‘The NFL is a copycat league’ - is a phrase heard every year, especially around this time.
Most teams are assessing where they went wrong this year, hiring and firing coaching staffs, and prepping for free agency and the draft, where they can find those one or two missing pieces that will put them in the limelight this time next year, and not watching from home.
Meanwhile, the two top NFL teams just battled it out for the title of Super Bowl champion, and the honor of being crowned the best team in 2018. With all eyes on them, breaking down their strengths and weaknesses from every angle, it is inevitable for the 30 other teams to ask themselves, “what do they have that we need”.
It happened in 2013 when Seattle’s ferocious defense knocked off Peyton Manning and the #1 offense in NFL history. Everyone went out looking for the players and coaches to replicate that system. Last year, when the Eagles took the league by storm, everyone went out looking for a coach that knew how to run “RPOs” and bring innovation to their offense.
This year is no different. The Rams have been one of the best teams in the league all year, and the Patriots, as much as it pains me to say it, have been the team to beat for nearly two decades.
So what makes them special? What can teams, specifically the Broncos learn from these two franchises and apply to their rebuild this offseason?
Well, let me caveat by saying regardless of how good you are, getting to the Super Bowl in the NFL requires a bit of luck and the cards to fall exactly right, so just because teams possess certain characteristics and happened to win, doesn’t mean it’s replicable.
The 2015 Denver Broncos are the prime example of this as they reached and won the Super Bowl with some of the poorest quarterback numbers in the league. Does this mean quarterbacks are no longer important? I think you can ask any Denver fan the consequences and lessons learned over the last three years of trying to replicate that model.
So while you can’t carbon copy every Super Bowl team and declare that a winning formula, there are trends and learnings from every team that makes the Super Bowl that is worth considering.
Here are three things I see from the Rams and Patriots this year that Denver should try to emulate.
Anyone who watched last night’s back and forth battle and didn’t come away impressed with the coaching cat and mouse game was watching a different game. The job both of these coaching staffs have done this year has been incredible as both McVay and Belichick are constantly adapting and evolving within the season and tailoring their gameplans to their opponents.
Wade Phillips came out swinging and absolutely befuddled Tom Brady early in the first half, causing an interception when Brady misread zone, thinking it was man coverage.
Additionally, he added a wrinkle in the Rams coverage of running backs that effectively shut down the Patriots potent passing game to the backs by having a defensive end check the backs out of the backfield and cut off the quick flat passes, even when the defense showed man coverage from an off-ball linebacker or corner
Bill Belichick and Brian Flores countered the Rams 11 personnel running game by playing a 5-1 sub front, which disrupted their wide zone running attack, and constantly sent pressure packages at Jared Goff to disrupt his rhythm all night.
Super Bowl LIII Review .... what happened? It was a great chess amtch … what were the defensive GAMEPLANS and how did the @patriots and @la_rams offenses ADJUST at HALFTIME, 3rd and 4th QUARTERS. Watch for the coaching analysis. https://t.co/o1GtWRZsJb via @YouTube— Paul Alexander (@CoachPaulAlex) February 4, 2019
That’s just a few examples from last night’s game, but both teams and coaching staffs have been brilliant all year.
FLOCK: you are watching brilliance. PATS first half losing LOS Brady pressured etc. So 1/2 time adj is old fashioned 21 personnel for hammer runs/max pros to retake the LOS. Now the 4th with LOS controlled, Brady has time to throw. A masterful job of adjusting the game plan!— Paul Alexander (@CoachPaulAlex) February 4, 2019
This holds true from last year’s Super Bowl teams as well. Doug Pederson and his staff did a masterful job at scheming their way to a championship over New England.
This is one area Denver has lacked for several years. When have the Broncos walked into a game against a top team, and we as fans have felt that we had the superior coaching staff? Or even the coaching staff needed to compete?
The addition of Vic Fangio and what he is building here looks to be getting Denver into that mode of playing fundamentally sound, out-executing, and out-scheming opponents. So I’m in eager “wait and see” mode on this one for Denver.
I was going to just put quarterback here, because aside from a few fluke exceptions over the years, a team cannot expect to consistently compete for championships without a franchise quarterback in tow. Heck, just a quick glance at the playoff field this year was rife with either up and coming first round picks, or veteran stalwarts who will likely be in the Hall of Fame in the future.
But, I believe we have also seen that it is not enough to just have a great quarterback, and sometimes, you can push the boundaries of the “franchise quarterback” definition with the right combo of the above.
One could argue that Jared Goff on his own is still a green/growing (albeit talented) player who would fail on a lesser team or under a lesser coaching staff. But, because Sean McVay has built the offense around Goff’s strengths and built the offense where it is a tailored system for Goff, he has been successful. The same can be said for Nick Foles this year and last year as the Eagles backup quarterback led his team to a Super Bowl with the right coaching in place. Case Keenum’s 2017 season could probably fall into that bucket too, as he had his team on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth by playing within the right system designed to highlight his strengths, and minimize his weaknesses.
Now, the reason I didn’t just have this as an extension of the coaching point, is because I truly believe it’s a combo of the two. Even a great coaching staff can make a, say, Nick Mullens, look good for awhile, but at some point, a team has to have a quarterback who can create plays, and provide something unique and special to the position.
This is why you are seeing the Eagles move on from Nick Foles for Carson Wentz, the Chiefs choosing Mahomes over Alex Smith, and the Vikings choosing the much more expensive Kirk Cousins over Case Keenum. The NFL understands that coaching, while playing a critical role in a QB’s success, can’t be a direct replacement for talent, and can only extend a limited QB’s ceiling so far.
On the flip side, one need not look further than Baker Mayfield, Aaron Rodgers, and Andrew Luck this year to see the impact of the right coaching/QB combo on the success of the quarterback and ultimately the team.
This one is a pretty big question mark for Denver as their quarterback situation is so uncertain, currently. However, it does seem like they are taking the necessary steps, with the hiring of Rich Scangarello and T.C. McCartney, to build around the quarterback, whether that ends up being Case Keenum, a draft pick, or someone else.
It’s not a coincidence that the two teams who made the big dance also had their offensive lines clicking on all cylinders come playoff time, and were two of the best units all year.
The Rams offensive line won the NFL award for best Oline, at the end of year awards, and paved the way for Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson to have tremendous success on the ground.
The Rams rank #1 in the league in adjusted line yards, which is a metric by Football Outsiders that attempts to give credit to the offensive line for some of the yards that a running back gains, based on a variety of factors. While not perfect, it does provide a good picture of who’s offensive lines are doing work in the running game. The Patriots rank #3 in this metric.
The @Patriots offensive line played a key role in their postseason run.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 4, 2019
The Chargers, Chiefs and Rams all had their lowest pressure percentages of the season against the Patriots in the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/QpKOjszmlD
New England’s offensive line in particular has been impressive providing protection for Brady, and opening up an old school ground and pound game featuring Sony Michel.
Patriots guard Joe Thuney had the lowest blown block rate for guards during the regular season.— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) February 1, 2019
Center David Andrews had the 4th-lowest rate at that position.
Guard Shaq Mason ranked 5th-lowest among guards.
It was the offensive line of the Patriot’s who really sealed the victory last night as the Rams could not get the stops in the running game when needed.
Additionally, last season’s Super Bowl winning Eagles team featured the best tackle combo in the league with Jason Peters and Lane Johnson.
I’m encouraged with Denver hiring Mike Munchak and Chris Kuper to hopefully turn the Broncos historical offensive line woes around. This is another one in “wait and see” mode, but seems to be trending in the right direction. A few key additions on the offensive line this offseason would go a long way to solidifying one of the longest standing Achilles heels of the team.
Lastly, is both teams use of, and success in, the play action passing game.
Offenses running the most/least PLAY ACTION this year in the NFL.#LARams #FlyEaglesFly #GoPats #ChiefsKingdom #InBrotherhood #RavensFlock #KeepPounding #SeizeTheDEY #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/VXQJPLCxfl— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) December 19, 2018
Both New England and Los Angeles were in the top 3 in not only usage of play action, but also in yards per play when using play action.
There has been a lot of analysis done on the link between a successful running game and the play action pass game, with the results suggesting that you don’t really need a successful running game to sell the play action, and that teams aren’t using play action nearly enough, based on how consistently successful it is.
Play-action passes have been a staple of Super Bowl strategy since the game began. But no one has ever embraced them quite like these Rams. I wrote about how Sean McVay’s offense was shaped by 50 years of play-action — and how he’s pushing its very limits. https://t.co/wxc77BIhfM— Robert Mays (@robertmays) February 1, 2019
Several people much smarter than me have written in-depth on this topic so check out some of the links above.
It’s no coincidence, however, that some of the top offenses in the league were the teams who employed play action passing the most.
Case Keenum was also fairly successful off of play action passes both in Minnesota, and in Denver, However, the Broncos underutilized the play action passing game, especially early in the season.
Broncos QB Case Keenum already has a TD pass on play action today.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 19, 2018
Find out just how good he’s been on play action compared to standard dropbacks this season below. ⬇️⬇️⬇️https://t.co/rSGewfNq1z
Pro Football Focus had a couple of very telling graphics from the article above that paint the picture of Keenum’s success off of play action, and how Denver for some reason did not cater to that, especially early on.
By the end of the season, Denver’s play action percentage climbed, but the concepts were still underutilized, overall.
Fortunately, the Kyle Shanahan offense that offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello trained under utilizes play action passing concepts at some of the highest rates in the league, with San Fransisco ranking top five in the NFL in yards per play off of play action.
So, I would expect to see this increase for Denver and become a staple of the offense in 2019.
Looking at all of these points, it is easy to see why fans are excited about the new coaching staff, because each of these learnings from this year’s Super Bowl teams feel like they are being directly addressed by this year’s coaching hires, and the philosophy of the coaches hired.
Time will tell, but it feels like Denver is on the right track to emulating some of the best teams in the league to get back on top.
What else did you see from the top teams this year that you think could be a formula for success next year?