The list of coaches who are considered to be brilliant offensive minds in the NFL is rather small. New Orleans' Sean Payton and Kansas City's Andy Reid often are the first two coaches who come to mind, as they are consistently able to produce top offenses. Another name entering the conversation is Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, who won a Super Bowl last year and is now widely considered one of the best coaches in the game. Many think Chicago's Matt Nagy and the New York Giants' Pat Shurmur could be the next ones to make that leap from successful offensive coordinators to star head coaches.
But at the top of the pantheon of offensive minds in the NFL is Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams. In 19 games as the Rams’ head coach, the team is averaging well over 30 points per game and nearly 375 yards of offense each week. They are the most explosive offense in the league.
You would think that all of this offensive explosion is the result of either a fantastic scheme or a generational type of quarterback like Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers. However, that’s not really the case. Instead, McVay’s scheme and overall philosophy about offense is fairly simple — put the ball into the hands of your best playmakers in favorable situations.
On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a very difficult thing to do. Every season, you will hear coach after coach talk about getting their players into space or getting them more touches, etc. But McVay is one of the few coaches who does it. He understands situational football and how defenses usually like to attack offenses, depending on the down and distance. He knows what situations will likely produce favorable results and which ones won’t.
Let’s take a look at a couple of plays from last week’s game that show how McVay torched the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense by just using logic and basic game theory.
We will begin with running the ball. The single most important and impressive thing from McVay is that he doesn’t put his offense into poor situations all that often. He sets them up for success by avoiding arrogant play calls.
What do I mean by arrogant play calls? Most coaches around the league are stubborn. They believe they became head coaches or offensive coordinators because of their wonderful scheme or play-calling. Some coaches still believe that being the more physical team is what wins in the NFL. You’ll often hear coaches utter cliches before the game about how they want to establish the run, control the line of scrimmage, blah, blah, blah. That’s all fine and dandy, but putting yourself into poor situations often leads to losing football.
McVay does a really good job of not buying into this line of thinking when it comes to play-calling. As simple as it may be, he takes what the defense gives him and doesn’t pound his head against the wall when facing an unfavorable situation. The easiest example of this is how the Rams choose to attack the run game.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Todd Gurley has rushed against eight or more defenders in the box on just 16 percent of his carries so far this season. That means he carried the ball just 10 times against a loaded box. According to the site, 37 other running backs in the league have seen a higher percentage of their carries against eight or more defenders in the box.
Does that mean that those 37 running backs are better than Gurley because they are "demanding" more attention from defenses? Of course not. McVay knows that running against loaded boxes is usually pointless and inefficient. You are going to average a significantly lower yards per carry when there are more defenders in the box. The only time it’s acceptable is in short-yardage situations, at the goal line or when running out the clock at the end of the game. Any other time, you are just throwing away opportunities to put points on the board.
The Rams only run when the numbers are in their favor. Take a look at this run by Gurley in the first quarter of last week’s game. The Rams come out in '11' personnel, forcing the Chargers to counter with their nickel package. That move, in itself, will create a numbers advantage for the offense as now there are only two linebackers on the field.
But McVay doesn’t stop there. To create an even bigger disadvantage for the defense, the Rams run a fake jet sweep, which causes the backside defensive end to pause for a fraction of a second.
At the snap of the ball, there were only five defenders “in the box” to stop the run. When you add in the jet sweep, there are now four defenders trying to beat five blockers and the running back. That is a pretty nice advantage for the offense. Again, is this anything outside of the norm in terms of play design in the NFL? Nope. But it’s just another example of McVay using common sense when calling plays.
McVay has also added in packaged plays for his quarterback, Jared Goff. If Goff recognizes that the numbers aren’t in their favor for running the ball, he can make a quick audible to a pass and he will have numbers now in the passing game. Here is a perfect example of this from Sunday.
Getting the numbers advantage in the run game is somewhat simple, but finding ways to pass the ball efficiently is a little bit more difficult. However, there are ways to exploit NFL defenses that are so simple that most teams just gloss over them.
McVay has taken advantage of passing the ball on early downs. According to Warren Sharp, over the past two seasons, passing the ball on first down has been successful 53 percent of the time, while rushing has just a 45 percent success rate. Over the past two seasons, the average yards gained on first down via pass is 7.2 vs. 4.0 on the ground.
By using this data, it makes sense to throw the ball more often on first down — and that’s exactly what the Rams have done. But that’s not the reason why the Rams have so much success on offense. There are plenty of teams in the NFL that throw the ball a ton on early downs. But McVay and the Rams just do it a little differently.
Generally, teams are afraid of giving up big plays on first and second down. However, on third down, defenses will typically crowd the first-down marker and do their best to protect the line to gain. Everyone’s goal in the NFL is to limit big plays and make stops on third down. A sound defensive philosophy, right?
In order to ensure that a defense doesn’t give up a big (passing) play, defenses will usually have their safeties further back on earlier downs. That is especially true if a team comes out in a passing situation. Because safeties are lined up deeper on early downs, that opens up routes underneath. Defenses don’t mind giving up small chunks of yards on first and second as they view it as a “win” if the opponent doesn’t convert a first down.
Through three weeks, Todd Gurley has 11 receptions for 124 yards on first and second down. Guess how many catches he has on third down? You guessed it — zero. On early downs, you the Rams take advantage of defenses by often sending receivers deep to open up bigger lanes for Goff’s underneath receivers. Take a look at this play on 1st down for the Rams in Week 3. The two outside receivers run deep routes and Gurley runs to the flat for an easy reception and gain.
This isn’t a great play design or something so innovative that hasn’t been replicated by other NFL teams. This just McVay and Goff understanding how defenses will usually allow short throws and completions on early downs. It’s also as simple as getting the ball to your best playmaker in space. Offense doesn’t have to be that complicated. I could go on and on showing you how McVay creates easy throws for his quarterback or big rushing lanes for his backs, but you should get the point by now. He’s making offense as simple as it can be.
McVay is going to be successful in the NFL for a long time for a variety of reasons. He doesn’t have a set scheme for defenses to figure out over the next several seasons. Instead, he’s going to continue to play the percentages and adapt to whatever defenses decide to allow. McVay isn’t stubborn or prideful. He is just going to put his team into the best situations possible to succeed. And that’s why he is the greatest offensive mind in the NFL today.