With footy shut down after the completion of Round 1 back in mid March, ESPN was granted exclusive access to current assistants Ashley Hansen (Bulldogs) and Ashley Prescott (Suns) to discuss the intricacies of modern coaching, as well as Port Adelaide's Travis Boak to offer a player's perspective.
This is Part 1 of a three-part series, delving into the specifics of game plans - what they actually are, how they are formulated, their evolution over time and more.
Parts 2 and 3 of this series, looking at communication and the whole-club puzzle, will be published in the following fortnight.
From Robert Walls' famous 'huddle' to 'Pagan's Paddock,' 'Clarko's Cluster,' and the manic forward press of today, AFL game plans have always garnered fascination from those outside the coach's box.
We all marvel when an inspired tactical coaching decision proves the difference between winning and losing a tight contest, but game plans are much more complex than just the moves made on game day.
Each coach constantly reshapes and fine-tunes their own sense of how to best maximise their team's chances of winning games, and senior coaches drum that into their players over multiple preseasons until it hopefully becomes second nature.
Every coach is different, and every coach's game plan will also change over time.
Developing a game plan
"As a young coach, when you're first starting, you tend to reflect on the way you've been coached and the systems you've played in," Suns assistant and former Fremantle and Richmond player Ashley Prescott tells ESPN.
"As you get a little bit more experienced, you probably start to delve more into creating a game plan around your personnel and I think that's what's occurring a little bit more these days in the AFL. It's not so much a coach-directive game plan but it's a game plan which is created in consultation with list management, your recruiting [team] and even, to some extent, some of your major stakeholders. There's a lot of different factors which I think should be taken into creating a game plan.
"Predominantly, though, I think it comes down to the philosophy that you have as a senior coach but also sharing ideas, discussion, debate with your other coaches and probably even more so nowadays, with your players. If you've got a certain strength as a playing group, it would be silly not to base some of these principles and guidelines, in relation to a game plan, around those certain individuals."
The word philosophy is also front of mind for Ashley Hansen, who played 78 games with West Coast before starting his coaching journey at the Western Bulldogs.
"I think there's three parts to a game plan - a philosophy, a style and tactics," Hansen tells ESPN. "There's a coaching philosophy which ... will come about through [the coach's] own personal experiences, through playing the game at whatever level, and then the coaching tree that has influenced the way that he goes about wanting to see the game played.
"When I say philosophy, for example, [with] defence - do you want to win the ball back in your front half or do you want to retreat and secure your goal face and win it back in your defensive half? For the offensive side of the game, what's your risk management profile to attack? Do you want to go wide through the back half or do you want to really test the opposition and go through the middle? Do you want to play fast or prioritise possession over that?
"These are the basic philosophies a coach has, and then the next element is style, so it's about how do you defend and how do you attack? So with the attacking side of the game, do you want to run and gun and win territory over possession, which we've probably seen from Richmond ... or do you want to be a West Coast Eagles where you want to possess the ball, maintain that, and you know you're giving your forwards and midfielders a chance to spread the field and attack through multiple avenues? With that comes a greater degree of risk, because you have more possessions which could potentially lead to more turnovers. If you maintain the ball in the back half, that turnover is going to be closer to the opposition goal, which means they'll score quicker or with less possessions.
"And then there's whether you're a high stoppage team, so do you want to keep the ball in motion, or do you want to lock it down and have repeat stoppages like a Sydney might?
"The last part for me is the tactics, where that's game to game, the different plans you have going into different games, and they probably come into effect more in the stoppage part of the game, when there's a pause and you've got the time and ability to set something up.
"So, I think you're just trying to give the playing group a roadmap to success and you're trying to avoid the speed humps and roundabouts the opposition is putting in front of you. And if you get everyone buying in, you can start to let individual brilliance come out, and when that is collectively seen, you start to see what is shown by the premiership teams and top four sides in the competition."
Some of the most significant changes in modern football has been the switch from man-on-man battles across the ground to zoning and forward pressure, according to Port Adelaide veteran Travis Boak and Hansen.
"The biggest thing that's changed [since I started playing] is how sides defend - when I first started it was when Hawthorn were becoming a powerhouse and everyone followed what they were doing - Alastair Clarkson brought in a zone, sitting back on teams and forcing teams to kick into a zone, so players would set up quite similar to soccer where you have three players in each line, almost a box set-up to defend parts of the ground. So you'd fold back and allow the team to kick and turn the ball over midway through the ground," Boak tells ESPN.
"Now we've gone into a full ground press where you'll see sides with a lot of numbers into the forward half of the ground. You'll hear a stat that a lot of sides talk about -- time in forward half -- that's where the full ground press comes in [and] you try to get as many people in the forward half to hold the ball in there and have as many inside 50s and shots on goal. Richmond and Collingwood have really brought that in and a lot of success from it and you see a lot of sides really coming at their opposition and keep the ball in their front half."
Hansen points to the late Phil Walsh, who worked under John Worsfold at West Coast from 2009 to 2014, as one of the instigators of zoning and forward pressure.
"At one point after 2007, the game was evolving away from that one-on-one style. That's when Phil Walsh came in [to the Eagles], who was known as a bit of a lateral thinker, a real visionary of how the game could be played ... he started to explore that idea of zone defence, and defending more efficiently," Hansen says.
"We had such a dominant midfield and the reason why they were dominant was not only because they were skilled, but they had these fantastic athletic profiles. The thought was 'we can't just keep chasing these guys [opponents] around one-on-one' ... we weren't maximising the 18 players we had on the field.
"That's when those areas started to be explored, and obviously Alastair Clarkson was at the forefront of that soccer, hockey, basketball-style zone defence, which, when you think about it in hindsight, makes a lot of sense: Why should I chase you when I can hand you over to someone else who can defend that area?"
Club by club differences
Power star Boak has worked under several senior coaches and many more assistants since being selected at No. 5 in the 2006 AFL draft.
He says most current clubs boast similar game styles, although there are some subtle, and not-so-subtle, differences.
"The easiest way to describe [a game plan] is the way your team wants to play - you'll hear all clubs say that, and I think most clubs' game plans are very similar in terms of how they want to play," he tells ESPN.
"[At Port], over the past couple of years we've been really strong at holding the ball in our front half - we've been top two or three at being able to do that but we just haven't been able to score, and that's been our downfall over the past couple of years - scoring inside 50. We want to be a really good pressure side and keep the ball in the front half, we've seen the best sides in the comp, Richmond and Collingwood, do it really well.
"West Coast are probably a little bit different - they have some really good kickers in the back half so it becomes really challenging for us as a side because if you press them, they don't like to handball so if you're not covering your man right, they will chip it through you which they're really good at and that's why they've become so successful. That's their game plan - they want to kick the ball. And they probably defend a bit differently as well because they have such a good backline in terms of marking the ball and dropping off. They ... rely heavily on their back six to take intercept mark and that's where they get their offence from."
Structure vs. instinct
While coaches repeatedly drum into their players how they want the team to play, individual flair, instinct and creativity is always given a chance to shine.
Prescott and Hansen -- who are both partway through the AFL's Level 4 coaching course -- say it's a delicate balancing act between formulating and trying to perfect a game plan, and keeping things simple for players who enter the AFL from junior leagues that lack many of the structures and systems of senior AFL level.
"It's a complex game [but] we can overcomplicate it at times," Hansen laughs. "We want the guys to express themselves, to attack the game, show their flair and all their athletic ability and skill level. Without doubt.
"We understand players have different abilities, but we can still as a team achieve the same result by going about it in different ways. For example, you can move the ball quickly by a player getting it to another teammate running past, just as someone could use deception on the mark and use his speed to play on straight away - you're still moving quickly and breaking a line, but there are different methods you can go about that. As long as you understand the method, and the game plan is adhered to, it's going to make it more predictable for your teammates down the field, but you're doing it two different ways.
"As much as we want to teach a philosophy or game style, we also want them to play on instinct and natural ability, so you can't quarantine them into a certain style too much."
Prescott agrees: "[Coaches] try to achieve real simplicity and take the complexities out of how they want to operate which allows the players to make instinctive decisions without thinking. That's really what we're all trying to achieve."
What about Plans B and C?
All fans have felt the frustration of watching their team struggle on game day with no apparent answers coming from the coach's box. But do coaches really have only one game plan, or do they have some tricks up their sleeves if things go awry?
Prescott believes all coaches must have a degree of flexibility if a change is needed during a game.
"We, and certainly all AFL clubs I'm sure, have got different game plans that you can try and snap into to arrest an opposition's momentum," he says. "There's certainly a lot of strategy, so you talk about having an overarching game plan on offense and defence and also in those 50-50s [stoppage situations]. So you might have a plan A and a plan B.
"I mean, we're all fulltime so we really need to rehearse all of these scenarios in training. Effectively, that's when we need to be preparing the players, during the week and in training, so they are able to adjust to the different cues that are occurring in the game."
Hansen agrees but adds a crucial element is understanding how much information players can take on board.
"You certainly have [plans] A, B and C [but] how much you pass on to the playing group is going to differentiate week-to-week," he says.
"We might only let the players know Plan A, and then we'll instruct plans B and C throughout the game as required because once again, we don't want to overwhelm them with too much information."
But Boak says he's rarely seen a coach delve into a back-up plan, even if things are going pear-shaped.
"Most coaches, whether it's what they believe in or whether it's their ego, they won't change things too much," he says.
"Sometimes we might add a tagger or even two taggers to really shut down on opposition players, which goes away from our game plan a bit ... but that's the most we've ever changed."