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Scheme Wars Have Taken Over the NFL—and Could Decide This Year’s Playoffs

Fourteen years ago, most NFL teams subscribed to the same offensive system. Now, though, different factions have spread across the league and are fighting for dominance. So which system will reign supreme? And how could this battle affect the postseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Any discussion about modern NFL offenses has to start with the 2007 Patriots. That team, which finished the regular season 16-0, is best known for narrowly missing out on perfection after losing to Eli Manning’s Giants in Super Bowl XLII. But across the league, it also represented a shift in offensive thinking—one that ushered in new ideas and schools of thought.

Before New England lit defenses up 14 years ago, NFL offenses were largely all the same. Smart Football’s Chris B. Brown, one of the OGs of football scheme writing, said in 2009 that he tended not to write about the the pro game because NFL offenses “are surprisingly bland and homogenized,” and “80 percent of what NFL teams do on offense … is extremely straightforward to the point where every team runs the same stuff.”

Donté Stallworth, who joined the Patriots just before the 2007 season, shared a similar viewpoint at the time. The now-retired wide receiver told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark that around half of all NFL teams ran the same playbooks, and the rest were only separated by minor scheme tweaks. He was expecting more of the same when arrived in New England. But Stallworth quickly saw that the offense Josh McDaniels had crafted was something radically different. This was an offense built around spread concepts—something McDaniels had learned about from Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen a few years earlier—and it was like nothing the NFL had seen before. These concepts themselves weren’t completely foreign to the league, but they typically served as options in obvious passing situations. Not as the foundation of an offense.

Aiding in the spread’s success were some new leaguewide rules of engagement. Around this time, the NFL made defensive holding calls stricter, largely in response to the success New England’s defense had enjoyed against Peyton Manning’s Colts. And with defenses unable to manhandle receivers all over the field, a spread passing game became more viable at the pro level. That 2007 Pats team was the first in NFL history to line up in shotgun formations on a majority of its snaps. The year before, NFL offenses had lined up in the gun just 19 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders. By 2011, that number had spiked to 41 percent. Five years later it was up to 68 percent, and in 2021, only three teams lined up under center on more than half of their snaps.

We’ve seen a similar trend in the usage of three-receiver sets. Wes Welker’s success with those Pats teams helped turn the slot receiver into an every-down role, as more and more teams replaced their fullback with a faster receiver. It wasn’t long before 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), became the most popular personnel grouping in the NFL. By the start of the 2010s, NFL coaches had fully embraced the structure of the spread.

But bringing in some of the scheme’s foundational concepts—especially those that got the quarterback involved in the run game—took more time. Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Chip Kelly’s early Eagles teams proved that an option run game wasn’t “gimmicky,” as many pro coaches had previously thought, but something that could genuinely work on Sundays. Not long after that, run-pass options started popping up all over NFL film and finally took hold for good when Philly rode them to a Super Bowl win after the 2017 season.

Smart coaches had realized there was a lot to learn from college offenses, which always have been more creative and diverse than their pro counterparts, and helped build a schematic bridge between the two levels. Chiefs coach Andy Reid, for instance, tasked longtime assistant Brad Childress with scouring college film for new concepts Reid could add to his playbook. Not long after that, Kansas City was running zone reads and RPOs for Alex Smith and using jet motion before the snap to throw defenses off. Like the Patriots a decade before them, the Chiefs helped accelerate the NFL’s offensive evolution.

Now, 14 years after the Patriots kicked things off, that ubiquitous “NFL Offense” that Brown wrote about is just one of many systems that are permeating the league. Never before have we seen schematic variety like this at the NFL level, as some coaching staffs have fully embraced more modern concepts, while others have adapted them to fit their established philosophies, and still others have been more reluctant to jump on the bandwagon.

These varying levels of acceptance have separated the league into schematic factions. And as assistant coaches from winning teams get head-coaching jobs of their own, those new hires will take their offensive systems with them and expand the territory of whatever faction they belong to. We saw this phenomenon play out a few years back when seemingly every coach who had ever crossed paths with Sean McVay became a hot coaching commodity. And after Kyle Shanahan, who belongs to the same coaching tree as McVay, dragged Jimmy Garoppolo to the Super Bowl after the 2019 season, we saw a run on his assistants, too. Now, nearly a third of the league’s offensive play-callers come from that tree. And four of their teams have made the playoffs this season.

If that success continues, we could see the Shanahan/McVay influence over the NFL grow even larger. But the rest of the league won’t go down without a fight. McDaniels (Patriots), Brian Daboll (Bills), and Eric Bieniemy (Chiefs), three offensive coordinators outside of the Shanahan/McVay tree, are headed for another round of head-coaching interviews this offseason, and Byron Leftwich (Buccaneers) has also gotten some requests.

In that way, there is more than a Lombardi Trophy at stake this postseason. With so many different offensive schemes represented in this year’s playoff field, the next month will not only determine a champion—it might dictate the next step in the NFL’s offensive evolution. So let’s take a look at three main factions that will battle it out for schematic supremacy over the next few weeks, starting with the one that launched it all.

Reid, Daboll, and Kliff Kingsbury have taken different paths to the same schematic destination: Reid’s first NFL job was working under Bill Walsh disciple Mike Holmgren; Kingsbury played and worked under Air Raid coaches before getting his first head-coaching job; and Daboll climbed the ladder under Bill Belichick and others from his coaching tree. But there are still some clear connections between the three. Longtime BYU coach LaVell Edwards, considered the father of the spread passing game, served as a mentor for Reid, and his offense inspired Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, who coached Kingsbury at Texas Tech, to create the Air Raid. Kingsbury also coached Patrick Mahomes in Lubbock before Reid drafted the QB in 2017, and the Chiefs coach borrowed some of Kingsbury’s passing concepts to help ease Mahomes’s transition to the NFL. Daboll did something similar to help Josh Allen grow, borrowing from the run-and-shoot offense, a close cousin of the Air Raid.

Now, these teams aren’t calling similar plays week in and week out, and their terminologies are very different. But the underlying philosophies they’ve embraced are identical. It starts in the run game, where spread formations and run-pass options help to keep defenders out of the box.

These option concepts helped Buffalo, Kansas City, and Arizona all finish in the top five in “light box run rate” this season, according to Sports Info Solutions.

The passing games also share one key similarity: their reliance on crossing routes. With “Y-Cross” being an old staple of the Air Raid offense, Kingsbury’s heavy usage of this concept makes sense. But Reid and Daboll have also essentially built their entire passing games around these routes. And for good reason: Mahomes and Allen hit those routes as well as anyone in the NFL, and Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs are next to impossible to cover across the width of the field.

Over the past two seasons, Hill ranks third in crossing routes run while Diggs ranks fifth, according to TruMedia. Mahomes and Allen also rank first and second, respectively, in crossing routes thrown.

That, in large part, is why we’ve seen defenses play more two-high coverages against these teams over the past two seasons. Those coverages make defending the run more difficult—not that Buffalo or Kansas City are very interested in running the ball anyway—but the extra safety can provide help for cornerbacks struggling to keep up with Diggs and Hill.

Surprisingly, the recent success of these offenses hasn’t affected NFL coaching hires all that much. Reid has seen two of his coordinators—Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy—land head-coaching jobs, but those guys worked under him before Mahomes took over for Alex Smith and transformed the offense into what it is today. Bieniemy, who replaced Nagy in 2018, has interviewed for head jobs in each of the past two offseasons but has yet to land one. Daboll is no stranger to head-coaching interviews, either, but he seems to be waiting for the right opportunity before making the leap. Kingsbury, meanwhile, just oversaw his first winning season, so it makes sense that his staff hasn’t been raided yet. A deep run in the playoffs may change that—and it could lead to more teams looking to pluck the next Kingsbury from the college ranks.

This offense has been churning out good results since the late 1990s, when former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan blended his West Coast offense with Alex Gibbs’s zone-blocking run game. For whatever reason, the success of those Denver teams did not lead to head-coaching opportunities for Shanahan’s assistants—Gary Kubiak spent 10 seasons as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator before getting the Texans job. But decades later, following the success of McVay in Los Angeles and Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, this offense is all over the NFL. By my count, 10 teams employ play-callers from this coaching tree, and as the coaches have spread across the league, they’ve each put their own spin on this system.

McVay and Shanahan are often lumped together—and I’m doing so here, too—but there are some key differences between their respective schemes. McVay, for instance, prefers three-receiver sets and one-back formations, while Shanahan’s 49ers led the NFL in two-back formations, according to Next Gen Stats.

But there are far more similarities connecting these offenses. All of them rank in the top half of the league in snaps under center. They all employ condensed formations and utilize pre-snap motion. And the “outside zone” running play serves as the foundation of the offense. There are different variations of outside zone, but, in short, it’s a run play designed to stretch the defense horizontally and give the running back options on each play. If the defense overpursues the run, the back cuts back into the first seam he finds.

If the defense isn’t able to set an edge, the running back will continue on his path outside to try to turn the corner for a big gain.

McVay and his disciples are mostly looking to create those cutback lanes, while Shanahan likes speedy backs who can get to the perimeter in a hurry.

Outside zone runs also help to set up big plays in the passing game by designing play fakes meant to look exactly like running plays until the last second. By the time the defense properly diagnoses the call, it’s too late, as there is usually a receiver streaking across the field in the opposite direction.

Those two concepts serve as the foundation for this offense. Now, you’d think defenses would have no problem catching on to these coaches’ tricks, but that’s where the heavy use of pre-snap motion and shifts helps. That window dressing makes it harder for defenses to catch on, and this coaching tree’s use of “play sequencing”—or running one play to set up another later in the game—punishes defenses that think they’ve got it all figured out.

The rush to hire anyone associated with McVay or Shanahan was mocked when their staffs were being raided, but those hires have mostly worked out. McVay and Shanahan are back in the playoffs, as are their former assistants, Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor. And with all four having a realistic shot at making it to the Super Bowl, the influence of this tree could spread even wider this offseason. Offensive coordinators Nathaniel Hackett (Packers) and Mike McDaniel (49ers) already have interviews lined up and could leapfrog other candidates with good showings this month.

These concepts are taken from the offenses that used to dominate the NFL, but at this point, they may be even more singular than some of the newer systems we’ve already discussed. Compared to the other offensive families, it’s harder to point to one or two key features that describe these units’ underlying philosophies. That’s because they do a bit of everything.

One of the common traits of the traditional pro-style offense is a physical, downhill run game. These units want to take on the defensive front head-on and provoke it into violent collisions at the line of scrimmage. When the defense starts attacking downhill, that opens up vertical shots in the passing game, and these offenses take advantage with in-breaking routes from receivers.

Another common feature is the level of responsibility this scheme puts on the quarterback. Whereas the spread and wide zone schemes create wider throwing windows by stretching the defense horizontally, these more vertically attacking offenses require difficult throws into tighter windows. They also ask the quarterback to take deeper dropbacks and hold on to the ball longer, which, of course, leads to more hits. If Shanahan and McVay’s offense is considered “QB-friendly,” then this group belongs on the opposite end of that spectrum.

Pre-snap shifts are one way these offenses make things easier for the quarterback. While the other schemes we’ve covered use more pre-snap motion—meaning the player is in motion while the ball is being snapped—these offenses use more shifts, in which the player in motion comes to a stop before the snap. That provides the quarterback with a clearer picture of the defense. On this play from a Week 2 game against the Falcons, the Bucs send Chris Godwin across the formation, and the cornerback follows him, suggesting that Atlanta is in man coverage. With no safety over the top, Tom Brady knows Godwin’s corner route will be open.

Because these systems ask receivers to alter their routes during the play based on the defensive coverage, getting the quarterback that extra intel is pivotal. If the QB and receiver are on different pages, the results can be disastrous. On this play from Week 8 against the Saints, you can see Mike Evans cut off his route, though Brady expects him to keep running up field based on the coverage.

After the game, Bruce Arians put the miscommunication on his quarterback. “He thought Mike was going down the middle,” the Bucs coach said. “It’s a different coverage. Mike read it right.”

That high degree of difficulty is a big reason more teams are gravitating toward the spread and wide zone schemes; but there’s a bit of a trade-off. Those user-friendly offenses lack the volume of pass concepts that these more traditional NFL offenses offer. And it’s that volume that makes these schemes so effective when executed properly. Running these offenses correctly requires a good coaching staff and a talented roster, which is another reason they’re growing more rare. But with defenses adapting to stop today’s more popular systems, we could see more of these old-school schemes pop up around the league.

If the Buccaneers win another Super Bowl this season, that would almost certainly lead to head-coaching jobs for coordinators Leftwich and Todd Bowles. As an offensive play-caller, Leftwich would be virtually guaranteed to bring this same offense with him to his next stop; and Bowles, a defensive coach, could hire an Arians assistant if he gets a second crack at a head-coaching job. Meanwhile, if McDaniels can help the Patriots make a run with Mac Jones, a rookie quarterback he’s helped develop, that could be enough to earn him a second chance, as well.

Given McDaniels’s history of schematic flexibility, there’s no telling what his offense could look like with another team. It could be something similar to what we’ve seen in New England. Or maybe it’ll look more like the offense he nudged the NFL toward back in 2007, when he and the Pats sparked the league’s spread revolution.