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NFL coaches are going to watch the 49ers and Rams offenses instead of the Patriots


Super Bowl LII - New England Patriots - Practice Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Mediocre NFL coaches are always interested in copying the “next hot thing” that innovative coaches are doing around the league in order to try and keep up with the trends. This, of course, ignores the fact that the innovative coaches are continuously innovating and will always be better than the coaches that are a few years behind in the times.

But, hey, mediocre teams stay mediocre for a reason.

And this year, coaches will be watching just two innovative offenses, according to Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit: the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams.

Sure. We can ignore the methodological questions of this 20-coach survey (what exactly was Benoit asking them?) and just focus on why the 49ers and the Rams are considered the next hot things and why coaches that are simply looking to borrow from other teams wouldn’t look at an offense that’s ranked in the top 5 in points every season since 2010 like, say, the New England Patriots.

The 49ers and Rams did have a lot of success in 2017, with head coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, respectively, considered to be the brightest young minds in the league. They transformed their teams from terrible to very good over the course of last year and the expectation is that they’ll go to new heights in 2018 with a more established and entrenched system.

Shanahan’s offensive acumen is a big reason why Patriots head coach Bill Belichick hand-picked the 49ers as a trade location for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the trade paid immediate dividends for San Francisco.

In the first 11 games of the year, before Garoppolo, the 49ers averaged 17.0 points per game. With Garoppolo, they shot up to 28.8 points per game and a five-game win streak. The 49ers ranked 9th in weighted DVOA, which emphasizes the improvements the offense made over the course of the year. It makes a lot of sense that coaches are interested in learning how the 49ers were able to turn their offense around so quickly and whether they can borrow any lessons beyond, “have a great quarterback to execute your offense.”

And the Rams are an easy explanation, too, with Coach of the Year Sean McVay calling plays for the #1 scoring team in the league and helping young quarterback Jared Goff to rebound after a lousy rookie season. McVay brought the Rams from 32nd in offensive DVOA in 2016 to 6th in 2017. That’s a change worth analyzing (although a simple answer is “don’t be Jeff Fisher”).

Not coincidentally, 2017 Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur served as quarterbacks coach under then-Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from 2015-16, while McVay was the tight ends coach for Washington under Mike Shanahan and alongside then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, so there’s definitely something connecting these two teams. (LaFleur is now offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans).

So there’s plenty of reason to watch the 49ers and the Rams. But what about the Patriots and their #1 ranked offense by both volume and efficiency metrics?

(The Rams scored more points overall, but they had six touchdowns on defense and special teams, so the Patriots offense scored more than the Rams did.)

Is there any offense in the league so chameleonic that they can go from a slot receiver-heavy offense to a tight-end focused playbook to a deep-ball specific strategy? There is no offense more innovative in their flexibility than the Patriots and that’s why they remain atop the league in offense year after year.

When teams got bigger on defense to stop the run in the LaDainian Tomlinson-era, the Patriots decided to get quicker to have slot receivers matched up against slower linebackers.

When defenses adjusted to have smaller nickel backs in the middle of the field, the Patriots again adjusted to have larger tight ends outsize their opponents.

And when defenses got more physical with press coverage after watching the Seattle Seahawks, the Patriots decided to hit some home runs by getting behind defenses with the deep ball.

Watching offenses for ideas is a fine strategy that the Patriots absolutely use for ideas and plays here-and-there. But the best offenses adjust for the greater trends around the league and restructure their entire offense to account for these changes. They’re watching the defenses.

The Patriots recently invested an unprecedented amount of capital (for Belichick) in the running back position because it’s an incredibly undervalued position and because linebackers are getting smaller to account for all of the passing that takes place. New England is going to try and run over defenses that are built to defend the pass.

Lanky cornerbacks that can press are still en vogue, while the safety position is super undervalued. Home run shots will still be available and the Patriots will highlight Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, and probably Phillip Dorsett with deep ball opportunities.

Teams can watch the 49ers or Rams and see how they’re running the ball with the same exact zones that Mike Shanahan ran in Denver and Washington, and how that feeds into the play-action pass. They can notice how both the 49ers and Rams use the same pre-snap motions that the Patriots popularized in order to determine whether the defense is in man-coverage or zone, and Patriot-esque route combinations to take advantage of the match-up.

Or they can watch opposing defenses and see how the Patriots, 49ers, and Rams are all built to take advantage of small defenses in the run game and press corners with top-flight deep ball receivers. The best coaches aren’t focusing on what other offenses are doing. They’re learning why they’re doing it so they can stay ahead of the curve.

Because in three years, the deep ball will probably be out of fashion again and defenses will be bigger up front to account for the rise of star running backs. You can be certain that the Patriots, 49ers and Rams will make the adjustments to bring back slot receivers or whatever makes the most sense.

And those mediocre coaches will still be mediocre.