Dec 29, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.The Saints defeated the Buccaneers 42-17. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Top 5 NFL play-callers


Often times, ineffective offenses are blamed on quarterbacks. But offensive coordinators and head coaches actually have a tremendous effect on the game – good play-calling leads to easier execution of plays, and a more effective offense. Here, I’ll take a look at the top five NFL play-callers – and it’s no coincidence that all of these coach’s teams either made the playoffs or had at least ten wins last season.

1. Sean Payton, Head Coach, New Orleans Saints

Is there even a doubt that Payton is the best play-caller in the league? If there is, there shouldn’t be. Although Payton is a very risky play-caller, his risks are calculated and they pay off most of the time. The onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV was an example of that – I’m not sure that any other head coach would even think of starting the second half with an onside kick (well, nobody has done so in recent memory other than Payton). That now-famous bunch onside kick helped New Orleans win the game. In 2012, Drew Brees looked a little rattled at times, and last year with Payton, he had a much better season. The Saints did have a significantly improved defense, but Payton’s return helped the team make a playoff run. Payton is in a class of his own when it comes to play-calling.

2. Greg Roman, Offensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers

Yeah, I know what happened in Super Bowl XLVII. That last play where Colin Kaepernick threw a fade to Michael Crabtree wasn’t the best play-call. But Kaepernick could’ve diagnosed the blitz pre-snap, and if he did, he could’ve audibled for Crabtree to run a slant and he could’ve thrown hot right after the snap for a touchdown. And a good play-call – a QB draw – was going to be a touchdown, but it was negated because of a false start. Anyway, Roman is the best offensive coordinator in the league when it comes to calling plays. His wishbone formation is unique, and the power runs out of it never seem to fail. While Roman isn’t as creative in the passing game, he’s unstoppable in the running game. His QB draw and option calls are terrific, and he utilizes the misdirection game well (see Alex Smith touchdown run below).

A lot of people might disagree with me on this one, but Roman is one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds.

3. Bruce Arians, Head Coach, Arizona Cardinals

Somehow, some way, the Cardinals went 10-6 last year and missed the playoffs. The NFC is just too good. But last year, with a mediocre-at-best quarterback and a so-so running game until Andre Ellington came along, Arians managed to have a somewhat effective offense. Like Sean Payton, Arians isn’t content with throwing dinks and dunks – he’s always stretching the field, whether it be with Carson Palmer or Andrew Luck in his first year. Palmer had some good games and a lot of bad games, but Arians managed to compensate for Palmer’s deficiencies with terrific play-calling.

4. Ken Whisenhunt, Head Coach, Tennessee Titans

This might be surprising. But I thought Whisenhunt was an offensive genius in San Diego last year, which is what earned him this head coaching opportunity in Tennessee. Toward the end of Whisenhunt’s time in Arizona, he barely had anything to work with on offense. When you’re coaching John Skelton, Derek Anderson, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, and Ryan Lindley as starting quarterbacks, there’s not much you can do on offense. Anyway, last year, Whisenhunt was largely responsible for Philip Rivers’ success (he won Comeback Player of the Year), partly because Whisenhunt helped Rivers see the field better and make more precise passes. Whisenhunt also relied on Ryan Matthews a little more towards the end of the season, a trend which he stuck to for the last five games or so – and that proved instrumental in the Chargers’ playoff push. Whisenhunt’s new head coaching opportunity is well deserved, and he should continue to balance play-calling and head coaching duties in Tennessee.

5. Mike McCarthy, Head Coach, Green Bay Packers

The Packers had some tough sledding last year with a bad defense and the injury to Aaron Rodgers, but McCarthy managed to pull the offense together just enough. When Rodgers went down, Matt Flynn was his primary replacement – and it seems like Green Bay is the only place where Flynn has had any success. McCarthy’s passing concepts somehow made sense to Flynn, and he played well enough to win that one crucial game against Dallas which proved necessary to Green Bay winning the NFC North. Of course, McCarthy also designed unique plays for Eddie Lacy, and he gained over 1,100 yards despite having a mediocre offensive line.

Honorable mention: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos

Since I decided to include only coaches and coordinators above, Manning couldn’t be in the top five. But if I had included quarterbacks, Manning would probably be tied with Payton at first. He deserves some spot on this list, so here he is. He’s pretty much a coach on the field, even though about 70 percent of what he says at the line before the snap is just dummy calls. Manning’s football smarts make up for whatever he can’t do physically.

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Tags: Arizona Cardinals Bruce Arians Denver Broncos Green Bay Packers Greg Roman Ken Whisenhunt Mike McCarthy New Orleans Saints NFL Peyton Manning San Diego Chargers San Francisco 49ers Sean Payton Tennessee Titans Top 5 NFL Play-Callers Top Play Callers

  • millerforrest

    Matt Flynn wasn’t even with the Packers when Rodgers went down. They went with Wallace & Tolzein before Flynn signed with the Packers.

    • Rishi Pochiraju

      I know. Wallace got hurt, Tolzien sucked. When I said “primary replacement”, I meant that he took the most snaps in place of Rodgers, more so than Seneca W or Tolzien.

      • millerforrest

        Actually Tolzien didn’t suck. He could move the offense. His problem was throwing INTs especially in and near the red zone.

        • arnie

          That doesn’t qualify as sucking?

          • millerforrest

            Not by my standard. If that was the case, Brett Favre sucked more than any QB that ever played the game!
            That’s called LEARNING EXPERIENCE for Tolzien.

          • arnie

            Yeah an by that Standard Brett Farv did suck early in his career. He could move the ball and took chances that often worked against him. Tolzien is more careful with the football, BUT he is making poor decisions when it counts, in the end zone.

      • millerforrest

        Say what you mean and mean what you say. Is it that tough?

  • joe

    Chip Kelly will be on here real soon.

    • Rishi Pochiraju

      I was thinking about putting him as 5th instead of McCarthy, but there’s really not much variety in Kelly’s offense. It’s just fast, and his players are conditioned to run it. It’s very simple. The plays themselves are designed very well, but a lot of them are the same. That offense could literally go down the field running the exact same play, but it’ll look different because of all the options built into the play. Example — Foles could hand it off to McCoy in the shotgun, fake it and run it himself the opposite way, or fake the run and throw the smoke screen. It’s not really the play-calling that makes the difference; rather, it’s how the players run the play — and if they do it right based on what the defense does, the rewards are obviously huge.

      • millerforrest

        That’s simply NOT true. Even if it were, then you could say the exact same things about most if not all offenses. Its all based on match ups and trying to get mismatches in your favor.

        • Rishi Pochiraju

          Well, clearly you’ve been watching a different Eagles offense than I have. And no, you can’t say the same thing about other offenses because nobody runs a faster offense than Philly. They’re the fastest offense of all time

          • millerforrest

            I was not referring to the speed of them running plays do do bird, I was referring to options built into the same plays or giving the same play different looks and formations. Every team does that!

          • Rishi Pochiraju

            Most teams do it pre-snap though. Of course every QB goes through read progressions, but I’m specifically referring to the run/pass option that occurs in the play, not pre-snap. Again, most teams make that determination pre-snap (QB would audible).

          • millerforrest

            They run motion to see if its man to man or zone.
            No, not most teams do it pre-snap.

          • Robert Fairbanks

            You are one of those argumentative types. You both should stop being so analytical it takes away the surprises for us old (long time) football fans that like to sit back and enjoy the game.

          • Rishi Pochiraju

            I’m not talking about motion.

          • millerforrest

            You’re not talking anything intelligent either.

          • Rishi Pochiraju

            Says the guy who tries to lecture the author about football.

          • Rishi Pochiraju

            What you’re saying makes sense, but the pre-snap thing is totally false. It’s not about motion.

          • millerforrest

            And whats your background on football? Your credentials? Ohhhh yeah, you WATCH football so therefore you must be an EXPERT?

  • millerforrest

    Did you know Sean Payton’s dream job was to be the head coach of the Packers? It was the job he wanted most?

  • Michael Stenger

    How is roman a great play caller? His offense, even with all those weapons, is lackluster.

    • Paul Goode

      The 49er offense got stuffed in the NFC Finals. Kaepernick’s running kept them in the game, and that didn’t have much to,do with Roman.

      • Rishi Pochiraju

        Well, that’s what happens when you play against a defense that’s easily top 5 all time. As for Roman, his formations and power running plays are insane. IMO that offense isn’t lackluster.

        • millerforrest

          Easily Top 5 ALL TIME? What are you smoking?

          1976 Pittsburgh Steelers?
          1985 Chicago Bears?
          2000 Baltimore Ravens?
          1971 Minnesota Vikings?
          1962 Green Bay Packers?
          1990 NY Giants?
          1969 KC Chiefs?
          1973 Miami Dolphins?
          1963 Chicago Bears?
          1975 L.A. Rams?

          • Rishi Pochiraju

            Seattle’s 2013 defense would stack up against almost every one of those. Maybe 85 Bears, 00 Ravens, and 02 Bucs would be ahead, but that’s it.