Last August, then-Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach Dave Raih told the official team podcast what it meant for the Cardinals to go fast. “We don’t want to sit there and diagnose the defense,” Raih said. “We want to make the defense defend us. That may sound weird to some people listening, but there are a lot of offenses that line up, let the play clock run all the way down, get an exact look at the defense, adjust the play and get in the perfect call. That is not us. In 1,000 plays, we might change the play 10 times.”
There is an idea behind the Air Raid offense that Kliff Kingsbury brought with him to the NFL that speed can be a weapon on its own as it allows the offense to keep control of the pace and personnel on each play. In Kingsbury’s first year with the Cardinals in 2019, Arizona ranked fourth in seconds per play both overall and in neutral situations, according to Football Outsiders. In 2020, that moved up to second in overall seconds per play and first in neutral situations, which, according to FO, “discards plays when the score differential is greater than 10 points in the first half, plays when the score differential is greater than 8 points in the 3rd quarter, plays in the 4th quarter or overtime, and plays in the last five minutes of the first half.”
This isn’t the first time a college coach came into the pros and hoped to catch defenses sleeping. Pace was the key to Chip Kelly’s immediate success when he entered the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. The rest of the league picked up on Kelly’s innovations and the game got as fast as ever during the 2012-2015 seasons. But once Kelly himself flamed out of the NFL, the league slowed down. 2018 was one of the slowest years on record, which Football Outsiders has going back to 1993.
Kingsbury hasn’t been alone in upping the pace for offenses across the league. 2019 saw a bump in average seconds per play, which would be expected after a historically slow season in 2018, but the biggest jump came in 2020 when the NFL approached Kelly era type speed. By average seconds per play, 2020 was slower than only 2013 and in neutral situations, 2020 was the seventh-fastest season since 1993.
14 teams had a situation neutral pace under 30 seconds in 2020. That’s up from nine teams in 2019, which was up from just six teams in 2018.
Speed In Slow Motion
It’s one thing to be fast, but it’s another to do something else with that speed. As Kelly and NFL defenses found out, speed can be easier to defend if the plays run with it don’t change much. While there is still a clear Kelly influence across NFL offenses today, those ideas and concepts are sprinkled in the wider scope of what teams do.
That now brings us back to Kingsbury and the Arizona offense. While the Cardinals were one of the fastest offenses in the league, they were also one of the most static. Per Sports Info Solutions, no team used motion less often than the Cardinals’ 21% in 2020. Arizona moved fast, but most everything else stayed the same.
Some of that goes hand-in-hand. Arizona doesn’t use motion as often so the offense can keep things simple and get to the line quicker. The problem there is the numbers don’t exactly back that up as being the best strategy for the Cardinals.
Arizona had the most no huddle dropbacks in the league last season with 260, per SIS. The next highest team, the New York Giants, had 180. 71.9% of the Cardinals’ no huddle dropbacks had no motion. Arizona’s EPA per dropback on those plays (0.03) was the same as when the offense did huddle. Where the Cardinals gained the biggest advantage is when they used no huddle with some type of motion — 0.17 EPA per dropback. That was a small sample of plays (just 76 dropbacks) but that’s kind of the point. Just going fast isn’t enough for the Cardinals to gain a significant advantage.
That’s part of the question for Kingsbury as he enters his third year with the team and in need of a bit more offensive innovation. There is some hope a bit more motion could be added to the offense due to the selection of wide receiver Rondale Moore but it remains to be seen what adjustments will be made to shake up the offense this season.
Pace Around The League
The Dallas Cowboys had the fastest average seconds per play and second-fastest seconds per play in neutral situations. This appears to be more of a Kellen Moore influence than a Mike McCarthy one. Dallas ranked second in average seconds per play overall and in neutral situations during the 2019 season with Moore as the offensive coordinator under Jason Garrett. Dallas was 21st in neutral situation pace in 2018. In McCarthy’s final three seasons with the Packers, Green Bay ranked 19th, 25th, and 20th in situation neutral pace.
Dak Prescott played just five games but finished the year with the 11th-most no huddle dropbacks. Among quarterbacks with at least 25 no huddle attempts, Prescott had the fifth-highest positive play rate (percentage of plays with positive EPA). This should continue to be a weapon for the Cowboys in 2021.
Just behind Prescott in positive play rate was Tua Tagovailoa. Miami was just 25th in neutral situation pace but Tagovailoa had more dropbacks from no huddle (54) than Ryan Fitzpatrick (44) and that came out to a slightly higher rate of overall dropbacks, too (16.6% to 14.8%). Tagovailoa was also 10th in EPA per attempt from no huddle, so speeding up the Miami offense could be in play to help the quarterback’s development in Year 2.
The Tennessee Titans are known for a plodding, run-heavy but efficient offense. That was certainly the case in 2019 when Tennessee ranked 19th in situation neutral pace and 22nd in overall pace but they added a speed wrinkle to the offense in 2020 as they ranked fourth in overall pace and third in neutral situations.
Ryan Tannehill was one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks from no huddle (seventh in EPA per attempt) but some of the best hurry up work got Derrick Henry to the line against a tired defense, mostly in short yardage situations. On carries from no huddle, Henry had a higher first down rate (38.9% to 23.8%), lower rate of getting hit at the line (24.1% to 41.0%), and a lower stuffed rate (11.1% to 16.4%). With offensive coordinator Arthur Smith now in Atlanta, it will be interesting to see if the Titans keep up the pace or if they’ll go back to the slowed down version of 2019.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, the Green Bay Packers had the league’s slowest offense by seconds per play at 32.83 in neutral situations — though that is the fastest time for the 32nd ranked team since the 2013 season. While the Cardinals “don’t want to sit there and diagnose the defense,” that’s exactly what Aaron Rodgers and the Packers did. It’s ok to be the slowest offense in the league when that offense is also first in yards and points per drive. That could be repeatable in 2021 with Rodgers back under center, but speed could be needed as an additional weapon if a younger, inexperienced quarterback is forced to be the starter.