- Todd Haley joins the Browns in a key season for the franchise. How will his tendencies affect the offense and translate to the fantasy game?
After ranking no better than 24th in total yards or points scored in two seasons with Hue Jackson doubling as head coach and playcaller, the Cleveland Browns hired Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator this offseason. Jackson has vowed to give Haley “total autonomy” of the offense in 2018—combined with an overhauled depth chart, the Browns are sure to look different than the versions we’ve seen the last two seasons. The following will examine how Haley figures to influence that change.
Snapshot of Todd Haley’s History
Haley has served as his team’s primary playcaller in each of the last 11 seasons with stints in Arizona, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. While coaches can have an impact on player usage, roster talent usually dictates which players touch the ball the most. In order to determine how a coach impacts an offense, a useful exercise is to explore their play-calling splits in various situations and game scripts.
*Neutral game script is when the score is within seven points. Negative game script is down by eight or more points. Positive game script is up by eight or more points.
While Jackson has traditionally preferred a run-heavy offense—his splits in Cleveland are grossly skewed by negative game script—Haley has opted for the pass more often than not. Haley’s offenses have ranked in the top half of the league in overall passing rate in eight of his 11 seasons as a playcaller and ranked outside the top half in passing rate in neutral game script just three times.
Where Jackson and Haley are in accord is in their reaction to game script. For Jackson, this is to be expected—playcallers that are more run-heavy in neutral situations tend to be more game-script sensitive, as they are forced to deviate from their original game plan the most when playing from behind. Despite being a pass-first playcaller, Haley also ramps up his passing attack when playing from behind—over his career, he’s thrown 15% more often in negative game script than in neutral situations, and 28% more in negative game flow compared to positive situations. Both discrepancies in game flow are above the league average.
One explanation for why Haley has been so pass heavy has been his quality of quarterbacks. In seven of his 11 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Haley has had a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player under center. His signal-callers haven’t been so dominant, though, that they would necessarily force Haley into pass-first game plans. Quarterbacks under Haley finished in the top 10 in quarterback rating five times and one of those instances was Matt Cassel in 2010.
Haley’s Running Backs
Even with a primary focus on the pass, Haley’s backfields have put up respectable touch numbers relative to the rest of the league. His offenses have ranked in the top 10 in team running back touches five times, aided largely by usage in the passing game, with his backfields ranking in the bottom half of the league in running back targets just twice. While much of this workload can be attributed to players such as Le'Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles on the rosters, Haley’s 2011 Chiefs ranked fourth in running back touches without a clear workhorse.
*The Secondary Receiver table does not include running backs.
The top of Haley’s receiver depth charts has been dominated by some of the best receivers of this generation, namely Antonio Brown and Larry Fitzgerald. With that kind of talent, it should be expected that Haley has had a player account for at least a quarter of his team’s targets in every season but two. Maybe the most glaring tell from Haley’s list of pass-catchers is the players who don’t show up at the top of the target list—tight ends. A tight end has accounted for more than 15% of his team targets just twice under Haley, and only one tight end has ranked second on his team in target share. Surely, talented receivers and pass-catching backs have contributed to this lack of tight end work, but Haley clearly hasn’t gone out of his way to feature the position.
What It All Means For the Browns in 2018
Haley’s coaching history evokes a playcaller who prefers to throw the ball as much as possible. While talent has certainly contributed to Haley’s pass/run splits, he’s shown that he is sensitive to game script, and the Browns figure to be in negative game script more often than not. Cleveland’s 5.5 projected wins is the lowest Vegas win total in the league.
Haley will inherit his most unique quarterback situation as a playcaller this year in Cleveland, not just because fans will want rookie Baker Mayfield on the field as soon as possible, but because Haley hasn’t previously been in charge of a mobile quarterback like Tyrod Taylor. Matt Cassel’s 41 rush attempts in 2009 are the most by any of Haley’s quarterbacks over the last 11 years. Meanwhile, Taylor has averaged 94 rushes over the last three years, and Mayfield averaged over 100 rushing attempts per season in college. If Haley’s offense isn’t as pass-heavy as expected, it will be because his quarterbacks are pulling it down and scrambling.
Over the last 10 seasons, 27 quarterbacks have run at least 75 times in a season and just five of them have attempted more than 500 passes, a number that 13 quarterbacks reached in 2017. While neither Taylor nor Mayfield figure to be fantasy studs in 2018, their potential volume—or lack thereof—directly impacts the upside of their pass-catchers.
Earlier in the offseason, I explained why I think Duke Johnson is the best value in this backfield. In that article, I noted that Haley’s 2011 Chiefs were the only team in the last decade with three running backs that accounted for at least 30 percent of the backfield work—a backfield that closely resembles the one he has this year.
With negative game flow concerns and two quarterbacks who will run a lot themselves, Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb will be sharing a role that doesn’t figure to provide many carries. As the better pass-catcher, expect Hyde to edge out Chubb for early-down work, but it’s Johnson’s versatility in the passing game that could lead to the most snaps among these three backs. As mentioned in Haley’s running back history, he’s a coach who has historically used passes to inflate his backfields’ workloads.
Haley has usually had a clear number one target in his offense, but this team should have a relatively even target distribution, especially among the top three targets, Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon and Johnson. Landry figures to lead the way in targets as the primary slot receiver, but there is some concern with Taylor starting the season under center. Since becoming a starter in 2015, Taylor has thrown over the middle just 16.8% of the time, the lowest rate in the league over that span. Of course, Taylor has had little in the way of a dominant slot man or tight end, but it’s a data point worth noting.
On the flip side, Taylor’s 21.2% deep ball rate ranks seventh among quarterbacks over the last three seasons and that matches well with Gordon’s strength—only four receivers with at least 40 targets had a higher average depth of target (15.7) than Gordon in 2017. Gordon may not amass huge target numbers, but he’s capable of topping 1,000 yards with 100 or so targets, and his ceiling games will be week-winners.
While the Browns spent first-round draft capital on tight end David Njoku just a season ago, Haley’s history with tight ends, a pair of mobile quarterbacks, and three excellent pass-catchers ahead of him on the target totem pole adds up to an underwhelming outlook for the tight end.