NFL

Super Bowl LVI: Rams-Bengals clash will only heighten NFL's desire to capture 'incubator of football ideas'

By Sports Desk February 11, 2022

Consistent domination is difficult to achieve in the NFL. Not since the 1993 season have the same teams played in the Super Bowl in successive years and no team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2004 New England Patriots. Parity is one of the league's primary selling points but, while it largely retains a balance among clubs in terms of results on the field, there can be no doubt there is a scheme establishing dominion over the NFL.

Sunday's clash between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams will mark the third time in the last four seasons that an NFL campaign has come to end with a game featuring at least one team employing a version of the offense run by Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.

With McVay going up against his former assistant in Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, Super Bowl LVI will serve as a compelling illustration of the pre-eminence that offensive scheme enjoys, and this recent round of coaching hires also painted the same picture.

The Miami Dolphins hired Shanahan's offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, Mike McDaniel, to be their new head coach. Nathaniel Hackett, having worked as offensive coordinator in that offense under Matt LaFleur with the Green Bay Packers, was appointed as the Denver Broncos head coach. Kevin O'Connell, the Rams offensive coordinator, cannot officially be hired by the Minnesota Vikings until the Super Bowl is over, but that agreement has already been reached.

Those hires have taken the tally of offensive head coaches from the Shanahan-McVay tree to five. Robert Saleh was Shanahan's defensive coordinator in San Francisco until 2021, and he took Niners passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur with him when he was hired by the New York Jets. Brandon Staley got the Los Angeles Chargers job last year after one season revolutionising the Rams on defense for McVay.

The fingerprints of Shanahan and McVay are all over the NFL, and they will be overtly smudged over the Super Bowl. One offensive system having this level of influence over the league feels unprecedented, but is it? 

"If you look back at it, I assume if you did the actual lineage of it, the way that the league looked in the mid-90s, early 2000s, most of it probably comes enough from the Bill Walsh tree to say it's similar," Robert Mays, NFL writer for The Athletic, tells Stats Perform. 

"It starts fragmenting because even if you look at the genealogy of the Shanahan tree, it comes from the Bill Walsh tree, because you have Mike Shanahan coming from San Francisco, they combine it with the wide zone running scheme, so now even that DNA is still sort of similar, if you go back far enough it all comes from the same place, but no I can't remember anything like it in this modern era, the last 10 years or so, because there just hasn't been anything similar. There were a lot of the Seattle defensive guys on that side of the ball but it still wasn't as popular as it is right now."

So why is it so popular? The obvious answer is its success.

The 49ers (first), Rams (fourth), Bengals (seventh) and Packers (eighth) all finished the regular season in the top 10 in yards per play. All four were playing on Divisional Round weekend.

But it is more than just the offensive efficiency and the results that have made Shanahan, McVay and now LaFleur assistants attractive to teams looking to turn their fortunes around, it is also a combination of the scheme, the adaptability of the scheme and the willingness of the coaches to take a flexible approach.

"What you have to understand about why the Niners are successful, why Sean is successful, it's not because they run this offense, it's their understanding of defensive rules and how to manipulate them is what makes them really successful, they all just happen to come from the same place," Mays explains.

"I think the quarterback-friendly aspect of it is really important. How they attack the middle of the field, the play-action, I do think it's the easiest way to get the most out of a quarterback in a quarterback-centric league.

Speaking to the quarterback-friendly nature of the offense, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford threw to an open receiver on 82.5 per cent of his attempts, second behind Patrick Mahomes (85.5) among signal-callers with at least 200 pass attempts. Zach Wilson (79.5), playing in Mike LaFleur's offense, was 10th, and the likely departing 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was still above average on 79.1 per cent.  

It goes beyond the quarterback, though, with wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who played under Shanahan and Mike McDaniel during his time with the Cleveland Browns, enjoying personal experience of how they get the most out of the surrounding talent.

"The thing that anybody who played for Kyle, the Mikes and the LaFleur's and the McVay's, they figure out their offense around the players," Hawkins told Stats Perform. 

"It's traditional for coaches to say 'here's my system' and they're gonna get jobs off their system and they say 'this is my system, this is the way we run it, this is the kind of tight end we need, we need this quarterback to do these things, we need this guy to do this and if they're not these kind of guys I'm gonna go find people who will do what I say, my system bang, bang, bang'.

"Shanahan and those guys, they don't do it that way. They are, I don't want to say true coaches, but to me, they're the best version of it because they'll come into a place and say hey Hawk, you're limited here, but you do these things really, really, really well and although my last receiver might have been 6'4", 215 pounds, your skill set is this so we're going to change things around that fit your skill set and get the best out of you for the best version of our offense it can be.

"That's what you want as a player, you want your coaches to understand your skill set and maybe not ask the 5'7" guy to go make jump-ball catches in the red zone, it's not exactly what I do, it's not my thing, I like to be in space, let's find ways to get me in space and that's what they'll do.

"They'll cater it to their players, to their O-Line, to their running backs, to their outside guy, their inside guy, their tight end, as players you want coaches who are gonna tell you the truth and put you in the best position to win for your skill set. Don't try to fit a square peg into a round hole and those coaches, just by philosophy, do it better most guys in the league."

Agreeing with Hawkins' assessment, Mays adds: "It's interesting because it takes on different flavours, that's the most important thing, you have to understand how it is tailored to your personnel."

And, though Taylor, cut his teeth under McVay, the way he has tailored his Bengals offense to his personnel has made their attack markedly different from that of the Rams.

Burrow did not throw to an open receiver as often, doing so just 76.9 per cent of the time, but that is reflective of a more aggressive downfield passing game that has regularly relied on the ball-winning skills of Ja'Marr Chase and his quarterback's unerring accuracy.

This season, Burrow led the NFL by delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on 86.1 per cent of his pass attempts as his skill set meshed perfectly with a more ambitious passing game. No player produced more passing plays of more than 50 yards than Burrow with 12. Next on the list, Stafford, with 10.

"It's very different, it's much more spread out than you would see with Sean's offense, the Bengals are a spread team, they play in the shotgun, they have one of the widest formations on average in the entire NFL, they are not doing a lot of things that the Rams are doing," Mays says of the Bengals' attack.

"I think it's really tailored to, this is what we are, we have a true X receiver on the outside, we honestly have two because of what Tee Higgins is, we don't need to worry about all those bunches and stacks and things like that, and they run very little play-action, you think about the fact that Zac was under Sean in 2018 when the Rams were running play-action 38 per cent of the time or whatever it was, and the Bengals are like under 20 with one of the lowest rates in the entire NFL."

Matt LaFleur weaponised the scheme in Green Bay via the brilliance of Aaron Rodgers, McVay has molded it around Stafford following the trade that sent Jared Goff to Detroit and moved away from play-action somewhat while Shanahan has leaned heavily on the run with the 49ers. McDaniel, O'Connell and Hackett will surely recreate the system to mesh with their respective talent pools and, ultimately, what owners and general managers are buying when they invest in an assistant from the McVay and Shanahan offense is not the scheme, but the ingenuity these coaches gain from their association with two of the most talented football minds of this generation.

"I think what people are searching for when they hire all these Sean assistants, aren't necessarily we want this offensive system, it's we want whatever environment comes with these guys from this place," Mays observes. "Brandon Staley's not an offensive coach and they still hired him to be the head coach.

"I think they're trying to capture whatever this kind of incubator of football ideas is, that I feel like is what they're trying to tap into as much as the actual Xs and Os of the offensive scheme."

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