Ten years ago, NFL offenses were running roughly one third of plays out of "11 personnel" -- one back, one tight end and three receivers -- which has since become the league's base offense.
By 2013, when NFL-wide scoring peaked at 23.4 points per game before leveling off, 11 personnel accounted for over 50 percent of snaps. Last season, it was in use on 58.3 percent of snaps, and the league-wide passer rating was down for the first time in years. This season, passer rating is down again and 11 personnel is still going strong -- in use on 57.3 percent of snaps, even before some teams start spreading out more to get favorable running looks down the stretch.
There are a lot of factors that go into those numbers, but a recent text message from an NFL coach got me thinking:
Has the homogenization of offenses contributed to less productivity? And in turn, are the more diverse offenses in the current game more dangerous?
I asked our Next Gen Stats researchers to pull some numbers, and the results were compelling, if somewhat inconclusive.
In the chart below, there is a positive correlation over the past two seasons between the number of personnel packages a team uses per game and that team's scoring. The relationship is most pronounced at the low end, with the NFL's five lowest-scoring teams this season (the Bengals, Giants, 49ers, Browns and Dolphins) all ranking 22nd or lower in packages used per game (defined by combinations of positions, e.g., 11 or 12 personnel, as opposed to specific players).
However, what jumped out to me were those three dots at the top left -- outliers that seemed more significant when NFL Media researcher Ethan Young told me they represented (from highest down) the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, the 2017 Los Angeles Rams and the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles.
Last year's Falcons were the seventh-highest scoring offense of all time. The Rams and Eagles are two of the biggest success stories of this season, in part because they're flourishing with the top two picks in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, running the show.
I sent this chart to a bunch of NFL people, including several respected coordinators. And I came away believing it's no accident the Rams and Eagles are following some similar principles when it comes to getting their young QBs playing fast, in much of the same way Kyle Shanahan got Matt Ryan playing by far the best football of his life last season on the way to an MVP.
Fewer personnel packages doesn't necessarily mean a team is running a simple or unsophisticated offense. The Rams play 69 percent of their snaps in 11 personnel and 85 percent of snaps are from the shotgun or ace formations. But they run a ton of different plays out of those same looks, making it harder for defenses to tell pre-snap what they're going to do. (Peyton Manning was a proponent of this thinking for years, since lining up the same way with limited shifts and motions also gave him an edge in reading what the defense was going to do.) Likewise, the Eagles are in shotgun or ace on 91 percent of snaps, and they have different versions of their main personnel groups -- e.g., a heavy and fast version of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) -- in which they move pieces around while running their core offense over and over.
Both the Rams and Eagles invested heavily in weapons in the offseason, allowing their young QBs to spread the ball around, as Ryan did so well last season. (Take away the players, and Shanahan's offense -- which opposing scouts have told me for years is really hard to defend schematically -- can be fundamentally the same and much less effective, as you're seeing right now with the 0-9 San Francisco 49ers.) And like all good coaches, the Rams' Sean McVay (who worked with Shanahan in Washington), Eagles' Doug Pederson and their respective staffs are in tune with their identity and play to their strengths.
There are different approaches, of course. Moving your best players around prevents a defense from getting comfortable and makes it tougher to double them. More personnel packages can help accomplish that. I've had many conversations with Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy about the value of being "multiple" as an offense, and the league-wide trend bears that out. The Kansas City Chiefs under Andy Reid and the New England Patriots under Josh McDaniels mix things up a lot, too, and always seem to be potent. All those teams also have smart, veteran QBs who can handle whatever volume is thrown at them.
As the next wave of young passers prepare to enter the league, keep in mind this one aspect of how the Rams and Eagles are bringing theirs along. Every team and every QB is different, but what they're doing is working, so needy teams are sure to be studying them closely.
The Five Ws for Week 10
WHO's the best of the Cowboys' running backs with Ezekiel Elliott suspended? I asked a few NFL scouts this question in the aftermath of Thursday's ruling, and one veteran executive was blunt: "Nobody." Alfred Morris probably is the best pure runner of the group, Rod Smith runs hard and Darren McFadden has a little juice yet (though not enough to suit up on game days until now). Morris and Smith have each performed well in very limited opportunities this season. Compared to Elliott, though, they're just guys. That puts more pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott, whose 102.4 passer rating since the start of last season ranks fifth among all QBs (min. 500 attempts) and third among QBs in their first 25 career games, behind only Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Dan Marino, according to NFL Research. Sunday's game against the Falcons will be just the second game Prescott has started without Elliott in the lineup; the other was last season's meaningless finale at Philadelphia.
WHAT is it about November and Kirk Cousins? No other quarterback (min. 200 pass attempts) is even close to Cousins' 112.2 passer rating in the month since 2012, according to NFL Research. He was efficient again in last week's 17-14 upset of the Seahawks in Seattle (and did so while battling what I'm told was a very bad cold that hit Cousins before the Dallas game a week earlier). We're only talking about eight career November games, which is a tiny sample. But consider where Cousins ranks since Week 3 this season in completion percentage (70.1%, third), pass yards per attempt (8.6, second) and passer rating (108.4, fourth). "He's a tough dude," Vikings safety Harrison Smith told me Friday. "He doesn't slide -- which is interesting. But he's tough, he's smart and he's making big-time throws in the game. He's taking care of the ball, too." Next up: a Vikings defense that hasn't allowed a 200-yard passer during a four-game winning streak ... but hasn't faced anybody putting up the numbers Cousins is.
WHEN is it time to worry if Andrew Luck will play again? Hard to say, but it's not there yet. My understanding is Colts GM Chris Ballard is being honest when he says nobody has told him Luck's ongoing issue with his throwing shoulder could be career-ending. The speculation about where Luck's career is headed doesn't end with fans or the media, though. I recall a conversation with one potential head coaching candidate at the combine in March about the allure of that job with Luck in place -- the same thing that made the GM job so attractive when Ballard was hired in January. The coach noted 2014 was Luck's best season, before the injuries hit. And he's always been looser with the football than coaches would like. If Luck didn't resume his upward trajectory in 2017, the coach said, he'd start to get nervous about whether Luck's ceiling is really as high as everyone believed. Well, not playing at all won't ease those concerns, even for a guy who should be entering his prime at age 28 and profiled out of college like a future Hall of Famer. That'll be an interesting conversation with potential replacements if and when the Colts fire Chuck Pagano.
WHERE is the ceiling for the Vikings if Teddy Bridgewater returns to his preseason 2016 form? (submitted by @MIvikes) Three days before Bridgewater suffered that major knee injury last August, I watched film with then-Vikings QBs coach Scott Turner, who had pulled a bunch of plays from camp to show improvement in an area Bridgewater had worked a lot on: pushing the ball downfield. Part of it was willingness to take chances. Part of it was mechanics (not dropping his elbow, transferring his weight, etc.). But Turner also pointed out Bridgewater had physically matured and put on weight -- a transformation that has only ramped up during his time away. Everyone in the building has raved about his arm. Bridgewater's mobility is the biggest question, and it's hard to know how much that'll truly hinder him until he gets into a game situation. Remember, he only has gotten backup reps in nine practices so far, after a 13-and-a-half-month layoff. He'll suit up for the first time Sunday against the Redskins as Case Keenum's backup.
WHY does Dion Jordan's return to the field matter? For one thing, it adds more punch to a Seahawks pass rush that will be working overtime now that cornerback Richard Sherman is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles. The bull rush Jordan used to flatten Cardinals left tackle John Wetzel for a fourth-quarter sack Thursday night was the sort of thing the Dolphins surely envisioned when they drafted Jordan third overall in the 2013 draft. It's also another ray of hope for players banished under the drug policy -- a group that historically has struggled to make it back. Eighteen months ago, when I visited Jordan in San Francisco as he trained and prepared to apply for reinstatement, the only players I could find that played again after missing so much time were Ricky Williams and Johnny Jolly. Since then, Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant made it back from his season-long banishment (albeit for a bumpy ride so far in Pittsburgh). Browns receiver Josh Gordon was conditionally reinstated again last week and has a chance to play in a few weeks if he stays on track. Linebacker Daryl Washington also was reinstated and is looking for work. Every player I've spoken to about banishment talks about how hard it is to deal with being isolated from teammates and taken out of the regimen of being on an NFL team. It's unfortunate, but others are sure to land in the same spot in the future. Good to have examples that show it doesn't have to be the end.
Ever wish you had the access of a highly connected NFL reporter? Well, now you do! Sort of. Submit your questions on Twitter using the hashtag #AskedAndAnswered. @TomPelissero will select the best submissions and work to find an answer.