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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

New era of football is phasing out coaches who cannot adapt

Antiquated schemes and playstyles proving inferior to new, innovative playbooks 

In Jeff Fisher’s final two years as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, his team posted a 11-21 record, an underwhelming performance for a team with an abundance of talent. After parting ways with Fisher following the 2016-17 season, the Rams took a leap of faith by hiring 30-year-old Sean McVay, to the dismay of many disgruntled long-time colleagues of Fisher. But those who mocked the unprecedented move across sports news stations, talk shows and social media were silenced quickly after McVay and the Rams amassed 11 wins in his first season at the helm. 

McVay built a fast-paced, scheme-heavy offense that limited the amount of reads for his young quarterback, Jared Goff, while adding more for the team’s receivers and skill position players. This allowed Goff to have better control of the offense as a whole while also speeding up the Rams’ play-calling — similar to a college offense, only with more advanced and complex reads. The 2017-2018 season marked the first time the Rams had a winning record since ‘03. 

The prior year with Fisher as the head coach, the Rams offense was the laughing stock of the league, finishing last in points per game (14.9), yards per game (286.2), yards per play (4.7), and first downs per game (16.2) and Total QBR (38.9). A wild but true fact to illustrate how abysmal that QBR stat is: throwing the ball at the ground every offensive snap of the game will earn a quarterback a QBR of 39.6. It was the second straight season the Rams ranked last in offensive efficiency. 

McVay stepped into the spotlight in Los Angeles and immediately changed the focus of the entire NFL with his intuitive and innovative offense — boasting one of the league’s best attacks and leading the NFL in scoring at 31 points per game. In just his second year, any criticism of McVay and the Rams’ move was laid to rest, as he led his team to the Super Bowl. Although the Rams fell short to the New England Patriots, McVay became the youngest head coach to ever take a team to the Super Bowl at just 32 years old. 

If the importance of offensive innovation was not already evident, the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson made that clear as day this season. Jackson, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville, appears only weeks away from receiving this year’s NFL MVP award in only his second season. 

Since Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was a bright-eyed kid, he has believed in the mantra: “You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.” Harbaugh won a Super Bowl title with Baltimore fairly recently in 2013, but in this age of the NFL, that’s practically an eon. 

In that Super Bowl run, Harbaugh led the Ravens with Joe Flacco as his gunslinger. Flacco embodied the previous gold-standard quarterback: tall (standing six foot six), strong-armed and full of veteran experience — almost the polar opposite of Jackson. 

Jackson stands at roughly six feet two inches, has a low throwing release point, relies on his speed instead of technique frequently and just turned 23-years-old. At the college level, Jackson displayed some technical weaknesses that in the past, would have been considered red flags in the eyes of many NFL scouts. Namely, underthrowing some deep balls, missing badly while throwing on the run and hesitating to throw down the seams were factors that pushed the electrifying quarterback down the draft board in 2018 to number 32, where the Ravens moved up to snag their future star. While other coaches saw these flaws as imperfections or possibly major red flags, Harbaugh saw the genius in Jackson and understood how to scheme around the enigma perfectly. 

Although Jackson did show some flaws in his games, he also possessed unteachable abilities that very few other quarterbacks have ever had, which is what Harbaugh went after. Mainly because of Sean McVay’s offense in L.A., it became commonplace in the NFL for a quarterback to no longer have four to six reads and checkdowns to progress through, allowing an imperfect quarterback like Lamar to still succeed. 

For Jackson, Harbaugh and the Ravens this season, success is an understatement. In his first year in the league, Jackson began behind Flacco and played sparingly in Harbaugh’s traditional offense with a few integrated formations and plays. With a full offseason of film and playbook study, and an offensive system built entirely around him, Jackson not only shined this season, but shattered tons of NFL records. 

On the way to a first team All-Pro selection, Jackson broke the single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards — the most since Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons gained 1,039 yards on the ground in ‘06. Jackson even amassed more rushing yards alone than the Miami Dolphins did as an entire team (1,156) this season.

In addition, his 3,127 passing yards created the 3,000-1,000 club, which he is the sole member of, and also made him the first quarterback to ever throw for 30 touchdowns while running for 1,000 yards in the same season. Jackson led the league in passing touchdowns with 36, a new Ravens franchise record. Not to mention, Jackson’s 43 touchdowns accounted for this year surpassed the team touchdown totals of 17 NFL franchises. The NFL record for games with a perfect passing rating (158.3) is two, held solely by Ben Roethlisberger. Jackson had two this year alone. 

As of late, it seems as if all the emerging young quarterbacks have one thing in common: an ability to run. Although that not every player might have breakaway speed like Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray, it’s undeniable that mobility has now become an essential characteristic of quarterbacks. The era of immobile pocket passers — like Phillip Rivers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady — may be on the decline, as young quarterbacks, from Jared Goff, to Patrick Mahomes, to Baker Mayfield, have shown the ability to make plays with their feet. The more weapons on the field, the harder it is to defend, so why wouldn’t coaches and general managers go after dual-threat quarterbacks? 

The only caveat to this formula is correctly matching the appropriate head coach with the right quarterback and team. Despite some teams, like the Houston Texans, having found perfect harmony in a new head coach-quarterback combo, other teams like the Cincinnati Bengals failed miserably. After going 2-14, it was quite obvious that Zac Taylor and the Bengals, or at least Andy Dalton, are far from a match made in heaven. 

Former Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens was quickly relieved of his duties after just one season at the position. Perhaps this puzzling statement before a week four game was an indication of how the season would end up.

“We don’t draw up plays to beat the other team,” Kitchens said. “We play football. That’s what we want to be. I can’t get more clear than that. I think you know that about me. We want to be a football team. We don’t want to be the designer of plays.” 

Kitchens’ one season in Cleveland was a complete disappointment. The Browns finished with a 6-10 record, while Kitchens appeared to frustrate and alienate team leaders Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. 

To the joy of much of America, and dismay of the NFC East, Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones finally came to accept that his Dallas Cowboys will never be an elite team with Jason Garrett calling the shots, firing him shortly after the new year passed, in hopes of salvaging the careers of Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott. 

Granted that Lamar Jackson’s story seems to be an anomaly at the moment, it is undeniable that teams will search to replicate the quarterback-friendly offense that has overtaken the league. 

Written by: AJ Seymour — sports@theaggie.org


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