There is one tangible in football that has the power to send a player packing even before they hit the field.

In its many forms, it serves as a model of systems that basically remain the same in all levels of football. For current CFL players and coaches, the mantra has always been the same: know your playbook, cherish your playbook, and if you lose your playbook, you’re done.

As the game has progressed, so have the methods and complexity of calling and executing plays. Yet CFL legend Nick Volpe doesn’t agree with these innovations.

“It’s all too much— everything should be simpler,” says Volpe, a six-time Grey Cup champion. “Because the game’s complicated enough as it is. So you have to make up your mind instinctively.”

During his playing days in the 1940s and ’50s, Volpe served as the backup quarterback and place kicker for the Toronto Argonauts. He won two Grey Cups while being coached by Frank Clair. He’s also had great success organizing the Xs and Os.

“I wrote a football book in ’66 for high school coaches, and that was the principle that I used: keep it simple so that everybody can understand,” said Volpe, who coached the Argos from 1953–63, among other teams. “You don’t learn from a playbook, you learn by doing it on the field. That’s the key difference. The playbook is just to help simplify things, but you have to do it out there. If people got a playbook, they had to guard it; there was no passing around.”

Jason Maas, two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player and two-time Grey Cup champion at quarterback for the Edmonton Eskimos, can’t help but disagree with Volpe.

“Football is a detailed game,” Maas says. “When you’re putting together a playbook and installing your plays, you need to be detailed so that there’s no room for error, or when someone does [make an] error, they know that [they] made one.”

Maas joined the Argos last season; he coaches wide receivers, including Chad Owens, the league’s record-breaking Most Outstanding Player in 2012.

“With our game up here, with the waggle and that stuff, those things are already going to create some inconsistencies with receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks,” Maas said. “That’s why you want to be as precise with your detailing and where they line up as you can be.”

Still in its early stages, the 2013 CFL season has introduced new players and coaches to the game. The learning curve with the playbooks is much more accessible and hands-on, as they are now prepared electronically for teams to use on iPads and other mobile devices.

“I’ve seen it go from conceptual—where you have to memorize a certain phrase, and that phrase leads to a certain design of a play—and I’ve seen it progress to systems where they have a word for every player,” says Jeff Johnson, the Argonauts’ veteran running back and two-time Grey Cup champion, following the first practice of the team’s training camp.

“It goes in waves: the run game, the pass game, it always changes. As defences do one thing to catch up, an offence has to move forward and adjust,” Johnson adds. “The defence will do something and offence adjusts again. It goes in multi-year waves.”
It makes sense that a league celebrating the 100th anniversary of its Grey Cup would experience great innovation in how plays are designed and called.

“You would practice all these playbook situations that would happen during the spring practices and two-a-days, and then you’d scale them down,” said Chuck Ealey, a CFL legend in the ’70s who quarterbacked the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to victory in the 60th Grey Cup.
Ealey also had stints with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Argos until his career was cut short due to injury in 1978. In his historic football career, he was undefeated in the college ranks at Toledo University and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie and a league all-star. He grew to understand the art of the playbook. He also learned just what he could and couldn’t do when it came to tinkering.

“There was a big number of plays, but you wouldn’t use them all,” says Ealey. “It became somewhat of a blueprint of the process of when you go from team to team. Some teams would play the same kind of defence in the same kind of way and you could use the same plays and other teams would have to adjust.”

“I recall a lot of the adjustments took place on the field,” he adds, “where the playbook which you might not have played had to change in the middle of the game.”

No matter the era, to forget or lose one’s playbook is probably the biggest no-no in sport. Such negligence is football sacrilege.
“If you lose a playbook, it’s like giving somebody a pot of gold,” said Jason Shivers, the Argonauts’ defensive assistant coach.
“I have seen somebody lose their playbook before. It was a joke; he was being irresponsible and the vets took it,” said Shivers, who played defensive back for the Argos and Tiger-Cats for four seasons. “He basically left it, and so he really didn’t lose it lose it, but he did lose it and they threw it away. He ended up with a $200 fine—it’s definitely serious because it’s like a business, and when you have a successful business model and plan, you don’t want to just give it away. And that’s what losing the playbook is like.”

A $200 fine for losing a playbook may seem a little harsh, but to lose your job over it? That’s just cruel.

“I’ve seen a guy lose his playbook once and it was home on a flight right after,” said Johnson. “He was a rookie, so it taught him and the team a lesson.”

That was a rookie mistake which resulted in a visit to the unemployment line—but what would the punishment be for a 14-year veteran like Johnson?

“I wouldn’t know, because I’ll never lose it,” he said, half smirking, half holding a straight face. “It’s just that important. You don’t lose your playbook.”