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Fifty Years of Play-Action Evolution Has Led to Sean McVay’s Rams

The notion of faking runs to help the passing game is as old as football itself. So how has McVay used that concept to make these Super Bowl–bound Rams unlike any offense that’s come before them?

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The first AFL-NFL World Championship Game—now referred to as Super Bowl I—was played on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. A then-record television audience of 65 million viewers tuned in to watch Vince Lombardi’s Packers take on the Chiefs. Players on the winning team each received a prize of $15,000.

In many ways, it feels like that game happened more than 52 years ago. The scale of the Super Bowl has grown larger than anyone could’ve imagined in the days before the AFL and NFL merged. In other ways, though, not much has changed. CBS broadcast that contest, like it will do on Sunday. The event was held at the Coliseum, where the Rams currently play their home games. And, somehow, many of the tactics used back then are as relevant now as they were five decades ago.

Early in the second quarter of Super Bowl I, Chiefs QB Len Dawson faked an exaggerated handoff to his fullback before pulling the ball back and launching a pass to wide receiver Otis Taylor for a 31-yard gain. It was Kansas City’s longest play of the afternoon, and on the indispensable NFL Films recap of the game, legendary narrator John Facenda notes that the play-action pass was the Chiefs’ best weapon during a frustrating day for their offense. “When the Green Bay defense honors the fake,” Facenda says as the replay rolls in slow motion, “it must sacrifice the pass rush. With no pressure on him, Dawson has ample time to find the receiver.” The defense’s reaction and Facenda’s commentary are fascinating—because they explain why the Rams rely so heavily on play-action today.

With quarterback Jared Goff wearing Dawson’s no. 16, the Rams have built an offense that uses play-action unlike any team in the Super Bowl era. This season, Goff used play-action on 34.6 percent of his dropbacks, the highest mark in the league by more than 4 percentage points, according to Pro Football Focus. He averaged 10.0 yards per attempt on those throws, compared to 7.5 on dropback passes. Ten of Goff’s 12 interceptions came when he wasn’t using play-action. Rams head coach Sean McVay has learned what Chiefs coach Hank Stram did in the 1960s—play-action throws are the most efficient way to move the ball through the air.

More than half a century after play-action first became part of Super Bowl history, McVay is testing the limits of the concept within the modern NFL. And against Bill Belichick and the vaunted Patriots, it may give his Rams their best chance at writing their own chapter in Super Bowl lore.

The notion of faking runs to help the passing game is as old as football itself. In his 1931 book Coaching: The Complete Notre Dame System of Football, Knute Rockne writes: “No forward pass play is good unless both the passer and the receiver cover up as long as possible the fact that it is going to be a forward pass play.” Rockne’s primary method for achieving that: faking an off-tackle run. George Halas and the Chicago Bears used play-action as part of their T-formation offense to decimate the Washington Redskins 73-10 in the 1940 NFL Championship Game. Quarterback Sid Luckman finished the game just 3-for-4 passing—with 88 yards and a touchdown. Three years later, in another championship victory over Washington, Luckman used a play fake before finding halfback Dante Magnani for a 36-yard touchdown early in the third quarter.

Play fakes might not have been new by the time the Chiefs hired Stram in 1960, but that’s when the modern understanding of play-action began to take shape. The earliest known occurrence of “play-action” appearing in print came in a 1961 Philadelphia Daily News article, published right around the time when Stram was manufacturing ways to provide Dawson with easy throws. “Lenny kind of fit the Drew Brees mode,” says Tom Pratt, the defensive line coach for the Chiefs from 1963 through 1977. “Lenny was not real tall. I think he was 6 feet when he was playing. Here he had some of those guys playing across from him, and they get their hands up and he could have a little bit of trouble finding a place to throw.”

Stram devised a plan for Dawson to drift both back and to his right after executing a hard play fake. By rolling only partially to his right, the quarterback gained additional separation from the defensive line while keeping his vision of the entire field intact. “[The movement] controlled that rush a little bit better, where they just couldn’t tee off and come,” Pratt says. “And it gave diversity to our offense as well.” Stram referred to the design as a “moving pocket.”

The terminology may be different than what this season’s Rams use, but the overarching goal is identical. “You’re moving so much of the offensive line, your passing windows are much bigger because of all that movement,” says former NFL QB and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who played for the Rams in training camp last season. “I’m not sitting back there behind basically stationary guys, I’ve now created more passing lanes. It’s easier for me to find passing lanes because instead of sitting in a tackle box set about 5 yards wide, it’s now something that’s 8 to 9 yards wide.”

While the end goals may be identical, the Rams’ use of play-action represents an evolution—one that’s been taking place for as long as the West Coast offense has existed.

McVay may share the motivations that propelled Stram’s innovations, but the DNA of his offense emerged roughly a decade and a half later. That’s when the 49ers hired Bill Walsh, and the NFL’s West Coast offense craze began in earnest. The quick-passing, dropback elements of the West Coast offense remain its most famous and enduring principles, but Walsh was always an ardent supporter of play-action. And his meticulous attention to its intricacies shaped how the concept would look in generations to come. “The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense,” Walsh once wrote in American Football Monthly. “I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense.”

Reading Walsh’s words from the 1980s and listening to the Rams discuss the nuances of play-action this week in Atlanta, the similarities are striking. As Walsh makes clear in that article, it’s virtually impossible for an offense to succeed using play-action without committing to the concept. Every detail matters, from a lineman’s initial movements to the quarterback’s willingness to sell the fake. In his early days within McVay’s system, Goff would occasionally fail to finish his bootleg action on running plays. Per quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, that’d result in Goff getting negative grades when the staff reviewed the tape. At every position on the field, it’s key for players to hone their tiniest movements to ensure that runs and passes look identical to defenders. “It’s making the unnatural feel natural,” Taylor says.

To Walsh, play-action was a way to engage every player in his offense. Because each player could take ownership of how their actions impacted the defense, play-action served as what he called “result-oriented teaching.” A tackle could take pride in the way that his first step sent a defensive end scurrying out of position. A running back could watch as the linebackers crashed toward the line of scrimmage and opened clear throwing lanes behind them. A QB could enjoy seeing a pass rusher stay put as he faked a rollout. The only barrier to play-action success, according to Walsh, was whether a team’s coaches were willing to put in the requisite time for their offense to master it. “Unfortunately the necessity for fundamentals of ball handling and play-faking are sometimes overlooked by coaching staffs,” Walsh wrote. “These staffs will not take the time to make sure that the entire team understands what they are trying to do with a play-pass.”

In 1976, when Walsh was an assistant with the San Diego Chargers, the team played an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Tokyo. The Cardinals’ backup quarterback in those days was a journeyman named Sam Wyche, who played under Walsh for three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968 to 1970. Early one morning in Japan, Wyche bumped into Walsh in their hotel elevator, and the coach invited him to the lobby for tea. “After about 35 or 40 minutes of having a cup of tea, I started smiling and he started smiling back at me,” Wyche says. “He knew I’d caught on. I said, ‘Bill, we aren’t having cups of tea. You’re interviewing me, aren’t you?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah, maybe.’’’

When Walsh was hired in San Francisco, a recently retired Wyche joined him as the 49ers passing coordinator. He spent four seasons there before taking the head-coaching job at Indiana, and later the same position with the Bengals in 1984. Wyche became the father of the no-huddle offense during his stint in Cincinnati. He also furthered Walsh’s adherence to the play-action game’s most infinitesimal details, stressing how a quarterback’s subtle tells were the difference between a team’s success or failure on those throws. “The best way to teach a quarterback how to fake is to break down a run reel,” Wyche says. “Just let him see himself hand the ball off, hand the ball off, and then run it back. Say to him, ‘Just watch your head. I don’t want you to look at the rest of your body. Just your head. Where is your head? At what angle is it, and where are your eyes?’”

Under Wyche, Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason developed into one of the most effective play-action passers in football. Esiason’s spin on his play fake involved an exaggerated lean just as he passed the running back, along with a sleight-of-hand movement that placed the ball on his back hip. He was devoted to the deception. Esiason won the NFL MVP in 1988, piloting an offense that scored a league-leading 28.0 points per game. He threw 28 touchdowns that season while averaging a ludicrous 9.2 yards per attempt.

The 1980s Bengals were a precursor to the 2018 Rams in other ways, too. One was the tempo at which they played. Another was the emphasis they placed on zone running. By having their offensive linemen step in the same direction and then using combination blocks, the Bengals implemented zone-running plays long before they became a leaguewide phenomenon. The components of one perimeter running play served as an early version of what’s now known as “outside zone”—the centerpiece of what would become the Mike Shanahan (and ultimately, the McVay) offense.

If Wyche and the Bengals were early supporters of the zone-running system, the Shanahans became its first evangelists. Robert Griffin III—who played under Mike Shanahan for two seasons in Washington—calls Shanahan and his son, Kyle, “true believers” in the concept. When Mike took over as the Broncos head coach in 1995, the outside zone was installed as the basis of his running game. And over the next 10 years, a parade of productive running backs marched through Denver. Hall of Famer Terrell Davis rushed for 2,008 yards en route to the MVP award in 1998; Clinton Portis averaged 5.5 yards per carry and gained more than 3,000 yards during his two seasons with the Broncos in 2002 and 2003; late-round picks Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary both gained at least 1,000 yards in their respective rookie years. “It was cool to see how consistent it was over the course of time,” Griffin says of watching Shanahan’s offense across different eras. “Their belief in what they were doing is kind of why the system has stuck and it’s done so well.”

Alex Gibbs was the Broncos’ offensive line coach for Shanahan’s first nine seasons in Denver, and together the pair created the most devastating outside-zone rushing system the league had ever seen. The Broncos ground game was built into a machine calibrated on basic math. On wide zone runs, the backside tackle would leave the defensive end unblocked, and instead climb toward the second level to pick off another defender. By having all five offensive linemen step in the same direction, the Broncos gained a numbers advantage.

The problem, of course, became how to handle the unblocked edge rusher hellbent on sabotaging the play. That’s where play-action came in. “If we’re not blocking the backside end, then the quarterback is responsible for the backside end,” Griffin says. “Does that mean I’m going to hand it off or toss it and then go block him? No, it means when I hand the ball off, I’m going to boot around and carry out the play fake.” Shanahan and Denver QB John Elway consistently threatened defenses with bootlegs and keepers to the back side, which held edge rushers in place, shifted the ratio of blockers to defenders in their favor, and provided the running back with a lane to cut back if the defense flowed too hard to the play side. Like any truly great play-action scheme, the runs and passes worked in concert—and looked identical for the first few steps.

Washington hired Shanahan as its head coach in 2010, and after the team drafted Griffin with the no. 2 overall pick two years later, Shanahan and his son, Kyle—who was the team’s offensive coordinator at the time—taught Griffin the basic tenets that fueled the Denver offense. Throughout OTAs, training camp, and the preseason, Griffin watched old tape of Matt Schaub (from Kyle’s time as an offensive coordinator in Houston), Elway, and Jake Plummer. “They wanted to teach us the framework of the offense, which was—we’re gonna run wide zone. We’re gonna run play-action pass, we’re gonna use boots and keepers,” Griffin says. “I was learning Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast offense.”

The Shanahans and members of their coaching tree maintain that the most effective form of play-action originates from under center. Because the QB turns his back to the defense while faking a handoff, defenders are shielded from seeing what’s happening, and bad reads are only accentuated. “[The Shanahans are] never going to get away from the true play-action under center,” Griffin says. “There’s something about [under-center] runs that are inviting to a defense, that makes them bite on the run harder than they necessarily would from a shotgun play-action.”

Once Griffin got to town, though, the Shanahans showed a willingness to evolve. While the staff kept a heavy dose of under-center play-action in the playbook, Kyle introduced concepts from the quarterback’s spread offense at Baylor and grafted the Shanahans’ zone play-action designs onto pistol and shotgun formations. “Their goal for me and our offense in 2012 and 2013 was for us to be able to run all of their typical concepts—play-action pass, dropback pass, run game, the wide-zone scheme—from any set. Under center, pistol, shotgun, and everything in between.”

Working out of the shotgun prevented Griffin from booting around the edge to hold the defensive end in place, but the quarterback countered that with his devastating speed. Griffin retained the option of bolting if a pass rusher crashed too hard, which neutralized defenders in the same way a bootleg would. In 2012, Griffin used play-action on 39.9 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. No team before or since has even come close to that number. On those throws, Griffin averaged a mind-boggling 11.8 yards per attempt. “We were the most efficient offense,” Griffin says. “And it’s because we were able to run the ball and play-action pass.”

Just like that, the NFL’s zone-read craze was born. Along with the 49ers and Seahawks, both of whom also had young, athletic quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, the Redskins altered the perception of what a QB could be in an NFL offense. That season, Mike and Kyle Shanahan found the perfect recipe for melding established West Coast, zone-running principles with the skill sets of their specific personnel. It was a lesson that coaches around the league have put to use since, including Shanahan’s former tight ends coach in Washington: Sean McVay.

Sean Mannion could sense something was different from the very first meeting. The Rams had hired McVay ahead of the 2017 season, and on the first day of system installations, the backup quarterback realized this new offense was a major departure from his two years under Jeff Fisher. Teams that run the West Coast offense typically spend that day the same way: The coaches unveil the dropback passing game (three- and five-step drops) and then work in the rest of the scheme. But on Day 1, McVay introduced his play-action principles.

McVay made it clear, to both his players and assistants, that the play-action game would serve as the foundation of the Rams passing attack. He knew that would require the sort of meticulous, detail-oriented coaching that Walsh outlined more than 30 years prior. Every member of the offensive line was required to master each step to ensure a perfect marriage between the running game and play-action counters off of it. McVay’s goal was to eliminate any possible tells that a play-action throw was coming, which meant breaking old habits.

For offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, the challenge was teaching his guys to block defenders who might not even be there. Even if one of his guards was uncovered, that player still had to mimic what he’d do on a running play to sell the defense on the deception. Zac Taylor structured his QBs’ footwork so that each play looked identical, whether they were handing the ball off or not. After spending his entire college career as a shotgun, Air Raid quarterback, Goff has played under center on a league-leading 63 percent of his dropbacks this season, as McVay clearly abides by the Shanahans’ belief that play-action is more effective under center.

At its most basic level, the Rams’ play-action scheme resembles others that came before it. But as McVay learned in Washington, subtle tweaks to that scheme can make a world of difference to its success. He took the route concepts that Shanahan used and executed them in ways that were better suited to his roster. When other West Coast offenses have traditionally run a flood concept—which sends three receivers to one side of the field—the fullback leaks into the flat. McVay calls for jet motion to carry out the same route with a receiver instead. “It’s a totally different play in a way because it affects eyes on the defense,” Orlovsky says, “but guys essentially end up in the same spot.”

By centering a laundry list of formations and motions on familiar zone runs, McVay achieves “the illusion of complexity,” a term that the Rams use constantly. This group has taken the play-action mission of the 1960s to its furthest extreme. “How can we make it look like we’re doing a bunch of different things?” Mannion says. “For us, we say, ‘It’s Day 1 install. It’s really something that’s simple.’ … Our read is the same, even if the formation, the motion, a pass protection is different.”

The Rams also set themselves apart in how often they’re willing to use play-action. When the Falcons, with an offense coordinated by Kyle Shanahan, went to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, quarterback Matt Ryan led the league by using play-action on 27.6 percent of his dropbacks. In both of McVay’s seasons in Los Angeles, the Rams have blown that number away (29.1 percent in 2017 and 34.6 percent in 2018). Kromer says that if it were up to McVay, he’d run play-action every time the game situation allowed it.

Chasing McVay from his play-action-focused game plan is no easy task, but it will likely be Bill Belichick’s foremost priority on Sunday. When the Rams turn into a dropback passing team, their entire identity changes. McVay’s main objective during his two seasons in Los Angeles has been to create a play-action offense unlike any the league has ever seen. He’s succeeded: In terms of design and dedication, the Rams are pushing play-action passing about as far as it will go. Continuing that pursuit may just win them a championship.

Thanks to Charlotte Goddu and Daniel Chin for research assistance.

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