NFL1000: Ranking the Best Offensive Schemes
When we talk about what makes great coaches valuable to their teams, we could be talking about any number of things. Some coaches are alpha motivators who can take their players and make them do things they didn't think possible through the sheer force of their will and the ability to get everyone around them to buy in.
Other coaches are great CEOs—they view the entire organization from above, even and especially their own roles, and those coaches fill their rosters, coaching staffs and front offices with the right people for every job.
But mostly, when we think of great coaches throughout NFL history, we think of the coaches who developed schematic innovations that took their teams to higher levels and made the game better because they weren't afraid to innovate. They also understood how to take those innovations to the field before they even happened. Vince Lombardi was fond of saying that he never put a play in the playbook before he had seen the successful execution of the play in his mind at every position, from start to finish.
In today's NFL, not every schematic genius is an innovator. Most aren't, in fact, and that's OK. Innovation is great, but execution is far more important. You can only invent so much, and the league's 32 coaching staffs are looking to get the edge on all the other coaching staffs at any given time. What the best play designers must do for their teams is understand their personnel and marry that personnel to their playbooks. It's important to note that marrying personnel to scheme is the way to success—not the other way around.
If you have a bunch of smaller, quicker linemen who excel in zone and you insist on running gap power to the detriment of your offense, or you have a group of small receivers who cut angles and run option routes like experts and you miscast them in a vertical offense, it's nobody's fault but yours when it doesn't work out.
The best offensive schemes in the NFL have two things in common: They work more often than they don't because the playbook and players match up, and the people who put those plays in motion are flexible enough to create new plays for personnel when rosters change, which they do all the time.
Here are 10 of the best offensive schemes in the NFL today—concepts that win consistently no matter the opponent.
10. Miami's Numbers Game
Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has an impressive history of designing and helping to design offenses and deploying players in those offenses, and his quarterbacks always benefit. In Denver, he was Tim Tebow's quarterbacks coach in 2011, and it was his and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's first-read-open offenses that allowed Tebow to be successful in the NFL for a brief series of moments. Gase was Denver's offensive coordinator in 2013 when the Broncos finished first in points and yards and Peyton Manning threw for an NFL-record 55 touchdowns in the regular season.
Hired as the Bears' offensive coordinator in 2015, Gase helped Jay Cutler post a career-high 92.3 passer rating. It wasn't possible to completely remove Cutler's randomness, but Gase had Cutler playing more within a system, avoiding deep, risky throws when they weren't warranted.
Gase's next step was to take over the Dolphins as head coach in 2016 and tutor another physically gifted quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who had not yet reached his potential. Tannehill played quarterback just two years at Texas A&M (he was a receiver before that), and he cycled through a series of offensive coordinators in his first four seasons. Under Gase last season, Tannehill set career highs in completion percentage (67.1), touchdown percentage (4.9) and yards per attempt (7.7) before he missed the last three games of the season with a partially torn ACL.
Gase's secret to success is that he doesn't have one scheme. Instead, he takes just as liberally from West Coast offensive philosophies as he does from Air Coryell concepts. The idea in a Gase offense is always to create matchup advantages through pre-snap motion, flood concepts in which there are more receivers than defenders to a side, and first-read openings that allow quarterbacks to have easy hot routes when things aren't right on more advanced routes.
Tannehill's three touchdown passes against the Cardinals in Week 14—his final game of the season—showed Gase's schematic imagination. There was a 28-yard seam route to Kenny Stills in which Stills went in motion from right to left before the snap and settled in a wider formation to stretch the defense and create a one-on-one matchup outside. There was a goal-line touchdown pass to tight end Dion Sims in which Sims motioned back to the formation from a right-side trips set and ran a pick play to the outside with receiver Jarvis Landry staying inside to get separation.
Then there was a short touchdown pass to running back Damien Williams in which Gase called another trips right formation, only to use those three receivers to clear out the man defenders and force a linebacker to catch up to Williams outside.
In each case, Gase established the numbers advantage with his play calls.
Gase believes just as much in analytics as he does in old-school ideas, and in many ways he appears to be the prototype for the new kind of coach who will best succeed in the NFL—listen to your players, game-plan for each opponent differently and don't get too stuck in one concept.
9. Washington's Vertical Passing Combinations
In 2016, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins was one of the best and most efficient deep passers in the NFL, completing 39 of 82 passes 20 yards in the air and longer for a league-leading 1,359 yards, 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions, per Pro Football Focus.
This came as a surprise to most who had watched Cousins through his time at Michigan State and into the start of his NFL career. Cousins looked more like an Alex Smith-style game manager with football smarts but a limited arm and mechanical issues that would upend his productivity.
Cousins deserves kudos for streamlining his delivery, but the real story behind Cousins' deep-throwing acumen is the deep route concepts implemented by head coach Jay Gruden and former offensive coordinator Sean McVay, now the Rams head coach.
Gruden is a West Coast offense coach at his roots; one would expect nothing less from Jon Gruden's brother. You'll see all kinds of screens and short angle routes in the Redskins playbook. But Gruden is not shy about utilizing his receivers in different ways. Over time, and especially when he had DeSean Jackson on the field, Gruden got creative with deeper route combinations. Double deep posts in which a receiver and tight end would bookend each other downfield, go and deep over combination routes all over the field…Gruden and McVay would stop at nothing to exploit mismatches in coverage.
Perhaps the most effective idea Washington's coaching brain trust had in recent times was their use of Jackson as a decoy, especially from the slot. Even when he wasn't Cousins' target, Jackson could flip coverage and force defenses to over-correct to his deep speed. If he ran a straight deep route, at least one cornerback or one safety would have to follow him, and probably both. If he ran an out route from the inside or vice versa, it would create one-on-one matchups favorable to Washington's other receivers.
With Jackson gone to the Buccaneers and second receiver Pierre Garcon off to the 49ers, Gruden will be tested as a play designer. But no matter who he has on the field, Gruden will find ways to match the West Coast philosophy with deeper route combinations because he's one of the best in the business when it comes to drawing them up.
8. Seattle's Orchestrated Chaos
When you combine a mobile quarterback and the worst offensive line in the NFL, you're going to see a lot of quarterback sacks, hits and hurries. That's certainly been true for Russell Wilson throughout his career with the Seattle Seahawks. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, Wilson was pressured on 42.4 percent of his dropbacks (261 of 628), fifth-highest in the NFL. But when pressured, he completed 53.3 percent of his passes for a league-leading 1,560 yards, 10 touchdowns and five picks.
The reason Wilson is the most prolific passer under pressure is Seattle's acceptance that pressure is a given with their offensive line philosophy (get 'em cheap and coach 'em up), so offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and his staff have built the randomness that comes from scramble throws into the playbook.
More than most teams with mobile quarterbacks, the Seahawks have a system in place for when Wilson breaks the pocket and starts improvising. As a result, it's less an improvisation and more like the football equivalent of a jazz standard in which the players start off with a structure and then blast off into another stratosphere.
When Wilson drops the called play and starts running around, his receivers have to adapt to what is essentially a post-snap audible—they need to run different routes based on Wilson's direction. Doug Baldwin became one of the best deep receivers in the NFL in part because he's so adept at switching his routes to match Wilson.
"The challenge is more that you have an athletic quarterback who trusts his athleticism more than he trusts staying in the pocket," Baldwin told me in 2015. "It happens a lot, so we as receivers have to be experts—not only on our route-running ability, but also on scramble rules. ... We adjust our routes accordingly to mirror the quarterback's movements into an open area."
It wouldn't work for a lot of quarterbacks, and it doesn't excuse Seattle's questionable-at-best offensive line, but this particular brand of orchestrated chaos is effective because it matches scheme to personnel—Wilson's ability to throw on the move and the intelligence of his receivers.
7. Kansas City's Tight End Isolation
Chiefs head coach and play designer Andy Reid has long been an acolyte of the West Coast offense, going back to his days as an assistant to Mike Holmgren in Green Bay in the 1990s. He took that offensive structure to Philadelphia in 1999 and created one of the league's most prolific offenses over the next 14 years. Fired by the Eagles in late 2012, Reid landed with the Chiefs in 2013 and set about redesigning Kansas City's offense.
While Reid sticks to a lot of the standard West Coast ideas—the flexible running back and specific slant/post route combinations are notable in his offenses—he has had a couple of wild cards. When he had deep receivers in Philly, Reid would call specific deep routes for guys like DeSean Jackson to affect coverages.
The challenge in Kansas City is different because quarterback Alex Smith is a risk-averse player who has never had a great deep arm. He can throw those passes occasionally (15 completions in 46 attempts for 521 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions on passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air in 2016, per Pro Football Focus), but it's not a staple of the offense. Reid is smart enough to know he shouldn't strain the potential of his offense by asking his quarterback to do things he really can't.
When your quarterback is limited in some way—and most quarterbacks are—part of the adaptation is to task the players around him to do more. Specifically, you ask them to do more in ways that help the quarterback and maximize the things he does well. Smith is a veteran with a penchant for film study and excellent recognition on the field. He views matchups well and goes through his progressions.
One of the most important things Reid has done to help Smith is to make tight end Travis Kelce a major component of the passing offense. Last season, Kelce was the most effective yards-after-catch receiver in the league with 1,125 total receiving yards and 653 after the catch, per SportingCharts.com. Kelce gets open over the middle in standard tight end positions (in the formation and in the slot) with his size and physical ability, but Reid throws in a wrinkle when he deploys Kelce in the "Y-Iso" position, essentially using his tight end as an outside receiver.
From here, Kelce can run a slant or post depending on the depth of the coverage, or he can be a decoy as the Chiefs run inside or outside zone while the linebackers and secondary are preoccupied with Kelce.
"Anytime you have a formation that you're not doing multiple things out of, you know, it's not going to take very long for defensive coordinators to figure it out," Smith told Robert Klemko of The MMQB last July about the "Y-Iso" concept. "The reason that we're able to live in that formation is that we run the ball so well out of it."
Taking what used to be an outlier formation and making it a staple of your offense to offset your quarterback's limitations? That's good coaching.
6. Pittsburgh's Inside and Outside Zone Run Game
There's little question Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell is the most productive and versatile running back in the game today. In 2016, while starting just 12 games, he racked up 1,268 yards on 261 carries, adding 75 receptions on 94 targets for 616 yards. Bell's vision, patience and speed to and through the gaps make him special, but veteran DeAngelo Williams also gained 343 yards on just 98 carries, including a 143-yard game in the season opener against the Redskins when Bell was out.
While Bell is unquestionably a franchise back in any offense, there's something else going on here. That would be the Steelers' offensive line coach, Mike Munchak.
The former Titans head coach and Hall of Fame guard for the Houston Oilers joined the Steelers staff in 2014, and Pittsburgh's run-blocking has improved drastically on his watch. The team ranked 22nd in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric in 2013, jumped up to sixth in Munchak's first season and ranked second behind the Saints last season. Bell's ascent is a part of that equation, but he was drafted in 2013, and he's benefited as much as anyone from Munchak's expertise.
The Steelers alternated between gap and zone schemes before Munchak's hire, but he had the line commit completely to zone concepts, and it's worked out well for all involved.
"It's not very hard to do; just like anything, it's repetition," Munchak said of his outside zone ideas in an April 2014 interview with Missi Matthews of Steelers.com (via Steelers Depot). "It gives the back a three-way go. He's going to read a certain block and he's either going to bounce that ball outside or he's going to take it back inside, so he has a way of making us look good real quickly once the running back gets used to the schemes we're running. There's a lot of ways you can play around with the backside and change the blocking schemes to give the defense something to think about constantly."
Moreover, it works just as well with a slashing, one-cut runner like Williams as it does with a patient gap-reader like Bell. Bell is at his best when he's able to wait for the openings at the line of scrimmage; at the same time, he's reading the linebackers and deciding where he's going at the second level. Because Munchak has the right kinds of athletic blockers, he's able to marry his own concepts to personnel.
It's not just been successful—Mike Munchak's blocking schemes have become the fulcrum of Pittsburgh's offense, one of the most productive and explosive in the league.
5. Buffalo's Diverse Run Game
Greg Roman isn't one of the most prominently known assistant coaches in the NFL, but he's a name to know for connoisseurs of the run game. He was Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator at Stanford and with the 49ers, and he took that same position with the Bills in 2015. Roman's run-game schemes have always been multiple and effective; his San Francisco and Buffalo teams never ranked lower than eighth in total rushing, and the Bills ranked first in that category in each of his two seasons.
However, Buffalo fired Roman just two games into the 2016 season, replacing him with then-running backs coach and now-Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. According to Alex Marvez of Sporting News, this happened because the Bills' front office wanted then-head coach Rex Ryan to exact a "significant change" to appease the team's fanbase. Lynn installed some zone concepts of his own, but the power run game was Roman's in his absence to a great degree.
With a week left in the 2016 season, the Bills fired Ryan. Less than a month later, they hired Sean McDermott in his place. Former Broncos and Texans assistant Rick Dennison, who made his bones teaching the Alex Gibbs style of zone blocking popularized in Denver in the 1990s, became the team's new offensive coordinator. While that's a great style, Dennison may want to implement some gap concepts as well; otherwise, he won't have a run game as diverse as what the Bills had.
I first detailed Roman's run game in 2013, a few days before the 49ers came up short in Super Bowl XLVII. At the time, I was impressed with the ways in which this offense mixed zone blocking, more old-school counter/power/trap stuff, and the kinds of zone blocking optimized for a mobile quarterback. With Tyrod Taylor as his quarterback in 2016, and LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee as his primary backs, the Bills had the chess pieces to do similar things. Gillislee is now in New England, however, and Jonathan Williams is the likely replacement for him in the power-back role.
Despite the team's 7-9 record and deposed coaching staff, Buffalo's run game wasn't the problem in 2016. Taylor presented a difficult problem for defenses with his ability to run to the edge and occupy defensive ends, while the McCoy-Gillislee duo was a perfect speed/power combination. According to Pro Football Focus, the 2016 Bills ranked first in outside zone runs at 5.73 yards per carry, first in inside zone runs at 5.38 yards per carry and first in straight gap (man-on-man) runs at 5.23 yards per carry. Lynn marshaled that rushing attack through most of the season, but he built off Roman's ideas.
This isn't to say Dennison won't be successful with the level of talent he has, even though Gillislee is now with the Patriots. It's more that the previous regime's success in the run game will be hard to replicate. Roman is now the Ravens' senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach, though you can expect him to have a hand in the run game as well.
4. Tennessee's "Exotic Smashmouth" Offense
When Titans head coach Mike Mularkey called his offense "exotic smashmouth" before the 2016 season, it was hard for some to take him seriously. Mularkey hasn't ever been successful as a head coach, going 14-18 with the Bills in 2004 and 2005 and finishing 2-14 with the 2012 Jaguars. He replaced Ken Whisenhunt halfway through the 2015 season as the team's interim coach and was named to the position on a full-time basis for 2016.
Since the Titans finished 28th in total points in 2015, anything Mularkey said about the positive prospects of his future offense was going to be taken as a load of…well, you know.
But Mularkey was on to something. He had seen the Titans personnel enough to know what he had—a dynamic, mobile and consistently improving quarterback in Marcus Mariota, a productive tight end in Delanie Walker and a receiver group that hadn't done much but had potential. The additions of running backs DeMarco Murray via free agency and Derrick Henry through the draft would help, and the franchise's resolve to improve the offensive line with draft picks, especially tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, would prove essential to Mularkey's power-based schemes.
When I reviewed Mularkey's offense in November for NFL1000, I was specifically impressed by the diversity of concept—the coach was using his tight ends for everything from deep seam routes to advanced blocking schemes to fakes off the formation. In addition, the running game set up the run-action aspect of Tennessee's blocking schemes—when blockers fire out as if they're run-blocking when they're actually pass-blocking, further flustering enemy defenses.
In 2016, the differences were impressive. Using as many as three tight ends in base formations, the Titans stretched the field with diverse route concepts and set defenses up with heavy pre-snap motion. Sending receivers in motion also gave Mariota a better idea of what defenses were doing before he took the ball, which helped his field reads.
A 3-13 team in 2015, the Titans improved to 9-7 in 2016, and now they look very much like a possible playoff team. They rose to 14th in points scored last season, and that could go up in 2017, especially if draft picks like Western Michigan receiver Corey Smith and Florida International tight end Jonnu Smith contribute.
Mike Mularkey wasn't kidding when he talked about "exotic smashmouth," and now the rest of the NFL knows to take him seriously.
3. Dallas' Option Running Game
The Cowboys have been one of the NFL's better-drafting teams over the last half-decade, an impressive turnaround after years of Jerry Jones' impatience. It seems that as son Stephen Jones takes over more of Dallas' personnel side, things are looking up.
Certainly they were looking up in 2016 when Dallas selected its franchise running back and franchise quarterback in the same draft. Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick, was a no-brainer at running back. But the value Dallas got by selecting Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott in the fourth round with the 135th overall pick was astonishing.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan brought Prescott along slowly in the passing game, saving the deeper routes for later in the season, but he had reason to believe that Prescott, Elliott and the Cowboys' top-notch offensive line could be a real pain to opposing defenses in the option game.
Prescott rushed just 57 times in his rookie season, but he got maximum value out of those runs, gaining 282 yards and scoring six touchdowns. The threat of Prescott as a runner gave Elliott opportunities he wouldn't have had otherwise because defenses had to key on them both as runners.
When Prescott took the ball, especially near the goal line, the theory was often simple: Read the defense, and if it didn't look optimal to give Elliott the ball, Prescott would take it himself after faking to Elliott. As the interior defenders bit on the inside fake, Prescott would use his speed to get outside and gain extra yardage. At other times, he would drop back to pass, see clear rushing lanes and take the ball right through them.
It wasn't a complex set of schemes, but those schemes were highly effective—and as Prescott continues to develop as a passer, they should be even more effective because defenses will have to worry about the passing game as well.
Eventually, the Cowboys would be wise to focus more on Prescott's passing given the injury rate for running quarterbacks. For now, it's good for Linehan and the rest of Dallas' coaching staff to know that while his development happens, Prescott is a key cog in what looks to be the most effective option package in the NFL today.
2. New England's Option Routes
One of the primary reasons the Patriots are the most effective team of the new millennium is that they don't adhere to any one scheme or set of schemes. Instead, they game-plan for every opponent they face. While that's part of the job of every coaching staff, Bill Belichick has become the master at opponent adjustments to his playbook.
Depending on the opponent, you'll see everything from two-back power formations with two tight ends to spread formations with four and five receivers. Belichick, Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are so in tune with their roster that they're able to throw anything they want at opponents while maximizing the talents of their players.
But if there's one constant in New England's offensive playbook over the last few years, it's the option route. Option routes start as "normal" routes, but at a certain point, the receiver is tasked to break on his route in reaction to what the defense is doing. They've been around for decades but really came into the NFL with Mouse Davis and the run-and-shoot Detroit Lions of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Part of the run-and-shoot playbook was the insistence that receivers break their routes in reaction to the actions of the defenders. The run-and-shoot may not have stayed in the NFL as a base concept, but option routes did—and the Patriots run more of them more effectively than any other NFL team.
I first wrote about New England's option route usage in 2012 and discovered that the Patriots system was complex enough that some of the most talented receivers in the game couldn't adhere to the concept and were sent packing.
"I have to trust in Deion [Branch] and Wes [Welker] and all those guys out there to be in the right spot so I can play fast and anticipate what they're doing," Brady told reporters in May 2012. "If everyone is not on the same page, then it doesn't work. A lot of what these practices are about is everybody getting on the same page."
It's especially hard because every receiver has to know his option breaks—and there are usually more than one—while Brady has to keep all the options for every receiver in his head. If he has a receiver who doesn't understand the concept, the offense doesn't work, and the receiver is gone.
Julian Edelman gets it. Danny Amendola gets it. Rob Gronkowski gets it. We'll see whether Brandin Cooks, the former Saints receiver acquired by the Patriots in a predraft trade, gets it. Cooks ran elements of the West Coast offense at Oregon State, and Sean Payton's route concepts are some of the most complicated in the NFL, but Cooks—like every other new Patriots receiver—will have to get aligned with the option route.
1. Kyle Shanahan's Pre-Snap Passing Game
Kyle Shanahan's Atlanta Falcons offense was the NFL's most effective through just about the entire 2016 NFL season (minus two quarters or so of Super Bowl action, of course), and there are multiple aspects of that offense Shanahan will take to the Bay Area as he gets ready for his first head coach position with the 49ers.
Shanahan prefers a mobile quarterback, or at least a quarterback who can run play-action and then roll out. It took a while for Matt Ryan to align with Shanahan's "boot-action" concepts, but when he did, there was an entirely new dimension to his game. Shanahan prefers inside and outside zone blocking, though his blockers will run man-on-man gap schemes at times, and he will send receivers to all levels of the field.
However, when I watched the Falcons take the NFC by storm in 2016—and the New England Patriots by storm for three-and-a-half quarters of the Super Bowl—it became clear to me that Atlanta's pre-snap movement was the most diverse in the league and unquestionably the most effective.
Many teams use motion to help the quarterback discern whether a defense is playing man or zone, and some teams are especially good as using motion to gain positional advantages (Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, also profiled in this piece, is an excellent example). But under Shanahan's watch, pre-snap motion becomes a crazy quilt in which any skill position player can start anywhere and move anywhere else.
The motion concepts were simpler in 2015, Shanahan's first year with the team. They were generally about moving a tight end or receiver from one end of the formation to the other. In 2016, when his players had a season to comprehend everything, Shanahan opened up the playbook.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman might start in the backfield together and each move into the receiver group—perhaps one in the slot and one outside. A Shanahan staple was to take fullback Patrick DiMarco and move him from the backfield to the outside receiver formation—something fullbacks don't generally do. But DiMarco caught seven passes for 52 yards in the regular season and three more for 43 yards in the playoffs, and he never carried the ball. He was a blocker and receiver, and that was that.
Tight end motion is also a big thing in a Shanahan offense—not only to reveal a defense's coverage plan by showing how defenders move with motion or don't, but also to group the tight end with other receivers in Atlanta's Levels (multiple receivers to different levels on one side of the field) and Flood (multiple receivers to a defined area) plays.
With all this motion going on, and since Shanahan refused to let his offense ever be defined as static, running lanes would open for Freeman and Coleman precisely because defenses were set on their heels by the changes in pre-snap formation and the subsequent expansion of the passing game.
Shanahan won't have the same level of talent to work with in San Francisco—he's in charge of a team that's rebuilding on all levels. But once his new roster gets the hang of his pre-snap ideas, don't be surprised if those players achieve unexpected gains.