The NFL is valuing youth and innovation more than ever before. A year after the Rams made Sean McVay the youngest head coach in league history, Patrick Mahomes became the youngest MVP winner since Dan Marino. This offseason, an avalanche followed: The Cardinals threw caution to the wind and paired Kliff Kingsbury with Kyler Murray, the Packers ended the Mike McCarthy era, and the Bengals poached the Rams’ quarterbacks coach to be their new head coach. When did the NFL begin to resemble Silicon Valley? Welcome to Wunderkind Week, where we’ll dive deep into how the NFL became a young man’s league.
The NFC West hasn’t exactly been one of the league’s marquee divisions over the past few years. You’d probably have to go back to 2013 for that—when Pete Carroll’s Seahawks, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers, and Bruce Arians’s Cardinals each won double-digit games and produced some of the most intense rivalry-grudge-matches of the decade. The division likely won’t churn out a trio of 10-plus win teams in 2019, but what’s clear, at least, is that it’s back near the top of the ranks of the most interesting divisions.
Like the NFL at large, the NFC West has changed a lot over the past five years. While the division’s identity back in ’13 was centered around its physical, dominating defenses, the current group is defined by what they’ll be doing on offense. The 67-year-old Carroll and his old-school ideas are still in Seattle, but he’s now joined by a trio of young, cutting-edge play-callers in Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Kliff Kingsbury. Together, that ensemble should provide an amazing cross section for the varied offensive styles, philosophies, and schemes that teams are utilizing across the NFL. Here’s how the NFC West’s three wunderkind coaches in McVay, Shanahan, and Kingsbury—along with one anti-wunderkind in Carroll—explain NFL offenses in 2019.
Los Angeles Rams: This One Goes to 11
His team’s three-point Super Bowl dud notwithstanding, McVay is unquestionably one of the league’s foremost offensive geniuses. When he was hired by the Rams prior to the 2017 season, the precocious, energetic former Redskins coordinator transformed the NFL’s worst offense into one of the best seemingly overnight, salvaging the smoldering ruin of Jared Goff’s young career while taking the team from worst to first in scoring in Year 1. In his second year at the helm, McVay’s explosive offense propelled the team to a Super Bowl berth; and in 2019, the sky’s the limit for what his high-octane group can do.
The core tenets of McVay’s scheme are neither completely new nor unique, but he’s combined them in a way that no coach really has before. McVay’s offense, as he explained to The Ringer’s Robert Mays last fall, is centered upon creating a marriage between the run and the pass game. The 33-year-old play-caller adopted what was already becoming the league’s most-used personnel grouping—a three-receiver, one-back, and one tight end set called “11 personnel”—and took it up a notch, lining up in that group on a league-high 87 percent of plays in 2018. By putting three receivers on the field on nearly every play, McVay spread opposing teams’ pass defenses thin—at the same time making it tough for them to defend the run. The combination of the speed of Brandin Cooks, versatility of Robert Woods, and quickness of Cooper Kupp gives L.A. plenty of mismatches in the passing attack, but also creates a massive opportunity for superstar running back Todd Gurley. The All-Pro runner faced a loaded box (eight-plus defenders) on just 8.2 percent of his carries last year, easily the lowest among runners with at least 100-plus totes.
However, while the Rams led the charge in the proliferation of 11 personnel last year, they cut against the grain when it came to the usage of shotgun formations, which have skyrocketed around the league over the last few years. L.A. lined up with Goff under center on a league-high 63 percent of snaps in 2018, using that as the schematic bedrock for the team’s play-action passing attack. The Rams ran the ball on 66 percent of those under-center plays, but when they did throw it from those looks, they very frequently utilized “run action” before throwing, sending offensive linemen into forward-focused run blocks at the snap (instead of backward-stepping pass blocks) to give opposing defenses the exact same looks up front regardless of the play call.
Adding to that ruse, the Rams used tight receiver splits (lining up their receivers close to the formation) and/or sweep action (running one of their receivers across the formation just prior to and after the snap) on nearly every snap, whether they were throwing or running, creating very few pre-snap “tells” for the defense. In other words, most of the Rams’ under-center plays looked exactly the same right up until the point Goff either handed off or dropped back to make a play-action pass. That’s the beauty of McVay’s offense: Its formational simplicity creates deception and complexity. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Rams ran more play-action fakes than any team since the 2012 Redskins, a team, not coincidentally, that featured a young tight ends coach named Sean McVay on its staff (it was also coordinated by Kyle Shanahan—more on him in a bit). L.A. was among the league leaders in jet and sweep motion at the snap (which stresses defenses laterally), used screen passes with devastating effect, and leaned on trips and stack looks on the outside to give their receivers easy releases. Simply put, the Rams offense is built on putting defenders in conflict. Every offense in the league should make this a priority in 2019.
The NFL’s famously a copycat league, and everyone wants a piece of McVay’s offensive artistry. The running joke, of course, is that having a cup of coffee with McVay is now enough to get you onto an NFL interview list. His fingerprints will undoubtedly be all over the Bengals offense under his former assistant Zac Taylor; and the Packers’ new scheme under another former McVay protege Matt LaFleur will feature plenty of the Rams’ hallmark concepts. But teams don’t necessarily need former McVay assistants to incorporate his ideas: The use of 11 personnel could continue to grow (even if the Rams use it less often), and the continued proliferation of play-action passing is going to be a major story line this year. Don’t be surprised if more teams adopt jet- and sweep-action type concepts, use a higher number of tight receiver splits, or run plays from under center more often.
Look for teams to employ the Rams’ savvy audible system, too. Los Angeles’s offense frequently hurries to the line of scrimmage between plays, giving McVay time to survey the defensive look and call in audibles to his quarterback before the helmet speaker cuts off with 15 seconds on the play clock. That tactic isn’t foolproof, and disciplined defenses capable of hiding their intentions can make it tough for the play-caller to choose the best play. But it also puts more stress on a defense in the pre-snap phase, because if L.A. snaps the ball quickly instead of letting the clock run down, they can catch defenders out of position and vulnerable.
San Francisco 49ers: Go Big or Go Home
As the head coach of a team that’s gone 10-22 in the past two seasons, Shanahan’s reputation as one of the most brilliant offensive minds has certainly diminished of late. But it shouldn’t. A lack of talent and a rash of injuries have certainly played a big part in the 49ers’ mediocre recent performances—and I’m expecting a big Shanahanaissance this year as Jimmy Garoppolo takes back the reins.
While the Rams leaned almost exclusively on three-receiver sets in 2018, Shanahan’s squad went the other way, running a league-low 39 percent of their plays from 11 personnel. Instead, the 49ers featured two-back sets (21 personnel) on a league-high 42 percent of their plays (the NFL average was just 8 percent), a different, but still highly effective way to create deception and hide run/pass tells in the pre-snap phase. With the ability to throw or pass out of these two-back looks, San Francisco was one of the most dangerous early-down offenses in the NFL in 2018. As Warren Sharp points out, the 49ers were one of just five teams (joining the Patriots, Chargers, Chiefs, and Bengals) to rank in the top 10 in both explosive pass and rush rate on early downs. Per Sharp, 16 percent of San Francisco’s first-down plays were explosive—defined as runs of 10-plus yards and passes of 15-plus yards—well above the league average of 11 percent.
Those bigger personnel groupings were so effective in part because they put the defense in a jam. When the offense takes the field in a two-back or two-tight-end personnel group, it forces the defense to make a choice: Do you line up in base personnel and risk being undermanned against the pass, or line up in nickel (replacing one defensive lineman or linebacker with a defensive back) and risk vulnerability against the run? Crucially, regardless of what their opponent decides, San Francisco was equipped with the type of players needed to exploit mismatches in either the run game or passing attack.
Burgeoning superstar tight end George Kittle is the perfect example; whether the defense goes heavy or light, Kittle is the linchpin in the scheme. He’s both a dominant run blocker and an elite pass catcher, which means the team can go to the ground-and-pound attack or throw it to him deep with equal aplomb. That can’t be said with many tight ends these days, the majority of whom are either too small to be an effective run blocker or too slow to be a dynamic pass-catching threat. Kyle Juszczyk offers the same type of run/pass versatility; he’s technically listed as a fullback, but can play the role of lead blocker or pass catcher depending on what Shanahan needs. That positionless skill-set is the reason the 49ers pay him more than double the next-highest-paid fullback in the league.
Shanahan, like McVay, leaned hard on play-action in order to keep defenses guessing; in the three games in which Garoppolo appeared last year, San Francisco ran play-action fakes on 32.7 percent of Jimmy G’s dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus—a rate that, had he qualified, would’ve ranked second among QBs with at least 100 dropbacks (C.J. Beathard finished at 24.2 percent, and Nick Mullens at 25.7 percent). But Shanahan’s not alone in his belief in these “heavy” personnel groups. The strategy of going with bigger personnel groups in order to exploit increasingly light nickel defenses was a common thread for some of the league’s best offenses last year—and should be one of the most intriguing chess-match battles of the 2019 season.
How defenses respond to 12 personnel will be one of the stories of the season. Have a feeling even more teams are gonna have their nickel or big nickel groups on the field and dare teams to run. Even against 21, I doubt smart teams play three LBs at all. https://t.co/ICGlBXdHR9
— Robert Mays (@robertmays) August 7, 2019
The Patriots were another big proponent of 21 personnel (28 percent of snaps, second-most), utilizing jack-of-all-trades playmaker James Develin as both a lead blocker and pass catcher. And even more teams lean on two-tight-end sets (12 personnel), which effectively create the same type of schematic mismatch advantage as 21 personnel; the Texans (who ran out of 12 personnel on an NFL-high 36 percent of plays), Eagles (35 percent), Chiefs (31 percent), and Ravens (24 percent) all leaned on run/pass flexibility to create mismatches and exploit weaknesses in opposing personnel groups. Of those five teams, only the Texans ran play-action fakes on less than 30 percent of their dropbacks.
Go big, run the ball, and throw it over their heads using play-action: This is the basic offensive strategy of a few of the league’s best offensive minds. And the list of teams that employ that thinking is bound to grow this year. The Broncos are at the top of that list after hiring former 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello. The Vikings, who don’t have a clear-cut no. 3 receiver and who drafted Irv Smith Jr. in the second round to complement Kyle Rudolph, are another strong candidate for a spike in two-tight-end sets. There’s talk that the Steelers and Jets also plan to utilize more two-back sets this season; the Steelers with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels on the field together, and the Jets with Le’Veon Bell and Ty Montgomery both coming out of the backfield.
Cardinals: A Religion on Painted Grass
As Ringer colleague Rodger Sherman so eloquently wrote at this time last August, the Air Raid is “less of a football strategy and more of a religion.” As he put it, “Air Raidism is strictly against violence. Whereas other football strategies emphasize physical confrontation, asking ballcarriers to power through defenders who stand in their path, the Air Raid teaches its disciples to find solitude in the unoccupied parts of the field.”
In other words, 40-year-old Air Raid adherent Kliff Kingsbury isn’t likely to mess around with too many big two-tight-end or two-back sets this year. Instead, he’ll spread the field with four- and five-receiver sets at a rate the league’s never really seen. In those looks, he’ll likely rely heavily on the Four Verts concept, an Air Raid staple that Sherman references above, which asks receivers to get deep down the field and find a soft spot in coverage. Kingsbury, who told Peter King that he’ll run a “very similar” scheme to the one quarterback Kyler Murray ran at Oklahoma with coach Lincoln Riley, has a penchant for passing (per Matthew Berry, Texas Tech passed 61.5 percent of the time from 2013-2018 under Kingsbury, the second-highest rate in FBS), for shotgun formations (center A.Q. Shipley said they’ll be in shotgun about 99 percent of the time) and for going really, really, really fast. As running back David Johnson put it, the team’s “plan” is to run about 90 to 95 plays per game, a pace that would wildly surpass any the NFL has ever seen.
Of course, Kingsbury isn’t the first to implement Air Raid concepts in the NFL. The Chiefs, Eagles, Browns, and a bevy of other squads have incorporated pieces of the so-called college offense into their schemes (and just about everyone uses the Mesh concept, another Air Raid staple that sends receivers on crossing routes over the middle of the field to confuse the defense). The question, though, is just how faithful Kingsbury is to his religion; As Sherman wrote, true believers feel they “could run Four Verts or Mesh for an entire drive—or quarter, or half, or game—by just rolling down the field and reacting to the choices a defense makes.” Is it possible to do that in the NFL? There’s no way to know exactly how Arizona’s passing game under Murray will work … but I can’t wait to find out.
There’s no forgetting either that a big piece of the Cardinals offense will be the use of quarterback runs. From read-option looks to bootleg keepers and everything in between, Murray should give Arizona the ability to put defenses in a bind with his legs. That’s a core strategy for offenses like the Ravens, Panthers, Texans, Bills, Cowboys, and Bears, just to name a few. And the use of quarterbacks in the run game will only grow.
Seahawks: Damn the Analytics, Full Speed Ahead
The Seahawks, meanwhile, serve as a stark contrast to what the Cardinals should look like this year. The 67-year-old Carroll (along with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) is almost militant in his belief in establishing the run. Here’s an excellent visual reference for just how much of an outlier the Seahawks were in that regard last year:
Seattle was the only team to run the football more than it threw it last year. The team passed the ball on first-half first downs just 40 percent of the time, 11 percentage points lower than the league average, and were the league’s only team to pass at less than a 45 percent rate on all early downs. This despite the overwhelming collection of evidence that proves passing is far more important in the modern game and despite the fact that Seattle has $140 million quarterback Russell Wilson under center. That is, predictably, a point of contention for many Seahawks fans, who’ve long pined for a more wide-open offense that can truly unlock Wilson’s talents.
But while the Seahawks’ overarching philosophy remains archaic, they did show signs last year of moving into the modern era—specifically when it came to their vertical passing attack. Seattle’s deep passing attack was one of the most efficient in the league; Wilson threw deep (passes that travel 20-plus yards downfield) 15.9 percent of the time, per PFF, the third-highest rate in the NFL, behind only Josh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky. He hit a passer rating of 128.1 on those passes (second only to Drew Brees), racking up 1,108 yards and 15 TD to just one interception. For reference, the two guys who threw deep at a higher rate—Allen and Trubisky—finished with passer ratings on those throws of 62.9 and 80.7, respectively. Carroll, who recently said that he wasn’t a fan of dinking and dunking, certainly does know the value in the explosive play.
There is some reason to believe Seattle will give Wilson more freedom in 2019, though. While he may not like it, Carroll may have to open the offense more by necessity. Seattle’s defense was middling last year and could be even worse this season after the team let Earl Thomas walk in free agency and traded Frank Clark. If they Seahawks are playing from behind more in 2019, this offense could be a little more pass oriented.
Seattle, of course, is not the only believer in the old-school, smashmouth philosophy. The Vikings fired their pass-happy offensive coordinator late last season, then spent first- and third-round picks, respectively, on an offensive lineman and a running back, ostensibly with the idea of running more in mind. The Ravens, Cowboys, Bills, Bears, Lions, and Jaguars all seem dedicated to a ground-and-pound approach. And there’s no forgetting New England’s run to the Super Bowl last winter; the Patriots leaned hard on their physical ground game late in the year, and are likely to do the same this season. With so many rules favoring passing, the ground game isn’t as important as it used to be—but you’d have a hard time convincing some NFL coaches of that.