Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at the offensive scheme that's all the rage heading into the 2020 season ...
Kyle Shanahan is widely considered one of the best offensive minds in the NFL after guiding the San Francisco 49ers to an appearance in Super Bowl LIV. His dynamic scheme looked unstoppable at times with a punishing running game and complementary pass attack that kept defenders on their heels.
The design of that high-powered attack is a bit of deja vu for me, as I vividly remember the challenge of defending Mike Shanahan's Denver Broncos in the late 1990s, when they notched back-to-back Super Bowl wins. Playing for the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, I watched those Broncos teams dash my title hopes in the 1997 AFC Divisional Round, with John Elway and Terrell Davis masterfully running the stretch-bootleg combination. Studying the game film and scouting report leading up to that contest, I was surprised by the simplicity of Denver's offense. The playbook consisted of just a handful of plays, but the unit led the NFL in scoring and total offense, with Davis setting the pace on the ground. The 196th overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft amassed 1,750 rushing yards and 15 TDs in '97 while basically running two plays: inside and outside zone.
Davis' talents as a rugged inside runner with speed, power and vision certainly played a major role in Denver's offensive success. But it was really the synchronization between him and the offensive line that made the unit extremely difficult to stop. The Broncos' O-linemen came off the ball in unison and quickly latched onto any defenders in their tracks. The back side of the line violently cut down pursuers to create huge cutback seams for Davis. With the chop blocks tempering the defensive line's aggression and the threat of Elway escaping out of the back door on a bootleg, defenders were tentative and cautious.
As a defensive back, I remember focusing so much on the Broncos' punishing running game that Denver receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey ran free and clear through the secondary, particularly when Elway incorporated play-action. The running game was the foundation for the offensive attack, and everyone benefitted from playing in a system built on simple concepts.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and I'm watching the younger Shanahan utilize the same scheme to lead a 49ers resurgence that just culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. The impressive run prompted the team to reward Kyle with a six-year contract extension that makes him one of the league's five highest-paid coaches. Moreover, the Niners' success in a zone-based scheme will prompt several coaches around the league to borrow ideas and concepts from Shanahan's playbook this fall.
Seeing how the Shanahan system has directly influenced numerous current head coaches (the Rams' Sean McVay, Chargers' Anthony Lynn, Packers' Matt LaFleur, Browns' Kevin Stefanski and Bengals' Zac Taylor), as well as Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and Eagles senior offensive assistant Rich Scangarello, we're bound to see plenty of the stretch-bootleg scheme in 2020.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film and making a few phone calls to some coaching friends around the league, I've come up with three reasons why the Shanahan scheme has re-emerged as the hottest offensive trend in football:
1) Simplicity yields big results on the ground.
There's nothing complicated about the running game in the Shanahan system. As alluded to above, the playbook consists of two basic runs (outside zone and inside zone) and a handful of complements. The offensive line works in unison like the Radio City Rockettes, with each blocker stepping into an assigned area instead of playing a specific defender. This enables the unit to quickly sort out stunts and blitzes at the line of scrimmage without hesitation or confusion.
"I remember Dom Capers running all of those zone dogs," Kubiak was quoted as saying in an ESPN article last December. "When you're in a man scheme, you're getting picked off and you look bad. In zone schemes, when defenses start stunting, you don't stop and go back and block them. You just keep running into your area and pick people off. So all of it was probably a reaction to the zone blitzes, and it just became part of football."
Running backs are expected to adhere to a one-cut rule that limits the dancing in the backfield and challenges runners to avoid negative runs. Ball carriers hit the line of scrimmage attacking downhill while reading the flow of the defense to determine whether to "bang" (attack the hole), "bend" (cut back) or "bounce" (go outside). If the running back has patience and vision, he will always spot a crease and routinely pick up 4-plus yards on basic runs. Most importantly, he will avoid negative runs and keep the offense on schedule on early downs.
"It was really about just many, many repetitions of doing something simple," Kubiak said in the ESPN piece. "I remember (former offensive line coach) Alex (Gibbs) saying, 'We're not going to run a lot of plays. We might run them 10,000 different ways to look different, but it'll be the same thing up front.' ... You become a wide-zone or a tight-zone team, and you adjust to what people do."
Kyle Shanahan has taken the "same but different" concept to another level by dressing up his plays with a steady diet of pre-snap shifts and motions. The 49ers used pre-snap shifts or motions on 78 percent of their offensive plays, according to Pro Football Focus. The constant movement disguises the offense's intentions by changing the strength calls of the defense and diverting defenders' eyes away from their keys. With Shanahan playing the shell game with his wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, San Francisco's small selection of running plays actually looks like The Cheesecake Factory menu to the defense.
2) The complementary play-action passing game is hard to stop.
Disciples of the Shanahan system have heeded the advice of the analytics crowd and made play-action the foundation of the passing game. Data has shown that play-action is effective regardless of how well a team runs the ball, but the presence of a dominant running game really takes the play-action pass to another level. Defenders are forced to respect the ball fakes and illusion of the run when a team has an A+ ground attack.
"The main thing was, even if you're not running the ball effectively, still use play-action," Vikings QB Kirk Cousins said last year, via the Washington Post. "It's still going to slow the pass rush down, make linebackers feel unsettled as to whether to get in a zone drop or go upfield and fit their gap. Usually, the routes are designed for bigger plays, and so you're able to get bigger plays. It basically said, never get away from it. The numbers would say just keep going back to the well."
The scheme exploits the aggressiveness of linebackers with a variety of route concepts that position pass catchers at intermediate and deep levels. The passing game features an assortment of digs, deep overs and post routes designed to punish defenders for vacating their zones. With the initial part of the play-action pass perfectly matching the scheme's featured runs, the design creates big-play opportunities on the perimeter.
"The running game is such a force that you're forced to play simple coverages against the scheme," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You have to play more of your single-high coverages or 'quarters' with your cornerbacks isolated (in) one-on-ones. ... You can't help guys with safeties and linebackers because they're so focused on the run. ... It's a tough scheme to defend."
That longtime defensive coach told me that the identical action at the beginning of the play makes it hard for defenders to distinguish between run and pass. That's exactly the dilemma proponents of the system want to create on play-action passes.
Last fall, my NFL Network colleague Tom Pelissero relayed the sentiments of Stefanski, then the Vikings' offensive coordinator, when it comes to play-action: "It needs to look like, taste like, smell like the run." When it does, the consequences can be dire for opposing defenses.
3) The system can elevate the play of unheralded quarterbacks and running backs.
Part of the fascination with the Shanahan system is that you don't need superstars to successfully run it. We've seen countless examples of late-round passers and runners producing at a Pro Bowl level thanks to the scheme.
"It's a system that allows you to win with average players at key spots," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "The play designs put your top guys in prime positions to make plays. ... If they make the plays they're expected to make, everyone on the team can look like a collection of all-stars."
For quarterbacks, the system creates easy reads against simplistic coverages. Opponents are unable to utilize two-deep coverages and other "trap" schemes due to the threat of the running game. The heavy play-action component also leads to one-defender reads where the quarterback identifies a single defender on the second level who'll help him determine where to go with the ball. These simple reads against basic coverages enable the QB to post a high completion percentage while pushing the ball down the field.
Studying the numbers from starting quarterbacks around the NFL, it's not a coincidence that three of the top four quarterbacks in play-action passing yards, according to Pro Football Reference, played in the Shanahan system: the Rams' Jared Goff (1), Garoppolo (2) and Cousins (4) -- Dak Prescott ranked third. In addition, four of the top seven passers in pass yards after catch per completion also play in the scheme: Garoppolo, Cousins, Goff and Aaron Rodgers. Considering Rodgers is the only generational talent in the group, it is not hard to see how the system can elevate any passer on the field.
That said, running backs are probably the biggest benefactors in the system. Late-rounders, in particular, have excelled in a scheme that calls for disciplined, straight-line runners with a grind-it-out mentality. This system demands runners to stay on their assigned tracks until they hit the line of scrimmage. If a runner adheres to the principles of the scheme, the yards come in bunches.
During the elder Shanahan's tenure in Denver, he pumped out six different 1,000-yard rushers in the zone-based running game: Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell. Portis and Bell were second-round picks, but Gary was a fourth-rounder while Davis and Anderson weren't taken until Round 6. And Droughns was a cast-off snatched from the scrap heap to initially play fullback in Denver. Long story short: It's not a stretch to suggest that the system makes the player.
That's why more coaches and executives are flocking to the scheme, particularly following a season where San Francisco ranked second in scoring and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Despite possessing a stable of largely unheralded backs (Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman), the 49ers ranked second in the league in rushing. The system clearly gives you a chance to build a formidable running game without dumping top picks or significant capital into the running back room.
Those three takeaways help illustrate why the Shanahan scheme is the offensive system of the moment.
TOP FIVE RECEIVERS: Who's No. 1 right now?
Who is the best wide receiver in football?
That question ran rampant on Twitter a few weeks ago, after DeAndre Hopkins emphatically declared himself the top dog on ESPN's Jalen & Jacoby show.
"I definitely think I am the best," Hopkins said in late May. "I know I am the best"
Hopkins, who has earned first-team All-Pro honors in each of the past three seasons, is definitely worthy of consideration for the crown after becoming just the third player in NFL history (after Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt) to post over 600 receptions, 8,500 receiving yards and 50 receiving touchdowns in his first seven seasons. Those numbers are remarkable for a wideout who spent his first four seasons with a bunch of ragtag journeymen at QB before Deshaun Watson came aboard.
That said, statistics alone don't prove a player's value or standing among his peers. That's why I decided to spend a little time in the film room this week breaking down the top pass catchers in the league. After taking a few notes and grading the elite players at the position, here are my top five wide receivers in 2020:
The 10th-year pro is the prototype at the position: an explosive track athlete with A+ size and strength. Jones reached 12,000 receiving yards quicker than any pass catcher in NFL history (125 games) -- yes, including Jerry Rice (142). He also boasts the highest career average in receiving yards per game in NFL history (96.2), logging 1,300-plus yards in each of the past six seasons. As a dynamic route runner with strong hands and rugged running skills, Jones remains the gold standard at the position.
Fresh off his third consecutive 100-catch season -- in fact, he set an NFL record with 149 grabs in 2019 -- Thomas has entered the conversation as the No. 1 receiver in the game. The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder is a bully on the perimeter with a hard-nosed playing style that overwhelms defenders. Thomas has topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first four pro seasons, amassing 298 total first downs during that span thanks to his sneaky running skills. Thomas is knocking on Julio's door.
Nuk's an acrobatic pass catcher with exceptional hand-eye coordination. Hopkins is a master of the 50-50 ball, snatching it away from defenders along the boundary and in the red zone. Having averaged 90 catches for 1,229 yards over his seven NFL seasons -- while scoring 31 touchdowns since 2017 -- the veteran playmaker is the epitome of a No. 1 receiver.
It's hard to understand why this big-bodied playmaker, who's eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in each of his six NFL campaigns, is rarely discussed as one of the very best players at his position. Evans' robust yards-per-catch figure, which has been north of 17.0 in each of the past two seasons, reflects his big-play ability on the outside. Evans' combination of size (6-5, 231 pounds), speed and physicality makes him a difficult matchup for most cornerbacks, particularly on one-on-one vertical throws. With Tom Brady raising the national profile of the Buccaneers in 2020, the football world will soon have a greater appreciation of No. 13 and his remarkable talent.
Big receivers typically lack the shake-and-bake to become Grade A route runners, but the Chargers' WR1 is an exception to the rule. Allen is a creative route runner with an assortment of sandlot moves off the line that leave defenders begging for help. The 6-foot-2, 211-pounder has skipped and scooted to three straight 1,000-yard seasons, topping the 100-catch mark twice in that span. As the Chargers enter the post-Philip Rivers era, the passing game should remain in good shape with Allen entrenched as the No. 1 option.
RAVENS' COMPLACENCY? Baltimore must fix this
Lamar Jackson let out Baltimore's dirty little secret when he admitted complacency might've gotten the best of his top-seeded squad ahead of the Ravens' upset loss to the Titans in the AFC Divisional Round.
On Complex's Load Management podcast, Jackson suggested that he wanted to focus on "not peeking ahead" this season after failing to properly prepare for Tennessee in January.
"That's what happened in the playoffs, and we end up losing to the team people had us favored over," Jackson said. "It's any given Sunday. You can't underestimate no team, no opponent and that's what we did."
I appreciate the reigning league MVP's candor, but I'm surprised to hear those comments coming from the face of a franchise that just went an NFL-best 14-2. While I don't expect a 23-year-old quarterback to understand how to lead an emerging title contender during a playoff run, I'm miffed over Baltimore lacking the maturity to lock in when your best effort is required.
Where was the veteran leadership? Why were the Ravens feeling fat and happy heading into the playoffs when everyone knows it's a grind to make it to the Super Bowl? Did the coaching staff miss any signs of slippage?
Answering those questions should be John Harbaugh's No. 1 priority these days, with a team that is expected to seriously contend for the Lombardi Trophy in the coming season. The Ravens are loaded on both sides of the football, but they've been one-and-done in each of the last two postseasons despite hosting both playoff games. Part of their failures could be pinned on No. 8 and his uneven play, but Baltimore seemingly melted down in each of those contests. The team hasn't exhibited the poise you would expect from a squad with key veterans and a Super Bowl-winning coaching staff.
To be fair, the 2019 team underwent a significant leadership change, with Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Za'Darius Smith and Eric Weddle relocating last offseason. Although the acquisitions of Earl Thomas, Mark Ingram and eventually Marcus Peters added some experience to the squad, the team's best players (Jackson, Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Matt Judon and Marlon Humphrey) were still adjusting to their new roles as team leaders. Which leads us to a pair of offseason additions in March ...
Baltimore's decision to add Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe might've been about adding productive players with the right intangibles. Sure, the veterans are still disruptive pass rushers with solid resumes, but it is their character and work ethic that could really enhance the roster.
Campbell, the reigning NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, brings a very strong locker room presence. He emerged as a leader at the end of his tenure with the Arizona Cardinals and fully embraced the role during his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Calais is a player we have long admired, even going back to the draft when he came out of college," Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said in a statement after the team acquired Campbell in a March trade. "He's a natural fit for our defense and a versatile player who plays like a Raven. Even better, he is a leader on the field and in the community."
These upgrades in personnel will certainly add some leadership to the locker room, but the Ravens still need to discover why they sleep-walked through a playoff game. Rust might've played a factor in the 28-12 loss to the Titans. Baltimore rampaged to easy wins over the sub-.500 Jets and Browns in Weeks 15 and 16, before essentially treating the Week 17 contest vs. Pittsburgh like a preseason game. With a bye on Wild Card Weekend, the Ravens had been on cruise control for over a month when they entered the Divisional Round. If Baltimore earns another first-round bye this season, Harbaugh will have to remember how the 2019 group lost its edge. For a young team without significant experience and some potential immaturity woes, the long layoff can enable bad habits to creep in. Newbies might not truly understand the increased intensity and focus required to advance in the postseason. Cutting corners in the film room, weight room or on the practice field can negatively impact game performance when pressure exposes a team's training habits.
"Guys might've let their foot off the gas a little bit," a Ravens executive told me a few months ago at the NFL Scouting Combine. "Things came so easy that we might've let up a bit and lost our focus.
"The little things matter when you get into the playoffs."
The 2020 Ravens might have to consider how to best prepare Jackson for the playoffs in "rust vs. rest" situations during the regular season's final weeks. The team elected to sit him down in Week 17 to protect him from injury, but the loss of reps heading into the season finale was compounded by an additional loss of practice time from a bout with the flu prior to the Divisional Round.
For a young quarterback -- albeit an MVP winner -- the lack of on-field preparation might've contributed to his slow start in the playoffs. Jackson's disrupted routine and a team-wide lackadaisical attitude could've cost the Ravens a chance to snag another Lombardi Trophy. If Lamar and the Ravens get a chance to run it back this season, it will be interesting to see how they handle their success heading into the playoffs.
BIGGER PRACTICE SQUADS? The potential impact
The practice squad could become a more integral part of a team's success in 2020 if the NFL and NFLPA expand the size to 16 players for the season. As NFL Network's Judy Battista and Mike Garafolo reported Wednesday, there are internal discussions on this potential change to safeguard against potential roster issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new collective bargaining agreement already boosted the squad from the 10-player limit in 2019 to 12 players for this season and next, with a further expansion to 14 players per club in 2022. The CBA also eased the eligibility requirements, with veteran players now in play. As of right now, here is who is eligible to join a practice squad:
1) Players who do not have an accrued NFL season.
2) Players who have been on an active roster for fewer than nine regular-season games during their only accrued season(s).
3) Players who have earned no more than two accrued seasons with any number of games.
4) Players with any number of accrued seasons.
* A team may only have four practice-squad players whose eligibility is based on Group 3, and only two from Group 4.
Savvy team-builders have always utilized the practice squad as part of a developmental plan to upgrade the talent on the 53-man roster down the road, and an expansion could provide organizations with more intriguing personnel options.
On a recent episode of the Move The Sticks Podcast, we discussed teams possibly utilizing one of the veteran spots (Group 4) to roster a quarterback with player/coach capabilities in order to help a young signal-caller prepare without violating time limits on the coaching staff set forth by the new CBA. This would enable a franchise to sign a veteran QB with extensive experience in an offensive system to serve as a mentor. He could conduct one-on-one film sessions and on-field training workouts with the newbie to help accelerate his development process. Imagine a guy like Josh McCown sitting on the Philadelphia Eagles' roster for the 2020 season to help Carson Wentz and tutor Jalen Hurts (and maybe Nate Sudfeld) as the team's QB3/de facto QB coach.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding more veterans to a practice squad could help teams stash a few more plug-and-play guys who would allow the organization to navigate potential roster challenges that arise from positive virus tests. Additionally, the veterans would give coaches the opportunity to keep around a few "designated hitters" for the stretch run.
As a member of the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, I watched Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf sign a handful of veterans each season to serve in mentor/DH roles. Those grizzled players weren't necessarily counted on to contribute in key roles, but they were good enough to play in a pinch while also offering words of wisdom to the young players at their respective positions.
The expansion of the practice squad will also enable franchises with strong developmental programs (teams like the Seahawks and Falcons) to continue turning unheralded players into key contributors. With those teams' front offices and coaches committed to giving young players extra attention through carefully scripted skill development sessions and classroom work, the gap between the good teams and the also-rans could grow wider.