Bruce Coslet was searching for his notes on the single wing. He pulled open a desk drawer Wednesday afternoon at Spinney Field and unearthed a file folder roughly two inches thick. In it, were scholarly scribblings on the run and shoot offense and precise diagrams of Pittsburgh's trap plays and - somewhere - meditations on the single wing.
"Here," Coslet said, rifling through his research materials. "I've got something to show you. How about Football Notre Dame Style by Frank Thomas?"
With this, the head coach of the 1997 Cincinnati Bengals produced photocopies of Knute Rockne's playbook, circa 1919-1922. Frank Thomas was the Irish quarterback before the fabled Four Horsemen backfield. Should the Notre Dame Box ever stage a comeback, Coslet will be ready for it.
The Bengals' coach was widely seen in a narrow context as he salvaged last season following the fall of Dave Shula. His demanding approach - blunt and loud and confrontational - was seen as the spark that shamed a listless team into pursuing its potential. The picture that emerged was accurate enough, but one-dimensional.
There is more to this man than meets the ear.
"I'm a student of the game, now," Coslet said. "I don't really make a big deal about it, but I know what the bleep I'm talking about when it comes to football."
Style overshadows strategy
Coslet's salty style sometimes obscures his substance. Personality and circumstance have caused him to be viewed primarily as a disciplinarian, but he sees his long suit as strategy.
"I enjoy the football part the most, sitting in here with the staff, talking Xs and Os," he said, leaning back in his chair. "That's what I'm best at. I cut my teeth on that stuff. That's why you do all the other stuff, so you can get to that and have some fun on Sundays." When the Bengals begin training camp in Georgetown, Ky., today, much of Coslet's most creative work will be done. It appears in the team's playbook, and is the product of weeks of examination and years of experience.
The Bengals' playbook is a work perpetually in progress. It is amended a little bit before every game and then painstakingly revised at season's end.
Each play the Bengals run - there were 1,088 last year - is evaluated for future use. Draw plays are arranged on one videotape; screen passes on another - maybe 50 tapes in all. A computer printout is made to reveal how each play stacks up statistically, and then the coaches pore over the tapes like conspiracy theorists studying the Zapruder Film. The process tends to be tedious.
"We'll watch the same play 18 times in a row," Coslet said. "We decide whether the techniques are right. We decide whether the play was successful. If we find that a play just isn't effective, we'll either change the way it looks or we'll discard it."
Changing with the times
A single play might last three or four years in a pro football playbook. But as the game evolves, and personnel changes, and defensive coaches adjust, the shelf life gets shorter.
Vince Lombardi's devastating Green Bay sweep, later adapted by the Bengals for James Brooks, is seen almost as seldom as the flying wedge. Today's outside linebackers are too big and agile to be blocked by an average tight end, causing backs to cut inside instead of trying to turn the corner.
"Defenses make you change," Coslet said. "Everybody is running multiple fronts and whatever you put into the game plan doesn't work against all these fronts. The things that Kenny Anderson ran to (Bob) Trumpy and Isaac Curtis - some of the principles still hold up, but not the exact plays. And there will still be adjustments in each play."
This is Coslet's idea of a good time: Shifting blocking schemes, tweaking pass patterns. Full-contact chess.
"We probably threw six or seven plays out that we tried last year," he said. "They were pipe dreams. You want to attack the defense and hurt them, but you also have to be consistent."
To achieve that balance, a coach will consider almost anything. Someday, the single wing could come in handy.