Imagine the year is 2019. You’re just going about your business, living a relatively normal life, when suddenly a figure emerges from a portal to another time and tells you a shocking prophecy: that in 2022, the only thing standing between Matthew Stafford and a Super Bowl ring will be the Cincinnati Bengals.
Any discerning NFL fan would have dismissed this stranger out of hand—and likely would have alerted the proper authorities. But fast-forward three years, and this reality feels kind of normal—or at least well-earned. The lesson is simple: In the NFL, things can change in an instant. And there isn’t a more powerful agent of change than finding the right quarterback.
After Stafford’s Rams and Joe Burrow’s Bengals erased double-digit leads on Sunday in wins over the 49ers and Chiefs, respectively, both teams probably feel pretty good about their guy under center. Both carried their offenses while receiving little support from the run game. And both were able to do it on the big stage, justifying their teams’ belief in their ability to elevate what’s around them.
That isn’t always the case for their respective coaches, though. The Rams are obviously thrilled to have Sean McVay leading their team. In five seasons, the 36-year-old has missed out on the postseason only once and has now taken two different quarterbacks to the Super Bowl. But there have been numerous times this season—and this was definitely the case on Sunday—when it felt like he couldn’t get out of his own way. His game-management mistakes and naive challenges left the Rams without timeouts in the fourth quarter of a tight playoff game. And they got out of it only through some timely Stafford heroics and the 49ers’ own coaching blunders.
Zac Taylor, meanwhile, has gotten off to a slower start in his career. No matter how this run ends, he will enter the 2022 season with a 16-32-1 regular-season record, and his .337 career winning percentage puts him behind such coaching legends as Adam Gase and Freddie Kitchens. Now that’s a little unfair to the Bengals coach. Taylor inherited a bad, aging roster in his first season and within two years has the team a win away from its first title. But even the coaches themselves have attributed the quick turnaround to Burrow’s arrival in Cincinnati rather than anything the staff did.
Finally having a quarterback who is capable of taking over the reins of the offense allowed the Rams to win a conference championship game that they would have lost in the past. The same goes for the Bengals, who, prior to this season, hadn’t won a playoff game in 31 years. It’s a weird Super Bowl matchup, for sure, but maybe it’s a fitting way to cap a season that has shown us the importance of a quarterback who can provide his coach with a margin for error—as well as the limits of a quarterback who can’t.
Burrow and Stafford do not have a lot in common in terms of how they play the position. The former’s game is predicated on precision and perfect timing, while the latter’s is fueled by arm strength and risky throws. But they do share one key quality: the ability to work off-script. Usually when we think about quarterbacks working off-script, our minds go to the scramblers—the Russell Wilsons and Josh Allens of the NFL. But that ability can manifest itself in different ways. Tom Brady getting to his fourth read on a play puts just as much stress on a defense as a Lamar Jackson scramble.
And Burrow spinning out of a sack and finding an open receiver downfield …
… puts as much strain on a defense as Stafford changing his arm angle and firing a side-armed pass through a window only a handful of quarterbacks can access:
As different as Burrow and Stafford are, that ability to find solutions to problems that pop up after the snap has persuaded their coaches to deviate from their philosophical foundations. Taylor was the Rams quarterbacks coach before the Bengals poached him in 2019. And, initially at least, it looked as if Taylor would bring a replica of that offense to Cincinnati. But over the past two seasons, he has gone away from that plan, and now all of the major facets of that scheme—the condensed sets, the pre-snap motion, and the play-action passes from under center—are ancillary features in the Burrow-centric offense the Bengals are running.
Zac Taylor Isn’t Running the Rams’ Offense in Cincinnati
Stafford’s arrival in Los Angeles this season has sparked similar changes for McVay. The Rams are lining up in the gun more often, and their play-action rate is down 6 percentage points compared to 2020, per Sports Info Solutions. With Stafford allowing the Rams to use more spread formations—their average formation width is up a full 2 yards since last season, per Next Gen Stats—we’ve seen a decline in their use of pre-snap motion, which was previously seen as a hallmark of the McVay offense.
Both coaches have deviated so much from the scheme they built together in Los Angeles that you can hardly tell they share the same ideology. But there is one feature of their mutated offenses that is similar: the usage of empty formations. Stafford and Burrow ranked first and second in dropbacks from empty formations this season, according to Sports Info Solutions. It’s uncommon for empty to serve as a foundational part of an offense. In that formation, options are limited for the quarterback because there’s no one else in the backfield. There is no run-pass conflict for the defense to guess on, and there are no extra bodies to help the offensive line in pass protection. The success or failure of a play is wholly contingent on the quarterback’s ability to quickly find an open receiver and get the ball to him in a hurry. That both teams were able to make it this far with such a volatile strategy is a testament to the quarterbacks.
Both McVay and Taylor deserve credit for putting that level of faith in their passers. We’ve seen stubborn coaches waste talented teams in the past by refusing to adjust. But that’s where the story of these two coaches diverges. While McVay has made changes that allow Stafford to play his game, he’s still provided his quarterback with the schematic support that helped turn Jared Goff into a Pro Bowl quarterback. The Rams might not be leaning on those hacks that made Goff’s life easier nearly as much as they did, but they are still wildly effective when McVay dials them up.
The same cannot be said of the Bengals. The more the Bengals win, the harder it gets to criticize Taylor. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the parts of the offense that were in place before Burrow came along are the worst parts of the scheme. The Bengals ranked 24th in EPA per play on runs from under center this season, but only 10 teams ran more of those plays, per Sports Info Solutions. And Cincinnati was one of just nine teams that finished with a negative EPA on play-action passes. Even the Jaguars were better on those plays.
Those issues popped up on Sunday against Kansas City. Taylor’s commitment to his precious run game constantly put Burrow in obvious late-down pass situations. But luckily for Taylor, Burrow’s brilliance on those plays—he averaged 0.30 EPA per play on third- and fourth- down plays, per RBSDM.com—kept drives alive and gave Taylor more chances to call doomed run plays. You don’t need a background in coaching or analytics to find the problem here:
If not for Lou Anarumo’s defense holding Patrick Freaking Mahomes to three points on seven second-half drives, the Bengals may have wasted Burrow’s performance.
McVay wasn’t much better this week. The league’s most celebrated offensive genius continued to innovate, finding new ways to waste timeouts and challenges throughout the second half—which has been a theme for him in big games throughout his career. But what McVay lacks in game management is offset by his play-calling, which consistently provided Stafford with open receivers downfield. And his quarterback hit those throws, completing 10 passes of at least 10 air yards, per Next Gen Stats.
Going into this year’s Super Bowl, it almost feels like Burrow is in the same position that McVay was this time last season. McVay was clearly good enough to lead his team to a championship berth, but the other half of the quarterback-coach partnership was reducing his margin for error. Coincidentally, Burrow has overcome that obstacle in his second year at the helm—just like McVay did back in 2019. Goff’s failures in that Super Bowl cost the Rams a championship. I don’t think anyone would be surprised if we’re saying something similar about Taylor in two weeks’ time.
But these Bengals have what the Rams didn’t in that game: a quarterback who can turn a bad situation into a good one. And Los Angeles has found one of its own, too. Now the question is which can elevate his coach more—and lead his team to victory one more time.