Big picture: Play cards might look silly but are 'very important' in Michigan offense

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – They are confounding, mind-bending and humorous.

What exactly does a picture of a tank mean? Or a poster board featuring three pair of Jordan leggings? A letter "Y" next to a picture of an air conditioner? A cartoon bull pulling a plow through mud? A freight train? A trumpet?

What do they mean? Is this some weird football Rorschach test?

Michigan student managers hold up play cards behind Jim Harbaugh during the season opener against Middle Tennessee.

That’s for the Michigan offense to know and opposing defenses to waste time trying to decipher. Oh, and fans, too.

With the arrival of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and his “speed-in-space” no-huddle offense, have come play cards with assorted graphics, designed and created in-house as a means to help the coaches get the plays in quicker to the players via this oddly coded system of graphics.

“We create all the ideas, and they have meaning for our kids to understand,” Gattis told The Detroit News. “It’s something that’s a very important piece to our offensive structure.”

You’re not going to get much more out of Gattis. Ask him how he uses the play cards and what type of information they convey to the players, and he clams up like they’re a matter of national security.

“I can’t get into what our boards mean, but they have a significant meaning,” Gattis said. “We’re not going to end up throwing up boards out there for no reason.”

But do they actually accelerate getting the play call to the players?

“That would expose the operations of our offense,” Gattis said, “but our boards have significant value and meaning in our offense. Everybody uses boards differently. Let me say, I don’t think anyone ever uses the boards the same. You’ve seen over the years some people use dummy boards. I think people have used boards in the past to mean plays. You see those in four-box boards. Our boards have a significant meaning, and that’s all we can say. It’s to the operation of our system.

“But they all mean something. It’s not necessarily about the picture but the meaning. Our kids understand it. When they see our boards it’s part of our operation and they know what that board means as far as the information they’re given as far as a play. It’s not necessarily a play call. It’s not necessarily anything there. It’s added value and extra information.”

Let’s get this straight – Gattis’ boards mean something, but he’s not telling anyone outside his offense. Got it.

For some teams, the boards are clearly meant to code information meant for their players and also to throw off opponents. Some teams also have a light approach, using emojis and pictures of celebrities, sometimes even of coaches.

Glen Elarbee

The concept behind play cards was hatched by coach Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State in 2008. He charged Glen Elarbee, then a graduate assistant and now an assistant head coach/offensive line coach at UCF, with the task of devising a way to quickly get a play call in to the players.

“Coach Gundy had a vision or had an idea of something he wanted,” Elarbee told The News. “That was at the time tempo wasn’t as widespread as it is now. Everybody was trying to figure out how to go faster. Spread was starting to take hold. Everybody had a little different path they followed. For us, the cards did make us a lot faster. It cut down on signals. It was good.”

Gundy trusted the Elarbee kid to bring his vision to reality.

“He knew he wanted to hold up some kind of sign, something to get information to the players,” Elarbee said. “He said, ‘Well, run with it. Come up with a code. Figure out the signs, the size, the way it’s supposed to look, and we’ll see if that works.’”

Elarbee went off to set the plan in motion but not without some hiccups.

“(Gundy) was a really kind soul, because the first time I came back – we sat in the staff room and talked about, ‘Well, what size should it be?’ and I thought I was going to be a super GA and of course bigger is better,” Elarbee said, laughing. “We were in Stillwater, Oklahoma, it’s really windy and the first signs come back from the print shop and they’re like billboards, and they’re blowing everywhere.

“They were huge. It’s the most embarrassing thing looking back on it. I actually walked out there the first time with something he had given to me, and that’s what I came up with. It got better. It was a learning experience. It was a fiasco, so he probably should have ripped me a pretty good one, but he was really, really kind and let me hone them in a little bit.”

Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said the play cards are "a very important piece to our offensive structure.”

He did work on them, and that first year at Oklahoma State, Elarbee designed four quadrants per sign. The next year, he went to six boxes.

“First one was pretty simple, it was just letters, numbers, symbols,” he said. “And then started getting a little bit more creative and then it made its way to the purple devil emoji.”

They got more creative and complicated by design – not for the players, but to confuse everyone else, especially opposing defensive staffs looking for clues and trends and a way to steal the offensive code.

“The way it started early in, a color would make a box live and inside that box would be a formation or a play,” he said. “Sometimes you’d hold up a sign, there was nothing live, and guys just kinda got used to it. But teams would be looking for something that was live on it. It kinda got, not complicated, but the more you did, the better you got at trying to disguise the code and you ran with it. Sometimes the signal itself is telling you to look at different piece of the card. It started off really simple with tempo, but it branched off from there.”

Signal stealers have long been a part of college football. Teams are always looking for an edge, and if a defensive staff can steal offensive signals, that’s clearly going to pay dividends.

Hence, the advent of dummy boards and signals, Elarbee said, and then the need to overhaul the boards and codes to make sure teams don’t catch on.

“I do think you can (get good) at stealing,” he said. “It’s like anything else. It’s code. You can steal it. We would try to change multiple times a year, the live color, the live letter. At one point, as silly as it sounds, it may have been three-letter words and the second letter told the players what they needed to know. It was crazy stuff. If you’re changing it, it makes it tough to break.”

Gattis certainly doesn’t mind if opposing defensive staffs get distracted trying to figure out the signs and what the Michigan play calls are.

“We hope you do,” he said, laughing hard.

“They’re always trying to figure out what your boards mean. Sometimes the boards can be, like Oregon’s in the past, Chip Kelly was one of the first few people that put up people, and you’re trying to figure them out. And then you realize that was a distraction to make you think.

"A lot of people like to steal signals. They like to try to understand what your stuff means so they can take that information and use it as an advantage for them."

Josh Gattis

That Gattis takes the boards seriously is an understatement. He is involved in all the details, even choosing the thickness of the boards. The managers hold the signs during the games, and there are so many, they can be cumbersome and heavy. Some wear gloves to avoid cuts.

“Our managers first and foremost, they’re the biggest part of the whole deal, and they do a really good job,” Gattis said.

Elarbee and Gundy could not have foreseen how their creation would take off and play such an important role in tempo offenses. Elarbee took special pride in the 2011 ESPN commercial featuring the Oregon Duck playing off the then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s use of play cards. It was like a piece of him had made it nationally in that ad.

But that’s about as much notoriety as he’s had. The father of college football play cards continues to coach with little to no fanfare about what he helped create.

“You’d be surprised,” Elarbee said, laughing. “That doesn’t really carry much weight in the coaching profession. I don’t really have it on my resume. My wife gets a kick from it from time to time. Early on, people may be calling to get the template. But it’s so widespread now, nobody even hardly knows where it come from.”

They originated in Stillwater, and now they’re at Michigan, a vital part of the offensive “operation,” as Gattis calls it.

Does he believe in their overall usefulness?

“I believe in our offensive structure and our offensive organization,” he said again. “The way we run our offense, I believe in. I can’t speak for anyone else who uses boards, but I believe in our offensive organization of how we install our offense.”

The signs might get cute, clever and make no sense to fans, but Michigan, he said, will never use images of other coaches.

“We would never do that,” Gattis said. “We don’t get to that point. That’s the amusement of the boards. We’re not in it for the amusement. We’re in for the operation. It’s an added value for our operation.”