Check Down: How Football Quarterbacks Can Make Us Better at Safety

Disaster Preparation/RecoveryElectrical ProtectionSafety

This article originally ran in the June 2013 issue of OSP Magazine

A college quarterback moves under center getting ready for the snap of the ball. It’s a Saturday in fall and it’s game day. The crowd is going crazy — it is so loud “one can’t hear themselves think.” The quarterback barks out some commands. Then, he signals for his tight end to go in motion from the left side of the formation to the right. Or, instead of the tight end, this time it is the wide receiver, running from his original spot on the right of the formation across to the other side. Have you ever wondered why this happens? Why does a quarterback put players in motion? In short: so that he can read the defense.

By placing a wide receiver, tight-end or running back in motion, the defense will often have to “show their hand”. How the defense reacts to an offensive player in motion will often give the quarterback insight on the defensive scheme. The quarterback is also looking for clues to answer questions like, is the defense matched up man-to-man on the outside receivers? Are defensive players lining up to blitz? Is the defense in a nickel package or dime package? Are there extra defensive lineman to give run support, or more cornerbacks to cover a passing situation? This information tells the quarterback if the play that is called has a high likelihood of success or not. But, more times than not, right before the snap of the ball the quarterback will do something unusual. He will step bac k… he will check down.

Generally, right before the snap, after reading the defense and evaluating the situation, the quarterback will move away from the center. He may have 10 or 12 seconds to snap the ball, and he’ll use them wisely. He can look over to his bench, where coaches have headsets getting advice from other coaches perched in press boxes high above the stadium. The coaches on the sidelines are talking to the quarterback through hand signals. The quarterback will often audible to modified play, reset his team, then move ahead with the play. In the course of about 25 seconds, the quarterback will receive a play from the side lines, communicate that to his team, then set his team. He will read the defense, but before the snap, he’ll likely check down. Get advice from his bench. Adjust the play, if needed, to be even more effective. Read the defense one more time, and then move ahead. And, what might you ask does this have to do with safety? Actually, a lot!

The principles of a check down and the core principles leading up to that snap, every snap, seem to align nicely with what we and our teams should do before we “take a snap” (in our business, that means “go to work”). In fact, there are 10 check down principles that we should make sure our team and employees understand before we take our snap.

10 Check Down for Safety Principles

These are the 10 Check Down for Safety Principles that you and your team should do before you go to work:

Principle #1: Stay in Game Shape

Before a snap is taken, or even considered, players must first think about their bodies, and how good of shape they are in. In fact, all players are athletes. And, from the kicker, to quarterback to nose guard these athletes buy in to a holistic program involving exercise, weight training, and diet. That said, our workers are athletes too. After all, they must use their bodies for 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year for more than 30 years — to do that you had better be an athlete in great shape. Over the last few years, ergonomics, pre-work stretch programs, proper lifting, and mechanical aids have been introduced to help our athletes stay in game shape. What is your “game shape” program?

Principle #2: Study Film

Before each college football game, each player spends hours watching and studying game film. The purpose is to understand what the other team does, how they do it, and what can be done to counteract that team. For our work, we probably do not spend enough time “watching film”. With today’s modern cameras, smartphones, and access to computers, we should ask our supervisors and workers to take pictures or video. Just as college football teams study film, we should employ aggressive practices of capturing “film” and pictures. We should capture pictures of hazards. Grab video of near misses and incidents. We should ask supervisors to get video of jobs done well and safe work rules followed. Actually, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 5 minutes of film study for our work teams each day. Think about how that could positively impact your team — and raise awareness to a new level.

Principle #3: Huddle (Have a Plan)

Before each play, a football gets in a circle and communicates a carefully crafted and practiced play. Before we go to work we should do the same. Just like in football, we need to circle to review the job at hand. Each day we need to cover the work at hand, PPE, safety work rules that apply, any energy sources and means to properly control them along with any special precautions associated with the job. A football team won’t snap the ball without a huddle — why would our team start work without one?

Principle #4: Know Your Position

When the center snaps the ball to the quarterback, every player on the field has both a position, and a specific task. Success of any particular play depends on how well each player executes that specific role. Our job sites and work tasks should be no different. Each person needs to know and understand their role, responsibilities and receive the appropriate training for that position. Football legend Knute Rockne said, “Football is a game played with arms, legs and shoulders but mostly from the neck up.” And, so is safety.

Principle #5: Survey the Situation

At the heart of a check down is the quarterback’s ability to survey the situation, understand the information he is receiving, and adjust for his team’s success. Our work should be no different. Before beginning work, survey your situation (job site, surroundings). Walk through the job site or work environment assessing hazards and unusual elements that need to be addressed. Make sure that you have the right play called.

Principle #6: Take the Time It Takes

Immediately after a play, the football official will set the ball and start the play clock. At that time, a 25-second clock begins which signals that the football team has 25 seconds to snap the ball. In our work, we don’t have a play clock. Instead, we have the opportunity to take whatever time we need to make sure we are ready before we snap the ball (begin our work). Take the time that is needed to run the right play — no play clock in our work.

Principle #7: Use Timeouts Wisely

From time to time, after the quarterback “checks down”, the defense will throw him a curve ball — a formation that he has not seen or one where he can’t make the right adjustments. In those rare times, he can call a time out. As you know in football, a team is only allowed 3 timeouts per half. In our work however, using timeouts wisely means we call frequent timeouts in our work; we sometimes call them safety stops. These are times when something doesn’t look right, the job has changed, a new crew member has arrived, we finish one part of the job and starting on a new piece, or we simply want to take 60 seconds to reset before we move forward. In our work, call frequent timeouts!

Principle #8: Regroup at Halftime

Games can be won or lost at halftime. During this time, adjustments are made so that the team can be even more effective and to get better results. In our work, we have frequent “halftimes”. We have lunch, breaks, moving from one job to another. After each stoppage in work, make sure that we plan our work accordingly and check down to ensure our safety.

Principle #9: Learn From Last Week’s Game

After each game football teams review the game film. In fact, in most college programs, each player is graded on each play with each player receiving a game grade. To that end, spend a few minutes after each job, or at the end of each day, talking about your work. What went well? What new hazards were present? What has changed? What can we expect tomorrow? A football team misses an opportunity to learn if they don’t review the most recent game — and we do the same if we fail to review our day.

Principle #10: Play to Win!

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death,” said Bill Shankly British football player and coach, “I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

Safety in our work is the same — literally a matter of life or death. One way to better prevent incidents and injuries is to practice a check down, and use each of these principles to raise worker awareness.

Walter Payton once said, “I want to be remembered as the guy who gave his all whenever he was on the field.” Those who remember Walter Payton have fond memories of his grace, athleticism, and hard work. Do you do the same when it comes to your safety and that of your team?

Check down today — and every day. Once you do, you can hike the ball and go to work!

About the Author
Matt Forck, CSP and JLW, leads SafeStrat, LLC, a safety keynote and consulting services organization dedicated to building people. Matt works with clients in all business sectors and with trade organizations in more than 10 countries. Learn more about Matt, learn about his safety and motivational books and sign up for free safety resources at, or contact Matt at

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