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Take a cursory look at the NFL’s most thrilling offenses last year, and a few common themes emerge. In their first seasons under new head coaches, both the Rams and 49ers shredded opponents with savvy play designs fueled by deception. Los Angeles coach Sean McVay and San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan thrive behind play-action fakes, intricate motions, and subtle-but-devastating tweaks to receiver splits and alignments.
Other teams throttled defenses via ingenuity and collaboration. In Kansas City and Philadelphia, the coaching staffs studied college tendencies and developed in-house football laboratories that pushed them to the forefront of innovation. Doug Pederson’s embrace of an RPO-heavy offense lifted the Eagles all the way to a Super Bowl title, and his relentless effort to stay one step ahead turned him into a hero for risk takers everywhere. “Stay on the attack, without a doubt,” Vikings offensive coordinator and former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo says of the no. 1 lesson he learned from Pederson. “And a willingness to be open to new things and change.”
The NFL has long been a league of mimics. Teams are quick to bottle up the latest buzzworthy ideas and parrot them as their own. And after watching from afar as the Eagles, Rams, and Chiefs became the league’s cool kids in 2017, franchises spent this offseason scrambling to replicate their results. In 2018, 13 teams will have new offensive play-callers. Nearly a third of those—DeFilippo, Bears head coach Matt Nagy, Colts head coach Frank Reich, and Titans coordinator Matt LaFleur—were members of 2017 staffs in Philly, Los Angeles, or Kansas City. Upon recognizing the traits that make for brutally efficient offenses, teams have elected to pull from the places that cultivate them best.
As organizations mine the same staffs in pursuit of a breakthrough, a certain level of offensive cross-pollination is inevitable. “It’s neat to watch, [but] sometimes it’s annoying,” Shanahan jokes about seeing his schemes on film throughout the league. “Sometimes I don’t like watching the exact same stuff on other peoples’ tapes.” That annoyance becomes even more complicated considering where many of these coaches originated. Pederson was a coordinator under Reid in Kansas City, meaning that both Reich and DeFilippo are branches on the Reid coaching tree. McVay was an assistant for Shanahan with the Redskins eight years ago; LaFleur was also on that staff, making him a member of the McVay and Shanahan trees.
The knotty, intertwined nature of the league speaks to just how motivated teams are to capture the magic of a few savants. “The main thing is it’s a copycat league, and lots of times, people don’t notice stuff until you have success,” Shanahan says. “And when you do have success, everybody watches it. That’s why it becomes bigger and bigger.”
When people link McVay and Shanahan, they usually point to the time the pair spent together in Washington. Shanahan was hired to coordinate the offense when his father was brought on as the head coach in 2010, and McVay joined the team’s staff as a quality control assistant that year. The connection, though, dates back even further. McVay and Shanahan started their careers at the lowest level of Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay staff in the 2000s. “The foundation of everything I know about offensive football comes from Jon Gruden,” McVay says.
Gruden’s West Coast principles formed the basis of both coaches’ systems, and the offenses they now run only grew from there. As coaches climb the ladder in their respective careers, they pick up lessons from the mentors they work with along the way. Each stop presents a new set of football ideals, even if the basics of a scheme are fairly similar. “The foundation of how you want to operate, what your identity is offensively, it’s been an accumulation of the people that I’ve learned from and what we feel is the best way to accentuate our players’ skill sets,” McVay says.
In the time since Shanahan and McVay worked for Gruden, each has studied under bosses who emphasized the use of play-action. Shanahan’s experience in Houston with Gary Kubiak, a former assistant for his father in Denver and a disciple of the zone-running play-action game, was Kyle’s first foray into that type of scheme. And when McVay arrived in Washington, he was introduced to an offense devoted to that approach. “I got a chance to learn from Kyle and Mike Shanahan about really having an identity, creating a marriage between the run and the pass game,” McVay says.
Dedication to play-action—and the endless pursuit of deception—has emerged as the defining characteristic of the offenses in this lineage of coaches. And their recent success with that strategy goes a long way in explaining this coaching tree’s recent proliferation. In his debut season as Rams head coach, McVay oversaw the biggest jump in play-action usage of any offense from 2016. The Rams used play-action on 29 percent of their dropbacks last season, the second-highest rate in the league; they used it on just 16 percent of dropbacks the year before, a clip that ranked 26th. Jared Goff averaged 3.7 more yards per attempt with play-action than without, the second-biggest difference in the NFL behind Marcus Mariota (5.2 YPA). Given Mariota’s play-action proficiency, it should be no surprise that the Titans’ brass saw a McVay assistant as a logical option to run their offense.
As McVay explains why the Rams favor play-action, he points to factors that compound a defense’s problems. “Especially in early down-and-distances when [defenses are] a little more regulated with what you’re getting, that’s definitely something we want to do,” he says. Using play-action on early downs when the threat of a run is more believable makes sense, and as McVay spells out, the benefits go beyond bolstering the legitimacy of the run fake. First-down coverages in the NFL aren’t tangled, complex webs in the way that third-down schemes often are. Astute play-callers understand the benefits of slinging the ball on first-and-10, and McVay and Shanahan are two of the best in the business.
Of Goff’s 477 pass attempts last season, 175 came on first down, and his 8.3 yards per attempt on those ranked seventh among players with at least 70 first-down attempts. While Goff’s numbers are impressive, they don’t hold a candle to the figures Jimmy Garoppolo put up in his late-season stint as the 49ers starter. In his five games under center in San Francisco, Garoppolo averaged a ridiculous 9.9 yards per attempt—the best mark in the league by far among QBs with at least 70 first-down attempts. Jimmy G’s mark stems from a small sample size, but illustrates how dangerous Shanahan can be when toying with convention with a high-caliber QB at the controls.
Shanahan folds in an additional layer of deceit by way of myriad heavy formations. The 49ers used 21 personnel (two backs, two receivers, and one tight end) on 28 percent of their offensive snaps last season, the highest rate in the league, according to Warren Sharp’s data. Some of that is driven by the investment the front office made in fullback/Swiss army knife Kyle Juszczyk; some of it is driven by Shanahan’s propensity for deploying larger sets to create traffic and fool defenses into believing they have to stop a play they’ve never seen. “You look at Atlanta when they went to the Super Bowl, they’re mixing in 13 [personnel],” McVay says. “They’re mixing in 12 or 21 looks, depending on how you want to look at that second tight end.”
With so many different personnel groupings on the field, Shanahan is able to dress up play concepts in varied ways, even if the schematic details of those concepts remain the same. McVay has witnessed the benefits of that approach firsthand, only last season in Los Angeles it wasn’t a luxury that he could afford. “We went into L.A., and I don’t think the idea was to be almost exclusively an 11-personnel team,” LaFleur says. “But it’s a credit to Sean understanding who our best players were.”
In a drastic departure from his offenses in Washington, McVay’s Rams used 11 personnel (three receivers, one back, and one tight end) on a league-high 81 percent of their offensive snaps. After identifying the three-receiver set as his go-to method for getting his premier talent on the field, McVay faced the challenge of being creative enough within a single personnel package to keep defenses guessing. During the past few years, teams that have trotted out three receivers and a single back on most of their plays have been rightfully mocked. Ben McAdoo’s Giants and Jason Garrett’s Cowboys have become punch lines about stale offensive game-planning, and the latter hasn’t been helped by Dez Bryant’s Twitter zingers about the Dallas receivers regularly aligning in the same spots.
Last season, McVay went as far as any coach could go in the opposite direction while still using a similar frequency of 11 personnel. In some scenarios, that meant motioning receivers in tight to mimic H-backs and second tight ends. In others, running back Todd Gurley and a tight end would align as receivers to create empty formations. The Rams’ alignment mirrored formations and play designs that typically happen with drastically different packages.
The discrepancies between McVay’s offense in L.A. and Shanahan’s in San Francisco makes projecting LaFleur’s scheme in Tennessee complex. On one hand, LaFleur is a year removed from coordinating an offense that led the league in 11-personnel usage. On the other, he was raised in a system predicated on confusion for confusion’s sake. “I think the beauty within our scheme is that you have flexibility,” LaFleur says. “You’re gonna run the same stuff out of multiple personnel groupings, so it creates an illusion of complexity. It’s harder for the defense to pick up than it is for our guys.”
While coaches who aren’t from this tree may attempt to strike the perfect balance of play-action and trickery, one of McVay’s main takeaways from his experience with the Shanahans is that this type of offense can’t be done halfway. The marriage between run and pass, the interwoven elements to every call, the way that one play inherently affects another—all of them are built into the offense’s DNA. Identity is impossible to fake. “When you have an identity, I think the players feel a comfort level in it,” McVay says. “You get a lot of repetitions at it. Repetition is the mother of learning.”
NFL franchises may seek out masters of deception like McVay more than ever before, but as the Reid coaching tree makes plain, it’s not the only quality that’s taken the league by storm in recent years. During Reid’s time as Kansas City’s head coach, the Chiefs’ offensive staff has maintained a dry-erase board affectionately known as the “Beautiful Mind” board. Every Monday throughout the season, the board is blank in Reid’s office, waiting for members of the staff to fill it in with their most outlandish concepts. Some are play designs drawn on napkins or pulled straight from a coach’s mind, never before seen. Others are familiar concepts dressed up in new formations. “We know where the bones are buried [on those plays],” Nagy says, “but we just do it from a different look.”
On Mondays and Tuesdays, assistants dip in and out, sketching plays in different markers and filling the board until it becomes a multi-colored spider web of lines, X’s, and O’s. “It almost indirectly became a competition of who was going to come up with the most creative play that was going to be successful,” Nagy says. On Saturday, a photo is snapped of the board for safekeeping just before it’s erased, wiped clean for the following week. “You never lose it,” Nagy says. “It’s always there somewhere. But you get a nice, clean slate on Monday morning.”
Nagy entered Reid’s orbit a decade ago as an offensive assistant for the 2008 Eagles. A former college quarterback at Delaware, Nagy has long enjoyed living outside the box as a football thinker, and came to realize that he found the perfect teacher to nourish that desire. By the time Nagy came to Philly, Reid had ceded a good portion of day-to-day offensive operations to entrenched coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. But when a young, relatively inexperienced staff (one that included Pederson as a first-year offensive coordinator and Nagy as the QBs coach) followed Reid to Kansas City in 2013, the veteran coach felt it was time to once again take control. Just before the start of that year’s OTAs, during one of the staff’s opening meetings of the season, Reid busted in the door with a new-look up-tempo approach ready to go out of the gate. “It was out of nowhere,” Nagy says. “And we ended up doing it. It ended up being successful. That just goes to show that his mind is always thinking one step ahead of everybody.”
For a young coach thirsting to innovate, getting to see Reid pilot the offense was a dream come true. “That was so awesome,” Nagy says. “For the first time, being a young guy coming up, I got to hear the installs, play-by-play, detail-by-detail, from coach Reid. For me to hear that, and to understand how he works and how he thinks, it allowed me as a quarterbacks coach to say, ‘Wow, he likes to be creative. I like to be creative. Let’s start throwing some ideas with each other—along with Doug and the rest of these guys.’”
The crucible of creativity that Reid has fostered with the Chiefs has seeped into the rest of the league, and much of that influence has manifested itself in the explosion of the run-pass option. RPO concepts came to Kansas City with quarterback Alex Smith; Smith used RPOs as a college QB at Utah and during his tenure with the 49ers, and as Pederson, Nagy, and the Chiefs staff watched college quarterbacks entering the draft each year, they began recognizing different designs that might be compatible with their offense. That’s one reason Kansas City’s use of RPOs skyrocketed in 2017: The Chiefs had just spent that spring drilling down on college QBs before selecting Patrick Mahomes 10th overall. The staff was flush was new play designs that might apply. “We really value evaluating these college quarterbacks,” Nagy says. “When you’re going through that, you’re seeing so much tape, and you’re seeing these guys that are out there at the quarterback position, and you see so many different plays and concepts in the college world. When you watch it, you almost instantly say, ‘Well does that fit with our guys?’”
Talk to the coaches with ties to Reid and Pederson, and they stress how valuable this trial-and-error segment is to the offensive process. During practices in Philadelphia last spring, the Eagles tried plenty of RPO concepts that failed spectacularly. Through the years, Nagy has learned that not every design idea translates to three dimensions. “Sometimes you get in the lab and your experiments work,” Reich says. “But they don’t always.”
So far this season, there’s been plenty of feeling out for Nagy, Reich, and DeFilippo in their new homes. In DeFilippo’s case, the challenge is melding some of his own ideas with an offense that’s remained largely intact. The Vikings’ protections, motions, and formations will all be nearly identical to what they were a season ago. Even with the carryover, DeFilippo doesn’t feel restricted. He says Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer has given him plenty of leeway to make the offense his own, and there’s never a gray area about where the limits exist. “Coach communicates exactly what he wants and exactly what he expects,” DeFilippo says. “There’s no beating around the bush with Coach. If he wants something, he’s going to tell you. As an assistant coach, you can really appreciate that.”
In Indianapolis and Chicago, Reich and Nagy have different hurdles. Initially, Reich was encouraged by how many of the Eagles’ concepts seemed applicable with Andrew Luck at quarterback. “I really felt from where I just came from, there were a lot of connection points,” Reich says. “Carson [Wentz] is big and strong and athletic and smart. Andrew is big and strong and athletic and smart.” Yet even for players with similar profiles, it’s key to note that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. These coaches get hired because of their prior successes, but Reich says he’s been conscious of compartmentalizing his time in Philly and his job now. “It’s always an interesting dynamic,” Reich says. “You go somewhere and you want to take all your experiences with you, but when you go to a new place, it’s just the nature of this business that you’re all in where you’re at. You don’t like to talk too much about previous places and previous players because you’re trying to create something special where you’re at.”
When Nagy talks about his former boss, the reverence in his voice is obvious. He refers to Reid simply as “coach,” in the same tone someone would use when alluding to a mentor he’s had since high school. Nagy’s football worldview has been imbued with the values Reid fostered during his days as a young coach, and his task is to instill that same overarching approach with the franchise he now oversees. How he fares, along with Reich, DeFilippo, and LaFleur, will determine how far these emerging trees grow. “We kind of all feel like we’re in this thing together,” Nagy says of his former Kansas City colleagues. “We all learned together, going through this stuff, talking through it. You spend so many hours with one another just talking about ideas, and thoughts, and concepts to see it come to fruition.
“For me, I was fortunate to be around those guys and work with them. Those were special times.”