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Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman gives out instructions during the team's practice for the CFL's 98th Grey Cup football game in Edmonton, Alberta, November 26, 2010. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman gives out instructions during the team's practice for the CFL's 98th Grey Cup football game in Edmonton, Alberta, November 26, 2010. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

Sean Gordon

The language of football Add to ...

The words sure sound like English – fake, deuce, slow – but in combination they’re a language all their own.

If Cockney rhyming slang was indeed concocted to throw the local bottles-and-stoppers off the scent (i.e. coppers), the argot of Pigskinish aims to confuse opposing coaches and defences.

Call this dialect of gridiron-speak “Trestmanese.”

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Most football fans know by this point that Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman’s offence is mind-bendingly complex – we are several dozen rungs up the football evolutionary ladder from scratching out plays in the dirt and “Jimmy, run 10 steps and do a button hook.” Having intricate schemes requires detailed, memory-challenging vernacular to describe and enact them.

Or as quarterback Anthony Calvillo refers to it: “the verbiage.”

In conversation recently, Calvillo rattled off one particularly baroque play call – it’s 16 words long, which he insisted not be reported verbatim.

“Marc won’t be happy if he sees it in the paper,” he grinned.

Because of the various formations, sets, options for receivers, blocking assignments and of course, the snap count, modern pro offences usually require a high-ish football I.Q. and a good memory – today’s game is inhospitable to big, dumb guys.

Trestman’s offence, say his players, is demanding even by pro standards.

Part of the reason for that is he prefers every player on the field to know where every other player is likely to be – no mean feat when four or five receivers often adjust their routes according to the options presented by the defence.

“There’s a lot to absorb, it’s particularly hard for new guys who come in here,” said centre Luc Brodeur-Jourdain, who can often be seen toting a three-inch playbook binder tucked under his arm.

Complexity, however, isn’t always a virtue.

Changing the lingo can create more confusion than anything, but keeping the same terminology exposes another vulnerability: players and coaches who got to know the offence and are now with other teams can understand the play calls.

This is especially a problem in facing the Toronto Argonauts – Montreal’s opponent this Sunday in the East Division final at the Olympic Stadium – and head coach Scott Milanovich, who was Trestman’s right-hand man for four seasons.

But as ever, knowing what’s coming and stopping it are two different things.

“We thought it might be an issue earlier this year, but even if they hear it, they still have to defend it,” Calvillo said.

Milanovich said Tuesday he reckons “a good portion” of the terminology has changed since he left last winter, and that in any case the words are only part of the challenge.

“The complexity of his offence is the different ways you get to the play. A lot of the plays don’t change, but it’s the motions, formations, personnel groups, and never letting the defence get comfortable,” he said. “If you’re going to run a flat hook, you don’t know how they’re going to get to it. It’s hard on the receivers, because you have to ask every receiver to play every position throughout the game … it also doesn’t let the defence get comfortable either.”

And Trestman and his lieutenants have had plenty of time since the regular season ended to devise new traps for the Toronto defence.

Running back Chris Jennings learned the offence during a practice roster stint with the team in 2009, and when he returned as a late-season injury replacement in mid-September, he remarked that while the concepts are similar and much of the verbiage is the same, “there’s still a lot of new stuff for me to learn.”

Presumably the adaptation wasn’t that hard – after becoming the de facto starter in week 14, he averaged nearly six yards per carry. Since losing star tailback Brandon Whitaker and big-play receiver Brandon London to season-ending knee injuries, the Alouettes have introduced a raft of new formations and other wrinkles to accommodate players like Jennings and receiver Bo Bowling – both Calvillo and Trestman refer to it as a new offence, which is only a slight overstatement.

By the time Sunday rolls around the team will have had a couple of games and a month or so of practice to have familiarized themselves with the changes.

And the terms – gobbledygook to you and I – that doubtless come with them.

Some pro coaches are trying to buck the trend toward ever-increasing complexity – the Boston Globe recently detailed how the NFL’s New England Patriots have managed to condense their play calls in the no-huddle offence to one word.

It’s a process that took the better part of two years to perfect and can make the Pats incredibly difficult to defend because it inhibits defensive substitutions.

To the extent that would be useful in the CFL – which has a 20-second play clock, shorter than the NFL – it’s not entirely realistic for a team like the Alouettes.

Calvillo says the Als’ audibles and hurry-up scripts can be condensed to three or four words, an admirable accomplishment when compared to the usual number of syllables uttered in the Montreal huddle.

The 40-year-old is more than comfortable in his offence – he should be given the long hours he’s put into mastering it.

But he also has a cheat-sheet to jog his memory.

Today’s quarterbacks almost all wear wristbands with the various play possibilities – Calvillo’s has three pages, and according to Brodeur-Jourdain, he often adds his own modifications in miniscule script.

“I don’t know how he reads it,” the big centre said with a laugh.

 

With a report from Rachel Brady in Toronto

 

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