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The Next Phase of the NFL’s Scheme Wars Is Upon Us

Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and their disciples dominated the playoffs. Now the stakes of their schematic influence have changed. Their coaching pipeline has split into different factions—and who succeeds will dictate the future of the league.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Super Bowl LVI wasn’t just the culmination of a long NFL season; it was also the culmination of a trend in coach hiring that had started three years earlier. I’m talking about the friends-of-Sean-McVay movement, when it seemed like anyone who’d ever shared a room with the Rams wunderkind head coach could land a top job in the league. Zac Taylor, who worked one season as McVay’s quarterbacks coach in Los Angeles and probably had the least remarkable résumé of those hires, led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in just his third season on the job, where his former boss stood in his way of a championship. In many ways, McVay had already padded his legacy before the Rams went out and won the whole damn thing.

Shortly before the playoffs, I wrote about the NFL’s scheme wars, in which I explored the diversification of offensive systems around the league and posited that the postseason would serve as a litmus test for the different schematic factions. If that was the case, the results were awfully one-sided, as three of the four participants in the conference championship games were coached by members of the McVay and Kyle Shanahan coaching tree, including McVay’s Rams and Shanahan’s 49ers. Those two squared off in the NFC title game, ensuring that one branch of the tree would make the Super Bowl. When Taylor’s Bengals toppled the Chiefs in the AFC title game, it locked in an all-wide zone offensive matchup on the biggest stage.

While wide zone coaches were well represented in the Super Bowl, McVay and Taylor got to that point largely in spite of their teams’ inability to execute the system’s signature play. They got there because they had quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow who could excel without the passer-friendly guardrails that define the system. When defenses are able to shut down the primary wide zone rushing play (known as outside zone), they knock such offenses off schedule, and wide zone teams with more limited quarterbacks fall apart. That wasn’t an issue for the Rams or Bengals in the playoffs. Neither L.A. nor Cincinnati ran the ball efficiently in the postseason; of the 14 teams in the bracket, they finished 13th and 14th in running success rate, respectively. It didn’t matter, since Stafford and Burrow were able to make plays even when defenses didn’t fear the run. Matt LaFleur’s Packers have enjoyed a similar luxury with reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers behind center. Shanahan, who’s arguably the best play-caller of anyone in this coaching tree, would probably have a ring by now if Jimmy Garoppolo was about 15 percent better. There’s a reason San Francisco traded away three first-round draft picks to move up to select Trey Lance in 2021.

As defenses have adjusted to the rise of wide zone coaches, the system has had to evolve. And on the heels of its decisive victory in last season’s scheme wars, a second act is about to unfold. Now that this coaching tree has planted roots across the league and influenced a variety of personnel, evolutionary steps have created divergence. We already saw some of this when McVay and Shanahan parted ways after spending time together in Washington. Now that those coaches’ own trees are branching out, we’re seeing even more splintering. What comes next will determine where the system—and the league it has taken over—goes from here.

The wide zone running play binds all of these systems together; it’s what the coaches do to supplement that foundational concept that separates the divergent branches. LaFleur’s Packers embrace Rodgers’s preference for shotgun formations and quick-strike run-pass options. Taylor wisely leans on Burrow’s formational preferences, going to empty sets and basically adopting the passing game that the 2020 top pick used to win a college football national title at LSU. With Stafford in tow, McVay and the Rams treat the dropback passing game as a central part of their offensive attack. Shanahan, who hasn’t had an elite quarterback to rely on when his base concepts aren’t working, has devised new ways to diversify those base concepts, including deploying Deebo Samuel in the “wideback” role.

Following the success of the wide zone in these playoffs, three more coaches from this tree landed head jobs in the offseason: Mike McDaniel was poached from San Francisco to coach the Dolphins, Nathaniel Hackett left Green Bay to lead the Broncos, and Kevin O’Connell landed the Vikings job after coordinating the Rams offense. Those coaches will work with three quarterbacks with very different skill sets, each of whom will necessitate major alterations to their schemes.

This phenomenon is like one NFL fans watched a few decades ago, when Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense took over the league on the heels of the 49ers’ dominance in the 1980s. As his impressive coaching tree spread throughout the NFL, Walsh’s protégés put their own spin on his creation. Technically, Shanahan and Andy Reid are both part of the Walsh coaching lineage, but their respective offenses don’t share much resemblance. Soon enough, a similar trend could unfold with the coaches who have emerged from the Shanahan and McVay pipeline.

This philosophical splintering between McVay and Shanahan can be traced back to the 2018 season. While Shanahan was just trying to get by with a young 49ers roster decimated by injuries, McVay’s Rams were torching the NFL up until a December game against the Bears. That’s when then-Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio sold out to stop the wide zone by putting six defenders on the line of scrimmage and playing coverages designed to take away the crossing routes off play-action that the Rams had used to great effect. Two months later, Bill Belichick dialed up a variation of the Fangio game plan to hold one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history to three measly points in Super Bowl LIII.

Since the NFL is a copycat league, virtually every defense that faced the Rams and 49ers the subsequent season employed some version of that game plan. McVay struggled to adapt, mostly due to a declining offensive line and quarterback Jared Goff’s limitations. Meanwhile, Shanahan added to his menu of run calls and found effective counters to the tactics defenses were using. The 49ers defense also evolved into a top-five unit and helped push the team to the Super Bowl, where Jimmy G’s shortcomings, along with some questionable strategic decisions, ultimately did them in.

In the 2021 offseason, both McVay and Shanahan decided they needed to find quarterbacks who could offer them a plan B when their base concepts weren’t working. It’s no coincidence that both coaches convinced their front offices to pursue a trade for Stafford. The longtime Lions quarterback has some reckless tendencies in the pocket, but he can execute any concept a coach throws at him, and his arm strength opens up possibilities that don’t exist with passers like Goff or Garoppolo. Perhaps most importantly, Stafford has the ability to create a plan B on his own.

Stafford proved to be the difference between McVay’s Rams falling short on the big stage and winning a championship. The key play in L.A.’s Super Bowl triumph was his fourth-quarter no-look pass to Cooper Kupp on a second-and-7.

With Bengals safety Vonn Bell dropping down into the second level, there was no throwing window for Kupp’s in-breaking route. So Stafford created one by using his eyes to draw Bell toward the tight end. This highlight was representative of the way that Stafford unlocked the Rams offense and helped the entire system level up.

Stafford offered McVay a margin for error. If the Rams failed on first or second down, things were still salvageable on third down, even if the defense expected a pass. That allowed McVay to take more risks early in an offensive series. The coach has previously talked at length about his approach being built on the “illusion of complexity.” With Stafford, the Rams’ passing game evolved so that this illusion wasn’t as vital to the overall success of the offense.

After missing out on Stafford, Shanahan traded up in the draft for the right to pick Lance, who will allow the 49ers to make some foundational changes on offense now that he’s expected to take over as the starter. Yet how San Francisco evolves will look a lot different than how the Rams evolved last season. Shanahan could embrace an enhanced version of the Pistol package that he once ran with Robert Griffin III in Washington. We got a preview of that during Lance’s brief 2021 cameo.

Lance’s development as a passer will dictate just how much the 49ers offense can do, but he should supercharge a run game that has been inconsistent throughout Shanahan’s tenure. Thanks in large part to the Fangio and Belichick influence, defenses leaguewide have gotten much better at defending the foundational wide zone rushing concept. They clog interior run gaps with three-man defensive lines and position five players on the line of scrimmage to create a wide surface.

The goal is to string these plays out long enough for the second- and third-level defenders to make a tackle near the line of scrimmage. In the clip below, the Packers’ defensive linemen don’t make the tackle on Niners running back Elijah Mitchell, but they prevent the offensive line from blocking the linebacker who does.

The beauty of this approach for defenses is they don’t have to drop an extra safety into the box to stop the run, which allows that player to focus on the passing game. If defenses can stop the run without committing extra numbers in the box, well … the wide zone offense doesn’t really work as intended. That’s where Lance changes the math. When Jimmy G is starting for the 49ers, defenses can keep two safeties deep and play 11-on-10 in the run game knowing that the QB isn’t a threat. With Lance, defenses will be forced to drop that safety into the box and into the run fit.

And that’s really what this next phase of the scheme wars for the wide zone coaches comes down to: how the different branches of this tree will deal with that second safety. McVay found a passer with the arm strength and playmaking creativity to exploit the two-high coverages taking the league by storm. Shanahan has assembled a rushing attack that forces defenses to get into one-high looks. In Cincinnati, Taylor puts Burrow in empty and tries to isolate linebackers in space.

What happens in Green Bay now that Davante Adams has been traded might be the most fascinating subplot in this system’s evolution. The star wideout can run any route from anywhere on the field and produce. With that skeleton key now in Las Vegas, the Packers will have to adjust. Based on early observations out of camp, it seems that a two-headed backfield featuring Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon could become the base look for this offense in 2022. Green Bay has used this look over the last two seasons, most notably in their playoff win against the Brandon Staley-led Rams defense in 2021. This run play, in particular, shows why it’s so effective against defenses that want to stay in two-high looks:

With the sole off-ball linebacker following Jones out wide, one of the deep safeties is now forced to drop into the box and act as a substitute linebacker. If the linebacker doesn’t follow Jones, the offense has a numbers advantage for a screen pass.

McVay, Shanahan, LaFleur, and Taylor will technically run the same system in 2022, but their offenses won’t look much alike. And with McDaniel now working with Tua Tagovailoa, a quarterback who relies heavily on RPOs, the Dolphins’ version of this offense will differ from any of the others. We’ve already seen Russell Wilson mold this system to his liking in Seattle, so it’s reasonable to expect more of the same as part of his new partnership with Hackett in Denver.

The wide zone faction may have won out last season, but that doesn’t mean the fight for schematic supremacy is over. The NFL’s scheme wars never end. The sides just change.

The NFL is a wide zone league now. During the 2021 season, 22 teams used it as their most or second-most used run call, per Pro Football Focus. Top offenses outside of the wide zone coaching family even adopted some of the features that make it so effective.

The Chiefs and Bills, for instance, had to make their own adjustments in response to the NFL’s two-high safety craze. Defenses had sold out to stop the crossers who fueled their high-powered passing games, and they were able to stay in those coverages because neither Kansas City nor Buffalo seemed especially interested in running the ball. Opposing secondaries dropped deep and dared Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to make short, boring throws underneath, assuming the rocket-armed quarterbacks would be reluctant to do so. While this strategy was effective at first, both offenses found their footing by moving away from the spread-style concepts that had served them so well in the past and co-opting some of the traits traditionally associated with wide zone offenses.

The Bills went to heavier formations, with more fullbacks and tight ends; this forced defenses to play more base personnel, which meant more basic coverages that are vulnerable to deep shots. The Chiefs put Mahomes under center more often and called more runs from those looks. After averaging 7.8 under-center runs over the first half of the 2021 season, Kansas City averaged 11.8 over the second half, according to Sports Info Solutions. Mahomes also threw a career-high 71 passes from under-center snaps in 2021. Relatedly, last season also was his most efficient in the play-action game, as he set career highs in both total EPA (41.4) and success rate (58.1 percent), per SIS.

Buffalo and Kansas City’s offseason personnel moves suggest they could borrow from wide zone offenses even more liberally in 2022. The Bills said goodbye to Cole Beasley, who had a pivotal role in their spread formations, and brought in tight end O.J. Howard to play with Dawson Knox. Kansas City shipped away Tyreek Hill, who was all but a nonfactor when the Chiefs lined up under center, and replaced him with two wide receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling) who are both willing and able to block in the run game.

Even if those AFC powers don’t fully embrace the ways of the wide zone, other teams could commit to this style of offense. Now that Shane Waldron doesn’t have to shape his offense around Wilson’s preferences, expect the Seahawks offense to look more like a unit coached by a McVay disciple. Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada will employ a similar offense now that Ben Roethlisberger, who was never a big fan of under-center formations or play-action passes, has retired. In Indianapolis, Frank Reich could shift from a West Coast passing game to more wide zone looks now that he has Matt Ryan at quarterback.

The Shanahan and McVay takeover of the NFL is nearly complete, but that doesn’t mean we’re headed for an era in which every offense looks the same. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As this coaching tree continues to spread its roots across the league, the degrees of separation will increase, and the scheme wars will begin anew.