NFLTR Review: Trends From The Four Conference Championship Teams

     

Welcome to another week of NFLTR Review! Lots of stuff to get to, including: 

  • How the four conference championship teams highlight the NFL’s coming trends
  • Offensive and defensive coordinator tracker for new hires
  • Are the Colts up a creek without a paddle at quarterback? 

Team-Building Trends

Year after year, the NFL proves to be a copycat league. One team will find a winning formula and others will rush to copy their own versions for fear of being left behind. 

You can look at the four final teams that remain alive this week — the Chiefs, Bills, Packers and Buccaneers — and see the seeds of what will be next season’s trendy looks. As the offseason unfolds, these are the big takeaways other teams will be trying to make their own: 

1.Embrace quarterbacks who can create out of structure

The Chiefs have been a trendsetter for a few years now, as this is their third straight conference title game. It’s admittedly hard to copy Kansas City’s winning formula exactly. Quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes don’t grow on trees, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce are two of the most dangerous mismatch weapons in the NFL, and HC Andy Reid is one of the league’s top offensive architects and play-callers. 

But since Mahomes tore through the NFL in 2018, teams have been much more willing to embrace out-of-structure playmaking from their signal-callers rather than drilling the sandlot creativity out of them. Another terrific example of that will be on the opposite sideline Sunday, as Josh Allen continues his revelatory 2020 season for the Bills. 

Allen possesses a rare combination of size, strength, speed and arm talent. But he tapped into some of what really makes Mahomes so sensational this year, making strides in his ability to toe the line between daring and reckless. Buffalo also deserves credit for trusting Allen enough to take the training wheels off and give him the infrastructure on offense he needed to be successful, with an aggressive offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll who’s found his stride and a deep receiving corps. 

Other teams like the Texans, Seahawks, Ravens and Cardinals have made the ability of their quarterbacks to create when the play breaks down features of their offense. Even the Raiders and Vikings encouraged Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins — two quarterbacks not known for being especially fleet of foot — to take off and run with the ball more in 2020. Carr set a career-high in rushing and Cousins had his best ever yards per carry. 

Looking ahead to the draft, it’s clear this trend is reflected in the shifting ideals teams are looking for when picking their next franchise quarterback. Mobility is becoming more of a necessity as opposed to just a nice-to-have. Exclusively pocket passers aren’t obsolete, but there’s a clear tier break between someone like Alabama’s Mac Jones, who put up ludicrous numbers this past year but is limited athletically, and the other probable first-round quarterbacks. Four or five years ago, BYU’s Zach Wilson would have been seen as a major project despite his moments on tape akin to Johnny Manziel. Now Wilson is rated by some evaluators as the No. 2 quarterback in this class. The success of Mahomes and others has opened up NFL decision-makers to the viability of this approach at quarterback.

2.Speed kills

The NFL has always had a fascination with speed but it was rekindled following the explosive 2018 season from the duo of Mahomes and Hill. The entire Chiefs offense stretches the field in ways that are impractical for defenses to defend, but Hill is the lynchpin given his quickness and toughness to go along with blinding speed. Having that threat to take the top off the defense is vital, as it creates the space that’s essential for a modern passing offense to thrive. 

Other teams have tried to find their own version of Hill. The Ravens made Marquise Brown the first receiver drafted in 2019 and the Raiders took Henry Ruggs first off the board last April on the back of his 4.27 40-yard dash time. Something similar could happen this year. Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase are the early frontrunners for best receivers available, but perhaps Smith’s teammate Jaylen Waddle leapfrogs him like Ruggs did to Jerry Jeudy last year. 

The demand always exceeds the supply when it comes to speed on offense, so players like Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Florida’s Kadarius Toney, Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell and Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge will see their stock boosted because of their wheels. The same will likely be true of Panthers WR Curtis Samuel and Texans WR Will Fuller should they hit the free-agent market this March. 

3.The value of a true No. 1 wideout

Allen made a very real jump from 2019 to 2020 in terms of playing under control and harnessing his gifts as a quarterback. Daboll’s scheme helped, but the other major factor in unlocking Allen and getting Buffalo to the semifinal for the first time since the ‘90s was the blockbuster trade for elite WR Stefon Diggs

Right away, Diggs and Allen have become one of the premier QB/WR duos in the NFL. Diggs led the league in receptions and yards, snaring 127 passes for 1,535 yards and eight touchdowns. Diggs provides a go-to option for Allen who’s always open and a threat that frees up other players in the passing game. It was well worth the four picks including a first that Buffalo sent to get him out of Minnesota. 

In fact, when you look around at all four conference championship teams, there’s an abundance of receiver talent. Critics in the past have pointed out how elite/highly paid receivers were rarely found on Super Bowl-winning squads, but that should change this year. Whether it’s Diggs in Buffalo, Hill and Kelce in Kansas City, Davante Adams in Green Bay or Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown in Tampa Bay, the league’s best teams this year are overflowing with receiving talent. 

For teams next year looking to help their young quarterbacks take a step forward in the passing game like Allen, there’s a potential bumper crop of options available in free agency. Not all of them will make it to the market, but guys like Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin and JuJu Smith-Schuster are on expiring deals, along with others like Samuel, Fuller, Corey Davis, Sammy Watkins, T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green. If you’re the Giants looking to help out Daniel Jones or the Ravens trying to build an effective passing attack, there are a lot of options to work with. 

4.Multiplicity on defense

Both the Chiefs and Bills have focused on building a successful four-man rush that allows them to keep seven back in coverage. Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo helped popularize this approach in his time with the Giants and Super Bowl upset of the Patriots. His defense in Kansas City follows a similar template with a little more emphasis on the back end led by Tyrann Mathieu. Bills HC Sean McDermott has leaned on his roots in the Jim Johnson/Ron Rivera coaching tree and also employs a front-four focused defense, with predominantly zone coverage to keep things in front of the secondary and speedy linebackers to clean up underneath. 

The issue is the whole NFL is always after pass rushers, which can make it hard to build and maintain an overwhelming front. Elite linebackers who can hold up against the run and have the range to cover huge swathes of the field can also be hard to find. What some like Buccaneers DC Todd Bowles have turned to is a defense that shows a wide array of fronts and coverages in an effort to confuse the opposing quarterback and get him to either hold the ball long enough for the rush to get there or to throw it where a defender can make a play on the ball. That style of defense put on a clinic for how effective it can be when Tampa Bay dismantled Rodgers and the Packers earlier this year. 

No scheme can make up for a lack of talent on defense, as offensive coordinators are ruthless at attacking perceived weak links. Tampa Bay doesn’t lack for talent, either, with terrific players like Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, Ndamukong Suh, Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield Jr. But multiplicity can help offset the challenge most static defenses face of becoming too predictable, especially deep in the postseason against the league’s best quarterbacks. 

5.Rise of the Shanahan offense

This offense has been around for a while. Its original namesake, Mike Shanahan, rode it to two Super Bowl wins in the late ‘90s. Gary Kubiak used it to usher the Texans into respectability and oversee Joe Flacco’s best-ever regular season in 2014. And it helped Robert Griffin win rookie of the year in 2012 under both Shanahan and his son, Kyle. 

But in recent years, the scheme has really exploded in popularity. After Kyle Shanahan helped Matt Ryan win the MVP and lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016 as offensive coordinator, he took it with him the following year when he became the head coach of the 49ers. At the same time, Sean McVay and the Rams took the NFL by storm with his version of the offense he picked up while on the same staff in Washington with the Shanahans. 

Since then, the Shanahan-McVay coaching tree has quickly sprouted branches, with Matt LaFleur in Green Bay, Zac Taylor in Cincinnati and Arthur Smith with the Titans and now the Falcons. With Kubiak disciples running the offenses for the Vikings and Browns, plus the Jets taking 49ers assistant Mike LaFleur as their next offensive coordinator, over a quarter of the league now runs some sort of Shanahan system. We’re at the point where the Shanahan offense deserves a place in the lexicon of football alongside the West Coast offense. 

Everything new in football is really old, as coaches cycle through and rediscover numerous innovations from the history of the game. Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina wrote an excellent look at the Shanahan offense, which has its roots in the West Coast offense popularized by 49ers legendary coach Bill Walsh in the 1980s and made almost ubiquitous throughout the league in the decades since. But what sets it apart is a focus on the run game, specifically a reliance on a zone running scheme that allows for a runner to consistently generate positive yardage by making one cut and going upfield. It’s an incredibly player-friendly scheme for backs, almost countless unheralded backs throughout the years have thrived in the Shanahan offense, from Terrell Davis to Raheem Mostert.

From there, a passing attack is built off the run game with a heavy emphasis on play-action and rollouts from the quarterback to test the defense horizontally. Different coaches can put different spins on it. For instance, McVay tends to operate more heavily out of 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back and one tight end), while Shanahan loves 21 and 12 personnel (either two running backs, with the second usually a fullback, or two tight ends). But the commitment to the zone rushing scheme and bootlegs stretching the defense horizontally with play-action shots attacking in the vertical game remains a consistent feature of this offense. 

What’s really remarkable about this system is how it can consistently generate a high-functioning offense without elite quarterback play. The reads are clearly defined and the windows to throw into are often wide open thanks to play action. It’s not a high degree of difficulty system to operate. Given how hard it is to find truly elite franchise quarterbacks, an offense that can excel without one is a tantalizing prospect for teams. The results speak for themselves; if the Packers beat the Buccaneers on Sunday, Shanahan systems will have been represented in four of the past five Super Bowls. 

It’s worth mentioning the system isn’t a cure-all for substandard quarterbacking. Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo are two who have arguably been exposed on the big stage in recent seasons when asked to step up on their own. It can also take some time to adjust for quarterbacks used to other systems, see the slow starts for Ryan in Atlanta with Shanahan and Aaron Rodgers in 2019 under LaFleur as examples. But the MVP caliber seasons from those quarterbacks in Year 2 have shown what’s possible when you marry the Shanahan system with a strong quarterback. At this point, its success is impossible to ignore. 

This Week In Football

  • Instead of de-escalating, the situation with Deshaun Watson ratcheted up another few notches this past weekend. National reporters like Adam Schefter reported there’s a growing sense, both around the NFL and inside the Texans organization itself, that it’s just a matter of time until Watson is traded. Some local reporters aren’t so sure, but it’s still notable that the temperature on this situation has gone up despite Houston’s attempts to calm it down. This will be the top story to track this offseason. 
  • Watson isn’t the only situation to keep an eye on. 2021 is shaping up to be the offseason of the unhappy quarterback, as a report came out that Rams QB Jared Goff and HC Sean McVay essentially need marriage counseling. Goff’s inconsistencies finally appear to have worn thin with McVay, though unfortunately a couple years after signing him to a four-year, $134 million extension. For his part, Goff didn’t seem to appreciate initially being held out of the starting lineup following his thumb injury. There might be more to the story that we learn later this offseason. 
  • In Philadelphia, the Eagles were reportedly telling candidates they wanted QB Carson Wentz back in 2021 and any prospective hire would presumably be tasked with getting him back to playing at a high level, which lends credence to the thought that they picked Wentz over Pederson. The hire of Colts offensive coordinator and Frank Reich disciple Nick Sirianni seems to indicate another step in that direction, as Wentz played his best football under Reich. Wentz clearly isn’t going anywhere, but that’s not the end of the drama in Philadelphia, as second-round QB Jalen Hurts still remains, for now. 
  • 2020 marks the end of an era, as Colts QB Philip Rivers announced his retirement after 17 seasons and Saints QB Drew Brees is expected to make a similar announcement sometime in the coming weeks. Brees will go down as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play despite only winning one Super Bowl, as he was the architect of some explosive Saints offenses that in many ways helped usher in the modern NFL. Rivers never even made it past the AFC championship game, which shows just how hard it is to reach the mountaintop in the NFL. But he still belongs in the discussion as one of the most underrated quarterbacks to ever play. 
  • With Rivers and Eli Manning now retired, Ben Roethlisberger is the last remaining quarterback from that 2004 draft class who’s still playing. Despite some speculation as their season ended, the Steelers are optimistic Roethlisberger will be back in 2021. He’s not the same quarterback he once was, but there’s still a chasm between him, Mason Rudolph, or other options the Steelers could realistically bring in. Either way, their ceiling looks limited in 2021. 
  • Former Washington first-round QB Dwayne Haskins signed a futures deal Thursday, but that’s much more about a low-risk swing for 2022 and beyond than it is any real succession plan for the Steelers. Still, Mike Tomlin has worked miracles with players in the past, and Haskins has to know this is his last chance to avoid NFL infamy. 
  • Elsewhere in the AFC North, the Ravens will start looking at an extension for QB Lamar Jackson this summer. Baltimore typically is aggressive trying to lock up players early but that’s to lock in as much of a discount as possible. There might be a different dynamic with quarterback negotiations, and buyer’s remorse on recent deals for quarterbacks like Wentz and Goff could give the Ravens pause. More than likely, though, Jackson is about to become a much wealthier man. 
  • Browns QB Baker Mayfield has gone a long way in 2020 toward proving himself to the Cleveland organization after taking a step back in 2019. The Browns don’t seem to be taking as aggressive an approach with Mayfield as the Ravens could be with Jackson, but there’s no doubt they’ll pick up his fifth-year option as they’re reportedly “all in” on Mayfield.
  • This was a huge week in the hiring cycle. All seven general manager vacancies are now filled, with George Paton (Broncos), Terry Fontenot (Falcons), Trent Baalke (Jaguars), Brad Holmes (Lions), Scott Fitterer (Panthers), Nick Caserio (Texans) and Martin Mayhew (Washington) landing the coveted positions.
  • Six of the seven head coaching positions were filled as of Thursday night, with Urban Meyer (Jaguars), Robert Saleh (Jets), Arthur Smith (Falcons), Brandon Staley (Chargers), Dan Campbell (Lions) and Nick Sirianni (Eagles) getting hired. Only the Texans remain, and they have both the most to gain and the most to lose with this hire. 

Coordinator Musical Chairs

Once the big jobs are locked up, teams turn their attention to filling out their staff, which is arguably just as important as who is hired as head coach. Coordinators can either make or break you and good ones are some of the most impactful individuals in the NFL. 

There are only 32 of those jobs on each side of the ball, so there’s high demand and it’s a lot like musical chairs, with rippling effects from coaches taking and leaving jobs. The dust hasn’t quite settled but this is what the picture looks like right now. 

Team Offensive Coordinator Defensive Coordinator
Bears NA Interviewed James Bettcher, Mike Singletary, Jonathan Gannon, George Edwards
Chargers ? Interviewed Jonathan Gannon, Renaldo Hill
Colts Marcus Brady NA
Cowboys NA Dan Quinn
Dolphins Finalists: George Godsey, Eric Studesville, Pep Hamilton NA
Eagles ? ?
Falcons Dave Ragone Dean Pees
49ers Mike McDaniel DeMeco Ryans
Jaguars Darrell Bevell Joe Cullen
Jets Mike LaFleur Jeff Ulbrich
Lions Interviewed Anthony Lynn, Ken Dorsey, Ike Hilliard, James Urban Aaron Glenn
Raiders NA Gus Bradley
Rams NA Raheem Morris
Seahawks Interviewed Doug Pederson, Adam Gase, Anthony Lynn, Kirby Wilson NA
Steelers Interviewed Matt Canada, Hue Jackson, Pep Hamilton NA
Texans Tim Kelly? ?
Titans ? ?
Vikings ? NA

 

Some observations: 

  • The Chargers initially went after Rams OC Kevin O’Connell, which had he not been blocked from interviewing would have had McVay replacing both coordinators for the second straight season. There’s been some chatter current Chargers OC Shane Steichen could stay on under the new staff. 
  • Godsey moved from tight ends to quarterbacks this year and is seen as the favorite right now to take the Dolphins offensive coordinator post. 
  • Sirianni will likely call plays for the Eagles, which will be a first for him, but he could look to add some experienced voices on staff to help aid his transition. Gannon is a popular name in the defensive coordinator searches and could draw interest in Philadelphia as well. 
  • Getting Pees to come out of retirement is a huge coup for Smith’s staff with the Falcons. 
  • The 49ers’ deep pipeline continues with McDaniel and Ryans, both who are expected to be head coaching candidates sooner rather than later. 
  • LaFleur and Ulbrich also look like a really strong pairing for Saleh in New York. 
  • Bevell made a strong impression on the Lions and was in consideration to be the rare interim coach to take over full time. A strong 2021 with Trevor Lawrence could earn him his first real head coaching gig. 
  • The Seahawks offensive coordinator vacancy might be one of the biggest this year and it’s also one with little real indication of how it will shake out, other than the next person better run the ball enough for Pete Carroll. It does appear that Pederson is more likely to take a gap year than take this position, though. 
  • Canada seemed to have the inside track on the job per early reports, which was curious given some rumblings indicated his influence wasn’t always welcomed by Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh hasn’t committed yet, however, and have some intriguing options to replace Randy Fichtner
  • Houston’s coaching staff is obviously in flux but Watson is a big fan of Kelly, as is the organization, which could bode well for him staying. 
  • The Titans have swung big at a couple of candidates, trying to bring back Pees after he retired and getting turned down along with a few other teams by Clemson OC Tony Elliott. It looks like they might be making an internal hire on offense. As for defense, they went without a DC in 2020 even though HC Mike Vrabel and OLB coach Shane Bowen essentially split the duties. It’ll be interesting to see if that continues. 
  • The early sense out of Minnesota is that Gary Kubiak’s son, QB coach Klint Kubiak, has the inside track toward replacing his father who’s retiring. That would help maintain some semblance of continuity for the Vikings even though this will be their sixth play-caller in as many years. 

What Are The Colts Going To Do Now?

I have to admit to being a bit caught off guard by Philip Rivers’ announcement that he would retire instead of play in 2021. The 17-year veteran’s toughness and competitiveness is legendary — he played in the AFC Championship game on a torn ACL. The Colts were a good team this past year, going 11-5, but not a great one, taking the seventh and final AFC playoff berth and losing in a tight game to the No. 2-seed Buffalo Bills. I didn’t think Rivers would leave it like this. 

But he had said in the past that he didn’t want to hang on past his expiration date in the NFL, and even though it looked like that might be what was happening at times the past two years, he kept his word. He’ll now turn his attention to other great things he’s had his eyes on, coaching his sons in high school as they play the same game and potentially starting a broadcast career. And the Colts will turn their attention toward trying to find a new solution at quarterback. 

About a month ago, I took a look at the potential quarterback carousel coming this offseason. A lot has changed. The Watson situation has spiraled, the Jets no longer have the No. 1 pick and Wentz has ousted Pederson from Philadelphia. But what I wrote at the time about the Colts still holds up. With Rivers and Wentz off the table, their options at the position look far murkier. 

Who knows what will happen in another month, but it’s hard to see a trade for an established option being realistic for the Colts right now. The Eagles’ coaching decisions so far seem to indicate Wentz is off the block. There hasn’t been firm word on either Lions QB Matthew Stafford or Jets QB Sam Darnold, but reading between the lines from the new regimes for both teams seem to suggest neither are going anywhere. The Colts could offer six first-round picks and the Texans still wouldn’t trade Watson inside the division. 

The pickings in free agency are thin. Cam Newton or Andy Dalton might be the best available. Jacoby Brissett knows the system and has been a starter for the Colts for long stretches before, including the entire 2019 season. But he’s not the long-term answer the Colts need at the position barring some kind of dramatic leap we haven’t seen out of him yet. 

Indianapolis’ best and most realistic option might be the hardest, finding the next franchise quarterback in the draft. Colts GM Chris Ballard has resisted forcing a pick at quarterback but it’s a terrific class this year and the state of his roster leaves him no choice but to be aggressive to try and capitalize on the window the team has. The hard part is they can’t realistically hope to find that franchise quarterback if they stick at their No. 21 pick in the first round. They need to trade up, probably into the top ten, perhaps even the top five depending on who their target is. And that will almost literally cost the Colts an arm and a leg. 

Take a look at some notable trade-ups by teams into the top of the draft in search of a franchise quarterback. The Rams surrendered a first, two seconds and two thirds to move from No. 15 to No. 1 in 2016 for Goff. That same year, the Eagles traded a couple of starters to move from No. 13 to No. 8, then sent a first, second and third to move up to No. 2. The Colts themselves got three second-round picks from the Jets to move down three slots from No. 3 so New York could take Darnold. When teams know you’re trading up for a quarterback, it always adds a premium. 

What Indianapolis might have to do is trade up twice like the Eagles did to create more trade possibilities for teams who don’t want to fall all the way from the top ten down to No. 21. The Patriots (No. 15), Vikings (No. 14) and 49ers (No. 12) are known for trading down or could use more picks and that deal would be relatively inexpensive, perhaps just a third and fourth this year to get to No. 15 per the Jimmy Johnson trade value chart. 

That positions the Colts to make another move into the top ten closer to the draft when they get a better read on the lay of the land. The No. 1 pick is locked in, but there’s still a wide range where Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance could land, even if all three are expected to be top-ten picks. It’s worth mentioning the Colts sent assistant GM Ed Dodds to Lance’s one showcase game earlier this year, and he’s typically mentioned a tick behind Fields and Wilson, which could make him attainable for the Colts between picks 5-10. 

Either way, it will be hard for the Colts to keep their 2022 first out of any deals, and they face the added wrinkle of needing to find a new left tackle as well. Ballard has built a terrific roster that just needs a game-changing quarterback to propel it into true contention in the AFC. Unfortunately for him, that’s one of the hardest pieces to find. 

Check This Out

Right now, there’s still a chance the Texans could hire Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy. They certainly have more incentive to do so if it will help sooth the situation with Deshaun Watson. But the fact that six other teams passed on Bieniemy, as did Houston initially, is a dismal outcome for a hiring cycle that many in the NFL had hoped would go a long way toward correcting the current imbalance in minority hiring. In fact, only one of the six jobs went to a person of color, with the Jets hiring the league’s first Muslim coach in Saleh. No Black coach has received a head coaching job yet despite an abundance of highly-qualified options. 

Jason Reid of ESPN’s The Undefeated eloquently knocks down any excuses regarding why Bieniemy hasn’t been hired yet and it’s a terrific read. Coaching hires are notoriously hard to predict. Nobody knows who will succeed or who will fail. But the reasons being held up as to why men like Bieniemy wait years and years for their opportunities don’t seem to apply when Campbell, a position coach, or Sirianni, who’s never called plays, land jobs ahead of them. 

It’s beyond frustrating. Some thought the changes put into place this past season were too drastic. Clearly they weren’t enough.

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