NFL Study: Quantifying Offensive/Defensive Play-Calling

Something that is great about sports is how much of it can be quantified. We have plenty of metrics to evaluate players, and from there, can have a decent understanding of the value they provide for a team.

However, the games aren’t just won the players; they need to be put in a position to succeed. In fact, given the importance of offensive and defensive schemes, a great case can be made that football is the least independent major sport, at least compared to sports such as baseball and basketball.

Yet, it is incredibly difficult to quantify the value that coaches bring to a team, and most analysis on how the best play-callers are is entirely subjective. The leads to biases, which clouds our ability to analyze properly.

Thus, it makes sense to find a way to evaluate play-callers objectively. After conducting research, I have formulated play-caller metrics for both sides of the ball, which will be used in my projection models moving forward. As you’ll see, the importance of coaches cannot be overstated, and with seven teams hiring new coaches this offseason, now seems like an optimal time to find a way to analyze them. With more objective analysis, perhaps coaching hires could improve in efficiency, which will only help players perform better and put together an even more enjoyable product for fans.

So, what makes a good play-caller? How important are they? Who are the best/worst currently? Let us dive into the numbers!

*Data Taken From Past Three Seasons

How Important is Play-Calling Compared To Players?

At the end of the day, the players make the ultimate difference. However, it does not appear that coaches get enough credit for being a part of a successful organization.

On the offensive side, talent reigns supreme, but don’t discount the importance of a high-end offensive play-caller:

Talent certainly creates the baseline for a successful offense, but they can be dragged/elevated by strong coaching. The Vikings and Rams, for instance, finished as top-12 graded offenses, but rated worse than their grade. On the other side of the spectrum, the Ravens, Panthers, and Cardinals performed better than the grades would indicate.

Defensively, the results skew even more to quality coaching:

Now, this numbers are slightly misleading, since EPA/Play allowed is factored into the defensive play-calling metrics (and not in the offensive play-caller metrics), so overall, the “real” difference is probably with talent being around 1.5 times more important than coaching. Nevertheless, I do believe that the defensive coordinator has a greater effect on his unit than an offensive play-caller. Does that mean that defensive coaches are valuable? No, as offense is much more predictive of team success than defensive success. However, this is yet another indicator that investing heavily in star defensive players isn’t optimal. Linebacker Cory Littleton, for instance, was one on the highest-graded linebackers from PFF heading into this season, but was one of the lowest-graded in his first season with the Raiders. With run defense and pass rush being able to somewhat schemed, I advise teams to invest in the secondary, but besides that, invest heavily in offensive talent.

What Makes a Good Play-Caller?

We often hear that running the ball wins games, yet that continues to prove to not be the case:

When the top-two teams in early-down pass rate in 2020 are the Chiefs and Bills, you generally should pass the ball. Passing the ball early not only leads to more efficient production on stable downs, but prevents obvious passing situations, which leads to more pressure from the opposing pass rush. Since more pressure leads to a less effective offense, you generally want to avoid, and that the numbers back that up:

This season, the top-ten teams in third down were the:

  1. Steelers
  2. Washington Football Team
  3. Chargers
  4. Rams
  5. Falcons
  6. Eagles
  7. Cowboys
  8. Bengals
  9. Broncos
  10. Ravens

Outside of the Ravens, who are incredibly aggressive on third downs and are an outlier in terms of typical pass rates due to the presence of Lamar Jackson, this is not a list you want to be a part of. Third-down production is rather unstable, and when you can’t hit on the right side of variance, you can be crushed offensively. Just ask the Steelers, who suffered a massive decline in offensive production as their third-down success faltered.

So, other than passing on early downs, what else can play-callers do to gain an edge. Play-action passes are a good start:

Play-action passes, which have been proven to be effective regardless if you are productive in the running game. This is a staple of a Kyle Shanahan-style offense, and as we’ve seen with quarterbacks such as Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Baker Mayfield, it can vastly improve a quarterback’s production. I can only imagine how Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson could perform with more of these high-percentage passes.

Also, as you’d expect, the ability to elevate an offense is also critical, and can help explain some other non-quantifiable measures, such as unpredictability, uniqueness, and sequencing.

On the defensive side of the ball, the public doesn’t have access to different coverage concepts, blitz rates, and other key schematic measures. Thus, play-callers are evaluated based on their ability to elevate a defense beyond what their grading profile suggests, as well as to just have the defense perform well entirely- talent matters less for defense than it does for offense.

Who Are The Best/Worst Play-Callers?

We’ve now gotten to my favorite part of creating this new metric: seeing who rates out well!

Top Offensive Play Callers Since 2018:

  1. Chiefs 2019
  2. Chiefs 2018
  3. Packers 2020
  4. Bills 2020
  5. Chiefs 2020
  6. Panthers 2018
  7. Bengals 2018
  8. Ravens 2019
  9. Titans 2020
  10. Cardinals 2019

HM: Ravens 2020

This checks out tremendously with reputation. Andy Reid, with his pass-heavy tendencies and play-action pass rates, has been ahead of the game for years, and it is no surprise that the Chiefs continue to produce at an elite level. Meanwhile, Matt LeFleur (Packers) and Brian Daboll (Bills) each saw their quarterbacks play much better than last year with a more aggressive offense, while the Ravens and Titans utilize plenty of play-action passes. There is a lot to be encouraged by here!

As for the worst:

  1. Jaguars 2018
  2. Bucs 2019
  3. Vikings 2018
  4. Washington Football Team 2020
  5. Lions 2019
  6. Lions 2018
  7. Jaguars 2019
  8. Jets 2019
  9. Jets 2018
  10. Colts 2018

HM: Giants 2019

With the Jaguars, Lions, and Jets on here multiple times (with different play-callers too!), there is a lot to like here. In fact, a majority of this list consistent of play-callers who currently aren’t on these teams anymore. For those wondering about Bruce Arians’ inclusion, his offense is ridiculously difficult to succeed in with so many low-percentage passes. Also, I’m more confident in Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner succeeding with a better quarterback who doesn’t constrain him, while Colts head coach Frank Reich has rated out much better in the past two seasons.

As for the defensive side of the ball, here are the top-ten play-callers since 2018:

  1. Patriots 2019
  2. Rams 2020
  3. Ravens 2019
  4. Bills 2019
  5. Bucs 2019
  6. Vikings 2018
  7. Dolphins 2020
  8. Steelers 2019
  9. Ravens 2020
  10. Washington Football Team 2020

HM: Steelers 2020

Similarly to offense, this aligns well with reputation. Bill Belichick was off-the-charts in 2019, Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley has already been hired as a head coach, and the rest of the list consists of well-regarded defensive coaches.

Even better, the worst play-callers also aligns with reputation:

  1. Bengals 2018
  2. Titans 2020
  3. Chiefs 2018
  4. Eagles 2018
  5. Lions 2020
  6. Falcons 2018
  7. Jaguars 2020
  8. Raiders 2018
  9. Panthers 2018
  10. Texans 2020

HM: Jets 2018

Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is the only coach to remain with his team right now, and this was his first year of calling plays- he may want to consider giving up those duties once again. Furthermore, half of this list consists of play-callers who were fired immediately after this season, meaning that the organizations certainly had a similar sentiment to my metrics.

What About The Recently-Hired Coaches?

As mentioned, there has been a lot coaching turnover, so what how do my metrics think organizations did in their hires? Here are some notes on every notable hire:

  • My metrics believe the Falcons won the coaching hire cycle in hiring Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith as their head coach. Smith has rated as an elite play-caller in his two seasons with the position, and even better, he hired Dean Pees as his defensive coordinator; Pees rated out very well with Tennessee before stepping down prior to the 2020 season.
  • The Chargers got one of the game’s elite defensive minds in Brandon Staley as head coach, and with their talent, they should be dominant against the pass. The offensive side of the ball is more murky, however, as they have benefitted from strong play-calling, and some recent quotes by new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi suggest a run-first mindset.
  • The Jets also got an elite defensive mind in 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Hiring a defensive-minded coach isn’t usually optimal, but he is bringing 49ers pass-game coordinator Mike LeFleur with him, which should mean a lot of play-action passes and avoiding third downs.
  • The Eagles hired Nick Siriani, despite being the offensive coordinator, did not call plays in Indianapolis, where they ranked adequate, but not great, in play-calling. On the bright side, they figure to run a similar defense to the Colts, who have had great success elevating their defense. Also, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen was tremendous for the Chargers this past season.
  • There is a lot to be skeptical about with the Lions hiring Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell, who appears to have an old-school mindset and doesn’t call plays on either side of the ball. With new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s run-heavy tendencies aligning with Campbell’s supposed beliefs, but new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was the secondary coach for a Saints defense that played a lot of two-deep safety concepts.
  • Urban Meyer is a college coaching legend, but it is unclear how he’ll do as the head coach of the Jaguars. Offensive coordinate Darren Bevell did not rate out well with the Lions, though hiring Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen is intriguing given the success and uniqueness of Baltimore’s defense.

Other hires:

  • Raheem Morris will take over as the Rams defensive coordinator, and there should be a notable drop-off from Brandon Staley.
  • Dan Quinn did not rate out well as head coach of the Falcons, but it is possibly he fares better with less responsibilities as the defensive coordinator of the Cowboys.
  • Gus Bradley was a pedestrian defensive coordinator for the Chargers, and I’m not sure he’ll be able to elevate a middling Raiders defense.
  • The Seahawks hired Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron, who could do well, but Brian Schottenheimer had an exceptional season calling plays in 2020.
  • The Steelers rightfully cut ties with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, but staying in-house with quarterbacks coach Matt Canada is interesting given the team’s offensive struggles avoiding third downs.
  • The Bears replaced defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano internally, which should keep continuity in place for a well-oiled machine.
  • The Dolphins have a tough hole to fill at offensive coordinator after a very strong performance by Chan Gailey, who has since resigned.

Other Notes:

  • In 2019, here is how the coaching hires performed:
  1. Washington did not perform well offensively but got tremendous results from their defensive play-calling, a clear nod to head coach Ron Rivera.
  2. The Browns’ defensive performance wasn’t great, but head coach Kevin Stefanski helped elevate Baker Mayfield with a lot of play-action passes.
  3. The Giants had average play-calling on both sides of the ball.
  4. Dallas’ offense did not rate out well from a play-calling standpoint, though it looks like their defense may have been more about their lack of talent than anything else.
  5. The Panthers got elite results from new offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who surprisingly wasn’t hired as a head coach, and their defensive play-calling was strong as well
  • Saints head coach Sean Payton hasn’t rated out great, but that changes if you just look at games excluding Drew Brees
  • With the Broncos, Vic Fangio’s defenses have actually underperformed based on their grades.
  • The Saints are trending upwards in defensive play-calling, which correlates with them playing more deep-safety sets.
  • The Ravens, Bills, Bucs, and Steelers, are amongst the game’s consistent elite defensive play-calling organizations.
  • Should Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury get more credit? He has rated out very well, and the same can be said about Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
  • Outside of 2019, Bill Belichick’s defenses in 2018 and 2020 weren’t impressive.
  • Vance Joseph was excellent as the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals in 2020.
  • I’m assuming Brian Daboll (BUF), Joe Brady (CAR), and Eric Bienemy (KC) will be head coaches next offseason given how well they rate in terms of offensive play-calling. Bienemy doesn’t call plays, but I’d expect that he carries over several of Andy Reid’s key principles.

Overview

Talent wins games, but don’t discount the effect coaching can have a team.

Particularly on the defensive side of the ball, what puts teams over the edge is the coaching staff’s ability to elevate their team’s performance beyond what their personnel should be capable of. An offense, that’s a pass-heavy mindset with a lot of play-action passes that leads to less third downs. Defense is hard to quantify, but I believe that being unique, scheming pressure, and not committing resources to defend the pass are what leads to strong play-calling.

I am excited to see this metric continue to evolve, and how new coordinators fare in 2021. We know now what teams can do to gain an edge, but what happens when more teams continue to realize this? The best part about sports is that they constantly evolve, and the ability to adapt and remain ahead of the curve. Really, at that seems to remain intact is the dominance of Andy Reid!

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