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The NFL’s always unpredictable, but this year, it feels tougher than ever to know what to expect from a majority of the league’s teams—especially on offense. With the unprecedented free-agent quarterback shuffle, the infusion of an ultra-talented rookie QB class, the return of Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Carson Wentz, and Aaron Rodgers, and the start of the Patrick Mahomes era in Kansas City, there’s plenty of uncertainty at the most important position in sports. Add in the return of superstar playmakers like David Johnson, Odell Beckham Jr., Dalvin Cook, and Greg Olsen, and offenses around the league are about to look a whole lot different than last year. And all that change is magnified by an extraordinary amount of coaching turnover.
Seven teams switched head coaches—that’s about average for any given year—but 18 clubs changed their offensive coordinator (and that’s not including Bill Lazor in Cincinnati or Bill Musgrave in Denver, who both had the interim tag removed this offseason). That nearly doubles the amount of offensive coordinator swaps we saw last year (10), and represents the high mark for offensive coordinator turnover for the decade. Each new hire brings potential for major shifts in offensive philosophy, identity, style, and scheme—along with new responsibilities for the most crucial players on those teams.
With the start of the season less than two weeks away, now’s a good time for a crash course on what all these moves mean for their respective teams.
These teams are going to be installing brand-new, mostly unrecognizable schemes.
HC Matt Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich replace OC Dowell Loggains.
If there’s one anecdote that best sums up last year’s Bears offense under head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, it’s that they managed to win a game despite throwing the football just seven times. Chicago employed probably the most vanilla, antiquated scheme in the entire league, leaning heavily on the run while asking rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to do, well, as little as possible. That made them incredibly predictable: “Everyone knew what we were going to do,” running back Jordan Howard told Good Morning Football in February. “They knew what was coming every play. It was easy for them to stop us.”
That’s why, in simplest terms, the biggest impact that new head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich can have for the Bears is to simply make them unpredictable again. Nagy, who will be calling plays, comes to Chicago after five years in Kansas City under Andy Reid. Helfrich, meanwhile, makes the jump to the NFL after eight years with the Oregon Ducks, the last four as head coach. Both coaches will have a part in the design and implementation of what Nagy says will be a “progressive and aggressive” scheme, combining his Chiefs-inspired West Coast/spread offense hybrid with Helfrich’s spread-to-run, option-based Oregon scheme. It’s bound to feature heavy doses of shotgun, bootlegs, play-action passes, pre-snap backfield motion, uptempo no-huddle looks, run-pass options, and read-option plays. In other words, it should look absolutely nothing like what the team ran last year.
Both Nagy and Helfrich are former quarterbacks, which should be a boon for Trubisky. The 24-year-old signal-caller struggled to adapt to the team’s rigid, pro-style scheme last year after playing overwhelmingly out of shotgun spread looks at North Carolina, and should be a great fit for the team’s new hybrid system, where he should be better able to utilize his athleticism as a runner and his ability to throw on the move.
OC Matt LaFleur replaces OC Terry Robiskie.
The exotic smashmouth is dead. Thank god. Despite the team’s playoff appearance and wild-card win last year, the Titans fired head coach Mike Mularkey and replaced him with first-time head coach Mike Vrabel, ostensibly so Vrabel can install a Patriots-style culture of winning in Tennessee. Vrabel would do well to get franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota’s career back on track—a job that falls largely to his most important lieutenant: new offensive coordinator and first-time play-caller Matt LaFleur.
LaFleur cut his teeth under the two hottest coordinators in the game, coming up as an assistant under Kyle Shanahan in both Washington and Atlanta before serving as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator last year with the Rams. Drawing on those two influences, he’ll look to install a new-look scheme that better fits Mariota’s skill set. We don’t know exactly what that’ll look like yet or whether it’ll more closely resemble McVay’s system or Shanahan’s. But much like the Bears, the Titans had become far too predictable, and the simplest and most powerful way that LaFleur can improve Tennessee’s offense is to bring a little good, old-fashioned deception back into the fold. That means more formational diversity, more pre-snap movement, and most importantly, more play-action passing.
Mariota was the NFL’s best play-action passer in 2017, registering a 122.8 rating on those throws while notching a league-high 11.2 yards per attempt, per Pro Football Focus (that’s 5.2 yards per attempt more than his non-play-fake passes, the highest differential in the NFL by a wide margin). Only the team ran play-action relatively sparingly―including just three times in the Titans’ playoff loss to the Patriots. In L.A., LaFleur had a part in designing an offense which led the NFL in play-action percentage (29.1, per PFF), and I’d wager Mariota will challenge for the league lead in play-action attempts per dropback this year.
HC Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni replace OC Rob Chudzinski.
The 37-year-old Sirianni—most recently a receivers coach with the Chargers—is going to have a hand in designing the Colts’ new-look offense, but it’s going to be new head coach Frank Reich who calls the plays. Reich’s got four years of experience as an offensive coordinator in the NFL—he spent the past two seasons with the Eagles and the previous two with the Chargers—and Philly’s Super Bowl campaign will be likely be freshest in mind when he goes to the drawing board each week in 2018. That is to say, Indy’s offense this year will likely employ plenty of shotgun looks, lots of run-pass options, a focus on tight ends and running backs in the passing game, and a balance between run and pass.
In Reich’s own words, Indy will run a “multiple-attack, up-tempo offense,” and if the Colts offense is anything like the Eagles offense last year, it should feature a lot of play-action passing (Carson Wentz threw off play-action on 26.7 percent of his dropbacks, fourth in the NFL among qualifying QBs, while Nick Foles used play-action at an even higher clip at 32.7 percent). That sounds like a great fit for Andrew Luck, who excels at the line of scrimmage and has the accuracy to pick defenses apart when he’s given time. Ultimately, Luck’s the player with the most to gain from the Colts’ coaching changes.
After missing the last year-plus to a throwing-shoulder injury, Luck’s journey back to full strength may not yet be complete. Right now, per observers, his velocity isn’t where it used to be, which means a heavy reliance on deep drops and 50-yard bombs may have to be put on hold. Instead, Reich will likely utilize quick-game passing: lots of screens, dump-offs, and slants. As Reich put it, “I like to use … a boxing analogy: A lot of jabs, stick, and move, and then here comes the big punch.”
New York Giants
HC Pat Shurmur and OC Mike Shula replace HC Ben McAdoo and OC Mike Sullivan.
The good news for new Giants head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula is that there’s basically only one way to go, and that’s up. After finishing last year 31st in scoring, better only than the 0-16 Browns, New York has the potential to make a big jump on offense thanks to a wholesale scheme makeover. Shurmur (most recently the offensive coordinator in Minnesota) is going to be calling plays, and given that he’ll be paired with Shula (off a five-year stint as offensive coordinator in Carolina), we can expect a new Giants offense that features an eclectic mix of styles.
I’ve heard the phrase “West Coast power spread” thrown out there, and I like it. It’s a scheme that combines, as you might guess, elements of the West Coast offense (Shurmur came up under Reid), the power run game (from Shula and the late Tony Sparano, former Vikings offensive line coach), and a little bit of Chip Kelly–influenced spread stuff (Shurmur was Kelly’s OC in Philly). Like all of the teams above, play-action is going to be a bigger factor—Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum finished second in play-action percentage (28.7), per PFF, while Eli Manning finished 22nd in that category (19.4)—along with more RPOs and personnel variation.
Under Ben McAdoo, the Giants were overly reliant on 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one back) and rarely moved players around formations, making them far too predictable (something that Odell Beckham Jr. called McAdoo out on last year). This year, expect Beckham to line up all over the formation, including in the slot, making it more difficult for defenders to identify and jump routes. It could lead to an explosion in production for the recently paid superstar, and could help the offense run a whole lot smoother. Oh, and expect Saquon Barkley to get a heavy workload, too. Shurmur’s offenses have a strong history of featuring a bell-cow back.
OC Mike McCoy replaces OC Harold Goodwin.
McCoy comes to Arizona with a diverse tool kit to draw from, with experience coaching the West Coast offense, the Air Coryell scheme, the Erhardt-Perkins system, and even some read-option stuff in Denver to facilitate Tim Tebow’s limited passing skill set. During the entirety of McCoy’s career, adaptability has been a common thread. It remains to be seen, though, exactly what he plans to run in Arizona.
It’s probably safe to say that the Bruce Arians–style “no risk it, no biscuit” passing offense is a thing of the past. McCoy’s teams are historically pass-happy, and I’d expect the plan is to lean on horizontal West Coast concepts (rather than an uber-aggressive vertical attack) with Sam Bradford. Plus, it sounds like the ground game is going to be a foundation.
New head coach Steve Wilks has already pledged his allegiance to the old cliché of establishing the run—making it clear he plans to adopt a Panthers-esque smashmouth identity. The team may even heavily feature what’s more and more a dying breed in the NFL. “When a good fullback takes the field, the tempo, the physicality picks up,” said Cardinals running backs coach Kirby Wilson this summer. “A fullback brings violence to the game, he brings mayhem, he brings destruction, and those are the things that makes a defense a little bit soft over time, if you got a good one.”
Do-it-all running back David Johnson seems excited for that—he frequently ran behind a fullback in college, and that type of player adds one more blocker to the mix, which, hopefully, helps keep Bradford on his feet. Johnson should return to his status as the focal point of the team’s offense, and there’s little doubt he’ll be heavily utilized as a pass catcher too. As Johnson told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, “I think the biggest thing that I like is, same as [Arians], I’m being utilized more than just at running back, being split out at receiver and having different ways to get the ball.”
OC Todd Haley takes over play-calling duties for head coach Hue Jackson.
After a two-year stint in which Cleveland’s offense finished 32nd and 31st in scoring, respectively, Jackson—the team’s head coach and de facto offensive coordinator during that time—has handed the keys of his offense over to Haley (whose contract with the Steelers was not renewed after six years with the club). Haley now has full autonomy to run his scheme and brings a new playbook and new language to the Browns.
It’s hard to imagine this team not taking a big step forward under Haley and new quarterback Tyrod Taylor (or Baker Mayfield, should Mayfield win the job). Haley’s an aggressive play-caller who loves to take deep shots and use his running backs as receivers, and he’ll tailor a Steelers-style offense to fit new personnel. Will Josh Gordon play the role of a field-stretcher like Mike Wallace or Martavis Bryant? Can Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson combine to play a Le’Veon Bell–style role? Is Jarvis Landry versatile enough to be the go-to guy in that scheme à la Antonio Brown? We’ll soon find out.
OC Brian Daboll replaces OC Rick Dennison.
Daboll broke into the league in New England in 2000, coaching in different capacities for five teams before heading to the college ranks to coordinate Alabama’s national championship–winning offense in 2017. After that one-year detour to the SEC, Daboll’s back in the NFL, where he’ll install the Patriots-style Erhardt-Perkins passing game in Buffalo (a shift from Dennison’s West Coast scheme). We’ll have to wait until the regular season to find out exactly what that will look like, but we can expect an uptick in no-huddle, up-tempo play; don’t be surprised if Daboll weaves some of the college elements he employed last year into his new scheme with the Bills.
The run game is likely to provide the bedrock upon which the offense lies. Per Pro Football Focus, the four teams that Daboll’s coordinated at the NFL level have been run-heavy, throwing the ball on just 51.8 percent of plays—lowest among all active play-callers. That may be the smart route to go considering the question marks the team has at the quarterback position.
New Tweaks/Fresh Ideas
For these teams, overarching philosophies aren’t likely to change drastically with new offensive coordinator hires—but we could see a few key modifications or additions.
OC John DeFilippo replaces OC Pat Shurmur.
DeFilippo—who coached quarterbacks last year for the Super Bowl–winning Eagles—will certainly bring a few of that team’s staple concepts to Minnesota, and we may see an uptick in RPOs (Philly used RPOs on 17.6 percent of snaps last year, second-most in the league, while the Vikings used RPOs on just 4.4 percent of plays, per PFF) and an increased emphasis on tight ends and running backs in the passing game. But there shouldn’t be major wholesale changes, philosophically, from the West Coast–style scheme we saw last year under Shurmur. When he was hired, DeFilippo even told reporters that “the first thing we are going to do is sit down and see what the Minnesota Vikings did well last year. If they did something really, really well and their players are good at it, there is no reason to change it.”
By the way: The Vikings did do a lot of things really, really well, and their players were good at it, so there’s no reason to change a lot of it. Though fitting the play sheet to new quarterback Kirk Cousins’s strengths will be key.
OC Norv Turner replaces OC Mike Shula.
As Panthers head coach Ron Rivera puts it, one of the main reasons he hired Turner is that the longtime coach wouldn’t be introducing a new offensive system, new plays, and new terminology—thus making the coordinator transition a smooth one for quarterback Cam Newton.
Rivera coached under Turner in San Diego from 2007 to 2010, and when he got the head-coach job in Carolina in 2011, he named then-Chargers tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski as his offensive coordinator. Chudzinski then installed the system he had learned from Turner. Now Turner is set to take over an offense he indirectly designed.
If there’s one major difference in this year’s team from last, it’s that Turner seems intent on making life easier on his former MVP signal-caller. The plans for that call for improved receiver route running, and a focus on concepts that get the ball out of Newton’s hands more quickly.
OC Randy Fichtner replaces OC Todd Haley.
Fichtner has never called plays at the NFL level, but the plan seems to be for the longtime quarterbacks coach to make very few changes to the scheme the team’s been running the past six seasons under Haley (in fact, he’ll retain his title as quarterbacks coach). Fichtner will obviously look to streamline current systems and add a few touches of his own. He will need to figure out how to get Ben Roethlisberger to play more consistently on the road, but he’ll get plenty of help from head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive line coach (the architect of the run game) Mike Munchak, and now de facto player-coach, Ben Roethlisberger, who should get more freedom to design the game plan and change plays at the line.
New York Jets
OC Jeremy Bates replaces OC John Morton.
Morton made the most of a talent-deficient offense with a 38-year-old journeyman quarterback at the helm last year. But per the New York Post, Morton’s failure to establish the run, make in-game adjustments, and feature anyone other than receiver Robby Anderson led to his dismissal. I would assume those are three points on which Bates must focus.
Early in his career, Bates—who hails from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree and should be expected to lean on zone blocking in the run game and plenty of play-action in the passing game—was a fast-rising play-caller. When Pete Carroll returned to the league in 2010, he tabbed the former Broncos OC to run his offense. But he lasted just one season in Seattle, ended up in Chicago in 2012, and then spent the next four years away from the game. It’s tough to know what to expect from Bates this time around, but the Jets are entrusting him with the development of Sam Darnold. It remains to be seen whether that’s a good or bad thing.
Back to the Future
Going the opposite direction from the league’s most forward-thinking clubs, a few franchises are leaning on old-school ideas to fix their problems.
OC Brian Schottenheimer replaces OC Darrell Bevell.
Schottenheimer’s first priority is to revive the Seahawks’ severely diminished run game. The former Rams and Jets coach, like Pete Carroll, has always espoused and displayed a strong belief in running the ball, and along with new offensive line coach Mike Solari, will be tasked with figuring out how to get Seattle’s notoriously bad offensive line to open up holes for running backs Chris Carson and rookie Rashaad Penny.
HC Jon Gruden, OC Greg Olson replace OC Todd Downing.
Greg Olson is the Raiders new coordinator, but Jon Gruden—who hasn’t stood on the sideline since 2008, will be the one calling plays. He’s already said that he wants to “throw the game back to 1998,” and in some ways, I believe him. Take, for example, the third play of Gruden’s first preseason game with the team: A 60-yard touchdown run by 32-year-old running back Marshawn Lynch. Yes, that’s eight—count ’em—eight Raiders lined up at the point of attack. Smashmouth football, baby. Space? Who needs it?
Marshawn Lynch ran 60 yards for a touchdown that was called back. pic.twitter.com/FeQlBU96pB— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) August 11, 2018
This play was called back due to a hold. But while it’s basically the definition of throwing the game back to 1998, Gruden did throw in one little clue that maybe, perhaps, he’s been paying attention to the way the game’s evolved over the past decade: that sweep action just prior to the snap, an element that helps spring Lynch in the open field.
The Raiders should incorporate traditional West Coast concepts and feature a strong emphasis on the run under offensive line coach Tom Cable, but we may see Gruden embrace the future a little bit as well. Stay tuned.
The Status Quo
Don’t expect major changes from any of these hires.
Green Bay Packers
OC Joe Philbin replaces OC Edgar Bennett.
Philbin’s back in Green Bay after a more than three-year stint as the head coach in Miami and two years in Indianapolis as an offensive line coach. He may bring a few new ideas to the system he ran as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2011, but head coach Mike McCarthy will be the one calling plays.
Kansas City Chiefs
OC Eric Bieniemy replaces OC Matt Nagy.
With Nagy off to Chicago, Reid will be taking back play-calling duties for the Chiefs. He’ll get some help on the planning side of things from longtime assistant Eric Bieniemy, who’s been with the team since 2013.
Los Angeles Rams
No new OC hired, Matt LaFleur to the Titans.
Last year, LaFleur was offensive coordinator in name only, as McVay was the one designing the offense and calling the plays. This year, McVay didn’t even bother to hire a new OC.
OC Mike Groh replaces OC Frank Reich.
The Eagles will have to deal with the effects of the Super Bowl brain drain, having lost both Reich and DeFilippo. But while Groh ascends to the offensive coordinator spot, head coach Doug Pederson will continue to call plays.
OC Dowell Loggains replaces OC Clyde Christensen.
Head coach Adam Gase will still be calling plays. If there’s anything that Loggains wants to bring to his new team, per reports, it’s more no-huddle, up-tempo stuff.