In our first post on overall team performance, we took a top-down view on scoring per drive and touchdown production. Following that up is our second post on overall team outlooks, this time looking at offensive snaps and play calling.
In that initial post, we highlighted just how much of a scoring correction was applied across the league after the bottom fell out in 2017. Overall plays per game per team are trending slightly downwards, but last season we seen teams score touchdowns at their highest rate per play in league history.
Leaguewide Offensive Plays and Production Over the Past 10 Years
The impact of offensive play volume as it relates to fantasy is simple. In a game of counting stats, more overall team plays means more opportunities to raise the tide of individual player snaps, which raise the opportunity for targets and touches, which turn into yards and touchdowns. We want players on the field as much as possible. The best offensive opportunities come from good offenses, which we inherently know are the ones who score the most points and produce the most yardage.
NFL Play Volume, Splits, and Fantasy Output Per Scoreboard Over Past 5 Seasons
53.7 percent of all plays in the league are run while tied or with the lead. Losing football games means you’re not scoring points and if you’re not scoring points, you’re not producing yardage, which means you’re not running a ton of plays. How efficient pass attempts and targets are from winning teams compared to losing teams shows how much offensive leverage is real in the passing game. All passing rate stats significantly depreciate as a team’s deficit does, but volume inherently rises. As a quick sidebar, this is also how a terrible real-life defense like 2018 Chiefs can be a great fantasy asset. Because while passing volume increases with trail rate, that creates more opportunities for counting stats such as interceptions and sacks, which rates also rise exponentially with that volume increase due to playing catchup. A pass attempt while leading on the scoreboard is worth roughly 1.2 times that from one trailing while a target in the passing game is worth 1.25 times as much. Garbage time may not exist for the notion of efficiency, but as you can see, a little over half of the league-wide passing attempts come while trailing on the scoreboard, while 60.6 percent of those attempts come while trailing in the second half of games. Inversely, you can see how offensive predictability has an impact on per play rushing efficiency, but also where the most volume for opportunities comes from.
Gase of Pace
Starting off with a look at teams that were below the league rate in plays run per game, no team ran fewer plays per game last season than the Dolphins at 54.9. Miami ran 60 or fewer plays in 12 of their games last season while running 50 or fewer offensive plays in five of their games, which was the most in the league. In some cases, offensive efficiency can thwart overall play volume, but that wasn’t the case for the 2018 Dolphins and it’s something that has been an issue for Adam Gase-led offenses before that weren’t helmed by Peyton Manning.
Adam Gase OC/HC Offensive Play Volume and Efficiency
Gase was the offensive coordinator for the highest-scoring offense in league history in 2013, but outside of those two seasons in Denver, his offenses have steadily remained one of the slowest teams in offensive pace yearly while regularly finishing in the back half of the league in overall play volume. He helmed a hyper-efficient offense in his first season with the Dolphins but was also the slowest-paced team in the league that season.
Now as the head coach of the Jets, Gase brought along his offensive coordinator from last season in Miami, Dowell Loggains to occupy the same position in New York. Loggains also is no stranger to slow, inefficient offensive football.
Dowell Loggains OC Offensive Play Volume and Efficiency
Personnel has an obvious impact on coaching resumes as evidenced here with Gase, but there’s no doubt there’s a recurring lack of urgency imprinted on the fingerprints of the new offensive staff for the Jets. New York already ranked 26th in overall play volume league-wide (60.6 plays per game) in 2018. The offensive skill players for the Jets are better than what either Gase and Loggains worked with during 2018 with the Dolphins, but the Jets still do have a second-year quarterback who was the youngest Week 1 starter in NFL history as a rookie and major question marks along the offensive line as potential thorns. Even with the upgrades at the skill positions, pegging the Jets to be in the back half of the league in snaps and pace is a good bet.
Bringing the Cardinals Offense out of Retirement
In the opening post that covered scoring and offensive output per possession, we covered how the Arizona offense took offensive ineptitude back nearly a full decade. One of the worst offenses per possession in the modern NFL, the Cardinals were, of course, horrendous on a per play level. They ranked 31st in plays run per game (56.4) and posted just 4.29 yards per offensive play, the fewest for any team since the 2012 season (which was also the Cardinals).
Arizona was one of two teams — the Jets being the other — that ran offensive snaps while trailing in all 16 games last season and the Cardinals trailed for a league-worst 68.2 percent of their offensive plays. Arizona hit 60 offensive snaps in just six games all season.
Kliff Kingsbury’s Texas Tech offense averaged 82 offensive snaps per game over his six years as coach, the most in D1 over his tenure while finishing no lower than 13th in offensive pace. While the Cardinals are surely going to run fewer than 90-to-95 plays per game that David Johnson suggested in his optimism for the offense this season, we can be assured that the Cardinals won’t be among the bottom of the league in pace or snaps run in 2019.
Upping the Plays in Cincy
Ranking 30th and 32nd in the league over the past two seasons, no team has collectively run fewer offensive plays over the past two years than the Bengals under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Moving on from Marvin Lewis after 16 seasons, the Bengals cleared house this offseason and brought in 36-year old Zac Taylor for his first NFL head coaching job. Taylor has a very limited resume. Over six seasons in the NFL, Taylor’s only taste above quarterbacks coach was a five-game stint as the interim offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2015 — ironically, also replacing a fired Lazor — at age 32. Over those five games, Miami only ranked 24th in offensive snaps per game (61.6), but it’s the past two seasons that Taylor has spent with the Rams as wide receivers then quarterbacks coach that altered his philosophy. Expecting the Bengals to turn in equal results to the Rams offense of the past two seasons is a tall ask, but anticipated to play fast-paced, Taylor was a part of an offense that ranked first in overall pace over each of the past two seasons in neutral game script.
A Tale of Two Halves
After a successful 5-3 finish as the interim offensive coordinator to close the 2018 season, the Browns kept Freddie Kitchens and promoted him to full-time head coach this offseason. Under Kitchens, the Browns took a seismic shift in play calling and offensive efficiency.
Browns Offensive Breakdown, 2018
Since the Browns played four overtime games over their opening eight games, I went ahead removed league-wide plays run in extra time to get an actual gauge on their play volume and production. Under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, the Browns were in a hurry to do very little, ranking sixth in the league in offensive snaps, but in the bottom six teams in yards and points generated per play. Under Kitchens, the Browns ran much fewer offensive snaps per game, but they also led on the scoreboard more often and were among the league’s best in yards and points gained per play. Given their efficiency, they could’ve played faster and they went ahead and added Todd Monken to their staff as offensive coordinator this offseason, who has coaching roots tied to the Air Raid system in college and has coordinated one of the most pass-heavy offenses the past three seasons in Tampa Bay. Over the past three seasons, Tampa Bay has ranked seventh, sixth, and 10th in overall pace while ranking fourth, 11th and eighth in pace for neutral game script. With an offensive upgrade in the addition of game-breaker Odell Beckham and one of the most favorable schedules in the league, if the Browns can marry the per-play efficiency they had under Kitchens to close the 2018 season with the tempo of Monken’s previous offenses, then the Browns offense could reach an even larger ceiling than expected in 2019.
While the Browns had a tale of two seasons in terms of offensive production, the Ravens had two seasons in overall offensive approach by overhauling their scheme and inserting rookie Lamar Jackson into the starting lineup Week 11.
Ravens Offensive Splits in Lamar Jackson’s Starts
The Ravens led the league in play differential (+160) over their opponents last season, a mark that ranks as the third-highest play differential since play data was tracked in 1999. The Ravens played at a high pace regardless of each offensive approach, but under Jackson they ran 14 more plays per game than their opponents, which would have smashed the record over that span for play differential of +175 plays run by the 2008 Patriots.
With Jackson under center, the Ravens went from 27th in yards per play (5.2) up to 19th (5.5) and from 22nd in points per play (.33) to 15th (.36). From Week 11 on, the Ravens averaged 9.6 plays per scoring drive (second in the league) and third in time of possession per scoring drive (4:39). Of course, the rub is that Ravens played fast to run, which doesn’t give them a big window for cashing in on ceiling efficiency, which is why you see them still in the middle of the pack in those efficiency marks despite the improvement. Playing this way can be very fragile, especially because they’re so reliant on both sides of the ball to play their part instead of just pressing your opponent offensively. The Ravens were able to maintain their high play volume no matter the quarterback because their defense ranked 11th in opponent plays (5.7), second in yardage (26.0), and fifth in time with the football (2:33) per possession. There was a perfect storm of everything falling into place for the Ravens to make that offensive transition successful a year ago but repeating that same recipe of defensive dominance and rate of snaps playing ahead on the scoreboard is a lot to expect. While we can still expect them to be one of the run-heaviest offenses in the league, we should also anticipate regression in game script for the Ravens, forcing Jackson to take the next step in development as a passer.
Run, Run… and Run Again
Given Lamar Jackson’s unique skill set, it was no surprise to see Baltimore incorporate the offensive approach they did to close the 2018 season. But when your quarterback is Russell Wilson, going full tilt into having rushing plays dominate your play calls is an entirely different subject. No team overused their running game more than Seattle last season and it looks even worse when adjusted for game script.
NFL play-calling by quarter during the 2018 regular season. “Expected P%” is based on the score/time remaining. Eg. The Chiefs were “expected” to run a lot in 4th quarter because they were ahead often (opposite for Cardinals). This better indicates pass/run heavy offenses. pic.twitter.com/BvhLljnKhA
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) May 31, 2019
Seattle popped up in our opening article by greatly overachieving in the touchdown department, where they ranked sixth in the league in offensive touchdowns despite ranking 18th in overall offensive yardage. The Seahawks were the only team in the league to run the football on over half of their offensive plays last season at 52.8 percent. Over the past decade, there have been 18 other teams to run the ball on over half of their snaps and only three did so in back-to-back seasons. The kicker there is that the Seahawks make up two of those teams by running the ball on over half of their snaps in each of Wilson’s first three seasons 2012-2014.
Still, the Seahawks ran the ball fewer times in two of those next three seasons than the year prior and had a decline in rushing rate per play call in all three seasons. Those teams with that large of a rushing split came back the following season to run the ball 5.1 percent less often with an average loss of 56.1 rushing attempts, while they gained an average of 52.2 passing attempts. We’ll cover Wilson more in depth in the quarterback section of the offseason, but even with that type of passing attempt gain, Wilson would still be a criminally underused asset.