Stanford’s Head Coach David Shaw Reveals Play Calling Strategy

As Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst comes to the line, there’s a lot on his mind. Are there two deep safeties or one? Is the defensive line shaded to the left or to the right? Are the corners in press coverage or are they off? As Stanford head coach David Shaw told me, “I don’t think it’s a secret, we put a lot on our quarterback.” Shaw utilizes an NFL system at Stanford that is reliant on sound decision-making by the quarterback. It’s a system that has the Cardinal scoring points on 51 percent of their possessions (ranks 5th nationally). For Shaw and Stanford, it’s all about making the right call.

Shaw is in his seventh season as Stanford head coach and this is the fourth season he has had a Heisman candidate on his team. While Andrew Luck, Christian McCaffrey, and Bryce Love are all phenomenal football players, football is a team sport and individuals are only recognized in light of their team’s success.

The secret to Stanford’s success is their “kill” package scheme. The Cardinal will often call two plays, sometimes even three plays, in the huddle, and it’s the quarterback’s job to figure out which play will work best based on how the defense is aligned. Shaw stated, “The quarterback has to be educated and decisive.” Not only does picking the right play ensure that the Cardinal are running a good play, but it helps them stay out of bad plays. It’s part of a philosophy that Coach Shaw learned from Jon Gruden when they were both in Oakland. Shaw recalls the phrase Gruden often said, “Positive yards on every play.”

In addition to having positive plays, Shaw also values big plays. I asked him how he finds a balance between swinging for singles and swinging for the fences. He said, “That’s the trick.” For Stanford, how you go for the big play in the run game is different from how you go for the big play in the pass game. Shaw explained, “Run game-wise, we’re going to be efficient with the possibility of explosiveness.” Bryce Love already has nine carries over 50 yards in just seven games this season. Shaw knows anytime Love touches the ball he can go the distance.

In the passing game, Stanford has a different approach to getting big chunks of yards. Shaw voiced, “In the passing game, you have to be able to put that in the hands of the quarterback. He has to be able to identify matchups; he has to be able to feel the flow of the game.” In their previous game against Oregon, Stanford QB Chryst connected with WR Arcega-Whiteside on a couple of deep balls. Chryst noticed that Arcega-Whiteside was one-on-one and that there was no safety help. Chryst identified the matchup and took advantage of the mismatch.

While Stanford looks to improve to 6-2 this week against Oregon State, the Cardinal came under scrutiny after a 1-2 start. But this is not the first time a Shaw coached team has bounced back. Last year Stanford was blown out in back-to-back games and then finished the season with six straight wins. In 2015 Stanford lost the opening game of the season to Northwestern and then went on to win the Rose Bowl.

I asked Shaw what enables Stanford to bounce back from adversity. Just like he asks his quarterback to identify what play is best, Shaw asks himself to identify, “What am I doing? What are we doing?” He told me he resists the urge to change everything, but rather he focuses on what the Cardinal is doing well and looks to tweak the things that aren’t going well. After all, Shaw quarterbacks this Stanford program, and once again it looks like he has come to the line of scrimmage and is making the right calls. After a 1-2 start, the Cardinal could once again find themselves with a 10 win season.

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About Jordan Sundheim 185 Articles
Jordan Sundheim is a veteran of the sports analytics field with a background in both athletics and statistics. He earned his master's at Duke, coached football at Stanford, and is currently a sports analytics consultant.