This story appears in the Dec. 31, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The NFL’s Year of Offense began in February, with a thrice-borrowed-and-adapted gadget play in Super Bowl LII, and it reached its apogee in late November during a white-knuckle, 54–51, Monday Night Football game that featured 10 passing touchdowns and a buffet of stolen college football concepts. But where did this explosion come from? In a word: software. This seismic shift toward offensive empowerment was triggered, in part, by the equivalent of an iPhone update.
Burn the record books. Two teams are scoring at a rate that would put them third all-time in single-season scoring (Chiefs) and 12th (Saints). Two passers (Ben Roethlisberger and Pat Mahomes) are on pace for 5,000-yard seasons, of which there have been only nine in NFL history. The marks for points, completion percentage, passing yards, yards per attempt, passing touchdowns and passer rating, among many other stats, will all be shattered.
This has all happened through the rapid incorporation of jet-motion concepts, formation swapping and other pre-snap eye candy, and run-pass options (or RPOs). The 2018 Eagles run so many shotgun handoffs with built-in quick-pass options that, much to coach Doug Pederson’s discontent, nearly every one of their plays is labeled by casual fans (and sometimes broadcasters) as an RPO. Of the top 50 players in yards per carry (no minimum), more than a quarter are receivers—guys who’ve gotten at least a handful of carries thanks to the widespread adoption of modified triple-option or wishbone concepts designed to get quick players into space. And powering this change is a revolutionary advance in how ideas from all levels of football get in front of playcallers in a convenient, digestible form.
To understand where we are now, it’s important to know where we were. Start two decades ago, back when football schemers truly embodied the hardened film sleuths we all picture in our heads, straining to spot advantages under the dim glow of a rattling projector. Back when almost every offense looked the same. Albert Tsai, the senior VP at Catapult Sports, got into the third-party sports-data business back in 2000, at XOS. Back then, NFL teams would ask his company to collate and tag massive blocks of information on upcoming opponents—say, four games’ worth of downs, distances, formations, coverages, play calls, blitzes, along with roughly 20 other indicators per play. Researchers would organize the data by personnel, field position and hash mark, delivering this all to clubs in massive binders that coaches would then match up to film and organize electronically using crude tables.
Introducing this onslaught of info to coaches and players went about as well as you’d expect. “Front offices would get soured by the experience,” says Tsai. “They’d say, ‘We didn’t get what we thought we were going to get.’ A lot of that was people speaking past one another. What are all these numbers?”
Leap forward 18 years. Imagine the Eagles preparing for Super Bowl LII, against the Patriots, and noticing the Pats’ D struggles against bunch formations (three receivers grouped to one side). Philly has banks of digitized film, pro and collegiate, imported into its team laptops and tablets, where a software program called Thunder creates a playlist of every passing play run against New England (or against any team in the country, NFL or college, that runs a similar D).
As the Eagles told The MMQB after their Super Bowl win in February, the easy access to organized film allowed them to attack a larger number of complicated projects more efficiently (it’s not as if the advancements in digital editing have allowed them all to go home at 6 p.m. now). Then-receivers coach Mike Groh was assigned bunch plays to study all season because it fit the Eagles’ offensive philosophy. Every week, he would get sorted bundles of up to 250 bunch plays, watch them, filter them into potential plays that might be “interesting” for the Eagles, make a playlist and kick it up the ladder to then-offensive coordinator Frank Reich. By the time they reached the Super Bowl, when the Eagles thought installing the play might be effective against the Patriots, they not only had a good idea of what may work, but a cumulative database of what they’d already run and hadn’t run, and an idea of what they could do to tweak it just enough.
That doesn’t even touch upon all the third-party programs that can now be partnered with software like Catapult’s, breaking those plays down further—for example, filtering only for bunch-formation passing plays. In the Eagles example, Philly’s coaches are left with the pure essence of what the Pats struggle to defend, and after a couple of minutes they can transmit 12 games’ worth of deep study to their team.
This past offseason, one of those third-party outfits, the data analysis service Pro Football Focus (PFF), unveiled an overlay to Thunder, called Ultimate, that allows teams to sort plays by 200-odd different factors. That PFF analysis has revealed, for example, that Tom Brady is a markedly better passer when he uses presnap motion or shifts against man coverage. And that Aaron Rodgers is markedly worse when opposing defenses disguise safety coverages before the snap. Today, all 32 teams subscribe to some form of PFF’s data service. Meaning: They’re all armed with a vast but easily-accessible film library covering all high-level football, and their coaches can easily sift through these plays to exploit weaknesses, create mismatches or catch opponents off guard.
“The nice thing about the NFL is that everyone has the same play IDs (a number to identify a play in the film database), everyone is working with the same set of plays,” Tsai said. “So there are good ways to tie in play data and even player-in-play data, so they can offer data that a team just doesn’t have time to break down. Every player’s participation on a play? That’s a ton.
“And to bring that into (a team’s) natural workflow when they sit down to game plan, watch film, have meetings, that’s really advantageous. We’ve seen our own database on Thunder grow two to four times larger over the past couple of years because people are bringing in so much data. In the old days, it was just your quality control guy plugging in what he could see.”
Ultimately, the state of play in 2018 boils down to a simple metaphor: A coach no longer has to dig deep within himself to create something new or cutting edge, like some reclusive ’70s singer-songwriter. The best football schemers now are more like electronic house musicians, judged on their ability to creatively sample from what’s already out there.
We’ve seen offensive inflection points like this before. And, as a football community, we’re prone to hyperbole and self-righteousness when the game appears to change in unexpected ways. (That’s not football!) It was shocking to hear Y.A. Tittle, a passing innovator in an era of run-based football, tell Sports Illustrated in 1965, for example, that “the passing game is still the most important phase of the offensive attack. . . . [Receivers are] capable of scoring from any distance.”
Tittle’s NFL record of 36 TD passes in 1963 went untouched for more than 20 years, until the Dolphins’ Dan Marino obliterated that mark with 48 in ’84. That season, Marino also became the first QB to pass for more than 5,000 yards. Mike Shula was in college back then while his father, Don (Miami’s head coach), and brother Dave (receivers coach) were orchestrating a pass-first offense that was seen by some as a finessed abomination, and by others as the coolest damn thing football had ever seen. “Back then, everybody wanted to be Dan Marino, or watch him,” says Mike, now the Giants’ offensive coordinator.
How different, really, is that explosive season from what we’re seeing now? Are we just witnessing another mini-evolution? Or has technology altered the game forever—could 2018 really be the season that broke football?
Think back to 1984. Consider how surprising Miami's aerial assault must have been when, just two years earlier, the league had named a kicker as its MVP and the Redskins had won the Super Bowl behind a 38-carry, 166-yard performance by bruising running back John Riggins. It had to feel like the Dolphins (and the high-flying Air Coryell Chargers) were playing an entirely different game.
Whatever Don and Dave Shula were building in their minds, it was crafted from their own observations and theories about where the game was going; their inspirations were limited to whatever ideas they had access to or had experienced and retained in the past. Back then, coaching trees grew and spread like—well, like real trees. It took great time for concepts like the West Coast or run-and-shoot offense to be adopted and adapted.
That was then. Now, in 10 minutes, with just a few clicks on a drop-down menu, an NFL coordinator can scroll through the entire life cycle of the spread offense, from Urban Meyer at Utah in 2004 to Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma in ’17. He can understand it at an intrinsic level in a day and incorporate its essential principles into his game plan in just a few weeks during the offseason.
That’s how you get a game like the Rams-Chiefs fireworks display in Week 12. Routes and offensive concepts that can stand the test of modern defenses are unleashed at warp speed. In 2014, after the Seahawks throttled the high-scoring Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, a good number of teams borrowed from Seattle coach Pete Carroll’s Cover 1 and Cover 3 defensive concepts, which then became commonplace across the NFL. One Achilles’ heel in that scheme, though, was the deep crossing route, which seemed to be unearthed during this software revolution, as teams parsed every explosive play against Carroll’s Legion of Boom D.
“Football, by nature, is dictated by the offense,” Steve Palazzolo, the director of video content at PFF said. “The offense has to innovate and the defense has to react. Any time the offense can get a leg up … I do think we’re at this point where a lot of teams are trying to duplicate what Seattle is doing with Cover 1/Cover 3, and now it’s easier for teams to say, ‘OK, let me see every explosive play the Seattle Seahawks gave up from 2012-2015.’ In 10 minutes, you can watch them all and say, ‘OK, what are the similarities? What are the concepts?’
“Then, you see something like the deep crossing route, the over route that seems to be taking over the NFL—our boss, Cris Collinsworth, talked about it on Sunday Night Football. (The route) isn’t exactly new news here in 2018, but the volume at which you run that is probably increased. More teams are doing it. More teams are doing it more often.”
From that mid-November 2018 K.C.-L.A. showdown, the route charts of Tyreek Hill (10 catches for 215 yards, two touchdowns), Robert Woods (four catches, 72 yards, one TD), Brandin Cooks (eight catches, 107 yards) and Josh Reynolds (six catches, 80 yards, one TD) reflect that Seahawks counter-movement, as they’re nearly identical in their construction: wavy strings of pasta, traversing the defense at a midrange depth, finding swaths of empty space. And think, that was just one route against what looked to be certain types of coverages. Imagine all the other routes in that game; in every game we’ve seen all season. Imagine the data sets that are now possible from every special project someone like Groh embarks on over the course of a 16-game season; all the discoveries and instant adaptations.
This all raises the question: With all of the advancements that led to the beautiful, chaotic phase we’re living through, is this the best time to have your hand in an NFL offense?
Mike Shula laughs. “I don’t know if it’s ever the most fun time until you win the Super Bowl. I’ve learned over the years that some of the better offensive coordinators in this league—the ones you think are inventing all these things—are just like the rest of us. They do their research. They don’t necessarily copy, but they can see things that create ideas.”
Ideas that make us wonder with excitement: What might someone with all this power and all these resources think of next?
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