Why Kyle Shanahan Doesn’t Think the NFL’s Offensive Revolution Is that Revolutionary
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan is describing exactly what’s happening to offenses in pro football, and in this situation, his explanation is better seen than heard. So he grabs a marker, walks to a wall in his office that doubles as a gigantic whiteboard and starts scribbling down X’s and O’s to represent a defensive front and an offensive set.
Two eligible receivers are to the right of the formation, and two are to the left. Shanahan takes the “O” signifying a receiver in the right slot and starts moving him towards the quarterback. The initial defensive call would be based on the offense being in the original set, a slot formation. Shanahan pulling that receiver over forces the linebacker to adjust his call. But as that’s happening, the ball’s snapped, and the motion man hasn’t yet made it to the quarterback. The strength of the formation is muddled.
“And we’re running a fake jet sweep. So is that trips? Or is it slot?” Shanahan says.
For the record, I can’t answer the question. And a linebacker who’s far more qualified to answer it, the guy the 49ers’ coach is now pointing to, can’t either. The defense is caught reacting to the motion, the ball is snapped early and next thing that linebacker knows, a back is running by him.
“That’s very f---ing hard for this guy—‘Hey close left, close right, oh crap!’ And it’s a big deal on whether you’re doing that or that,” says Shanahan, pointing to the linebacker. The 49ers coach then moves his marker to a safety who, like his teammate, in conflict. “He falls back, there’s no one in that hole and it’s 80 yards.”
Confused yet? It’s a lot of technical football talk. But this example supports why the concept of the NFL’s total offensive revolution has been met with some pushback. And that pushback is coming from some of the minds largely credited with generating it.
Shanahan’s point here is that the play isn’t revolutionary—it’s just disguised, wearing a different cloak. In fact, on that white board, he never even explained how that one would’ve been blocked or carried out by the tailback.
He didn’t need to; his point was already proven.
In this week’s Game Plan, the mailbag is back. And I’m answering your questions on...
• Jadeveon Clowney and the trade rumors.
• The possibility that the Patriots trade for a tight end.
• Who would be included in my ideal under-25 secondary.
But we’re starting this week with the leaders of the offensive “revolution.”
This started with a simple question for Shanahan—Is the idea that football has been turned upside down over the last few years a little overblown?
“I don’t think it’s changed as much as everyone thinks,” he says. “I think people are doing a better job of studying other people’s stuff. I think people have caught up to using the computers a lot better and stealing things a lot better. Some of the speed people have gotten on the field over the last few years, personally I think some of the speed we used in Atlanta got people to use a lot more speed.”
“I think it’s the fun narrative,” added Rams coach Sean McVay, about the offensive “revolution” of which he’s been positioned as a leader. “But I think a lot of the stuff is stuff that’s been successful over the course of time, whether it be going back and looking at how long Coach [Andy] Reid, how long the Patriots and the Saints have been doing it at such a high level under Bill [Belichick] and Josh [McDaniels] and then under Sean [Payton]. And for me, with Kyle and learning from his dad.”
What kind of insight could these two coaches provide on where offensive football is and where it’s going next? Let’s dive into that.
Running the ball still matters. Way back in the 1990s, Shanahan’s dad Mike married much of his run game to the pass game via the outside-zone run concepts that he and ex-line coach Alex Gibbs deployed, which had bootleg pass concepts off them. It was retrofitted in 2012 for Robert Griffin—when the elder Shanahan was head coach, the son was coordinator and McVay was tight ends coach in Washington—with the zone-read and RPOs.
Those teams ran the ball efficiently and effectively, and that changed the math for defenses—often taking defenders out of the passing game or forcing them to play tackling-deficient players a certain way. That’s why the Redskins were able to pile up 3,000 of their 2012 passing yards off of, get this, just three pass plays. The opponent was doing so much to stop the run, they’d deplete themselves of resources to combat the pass.
The analytics community has circled the effectiveness of play-action in the NFL, and that’s largely a result of what this family of offenses has done. And its foundation is having a viable run game to legitimize a quarterback’s play fakes.
“A lot of the things that have enabled us to have success have been the same,” McVay says. “And that’s being able to run or throw the football based on what a defense presents.”
The NFL’s version of file sharing. I’ve written about Matt Nagy’s affinity for swiping concepts from all levels of football, and about how Payton and McVay steal ideas from each other’s tape. This, of course, is what Shanahan was referencing in saying teams “are doing a better job of studying other team’s stuff.”
McVay, for example, took a look at a play Payton ran (a 32-yard throw to Benjamin Watson) at the Rams in Week 9, reworked it, and then hit the Seahawks with it in Week 10—Cooper Kupp went for 25 yards on that one. And Payton had basically done the same thing a few weeks early, taking a shovel pass he saw the Patriots use against the Bears in Week 7 and turning it into an Alvin Kamara touchdown against the Vikings in Week 8.
Doing this takes work—McVay studies all the touchdowns and explosive plays from across the NFL every Monday morning—and the humility to know you don’t have it all figured out. And it’s also important to have good sense for when to do it, and when not to.
“If you just copy plays, you’re gonna be in trouble,” Shanahan says. “You better know why you’re putting it in, you better tell your team, ‘hey, they did this, but this is why we’re doing it, what we’re trying to attack.’ If not, you’re just hoping to get lucky.”
Motioning is one part of the “dress up” of all this, and personnel groupings are another. Let’s allow Shanahan to explain this.
“That’s why I use 21 [personnel] probably more than anyone in the NFL, we have a fullback in there, not just because that’s our offense, it’s because I believe that’s an advantage,” Shanahan says, using the jargon for two-back, one-tight end groupings. “People don’t play base defense very much, because the majority of the league doesn’t have a fullback. And so you get people on the field they’re not as used to practicing with.
“You know their menu’s smaller, and it’s, ‘Alright, I know I’m attacking these five things, instead of these 25 things.’ And you can see it better as a play-caller, as a quarterback. But also, it can be an advantage for the defense. If there’s only two receivers out, that’s a lot easier to defend than having to deal with a slot receiver. That’s why it’s important to me to have a fullback like Juice [Kyle Juszczyk] where you can do two-back, but you also can be in one-back and do one-back type stuff.”
This came into play in the Super Bowl at the most critical time. McDaniels rolled the Patriots out on their final drive in ‘22’ personnel, but with versatile, pass-catching back Rex Burkhead in, which forced the Rams to put their bigger defensive personnel in the game. Then, the Patriots threw on four straight plays to go from their own 31 to the Rams two-yard line, and set up the game-winning touchdown.
It’s just like Shanahan was saying—McDaniels used his personnel to force certain Rams personnel on the field, and had little trouble going to work from there.
Defenses do catch up, so offenses have to keep adjusting. This was apparent in the numbers last year, too.
We mentioned this in the Game Plan column on Gary Patterson about a month ago, and it merits repeating (thanks to our buddy Warren Sharp, again, for this research): Average scoring per team exceeded 23 points in 11 of the first 12 weeks of last year, and average yardage per team topped 340 yards in all 12 of those weeks. Conversely, average scoring per team dipped below 23 points and in each of the final five weeks of the year, and average yards per team was under 340 in four of those five weeks.
“To me, there are some good quarterbacks in this league, coaches are doing well,” Shanahan said. “But, I mean, it was 3-3 in the Super Bowl. Guys can stop people. It was always gets like that towards the end of the year. It wasn’t just (the Patriots). Chicago also did that to them. Philly did that to them. We’ve got numbers and you can do stuff, but it’s very rare you can do it all year. That’s why you’ve gotta have defense to win in this league.”
So while it’s fair to guess that you’ll see a handful of offenses come flying out of the gate in Week 1, it’s far less likely that they’re maintaining that level after Thanksgiving.
What Shanahan’s saying is not overly complicated. An offense has to have an identity and a foundation on which to draw back. But, creatively, there are endless ways (through motioning, formationing, etc.) to make what’s supposed to be easy on your own players complicated on other teams. What they’re doing isn’t so different—it just needs to appear that way.
“If you really look at it, it’s a variation of something that’s already been done with a subtle tweak that’s designed to fit within the framework of how you want to operate with your personnel in your system,” McVay says. “But it still ends up being a lot of the same stuff, whether it’s how you’re distributing concepts, how you’re getting to the same distribution in the play-action game.
Which explains why when I told McVay what Shanahan said, he didn’t miss a beat in affirming its validity.
“Kyle’s been a huge influence on me,” McVay says. “I totally agree with what he’s saying.”
So that makes two of them.
On to your mail …
From Stephen G (@Stephen26497576): Who is Jadeveon Clowney going to play for this year?
I’ll say the Dolphins, because they have done the most work on him. Coach Brian Flores has met with him. They’ve got a surplus of 2020 draft picks, and a roster full of players they’ve deemed available. The question becomes what the Texans would be looking for. If it’s left tackle Laremy Tunsil, I think it’ll take more than just Clowney himself. If it’s one of Miami’s receivers and maybe a pick? That could happen.
I’ve also been told Seattle is open to the possibility of acquiring Clowney, which makes sense give their circumstances up front—Jarran Reed’s their best pressure player up front, and is out the first six games, and it’s tough to count on Ziggy Ansah holding up physically. The third team that’s been speculated on, the Eagles, also line up, given their depth on the offensive line, and Howie Roseman’s affinity for defensive line. I’m just not sure their interest has been that strong yet.
And there are others, too, that logic would tell you should make a call (Kansas City?). Stay tuned on this one.
From Antonyous Fahim (@AntonyousFahim): What more would the Redskins need to give up on top of Trent Williams to get Clowney? Or is it simply a swap?
Honestly, I think the Texans would have to throw something else in, if these two teams were dealing like that. Yes, Trent Williams (31) is older than Jadeveon Clowney (26). But outside of that, I’d argue Williams is a better player, with a slightly less debilitating medical history, and is under contract for two years (Clowney hasn’t even signed his franchise tender yet.) Plus he plays a position that is hard as any in the NFL to fill in 2019.
All of that is to say that if I was Bill O’Brien and got offered Williams straight up for Clowney, I’d be hopping in the car to pick up the big pass-rusher and drive him to the airport. Unfortunately for Houston, Williams’s availability as a trade target is still pretty murky.
From B Chase (@BChase78345025): Do you see the Patriots making a trade for a tight end?
B Chase, I wouldn’t rule that out. I do think the skill position group in New England will be subject to change right up to the trade deadline. They’ve made moves in that window before (Kyle Van Noy was a big one three years ago), and so any names you might have heard at Rob Gronkowski’s old position (Cleveland’s Seth DeValve?) could be in play.
And the sky won’t fall if there’s no deal to be made. We’ve been here before with Bill Belichick. If a position of strength becomes one of weakness, the Patriots won’t bang their head into the wall repeatedly to reprise an old formula. Instead, they’ll deemphasize the position and, in some cases, find ways to take players there off the field. Which, in this case, could be interesting, given how New England’s set up to be a run-heavy team.
Maybe that means fullback James Develin getting on the field more, in groupings with a tight end, a tailback and two receivers.
From Jake Maz (@JakeMazzyMaz): If you were going to build a secondary for the future, which players age 25 and under would you want? Two CBs, one FS and one SS.
Fun question, Jake, so I’ll bite. My four …
Jamal Adams, SS, Jets: Aside from the bravado and style, there’s a lot of substance here. Adams is a rare leader, and he’s also different in being a box type of safety who can also hang with guys man-to-man. A good, smart chess piece of a player.
Derwin James, FS, Chargers: He’s more of a strong safety, but for our purposes here we’ll put him in centerfield with the understanding he’ll constantly be moving. When he’s healthy, James is as versatile as any defensive player in the league, capable of playing well at all three levels of a defense.
Marshon Lattimore, CB Saints: By the end of his rookie year in 2017, Lattimore was a top-five corner with the arrow trending straight up, but last year, he just wasn’t the same guy. The good news is the Saints have seen a guy this summer motivated to prove last year wasn’t really him.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars: He wasn’t as good last year as the year before, but he’s still a monster and will be paid as such soon (probably in the spring). An immense talent who’s a game-changer when he’s locked in.
From Mr. Dobolina (@ducci07): With Rob Gronkowski’s new venture into CBD, is he essentially not allowing for a (in theory, possible) comeback due to clauses in the league’s substance abuse policy?
You’re right, Mister. Gronkowski would be tested upon re-entry into the NFL, and then take a drug test. If he failed, he’d be subject to more regular testing. Which presumably could lead to more positive tests.
Although I don’t think that was a factor in his decision to retire, it sure could weigh on him in regards to a potential comeback.
From Andrew Fisher (@ColtsFisher): If Andrew Luck were to return, how do you think players across the league and on the Colts would react?
With love? I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who’s met Luck and doesn’t like him. It’s hard not to. And his teammates are fiercely loyal to him—the big topic in the locker room on Monday among those guys was trying to find out who Adam Schefter’s source was on the initial news break, because they were all upset that Luck’s ability to handle the news on his own terms was taken from their quarterback.
Likewise, opponents love him too. And fans in other markets don’t see him as detestable or anything like that.
So I’d tell you he’d be welcomed back. And with all due respect to Jacoby Brissett, I can’t imagine too many people in the Colts organization wouldn’t sign up for that, if presented with the chance to.
From SteelFence (@Steelfence07): How would you feel about upping the roster size to 60 players?
Steel, I’ve heard the argument for this in the past, and I don’t think it ever happens. But the reason might surprise you a little. To me, this is about the current players, and how hard they have to fight for what they make now. Changing the equation for each individual player from 1 in 53 to 1 in 60 would necessarily cut into what they make, and that wouldn’t be a great outcome for the rank-and-file player.
This is similar to the idea of changing the draft rules to allow true freshman or sophomores to declare. Both sound good on paper. But since, in both cases, there are jobs that could be lost by vets, these ideas don’t have real advocates at the bargaining table.
From Stephen Sheehan (@StephenPSheehan): What is the Patriots’ internal evaluation of Jarrett Stidham? What are the chances he is the heir apparent as @JimNagy_SB said?
Stephen, I know they like him. Whether or not they see him as the heir to Brady, I don’t know. But they love his talent coming out, and that he was undervalued largely for reasons outside his control (bad college system/coaching for his skillset). And with the coaching of McDaniels, and chance to learn behind Brady, it seems like Stidham is in as good a situation as any rookie quarterback.
We know he’s gonna be on the roster Week 1. We’ll see what more the Patriots get out of him.
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