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The NFL’s Wild-Card Round Was a Referendum on Modern Coaching

All season, the story of the league has been play-calling ingenuity. That manifested itself in all four of this past weekend’s playoff games—just not in the way we might have expected.

A treated photo of Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Lamar Jackson Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL’s playoff field already serves as a useful way to identify which teams are the class of the league. This season, though, the wild-card weekend games whittled that group down even further by illustrating an important leaguewide trend: From the moment the Colts began their 21-7 beatdown of the Texans and through Sunday’s 16-15 nail-biter in Chicago, this past weekend’s results were a testament to the importance of creative, adaptive coaching. As teams with solid game plans and a willingness to implement new ideas thrived, those that obstinately stuck to their guns flailed. The 2018 season has exposed the growing gap between the league’s best schemers and the rest of the pack, and the first set of postseason games made that idea more evident than ever.

Let’s start with the Colts, and the staff that arguably did the best job in football this season. Saturday’s clash with the Texans was the third meeting between these teams since late September, and with two games’ worth of film to work with, head coach Frank Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus had a clear understanding of how they could most effectively attack Houston on both sides of the ball. On the Colts’ first drive of the game, with Indy facing a second-and-10 at the Houston 44-yard line, Andrew Luck found T.Y. Hilton deep down the middle for a 38-yard gain—one that set up a short Eric Ebron touchdown to put the Colts up seven early. The Texans’ reliance on Cover 2 concepts makes them vulnerable to speed in the middle of the field, and few receivers are better equipped to take advantage of that than Hilton, even with a busted ankle. Luck was brilliant throughout the first half, and his performance was only accentuated by a game plan that consistently took advantage of Houston’s lack of athleticism on the back end.

Zone defense played a key role for Eberflus as well, only in his case the concept was used to his unit’s advantage. Eberflus is more content to have his group sit in soft zone coverage than just about any coordinator in the league, and it worked to near perfection against Deshaun Watson. Houston had nothing available down the field, and it led to a slew of check-downs and errant touch throws from a quarterback who’d carried the Texans for much of the season. DeAndre Hopkins finished with just five catches for 37 yards, which is a recipe for disaster for an offense without many other proven pass-catching threats. At every level, the Colts looked like a team with an approach well tailored to both their personnel and their opponent. That recipe will lead them to Kansas City next weekend for the AFC divisional round.

As great a job as the Colts staff did this weekend, the performance from the Seahawks coaches was equally bad. Throughout the regular season, Seattle’s run-heavy offensive approach produced some strong returns. Pete Carroll’s team was the only group in the league that ran the ball on more than 50 percent of its plays (52.4 percent), and that plus some occasional downfield brilliance from Russell Wilson allowed the Seahawks’ conservative philosophy to work for much of the year. But lost in a 10-6 campaign was just how difficult Seattle’s scheme made life for its quarterback. A huge portion of the Seahawks’ passing production came solely because Wilson can turn into a sorcerer on deep, tight-window throws. Against Dallas on Saturday night, we saw how quickly that approach can go awry.

It’s not a stretch to say that Brian Schottenheimer’s play-calling against the Cowboys is among the most maddeningly stubborn displays in recent memory. Seattle’s offensive approach throughout the game was fairly straightforward: After one of the team’s running backs had rushed for a minimal gain on first down, and another run had been stuffed on second down, Wilson would drop back to pass facing a third-and-long and do his best to fit a throw into a keyhole down the sideline. Every so often, he dropped a gorgeous teardrop to Tyler Lockett or Doug Baldwin to advance the chains, but for the most part, the Seahawks struggled to generate consistent offense. Seattle converted just two of its 13 third downs and managed only 11 first downs on the day.

If the Seahawks offense simply had no answer for a stout Cowboys defense, that would have been understandable. Dallas stonewalled Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 13, at a time when New Orleans was rolling every other defense in its path. What’s all the more frustrating, though, is that the Seahawks did have answers. At one point in the third quarter, Wilson had thrown 16 passes and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt on those throws. At that same point, Seattle had recorded 21 non-QB running plays, which had gone for just 2.8 yards per carry. Subtract a 28-yard Rashaad Penny run from early in the third quarter, and that number drops to 1.55 yards per rush. Sticking with a run-early, run-often plan when your team can’t crack 2.0 yards per carry and your quarterback is Russell Wilson is nothing short of coaching malpractice.

And to make matters worse, seemingly every time the Seahawks utilized play-action to take a shot downfield, they produced a big play. On back-to-back first-and-10 situations early in the second quarter, Wilson uncorked play-action throws to Ed Dickson and Tyler Lockett for gains of 26 and 40 yards, respectively. Wilson finished the game 9-of-10 on play-action passes for 111 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Yet instead of leaning on that strategy on early downs, Seattle continued to hammer away with the running game and saddled its superstar QB with overwhelming odds on third down. The Seahawks had the tools to combat Dallas’s defense on Saturday, but Schottenheimer refused to use them. That’s the worst sort of coaching possible—an unceasing dedication to an identity that’s in direct contrast to what’s best for your team.

Malleability is a necessary trait for teams and coaches at this stage of the season, and that’s what made the Chargers’ strategy on Sunday so noteworthy. This year, most of the coaching that was lauded around the league was by newly minted offensive masterminds. But Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s game plan against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens was a stroke of defensive genius. As ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out on Sunday, the Chargers used seven defensive backs on 58 of their 59 defensive snaps against Baltimore. Previously this season, no team in the league had utilized seven DBs on more than 17 plays in a game. Bradley clearly believed that the best way to combat Jackson’s running ability was to flood the field with speed, and for much of the afternoon, he was right. The Chargers paired their safety-heavy approach with an expert game plan along the defensive line that matched stunts and shift alignments to various Ravens motions and formations. By packing three players on the interior of the line and emphasizing penetration, Bradley’s front four was able to set up shop in the Baltimore backfield (and it didn’t hurt that linebacker Melvin Ingram was the best player on the field).

It’s fitting that the Chargers earned the right to play the Patriots in the divisional round by deploying a previously unused defensive scheme. Bill Belichick has built his career by staying at least one step ahead of every other team, constantly evolving and shape-shifting to best fit his personnel and best combat New England’s opponent that week. Not surprisingly, the teams that earned first-round byes this season feature four of the most forward-thinking head coaches in the league. Andy Reid and Sean McVay have been paragons of innovation for the past few seasons. Sean Payton has long been one of the game’s preeminent offensive minds. And after a win over the Bears on Sunday, Eagles coach Doug Pederson is making noise in the playoffs. The advantages those coaches provide went a long way in establishing those teams as the best in football this year, and now they’ll be joined in the divisional round by the coaches who were most willing to take on a similarly open-minded approach. By the time the playoffs begin, it’s tempting for coaches to believe that the formula that got them to the postseason is infallible. But wild-card weekend was even more proof that the coaches who are able to adapt are the most likely to survive.