2019 QB Series Part II: Modern NFL Systems

Editors Note: This is the second of a three part QB series leading up to the NFL draft on Thursday night. If you missed part one, read it here, and be sure to catch part three Thursday before the draft.

One of the four links of the offense chain is system. But what constitutes good and bad systems? To understand that requires a quick history lesson. NFL offenses have evolved from the beginning of football, and any true telling of the evolution of modern passing offenses should go back to at least the 70’s, but that’s not necessary for purposes of understanding the modern game.

There has long been discussion of the differences between the “college” offense and the “pro” offense. But it gets tricky when you start to try to define those terms. Often, it’s used to differentiate between shotgun spread pass-based schemes and under center run-based schemes. But trying to reduce offenses to such simplistic terms is reductionist and cuts out far too much.

In brief, spread (3+ receivers split wide) began at the high school and NAIA levels in the mid-late 70’s. Over the next 20 years, it worked its way to Division 1 football, where it was adopted by a few teams between 1996 and 2001. There are many key figures involved in this time period, but the most important is Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez took the pass-heavy spread schemes being run by teams such as Louisiana Tech, Kentucky, Purdue, Hawaii, and Texas Tech and flipped it on its head. His offense spread the defense thin, then attacked it using an extremely run-heavy scheme utilizing a dual-threat QB.

How did it work? Well, let him explain.

If you’re a big football fan, you probably recognize this. It’s a zone read Run-Pass Option or RPO (though it wasn’t called an RPO back then). The rest of his playbook was basically straight out of the college triple option playbook. This offense (and Rodriguez himself) ended up being a key resource for coaches such as Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly. Their success running versions of this run-heavy RPO offense ended up trickling up to the NFL little by little. Obviously, the term RPO became so ubiquitous in 2018 that it angered people. When it comes down to it, there’s no real way to define a college offense, so let’s call it a “modern” offense. A modern offense is one that 1. uses three or more receivers (WR, TE, or RB) split out wide on 50%+ of its plays, 2. runs one read plays, and 3. passes more than it runs.

Why are those three things key?

To the first, spread formations offer multiple benefits. It forces the defense to cover more space, meaning it is easier for offensive players to find open space. It can get mismatches if you move TEs or RBs out wide. There’s a reason most teams now use 50%+ 3 WR personnel groups, and it’s because it just makes it easier to play offense. The teams that don’t use that grouping often split their TEs and/or RBs out wide anyway. Good offenses force the defense to cover as much field as possible.

To the second, making one read is both faster and simpler than making multiple reads. In a game that moves at an extremely high speed, fast and simple is preferable to slow and complex. This one is especially important – it is often held against prospects if they are bad at going through progressions. A good offense doesn’t ask them to. A good offense asks the QB to read a single defender and to make that defender wrong no matter what he does. Some offenses even run a high number of zero read plays – it is determined pre-snap where the ball is going and if it doesn’t develop properly, the play is a throwaway. Plays that require multiple reads typically require them not only on the same side of the field, but in the same line of sight. Offenses still asking their QB to go through a typical three read progression are archaic and downright inefficient. Making one read and throwing limits pressure, sacks, and mistakes while giving the QB an open man consistently.

To the third, pretty much only passing matters when it comes to winning. While there are definitely still good times to run or when running may be more successful than passing, the vast majority of the time, passing is just better than running. If you’re running on first, running on second, and throwing on third, you’re basically putting a Prius motor in the Corvette that is your NFL offense.

Back to Rodriguez’s offense. Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly both attempted to run versions of the offense without a running QB, to very mixed success. And the reason they met with mixed success is because the offense is designed to make one read and run. If you don’t have a running QB, the defense can shut down the offense by simply stopping the first read. That’s still difficult, but when it happens, the offense grinds to a halt.

At this point, there are three primary passing schemes that have evolved from Meyer and Kelly’s schemes to become en vogue in the NFL. These schemes haven’t really been named, so I am going to refer to them by the NFL coaches that most notably run them.

Payton/Belichick

In this scheme, the offense uses a ton of personnel groupings to never give the defense the same look twice. But the defining feature of this scheme is the inclusion of the running back(s) as primary receivers. The Saints have gotten over 100 receptions from their RBs every season since Payton took over, with their primary RB often finishing top 2 in catches on the team if he stays healthy. More recently, Belichick has been steadily increasing the diet of RB catches, notably using James White as a receiver from the RB position.

So, how does this offense work? Well, for one, start with a Hall of Fame QB who can make pinpoint accurate throws to every part of the field, make insanely fast reads, and never screws anything up ever. Then add an elite offensive line to keep them upright and clean.

Okay, more seriously, this offense is the most demanding of the QB position and the offensive line, but it’s also the highest upside. The offense is built on the idea that rather than stretch the defense horizontally using receivers, you can stretch it vertically with receivers and horizontally with backs. The defense becomes unable to cover both vertically and horizontally, and so the QB just needs to determine which the defense is giving, make the appropriate decision, and make an accurate throw. Without a QB who can both process quickly and make every throw, this offense will quickly devolve into a comedy of errors.

This is a one and zero read offense. The QB is asked to read a second level LB or S to figure out which of two receivers are going to come open. If neither is going to come open, it means the back is going to be open and the ball gets dumped off. When watching Brady or Brees, it is rare to see them read more than one side of the field on a play for exactly that reason. They work from intermediate (or long) to shallow on one side of the field based on how the defense covers that side of the field. Zero read plays are those in which it is predetermined where the ball is going and the goal of the play is to misdirect the defense to leave it open. This includes predetermined screens and many deep shots where the QB only looks elsewhere to move defenders.

To stop the offense, all you have to do is generate steady pressure. If the offensive line can’t protect the QB, this offense won’t work. Why? If the offense can’t generate a legitimate vertical offense, which requires time to develop, the defense can focus on taking away the horizontal offense. This leads to either poor deep throws or ineffective short throws. That’s…really the only way to stop this offense. Get pressure. Win in the trench.

Pros: Can overcome penalties and sacks via the vertical threat; only one way to stop it

Cons: Requires personnel that is difficult to assemble and doesn’t function well without the proper personnel

Shanahan/McVay (and Kingsbury)

While McVay gets all of the media attention and accolades for his offensive genius, he’s not even the best at running his own system. That would be Kyle Shanahan, who he learned it from when both were coaches in Washington. I would say the big difference is that McVay has had more success with it, but, well, he hasn’t. Both of them led their offenses to the Super Bowl and then got super embarrassed by the Patriots. Great job guys! Snark aside, McVay is running the same system as Shanahan but with better personnel. That’s about it. Shanahan’s 2016 Falcons offense was actually better than McVay’s 2018 Rams offense. There’s really no explanation for the praise that McVay has received, when Shanahan has been doing it just as well or better for longer and McVay hasn’t made any major or notable adjustments to the system. But this isn’t about comparing them, this is about how their offense works.

So, how does this offense work? Use pre-snap motion to determine whether the offense is in man or zone, run a man-beating concept on one side of the field and a zone-beating concept on the other, then just go to whichever side you’re going to win on. Use play action to give yourself further advantage. Insert any personnel you want, it will put up good stats because the offense is designed to always win.

This is again a one read offense, but the read is made pre-snap. This eases the QB’s burden quite a bit. By the time the ball is snapped, the QB already knows where the ball is going. And since the route is designed to beat the defense, it often creates huge windows for the QB to throw into and easy catches for the receivers. All the talk about McVay talking to his QB until the last second? Basically just making this pre-snap read so the QB has to do even less.

Just look at the insane numbers QBs have put up in this system compared to what they have put up outside this system to understand how effective this is at boosting offensive efficiency. Cousins, Ryan, Goff, Garoppolo, Mullens, all of these guys have had their best seasons and/or wildly exceeded expectations in this offense. And the problem is that it has very little to do with actual quality of the QB. Yes, the offense will definitely run better with a good QB. But when even Nick Mullens can complete 64% of his passes at 8.3 Y/A, your offense isn’t asking the QB to do much. Nick Mullens isn’t magically way better than anybody expected. He’s just in the perfect system for passing efficiency.

So how do you stop the offense? Pattern matching. Pattern matching is neither man defense nor zone defense. What happens when you run man/zone beaters against a defense that is neither? Um…a 50% completion at 6.0 YPA? Pattern matching turns this offense into something that looks pretty gnarly. Why? It’s no longer a one-read offense. The QB then needs to read the complete defense, the receivers need to win their routes, and the QB has to make accurate, on-time throws. You may notice that to be the opposite of what you want the offense to be.

Alternatively, forcing offensive penalties or getting sacks will result in the same thing. The offense cannot pick up chunks if the defense knows it needs a long play since the offense can’t generate a route advantage, so forcing the offense behind the chains will result in the same collapse.

Basically, this offense has no Plan B. If you can take away the free route wins it gets, the offense devolves into a slogged down mess of long reads and difficult throws. Ideally, this offense wants a dual threat QB to go back to its roots. The offense already creates simplified reads and benefits a QB who may not be as talented a passer as a pure pocket guy. By adding the rushing element, it gives the offense a Plan B that it otherwise desperately lacks.

Pros: Can make literally any personnel functional, extremely efficient

Cons: Relies on teams running outdated defenses, cannot overcome penalties or sacks

Reid (and his disciples, Pederson and Nagy)

The difficult part about describing this offense is that it’s less a system than a philosophy. The base of this philosophy is that QBs are good at running certain plays, so you should just run those plays a lot. A good throw and catch cannot be defended, so if you only ask your QB to make throws he’s good at, he can consistently beat the defense. Rather than trying to beat the defense by putting it in unfavorable situations, it simply tries to distract the defense from the fact that it’s really just running the same plays in different ways.

Try to find an explanation of Nagy’s offensive scheme, and you’ll find a lot of kind words about his intelligence and a lot of empty words about his system, but absolutely nothing of any substance beyond “it is loosely based on Reid’s system” and “it has a lot of plays”. That’s not helpful! The most common way you’ll see it described is “having elements of the West Coast offense updated for the modern game”. Then you’ll watch KC, CHI, or PHI play and you’ll realize that, well, any vestiges of the West Coast offense are long gone.

These offenses have a “massive” playbook in the same way that a procedurally generated video game has “infinite” possibilities. At the base of them is a few plays, route combinations, and options. The playbook is just mixing and matching them and running them from different formations. This makes the offense extremely flexible, as it can run or pass from any formation or playcall, run the same successful playcall repeatedly, and it can utilize whatever talent it has available to it.

If you watch a Chiefs game, you’ll see the RPO+shovel repeatedly. If you watch an Eagles game with Wentz at the helm, you’ll see a lot of RPO+slant. With Foles, it’s a lot of mesh-sit-wheel. Beyond that, you’ll see the same pass concepts used repeatedly, just with different personnel and out of different formations. These offense typically also rank very high in terms of both shotgun runs and play action passes. Run the same plays, just mask what you’re doing so the defense doesn’t pick up on it. Limit the playbook to only plays that ask your QB to do things he’s comfortable doing and do those things over and over.

So how do you stop the offense? Make the QB uncomfortable. And uh…good luck beyond that? Wentz would’ve been the 2017 MVP if he didn’t get injured. Mahomes was the 2018 MVP. This offense, installed properly and with talent, is pretty much unstoppable. Despite McVay getting the accolades, it’s Andy Reid and his disciples who have built the most successful offenses. If they have a limited QB such as Foles or Trubisky at the helm, they can be stopped. With dynamic, talented QBs like healthy Wentz and Mahomes throwing to dynamic weapons like Jeffery, Ertz, Hill, and Kelce, there’s really often just nothing you can actually do.

More specifically, this offense does require not just a QB who can run at least a few plays with high consistency, but receiving talent that can run those plays and an offensive line that can give the QB protection if the offense is relying on downfield passes. What this means is that this offense can best be stopped by its own GM or injuries. If any part of this isn’t right, it doesn’t work at all. When it all works… MVP candidates year after year.

Pros: Practically unstoppable when run by the right personnel

Cons: Doesn’t function without dynamic weapons or an inconsistent QB

When looking at this year’s QB crop, it’s important to keep in mind both the scheme they played in in college and which one they will succeed in at the next level. Comparing numbers won’t work – so it’s time to dive into the tape and rank the 2019 QB class.