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

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

Shortly before the playoffs, I wrote in regards to the NFL’s scheme wars, through which I explored the diversification of offensive systems across the league and posited that the postseason would function a litmus test for different schematic factions. If that was the case, the outcomes were awfully one-sided, as three of the 4 participants within 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 within the NFC title game, ensuring that one branch of the tree would make the Super Bowl. When Taylor’s Bengals toppled the Chiefs within the AFC title game, it locked in an all-wide zone offensive matchup on the most important stage.

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

As defenses have adjusted to the rise of wide zone coaches, the system has needed 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 wide range of personnel, evolutionary steps have created divergence. We already saw a few 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 much 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 those systems together; it’s what the coaches do to complement 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 properly leans on Burrow’s formational preferences, going to empty sets and mainly adopting the passing game that the 2020 top pick used to win a university football national title at LSU. With Stafford in tow, McVay and the Rams treat the dropback passing game as a central a part of their offensive attack. Shanahan, who hasn’t had an elite quarterback to depend on when his base concepts aren’t working, has devised recent ways to diversify those base concepts, including deploying Deebo Samuel within the “wideback” role.

Following the success of the wide zone in these playoffs, three more coaches from this tree landed head jobs within the offseason: Mike McDaniel was poached from San Francisco to teach the Dolphins, Nathaniel Hackett left Green Bay to steer 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 couple of a long time ago, when Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense took over the league on the heels of the 49ers’ dominance within the Eighties. As his impressive coaching tree spread throughout the NFL, Walsh’s protégés put their very own spin on his creation. Technically, Shanahan and Andy Reid are each a part of the Walsh coaching lineage, but their respective offenses don’t share much resemblance. Soon enough, an analogous trend could unfold with the coaches who’ve emerged from the Shanahan and McVay pipeline.

This philosophical splintering between McVay and Shanahan might be traced back to the 2018 season. While Shanahan was just attempting 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 road of scrimmage and playing coverages designed to remove 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 carry one of the vital prolific offenses in NFL history to 3 measly points in Super Bowl LIII.

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

Within the 2021 offseason, each McVay and Shanahan decided they needed to seek out quarterbacks who could offer them a plan B when their base concepts weren’t working. It’s no coincidence that each coaches convinced their front offices to pursue a trade for Stafford. The longtime Lions quarterback has some reckless tendencies within 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 significantly, Stafford has the power to create a plan B on his own.

Stafford proved to be the difference between McVay’s Rams falling short on the massive stage and winning a championship. The important thing 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 utilizing his eyes to attract Bell toward the tight end. This highlight was representative of the way in which that Stafford unlocked the Rams offense and helped your complete 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 when 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 in order that this illusion wasn’t as vital to the general success of the offense.

After missing out on Stafford, Shanahan traded up within the draft for the correct to select Lance, who will allow the 49ers to make some foundational changes on offense now that he’s expected to take over because the starter. Yet how San Francisco evolves will look loads 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 in Lance’s transient 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 largely to the Fangio and Belichick influence, defenses leaguewide have gotten a lot 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 road of scrimmage to create a large surface.

The goal is to string these plays out long enough for the second- and third-level defenders to make a tackle near the road of scrimmage. Within 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 great thing about this approach for defenses is that they don’t need to drop an additional safety into the box to stop the run, which allows that player to deal with the passing game. If defenses can stop the run without committing extra numbers within the box, well … the wide zone offense doesn’t really work as intended. That’s where Lance changes the maths. When Jimmy G is starting for the 49ers, defenses can keep two safeties deep and play 11-on-10 within the run game knowing that the QB isn’t a threat. With Lance, defenses might 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 right down to: how different branches of this tree will take care of that second safety. McVay found a passer with the arm strength and playmaking creativity to take advantage of 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 could be probably the most fascinating subplot in this technique’s evolution. The star wideout can run any route from anywhere on the sphere and produce. With that skeleton key now in Las Vegas, the Packers may have to regulate. Based on early observations out of camp, it appears that evidently a two-headed backfield featuring Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon could grow to be the bottom search for this offense in 2022. Green Bay has used this look over the past two seasons, most notably of their playoff win against the Brandon Staley-led Rams defense in 2021. This run play, specifically, shows why it’s so effective against defenses that need to stay in two-high looks:

With the only off-ball linebacker following Jones out wide, one in every of the deep safeties is now forced to drop into the box and act instead 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 identical 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 technique to his liking in Seattle, so it’s reasonable to expect more of similar to a part of his recent partnership with Hackett in Denver.

The wide zone faction can 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 perimeters just change.

The NFL is a large zone league now. Through 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 a few of the features that make it so effective.

The Chiefs and Bills, for example, needed to make their very 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, they usually were in a position to stay in those coverages because neither Kansas City nor Buffalo seemed especially enthusiastic about 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 can be reluctant to accomplish that. While this strategy was effective at first, each offenses found their footing by moving away from the spread-style concepts that had served them so well prior to now and co-opting a few of the traits traditionally related to 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 which can be 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 primary half of the 2021 season, Kansas City averaged 11.8 over the second half, in accordance with Sports Info Solutions. Mahomes also threw a career-high 71 passes from under-center snaps in 2021. Relatedly, last season also was his most effective within the play-action game, as he set profession highs in each total EPA (41.4) and success rate (58.1 percent), per SIS.

Buffalo and Kansas City’s offseason personnel moves suggest they might borrow from wide zone offenses much more liberally in 2022. The Bills said goodbye to Cole Beasley, who had a pivotal role of 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’re each willing and in a position to block within the run game.

Even when those AFC powers don’t fully embrace the ways of the wide zone, other teams could commit to this variety of offense. Now that Shane Waldron doesn’t need 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 an analogous offense now that Ben Roethlisberger, who was never a giant 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 almost complete, but that doesn’t mean we’re headed for an era through which every offense looks the identical. The truth is, it’s quite the other. 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.

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