The National Football League is many things, but at some level, it is a league of copycats.
The process of observing something that works, and duplicating it, pays out on both the macro and micro levels. On the micro level, when a coach sees a concept or a play design that works for someone else, it is not long until that design is in their own playbook. Look at opening night last season, when Andy Reid used a jet motion with Tyreek Hill to confuse the New England Patriots defense pre-snap and force them to adjust, and then sent Kareem Hunt up the seam on a vertical route. Alex Smith hit his rookie running back in stride, and the Kansas City Chiefs were in the end zone.
In Week 4, Sean McVay used the same play and Jared Goff hit Todd Gurley for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys.
On the macro level, organizations identify trends that lead other teams to success, and try and duplicate that within their own teams. Whether it is an up-tempo offense, a defensive philosophy, or something else, success breeds copycats. This offseason, many organizations looked at the success that McVay had with his young quarterback and made a move to duplicate that, looking to pair their quarterbacks with new offensive coordinators. In this series we will look at some new QB/OC pairings and identify some concepts and designs to expect in the year ahead.
Marcus Mariota - Matt LaFleur
The 2016 season seemed to be the breakout year for Tennessee Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota. Despite a season-ending fibula fracture suffered late in the year, Mariota showed the promise that made him the second-overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, completing 61.2 percent of his passes for 3,426 yards and 26 touchdowns, against just nine interceptions. That year seemed to indicate that Mariota was on track for a “strong 2017 campaign,” as predicted by yours truly.
But Mariota took a step back in his third season, throwing 15 interceptions and struggling at times in the passing game. Part of this could be due to a hamstring injury he suffered that seemed to hamper his lower body mechanics, but whatever the reason for the regression, the Titans hope to get the offense back on track under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.
LaFleur’s time in the NFL has been shaped by two offensive minds: Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. LaFleur was an offensive assistant for the Houston Texans when Shanahan was their offensive coordinator, and then came to Washington under Shanahan and his father to coach their two rookie quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins. After a season in college, coaching quarterbacks at Notre Dame, LaFleur rejoined Shanahan in Atlanta as the quarterbacks coach. His final stop before Tennessee was in Los Angeles, serving as the offensive coordinator under McVay.
We know the influence that Shanahan can offer on a coaching philosophy: West Coast-based concepts with an additional reliance on boot-action and waggle plays. Those types of designs are a strong fit for Mariota as a passer, given his athleticism and his accuracy in the short area of the field. But it was LaFleur’s year under McVay that could provide the best benefit for Mariota. McVay’s offense last season could be best described as a system that made very effective use of space. Something that seemed to be... lacking with the TItans last year:
On this play, the route structure condenses the field for the defense, allowing a single defender to play two receivers. This is...not an effective use of space.
McVay’s offense packaged concepts in a way to stretch the defense at multiple levels of the field, and from sideline to sideline. A perfect example of this comes from Week 10, in the Rams’ 33-7 victory over the Houston Texans. Facing a 2nd-and-8 deep in their own territory, quarterback Jared Goff lined up under center and the Rams employed a play-action concept that stretched the defense at four different levels, and from one side of the field to the other:
Los Angeles uses a 3x1 formation, and on the backside Sammy Watkins runs an intermediate dig route. To the strong-side of the play tight end Tyler Higbee checks pass protection responsibilities in the interior of the offensive line before releasing to the right flat. The two other receivers who align to the right, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, run a post/out combination, with Kupp on the deep out and Woods on the post.
That sets up a three-level read/triangle with the flat/dig/out from Higbee/Kupp/Watkins, with the deep post route stretching the defense vertically as well. A much more effective use of the field. On this play in particular, the Rams catch Houston in a Cover 4 scheme, forcing the safety to break on Kupp’s out route, and leaving Woods in a one-on-one situation deep. The result? Well, it speaks for itself. The better spacing stretches the defense and gives Goff multiple options in the passing game.
When McVay was in Washington he and Jay Gruden helped the development of Kirk Cousins by giving him mirrored passing concepts. These designs work to simplify the read structure for a quarterback by giving him the same route concept to each side of the field, and then using pre-snap cues to determine which side of the field to attack. These can be based on the coverage scheme or even just which side of the field is the short- or wide-side. Here is one example from late in the first half of Los Angeles’ game against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4:
This play is simply a two-man flood concept (flat/out) to each side of the field with the running back executing a sit route over the middle of the field. The Cowboys look to be in Cover 2 Man Under on this play, so Goff picks the matchup he likes best and hits Higbee on his flat route to the right. The play was initially ruled incomplete, but upon review was determined to be a catch.
This is just a quick example, but it shows how McVay - and soon LaFleur - can use mirrored concepts to simplify the game for their QB and put him in a position to make solid, quick decisions and get the ball to playmakers shortly after the snap.
Finally, it is important to incorporate another addition to the Tennessee Titans into this discussion: running back Dion Lewis. The Titans added the former New England Patriots RB this offseason via free agency and he brings an element to this offense that could potentially mirror how McVay and LaFleur used Todd Gurley last season. This first example comes from the game against Houston. Facing a 1st-and-5 in their own territory, the Rams align with Goff under center, and the play at first blush looks to be a three-level flood concept along the right side working off play-action:
That route combination - and the spacing - draw the bulk of the secondary to that side of the field. But McVay is not done, as the play is really a screen to Gurley to the other side of the field. With blockers in front, and the secondary pulled in a different direction, the Rams are in business and Gurley races into Houston territory.
Finally, we began this piece talking about how the NFL is a copycat league. Here is one of the designs that McVay copied this past season, the running back seam route for a touchdown that the Kansas City Chiefs used in Week 1 against the New England Patriots. This is that design in action with Goff hitting Gurley against the Cowboys:
Once more we see the spacing elements at work. Between the jet motion and the vertical routes to each side of the field, the defense is stressed from sideline-to-sideline. Plus, the motion forces the defense to adjust late, and it gets an advantageous matchup for Gurley against a linebacker in coverage. By stressing the defense in a variety of ways, with motion, spacing and route design, McVay gives his quarterback an easy throw for a big play.
These are all elements that have shaped LaFleur as a play-caller, and these concepts have been used to accelerate the development of both Cousins and Goff. The Tennessee Titans - and their fans - should be hopeful that route concepts and philosophies like these will do the same for Mariota.
Derek Carr - Greg Olson
Similar to Mariota, Oakland Raiders fans entered the 2017 seasons with rather high expectations for quarterback Derek Carr. Their young QB was enjoying an MVP-level season in 2016 until it too was cut short with a leg injury suffered in Week 15, but his recovery as well as the fact that the Raiders made the playoffs in 2016 gave many reason to believe that the 2017 season would be a triumphant one for the former Fresno State Bulldog. However, that was not the case. Under offensive coordinator Todd Downing, the Raiders’ offense struggled at times in 2017. After a quick start in the first two weeks, a brutal showing in front of a national audience against Washington set the Raiders on a path toward a dismal season.
The organization made multiple changes in the offseason, including the hiring of Jon Gruden away from ESPN as their new head coach. Carr is also going to be working with an offensive coordinator who was not with the organization in 2017, but it is actually a familiar face. The Raiders brought back Greg Olson to be their offensive coordinator, after he was with the Rams last season as their quarterbacks coach. Olson was Carr’s first NFL offensive coordinator back in 2014, and under his tutelage Carr put up passing numbers that were similar to what he produced last season: Good for a rookie, not so much for a fourth year player. The Raiders are hoping that Olson can tap into his history of developing quarterbacks and help recapture some of Carr’s magic.
Given the presence of Gruden it is easy to assume that the Raiders’ offense will be rife with West Coast-influenced passing concepts. That may still be the case, but watching Carr and the Oakland offense last season you saw an offense that was filled with shorter, quicker concepts but struggled to push the ball down the field. As soon as teams caught onto their style of play, defenses began to get the better of them by collapsing on the underneath areas of the field and tempting the Raiders to get downfield. Forced to adjust and try and stretch defenses vertically, the Raiders found it difficult to sustain decent offensive production. Here are some examples from that disaster against Washington:
This is simply four verticals run out of a 2x2 formation, a basic vertical passing play. Oakland actually gets the coverage they want from the defense, a single-high safety look that gives Carr the opportunity to influence the safety to one of the interior seam routes and throw to the other. But on this simplified route structure, the defense is still in position to make a play on the football and force a turnover.
Later in the game Carr is sacked on a 3rd-and-10, and although the play seems doomed from the start (Carr was not even ready for the snap) we can see how the route concepts used by Downing seemed to hinder the offense. The Raiders empty the backfield, and run a vertical concept that also incorporates a pair of hitch routes right next to each other:
The spacing here is off, the defense can drop seven and still get home with just four rushers, and the Raiders have to punt once more.
Looking back at Carr’s previous stint under Olson, we can see that despite Oakland’s overall struggles, the offense still had moments where the vertical game was working and they could use route concepts and Carr’s arm to stretch defenses. On this first example, from the Raiders’ Week 6 game against the (former) San Diego Chargers, they use a switch concept on the right side along with a corner/crosser concept from the left to create chaos and confusion in the secondary:
What is fascinating about this play is how the defense is trying to confuse Carr pre-snap with movement and shifting in the secondary, but it is the defense that gets caught once the play begins. They show blitz up front with defenders sugaring the A-Gap. The slot corner shows blitz as well. But the route design from the offense beats the defense. The switch concept forces the safety to cheat down and cover the slot receiver, who runs what looks to be a wheel route before breaking toward the boundary.
Given the blitz from the slot corner, the other safety is supposed to be protecting the middle of the field, but when he sees the crossing route, he bites forward on it, opening the field for the deep post route. There are a lot of moving parts, but in the end Carr has an easy read, an open receiver, and six points.
We looked earlier at an example from 2017 where the Raiders’ offense tried to get vertical, but the route spacing seemed off. Here is a much better example of this from 2014 during Olson’s prior stint with the team. This is a 3rd-and-9 play from Week 14 against the San Francisco 49ers, and it is an example of a route concept that gives a quarterback two half-field reads. On the right, or weak-side, of this play Carr has a post/flat route combination. On the left side of the formation, Carr has a three-level flood concept consisting of a corner route, a flat route, and a deep out pattern.
The Raiders catch the 49ers in a Cover 3 scheme here, meaning the cornerback has to stay on the deepest route, the corner route, and the flat defender has to rotate down toward the tight end in the flat. That isolates the other wide receiver on the nickel corner on his out route. When you watch this play, remember that one of the things to watch when studying young quarterbacks is anticipation. If the ball is coming out on time and in rhythm, before the receiver is making their break, it is a sign that the game is speeding up for them. Do not forget that this play comes from Carr’s rookie season:
Carr get this ball out right on time, as the receiver is making his cut. This is what you love to see from a young quarterback. It is a confident and decisive throw made with anticipation, signs that the game is speeding up for him. The route design and spacing are great as well, and it all adds up to a first down for the Raiders on a confident decision from their young quarterback.
Olson has mentored other young quarterback, including Josh Freeman who was playing at a fairly high level under the offensive coordinator. During his last stint in Oakland, Olson was able to design plays to utilize Carr’s arm strength and quick release, and despite a tough season in the win-loss column, the future at the quarterback position seemed bright. That shine might have dulled a bit during 2017, but with Olson returning to town and bringing some more effective downfield designs, that shine should be back in 2018.
Cam Newton - Norv Turner
Whenever teams add a new offensive coordinator, articles (such as this one) appear contemplating how the offense might move in a new direction under the new offensive mind in place. What is interesting about the Carolina Panthers in 2018 is how that might not be the case with the addition of Norv Turner. Turner is well known through NFL circles for how his offense is influenced by the Air Coryell, downfield school of passing. When Turner was hired he was asked on the players might have to transition to his system, and his response illustrated how in reality, much of the system was already in place:
The great thing about it - and I know people want to label different offenses and defenses with the coordinator or coach’s name - it’s the Carolina Panthers offense. It’s evolved and obviously the history of it, Rob Chudzinski coached for me for three years in San Diego and he brought the system here. The system evolved differently with different personnel, but the terminology is amazingly pretty much the same we had in San Diego and used in Minnesota. There’s some tweaks, there’s some codenames that are a little different, but when I start looking at them I say they haven’t changed a whole lot. From a standpoint for the players, we’re building on the things this group has done and done well.
For Coach Rivera, that’s something that’s positive with him – not having to change a lot of verbiage. The formations are 90 percent the same, the motions are the same. The way we call the runs and passes is very much the same. I don’t see that as being something that will take very long.
That is taken from Turner’s introductory press conference, and the transcript (available at the previous link) is filled with nuggets on offensive philosophy.
Given Turner’s offensive history and philosophical mindset there are expectations in place for how the offense will look in 2017. The folks over at Cat Scratch Reader, SB Nation’s Panthers website, put together a great breakdown of the 989 concept, a staple of Coryell systems that incorporates two vertical routes (the 9s) with a post/option route in the middle of the field. I would highly recommend giving that a read. But here I’m going to talk about two other route concepts that Turner has used in the past, and how I expect to see them featured often in 2018, as they can take advantage of some of Cam Newton’s more impressive traits as a quarterback.
The first play to discuss is a concept known as 585. This is a route design consisting of two comeback routes (the 5s) with a post/option in the middle of the field. Here is one example of that play from Turner’s 1996 playbook in Washington:
Yes, this play has been in football circles for a while. Just how old is it? Well, the same year Turner was installing that in Washington, this author was running it as a sophomore in college. But I digress..
Now here is Newton running that play against the New York Jets in Week 12 of the 2017 season:
As you can see from the diagram, the receivers can convert the comebacks to out routes based on the coverage shown, and they do that here against the off coverage looks they get from the cornerbacks. The Jets blitz on this play, but Newton delivers a strong and accurate throw on the out route to Devin Funchess even with a defender taking a low shot at his legs. This is why I anticipate 585 being a staple of Carolina’s offense in 2018: Newton’s arm, and his torque. One of the things that Cam Newton does best as a passer is generate velocity with his upper body, using his left/lead shoulder as part of the process. That’s something we highlighted earlier this season with Baker Mayfield. We see that here on this throw.
Another route design I anticipate Turner using with Newton is 844, a route concept similar to the “Levels” concept made famous by Ted Marchibroda during his time first with Jim Kelly and later with Peyton Manning. This play works to stretch the defense in the middle of the field at multiple “levels,” while also incorporating a vertical stretch from the other side of the formation to draw defenders down the field and away from the routes coming across the formation:
June Jones, the run-and-shoot offensive mind, spoke at a coaching clinic about the levels concept and waxed poetically about the design. He used it with some of his run-and-shoot teams, including the University of Hawaii, and had this to say:
That is an average play with a read progression. The quarterback reads single receiver, inside slot, outside slot, and wide receiver. Last year, we threw this pass about 75 times. We completed it probably 80 percent of the time. After looking at the play with all the combinations off the three-receiver side, I do not know why we ran anything else…When you look at our cutups, the fourth option [the outside WR in cut] is open every time. This does not look hard to defend, but I watched Jim Kelly throw this for five years. He did not have the other variations we put in. (June Jones “Coaching the Passing Game By the Experts” Page 130)
Now, the danger with this design (or any design that asks the QB to challenge the middle of the field at an intermediate depth) is that more defenders tend to lurk there. That brings us to Newton’s right arm. He has the ability to dial up velocity and fit throws into windows that some other quarterbacks cannot challenge.
That is exactly what Newton did on this play last season in Week 13 against the New Orleans Saints, on this design:
Brandon Bersin is running that inside crossing route, and Newton finds him late in the play near the left sideline. Safety Kenny Vaccaro, who begins the play cheated down over the tight end, is in the flat and believes he has an easy interception, but thanks to his torque and velocity Newton is able to throw this pass right by the safety and into the waiting arms of Bersin for a completion and a fresh set of downs.
With Turner in place, the Panthers are in position to run some familiar plays and continue to challenge defenses in a variety of ways. By relying more on Newton’s velocity and arm talent, Turner can get his quarterback and this offense going offensively in 2018.
Fans of these three organizations expect better offensive production in the year ahead. Given the philosophical backgrounds of these offensive coordinators, and how their designs have worked in the past - in one case, with the quarterback in question - fans in Oakland, Tennessee and Carolina should look forward to 2018 with a certain amount of optimism.