What works in today's NFL may not work tomorrow.
It's a fact of life that's been apparent in the NFL since day one. It's what sets good teams and great coaches apart from the herd. It's what separates the proverbial men from the rhetorical boys. Football is, at its core, a game of punch and counterpunch. Evolve or die—it's not just a motto for the business world.
No, NFL coaches unable to see over the next hill in front of them often find themselves buried under that same hill and replaced by someone with a more cogent look into the future. Greatness demands a coach be one part leader, one part genius and one part visionary. Lacking the last part may not have immediate repercussions, but the end results are the same.
A massive storyline in the NFL this season is how offenses have begun to evolve. That, my dear readers, has been covered ad nauseum by my colleagues here and peers elsewhere on the web. A more compelling question, then, is what could possibly be next?
Come with me as we play the role of visionary and take a sneak peek into what NFL offenses could look like in 2014 and beyond.
Tempo, Tempo, Tempo
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is not an X's and O's guru.
I mean that with all due respect and believe he'd wholeheartedly agree with me.
In fact, many of Kelly's schemes, play calls and game plans aren't that much evolved from sets being run at larger football-factory high schools.
The difference with Kelly is the athletes he has and the position of success he puts those athletes into. He prepares better than other coaches and prepares his players better as well. Into those players, he instills the same pedal-to-the-metal mentality that fuels him on game day.
Look around—the uptempo offense is nothing new. The New England Patriots have been doing just fine with it in recent years, as has any team Peyton Manning has quarterbacked. Kelly's scheme is simply the logical end to trends that have been progressing for some time.
Guess what, the uptempo offense isn't going anywhere.
To look at the issue pragmatically, teams are going to experiment with what works. That is already happening this season. Any success the no-huddle has with a quarterback like Philadelphia's Michael Vick is going to embolden more coaches to try their hand with more talented passers.
Taking that pragmatism one step further, look at owners and how the general NFL fan has responded to what is going on in Philadelphia. Buzz equals dollar signs, and anyone who thinks the league offices will push back to something that might make it more money is insane.
As long as it doesn't interfere with TV timeouts, the NFL will not try to slow teams down. In fact, expect rules changes with the opposite effect as this trend continues.
All that said, tempo is less of an evolutionary step and more of a catalyst toward a state of punctuated equilibrium. More teams will begin running more plays and drafting players toward that goal. With that in mind, the rest of the following changes should come easily.
Big Offensive Numbers Come in Small Packages
In a nutshell, offenses are becoming less about complex schemes and more about reads. It's option football, but instead of reading a defensive lineman to give, pitch or keep, package plays allow a quarterback to read (or "option") any player on the field.
For the most definitive look on package plays, look no further than this column by Chris Brown of Smart Football/Grantland. Read it.
It might seem, at first glance, that one would need a brilliant quarterback to run a system that operates not unlike overlaying a dozen transparent slides over one another and calling it one play. However, in reality, the system becomes more about basic principles and instincts. In many ways, it's far simpler than lengthy West Coast-type play calls, which require quarterbacks (and other offensive players) to do more rote memory than actually understand football.
As a quarterback makes his way to the line of scrimmage, the calls he makes determine run or pass. He bases this on a simple counting of defenders at or near the line of scrimmage. From there, he's looking at the shading of linemen or defensive backs. He's looking at the matchup on the seam. He's evaluating the pass-rushers compared to available pass-blockers and whether he should adjust his routes and/or run play-action.
This hypothetical play was described to me by an offensive assistant at a major college program. The first read in this scenario is always the "shadow route" or quick pass out to the team's best receiver on the perimeter. If the defense is stupid enough to play its defender five to seven yards off, take the free yardage.
The second and third options are the usual read-option look. The fourth option, however, is what sets this package apart from the option plays run decades ago. Here, the quarterback doesn't have to tell his line that it's a pass play, he just looks at the coverage and decides to pull up and throw.
Add in the ability to move the pocket, use pre-snap motion and run this same package out of various personnel sets, and all of a sudden, it looks like 20 different plays, but it's only one play, drilled to perfection.
Does it seem like a lot? Sure. But it's more of a checklist than an algebra equation.
Kelly and Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone have made package plays famous, but every NFL offense uses them to a degree. The evolution, then, is going to be on the amount of teams using them, the extent to which they use them and the players they bring in to run the system.
The top two offenses in college football are Oregon's and Texas A&M's. Oregon just sent its head coach to the NFL, and Texas A&M could send Kevin Sumlin there as early as next season. He's not just a hot name in coaching circles, he's currently the hot name. It helps to have a stud Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback like Johnny Manziel running an offense full of package plays.
UCLA with quarterback Brett Hundley, Clemson with Tajh Boyd, Louisville with Teddy Bridgewater—these are top college offenses with top college quarterbacks that are all running a ton of package plays in 2013. Bridgewater's offensive coordinator Doug Watson explains why, per C.L. Brown of the Courier-Journal:
We wanted a tempo offense where we could put together a package that he was comfortable with and he could go warp speed. We wanted to be faster than no-huddle, faster than a play call coming from the sideline, and the way to maximize that is to let your quarterback call it.
The days of extensive wrist protectors with lengthy play calls are all but over. More and more quarterbacks are going to be able to call their plays with a head nod or with funny-looking pictographs on the sideline.
It's all about tempo. It's all about keeping defenses off-balance.
Play-Action off of the Read-Option
Put yourself into the shoes of the first defender to witness a play-action pass.
If a four-letter word didn't come out of that gentleman's mouth, he was a better man than I.
Seriously, if the first play-action pass wasn't immediately followed by an hour-long discussion on why such things should be illegal, I've lost all respect for the coach who defended it first.
It isn't just misdirection. It's downright criminal to rock a linebacker to sleep with the run game—plug the A-gap! Shoot! Assignment football!—and then pull the ripcord on a giant heave down the field. Kudos, too, to the coach and quarterback who thought it up first.
One step further is play-action off of the read-option—just ask Bleacher Report Lead Writer Matt Bowen. If play-action forces linebackers to lose a step, play-action off of a zone read forces them to lose two. Moving the pocket off of a play-action and a zone-read look might as well send those same linebackers over to the bench, because they have zero chance to make a play.
Sports Illustrated Monday Morning Quarterback columnist Andy Benoit has seen this in the NFL already this season:
In the next phase, we could see play-action take the form of the elongated read-option looks. (The Packers saw hints of this last Sunday, as Kaepernick completed 8 of 10 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns on play-action passes, many of which came from the Pistol and exploited man coverage on deeper downfield levels.) Though Kaepernick didn’t prolong his ball fakes against Green Bay, the idea would be to ride the mesh point long enough to get linebackers to bite and the safeties to freeze.
This, my friends, is the missing link in NFL offense evolution right now. One can tell because a quarterback like Peyton Manning is utilizing the look (out of both shotgun and pistol) even though he's got a snowball's chance in Phoenix of actually running the football.
For actual dual-threat passers—both in the league and those who are top college prospects—is there any downside to running almost every single play off of play-action and an option look? Football is a numbers game, and neutralizing a bunch of defenders at the snap is a really great way to get numbers.
In a perfect world, using more play-action rather than run plays out of a zone-read look solves the inherent problem with the option: quarterback hits. Running a pass-heavy scheme out of a run-heavy look is the best of both worlds on the NFL stage.
Look for more of this—much more of this—as the rest of the league starts to catch on.
Looking Even Further Down the Pike
The biggest theoretical question in this whole conversation is whether the NFL has some Platonic Ideal of what an offense should look like. Is there a far-off theoretically perfect offense, or is the NFL more of a cycle that is consistently turning.
Personally, I tend to believe the latter. Anything that is in the NFL has been done before and most certainly will be done again. Remember the Wildcat fad? It had its basis in the old Wing-T formation. You know, that offense that one school in your high school conference ran and bedeviled your team's defense with. Same basic premise.
Think Chip Kelly is up to something new? Tell that to the late-1980s Cincinnati Bengals who ran the no-huddle with Boomer Esiason under head coach Sam Wyche. The Buffalo Bills and head coach Marv Levy picked it up from them and ran the "K-Gun" no-huddle with Jim Kelly.
The logical inference, then, is that eventually teams will fall back in love with the run. I'm not talking next month or next season. It might not even happen in the next generation. The idea, however, that the run-pass ratio of current day is the only thing that works is just ludicrous.
As we've talked about where NFL offenses could go as a next step, it's worthwhile to look numerous steps down the road. If teams are going to go more uptempo, utilize package plays and make use of more dual-threat passers, it's entirely possible that they go the route of Kelly and utilize more running plays.
If a team is going to run the ball more, might it also use more two-tight end personnel as the Patriots and Bengals have done? Look at the talented tight ends that the college game is pumping out who fit spread offenses.
For that matter, look at the running backs that college football is pumping out. For every Adrian Peterson or Trent Richardson type, there are a dozen backs with experience in spread offenses who can catch the ball out of the backfield, line up at various positions and pass block to boot.
Are we really that far off from an uptempo, two-tight end, run-heavy offense that looks more like a new variation on 1950s era themes? Maybe, but more than likely not.
One thing is certain, however: NFL offenses are evolving. They've been evolving since the first snap ever taken on a football field, and they'll continue to evolve until the very last snap. From Walter Camp to Paul Brown, from Don Coryell and Bill Walsh to Chip Kelly and Bill Belichick, football is in a constant state of evolution.
The other thing that is 100 percent certain: None of us can wait to see what's next.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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