Why you should care
The NFL needs an offensive shake-up. The Los Angeles Rams are causing an earthquake.
Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay is miked up during an August training camp practice, as he buzzes from player to player like a bee pollinating a flower garden, reciting jargon from his playbook with aplomb. “Hollywood Bunch! Hollywood Bunch!” McVay shouts, indicating one of the Rams’ oft-used bunch sets, which tightly group any combination of pass-catchers on one side of the field.
Then, he calls out something a little harder to decipher: “Trips Right Tight Yuc Pass 14 Wanda Man X Strike can it with 14 Wanda Man!”
Sound complicated? It is, but there’s a reason the 32-year-old coach is being hailed as a wunderkind. It’s thanks to plays like this, which took the NFL by storm last season, McVay’s first, and helped the Rams turn around from a 4-12 team to an 11-5 one in a mere four months. All this play means is that three eligible receivers are bunched together on the right side of the formation (Trips Right Tight), while the tight end goes in motion (Yuc) and the quarterback executes a play-action fake (Pass 14 Wanda Man). Thus, the whole thing starts off looking like a running play before morphing into a pass. The Rams found success running this exact play as their first of the game against the New Orleans Saints in 2017, resulting in a big 24-yard reception. Los Angeles won that game 26-20. Now, McVay’s offensive playbook — rooted in the West Coast offense that prioritizes passing over running — is drawing followers near and far, and is forcing others to adapt the way that receivers run routes and quarterbacks run their huddles across the NFL.
Is McVay the next target on the copycat tree? Probably.
Doug Farrar, NFL scout
McVay’s offense was honed during his days working under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay and Mike Shanahan in Washington. This year, the San Francisco 49ers will run a similar system to that of their division rivals under head coach Kyle Shanahan, who, like McVay, worked as an assistant for the elder Shanahan in Washington. The Tennessee Titans are installing a variation of this West Coast scheme in 2018, courtesy of new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. And given the NFL’s reputation as a copycat league, analysts expect other teams to pick up elements of the Rams’ playbook in 2018. After all, we’ve recently seen concepts such as the run-pass option, or RPO, explode as teams across the league borrow from one another.
“Is McVay the next target on the copycat tree? Probably,” says NFL scout Doug Farrar.
How does this play out in the team playbooks? Let’s start with McVay’s coaching peer and rival, Kyle Shanahan. Both coaches will employ a staple they learned in Washington — using play action to confuse defenses. Many of the Rams’ and the 49ers’ plays start out looking the same, only to morph into either a passing or running play and leave defenders scratching their heads. “It’s running a simple set of plays and dressing it up a million different ways,” explains NFL quarterback–turned–Pro Football Focus analyst Zac Robinson.
In San Francisco, Shanahan brought in former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon to play a similar role to running back Todd Gurley’s for the Rams. Gurley amassed 788 receiving yards for LA last season — rare for his position. The Niners suffered a setback just before the season when McKinnon tore his anterior cruciate ligament, but with the signing, Shanahan’s eventual hopes for his backfield became clear.
There’s no question some of those LA concepts have migrated to Tennessee this season. “Matt LaFleur has a history with McVay and both Shanahans,” Farrar points out. Indeed, LaFleur served as McVay’s offensive coordinator last year with the Rams; prior to that, he served as an assistant in Washington.
Even in the preseason, we’ve seen the similarities. There’s that outside zone running scheme at Tennessee to set up play action that makes run and pass plays look the same to start out, just as we’ve seen in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Tennessee’s pass-catching complement to Gurley and McKinnon? Dion Lewis, formerly of the New England Patriots, who joined the Titans this spring. All the ingredients are here.
These teams are emulating more than play calls; they’re emulating success. Rams quarterback Jared Goff totaled 1,446 passing yards off play action in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus; 930 of those came off the Rams’ signature two receiver stacks or three receiver bunches. Goff gained the most yardage of any quarterback off play action in the NFL last year, and other teams are taking note.
McVay’s innovations are expected to cause shock waves in the NFL beyond the teams already mentioned. Robinson pegs the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars as teams that could also look to add some elements of the Rams’ playbook to their systems. NFL teams will use the Rams as a blueprint for incorporating more college elements. “People love watching some of these college schemes because you can take elements from what they’re doing and implement them into your pro scheme,” says Robinson.
Specifically? Ramping up the tempo, for one. McVay does this by getting his offense to the line with plenty of time remaining on the play clock so he can communicate with his quarterback, Goff, through the headset in his helmet — and audible, if necessary. Other elements include misdirection, play action and jet sweep (when a player goes in motion heading toward the quarterback prior to the snap).
Back at practice, McVay is still buzzing. “If we get any off-man coverage and you threaten people like that, that’s uncoverable, man,” the coach gushes to receiver Brandin Cooks, one of the Rams’ shiny new weapons acquired in free agency this offseason.
Thanks to McVay’s offense, most of what the Rams run will prove uncoverable. And once teams stop smarting from getting defeated by this system, they’ll work on copying it.