What is a good FORMATION for this situation?” Answer: Quads. Then it says, “Let me randomly pick a play from the Quads formation”, and that is what it calls. So if you have runs in Quads, you may end up seeing a trap on 3rd and 7 and wondering why; that is why. Conversely, if you have Pair Slot in because you really like the TE Slant-n-Go, you may see the CPU call that Slant-n-Go on your opponent’s 1 yard line because it thinks that Ace (HB, 2WR, 2TE) is a goalline package. So again, the CPU first asks, “What is a good FORMATION for this situation?” Answer: Pair Slot. Then it says, “Let me randomly pick a play from that formation”, and voila! You’re trying to run a TE Slant-n-Go from your opponent’s 1 yard line. It is not as straightforward as I am making it sound, because the CPU also calls plays based on play type as discussed below, and it is not exactly clear when the CPU employs play-based versus formation-based play calling, or even if this is an appropriate dichotomy. As I said, this is all conjecture, albeit based on a great deal of experience.
2.) Play type compared to situation
Consider that in every playbook there are a few categories of plays: inside runs, outside runs, short passes, medium passes, long passes, and trick plays. This is an area of uncertainty in that the CPU definitely calls plays by formation most of the time, but in certain situations seems to call plays by play category. Key situations where the play category seems to decide the play call rather than the formation seem to be short- and long-yardage situations.
Notable “situations” include:
• 1st down – the CPU tends to preferentially call base formations, which mainly include Pro (HB, FB, 2WR, TE), Ace (HB, 2WR, 2TE), Jokers (HB, FB, WR, 2TE), and Jacks (HB, FB, 3TE). If the team has no base formations, then the CPU will pick from the available formations. The CPU will call almost anything on 1st down, including 4-5WR passing plays, but my experience is that it calls base formations more often if these are in your playbook.
• 2nd Down and <10 – the CPU seems to call any formation.
• 2nd Down and >10 – the CPU seems to call passes more often, but I am not entirely sure to what degree or even if this is true. I suspect that 2nd Down and >10 elicits the “long pass” category, which overrides formation-based play calling.
• 2nd/3rd/4th Down and <2 – the CPU seems to call a run, usually from a base (power) formation, and this definitely seems to override formation-based play calling.
• 3rd Down and 3-9 – the CPU seems to call a passing (3+WR) formation.
• 3rd/4th Down and >10 – the CPU seems to call a play in the “long pass” category.
• Ball inside the opponent’s 5 yard line – the CPU seems to call a base formation.
3.) Team run/pass preference
Probably once the CPU has selected a formation, it uses the team’s run/pass preference to weight the random selection of plays within that formation. Ultimately, this preference seems to factor very little in the actual run/pass ratio seen during a game. First, it likely comes at the end of a longer set of criteria determining the play call. Second, unlike default playbooks, SFL playbooks tend to have very few plays in each formation, which likely very heavily dilutes the normal effects of this setting.
Running from a Pass Formation and Passing from a Run Formation
Does all of this mean that you should never run from a pass formation or pass from a run formation? No, certainly not. This is where experience and wisdom color what you know to help you decide what to do. One relevant factor is that often receivers will alter their routes in the red zone. Almost all of us have seen a WR score on a fade route from inside the 5 yard line, whereas one would assume that this route would not work with so little room for the WR to run. Post routes tend to get rounded off in the end zone as well since the players won’t run out of bounds. So passing from a run heavy set is possible and sometimes preferable. Defenders in base packages tend to be more run-oriented, so there is a strategic advantage in trying to draw run defenses with run defenders and then passing against them.
Running from a passing formation can also be effective depending on the defense you expect to see, and in fact there is definitely merit to running from a 3+WR formation in certain situations in order to either exploit a matchup with the defense’s personnel (e.g. they have 2 star LBs so you run from a 4WR formation knowing they will call Dime, which will leave one of their LBs on the sideline) or with the defensive formation (e.g. you run from a 4WR formation knowing that they use a 3-man front in dime rather than a 4-man front in base or nickel, and you like your odds of picking up yards better against a 3-man front). Because it is a passing situation (long down and distance), the risk of failure is higher; you must balance this risk against the anticipated reward of a more favorable personnel or formation matchup for the play you are trying to call.
Beyond simply choosing to run from a passing formation or pass from a running formation, an offensive coordinator can take advantage of unorthodox formations to create matchup advantages. For example, Strong I Pro, Weak I Twins, Split TE Flex, Base Bunch, Base Doubles, Twins F Spread, and Gun Base Open all have the same personnel (HB, FB, 2 WR, TE) and will all draw a base defense (4-3, 3-4, or 4-4). The diverse alignment that each of these formations offers creates possibilities for favorable matchups, depending on the creativity of the offensive coordinator. For example, the only difference between I Twins and Twins F Spread is that in I Twins the FB is in the backfield and in Twins F Spread the FB is lined up wide opposite the pair of WRs on the other side. Is there an advantage to having the FB split wide? This alignment could be used to get a star FB involved in the passing game, or if an offense were expecting man coverage, splitting the FB out wide would move a defender out of the box. One can imagine how Base Bunch could be a more effective alignment for running wide to the strong side than a standard I formation alignment. Compared to Ace, in Ace Quads both TEs are lined up wide while the WRs are lined up in the slot. This could be used to get the TEs more involved in the passing game, to match up star WRs against safeties and LBs instead of CBs, or to clear defenders out of the box in order to run more effectively. For example, against a 4-man front with all man coverage, this alignment leaves 5 defenders in the box with the offense having 5 blockers, which on paper is a matchup advantage. Running a trap in this situation in APF essentially turns the pulling G into a leading FB. This is not how traps work in real life, but that is a discussion for another time. Ultimately, the advantages of such unconventional formations are up to the creativity of the offensive coordinator to exploit in a given situation.
The CPU does seem to auto-adjust based on the success or failure of plays within a simulation, and thus one seems to see plays that are successful being called more often and plays that are unsuccessful being called less frequently.
Success as an offensive coordinator in the SFL requires an understanding of both basic football principles and of how the APF CPU calls plays within the simulation. Hopefully this article has provided its readers with several points both philosophical and technical to consider in order to improve their team’s success and to increase their enjoyment of the games they are watching each week.