I have always been big on play design. I think that translates to being able to make plays even if a team has lesser players athletically on offense. The biggest thing it does is help teams accumulate explosive plays. I certainly don’t want to simply count on “my man beating your man” because eventually, that would mean only the team with the best athletes would always win. Sure, it is nice to have Calvin Johnson at wide receiver and Walter Payton or Barry Sanders at running back, but play design can make good players great. 

But the biggest thing it does is win games. Last year’s final four teams in the NFL Playoffs were the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, and New Orleans Saints. In DVOA they finished fifth, second, first, and fourth, respectively. 

Those were good overall offenses and they also were among the best at creating big plays. 

Everyone would guess Kansas City finished first in explosive plays and they did with 116 of them. The Rams finished second with 111. The Patriots finished third with 103. Those were the only teams to finish with over 100 of those plays that chew up chunks of the field. 

Why is that important? I have been coaching and watching football for a long time. We have humans playing the game and humans officiating. If you give them long enough on one drive, one of them is going to screw up the drive via a penalty, missed assignment, dropped ball, etc. The best teams don’t get to third down. And the very best teams eat up yardage in chunks so they do not have a chance to screw things up during that drive.

Some teams that got into the playoffs that were considered bad teams or bad offenses often had some correlation with explosive plays to get them in. The Baltimore Ravens, who overall did not have a great offense, ranked third in explosive running plays in the league. The Seattle Seahawks, who ran the ball more than any other team in the league, led the league in explosive running plays. The Dallas Cowboys, who Seattle played in the first round, finished sixth in those running plays. Even the Tom Brady-led Patriots, who people think of as a great short passing team, were second in the NFL in explosive running plays. 

But let’s look at the final four again. That’s where everyone wants to be. Get into the AFC or NFC Championship Game and have a shot at the Super Bowl. Kansas City finished first in explosive pass plays, the Rams finished second, New Orleans finished third and the Patriots finished sixth. That’s where true success comes from. You can certainly see where teams can have a total high number of plays and do well. But certainly, the passing game explosive plays get you playoff wins. 

I would venture to say if you polled 1000 fans, those four teams would get voted the top four in what people think are the best play designs as well. Play action, motion screens, jet motion reverses and screens, misdirection screens, sprint out throwbacks. 

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

This play came from the Kansas City Chiefs against the Cleveland Browns in Week 9. This screen by Kansas City shows a reason why they are so good on offense. It is a simple RB screen. But what makes it so special is the fake pitch and the quarterback selling that to the opposite side while the other back leaks out on the opposite side. It also attracts the eyes of the defensive line, who are often very good at sniffing out these screens and allows the offensive linemen the chance to release and beat them outside. The result is 50 yards and a touchdown.

Another part of great play design is knowing when to use it. On this next play, the Patriots know they have zone coverage, even with the pre-snap motion. They also know that deep routes are low percentage and want to clear the left side with the deep route. They play action gets the linebackers coming downhill. That also allows Julian Edelman to run behind them freely with no one walling his route or slowing him down as he tries to get across. The corner will not chase because they are in zone. The opposite side deep route will take the corner and the safety. It opens up the entire left side and gives plenty of room to make a throw and pick up big yardage — an easy gain of 29.

So in conclusion, it looks like there is always a quick way into the playoffs, but unfortunately, you better have some guys that can design plays, either running or passing, that can cover some large areas of the field in one play.

But if you want to win the Super Bowl, you better find a way to float the football over some of that rough terrain as the Chiefs, Rams, Saints, and Patriots did last season.