The NFL is facing an offensive playcalling crisis.
The 2019 season will feature fifteen teams with a different offensive playcaller than the one they started 2018 with. Only nine teams — the Patriots (Josh McDaniels), Texans (Bill O’Brien), Chiefs (Andy Reid), Chargers (Ken Whisenhunt), Eagles (Doug Pederson), Redskins (Jay Gruden), Saints (Sean Payton), Rams (Sean McVay), and 49ers (Kyle Shanahan) — have a playcaller that dates back past the start of the 2018 season in that capacity and only three teams — the Patriots (Josh McDaniels), Saints (Pete Carmichael), and Chargers (Ken Whisenhunt) — have an offensive coordinator that has been with their team for more than one season heading into 2019.
2019 Offensive Playcallers
|Adam Gase (HC)
|Zac Taylor (HC)
|Freddie Kitchens (HC)
|Bill O'Brien (HC)
|Frank Reich (HC)
|Andy Reid (HC)
|Jon Gruden (HC)
|Pat Shurmur (HC)
|Doug Pederson (HC)
|Jay Gruden (HC)
|Matt Nagy (HC)
|Matt LaFleur (HC)
|Sean Payton (HC)
|Kliff Kingsbury (HC)
|Sean McVay (HC)
|Kyle Shanahan (HC)
The reason for this overwhelming amount of turnover is obvious: the McVay Effect. The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote a great piece about the new generation of head coaches that have been hired over the past two years as teams search for their own version of the Rams wunderkind playcalling head coach. Young, offensive-minded coaches like Zac Taylor, Kliff Kingsbury, and former Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur are being snatched up for head coaching jobs despite having little to no track record of playcalling success at the NFL level simply because teams think they might be able to catch lightning in a bottle like LA did.
The recent returns for this formula have mostly been good. Last season, offensive playcalling head coaches were largely more successful than their non-playcalling or defensive playcalling counterparts, combining for a record of 113-94-1 and produced seven of the league’s twelve playoff teams, including three of the four conference championship participants.
The league now features sixteen head coaches who will call plays for their offense on game days, a number that’s up from the thirteen who did it in 2018. That compares with just two — Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick — who will be handling those responsibilities on the defensive side of the ball this season (Bills head coach Sean McDermott has also called his own defense at times in Buffalo, but mostly relies on his defensive coordinator).
The reason that these numbers are so out of balance is primarily driven by two things. First, offensive performance drives success in the modern NFL. Yes, you can still win with an elite defense and a good enough offense — as the 2015 Broncos proved — but that model is largely unsustainable over long stretches of time due to the larger variance in defensive performance for a given team from year to year compared to that of an offense.
The second big driver is the fact that the bond between an offensive playcaller and a quarterback is the most important relationship in an NFL organization, as Colts head coach Frank Reich pointed out in the aforementioned piece from Robert Mays.
“The answer is obvious—it’s just not easy,” Reich says of finding a play-caller who can shepherd a QB’s career. “You want that synergy, you want that chemistry, and it can develop. But why not get out of in front of it in the hiring process and [pair] two guys that you know are going to have a connection?”
If your team’s offensive playcaller isn’t the head coach, that critical relationship is at constant risk of disruption as the Titans found out this offseason, which means the only way to protect the quarterback-playcaller bond is to make sure your playcaller is your head coach.
However, I can’t help but think that there are some speed bumps ahead on the playcalling head coach superhighway. For one, there are only so many elite offensive minds available to begin with and there are even fewer that can balance the responsibilities of a head coach with staying a step ahead of opposing defenses.
Take this example of outstanding in-game coaching from the Patriots 2017 win over the Texans. As the video below illustrates, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was able to spot a conversation between Houston DBs Johnathan Joseph and Andre Hal on the field following a pass completion about how to change up their coverage if they see that look again. McDaniels anticipated the change that the Texans were going to make to their coverage and tweaked his play to take advantage of it, resulting in a long touchdown pass to Chris Hogan.
I can’t help but wonder if McDaniels would be able to have the presence to catch that interaction if he was worried about game situation, timeouts, whether or not to challenge a call, and all the other game management responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of a head coach.
The most successful playcalling head coaches have typically hired veteran defensive coordinators to give complete authority to and free them up to just worry about the offense. Sean McVay has Wade Phillips, Doug Pederson has Jim Schwartz, and Sean Payton has Dennis Allen, but there are only so many of those guys to go around.
Even if you are able to latch onto an experienced defensive guru to pair with your offensive-minded head coach, there still plenty of other tasks that go along with being in charge as Doug Pederson outlined in this piece from Eric Williams of ESPN.
“The biggest challenge is just getting your own study time in because of all the other things you have to do,” Pederson said at the NFL combine in February. “Leading the football team, meeting with doctors, meeting with [GM] Howie [Roseman], the personnel department. Meeting with the [team] president, meeting with the owner.
”Those are things that can take away your time during the week, and it’s just finding time to get your own study and preparation in and being in a position to help your team. That’s the one thing that if I ever get nervous about a game, it’s, ‘How well did I study during the week?’ I think that’s the biggest challenge for a head coach who calls plays, is being able to do that for his football team.”
All of those obligations add up over the course of the week and if your goal is to maximize the offensive playcaller’s time to focus on things that makes his unit better on game day, I can’t imagine how having that person’s time split between a traditional offensive coordinator’s role and the head coach’s role is advantageous.
Obviously, there are some who can do it. Sean Payton, Andy Reid, Doug Pederson, and Sean McVay have all won or appeared in Super Bowls while juggling both roles in recent years. However, there have been some “can’t miss” offensive gurus who have struggled when put in the big chair. Guys like Adam Gase, Kyle Shanahan, and Josh McDaniels were all once considered to be among the best offensive minds in the game, but have either struggled (Shanahan) or outright failed (Gase and McDaniels) as playcalling head coaches. Going back further, you have examples like Marty Mornhinweg, Todd Haley, Kevin Gilbride, Cam Cameron, Bill Callahan, and Norv Turner.
A little closer to home, many Titans fans remember the joy of “winning” the 2014 head coaching cycle by beating the Lions in the race to hire Ken Whisenhunt. The “Whiz” failed spectacularly in Tennessee, going 3-20 before getting canned in the middle of his second season. His failure as a head coach doesn’t mean that he’s a bad offensive coordinator though. Since returning to that role with the Chargers, he’s called plays for an offense that has ranked in the top ten in the NFL two of three years with the worst season seeing them check in at 13th.
Obviously, there were some personnel challenges during his tenure with the Titans — go back and look at those 2014 and 2015 rosters... woof — but this has generally been the theme throughout Whisenhunt’s entire coaching career. In seven years as an offensive coordinator for the Steelers and Chargers, he’s led offenses have averaged a ranking of 10th in the NFL in scoring, finishing in in the top ten in three of those seasons. In eight years as head coach of the Cardinals and Titans, his offenses have averaged a ranking of 20th in scoring, finishing in the bottom ten in five of those seasons.
Not every offensive genius can automatically be McVay or Reid or Payton or Pederson, but it seems that NFL franchises are content to continue throwing opportunities at anyone who has ever been considered one. As long as that remains the case, holding onto successful offensive coordinators is going to be difficult for franchises who prefer the more traditional “CEO head coach” type set up. The Titans just had an unsuccessful offensive coordinator get plucked by one of the top franchises in the league simply because he’s young and spent time basking in the glow of McVay.
This kind of turnover is bad for the NFL. Pro offenses are complex and often require up to 18 months to master, as former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky told the Midday 180 here before last season.
If that’s true, that means that half the league will be working at something less than their full offensive capabilities this season.
So where does the league go from here? It seems less than ideal that the two options available for teams hiring head coaches right now is to hire an offensive playcalling coach and hope that they are one of the very very few humans on earth capable of being a genius playcaller while also juggling all the other responsibilities of being a head coach OR hire a CEO-type head coach and deal with a constant churn of offensive coordinators leaving for head coaching jobs.
Are we headed towards a future where every head coach is always an offensive playcaller? Is there a way that franchises could protect themselves from constantly getting offensive coordinators poached by other teams with more money, bigger job title (co-head coach?), or requiring a “two-year pledge” similar to the one that Urban Meyer was famous for at Ohio State?
I’m not sure what the answers are, but those are important questions for the league moving forward and they’re a few that the Titans have to be pondering as a franchise that recently hired a defensive-minded head coach and promptly lost their offensive coordinator. If Arthur Smith knocks it out of the park this season, you better believe that NFL teams are going to come calling about the 37-year old first time playcaller. How will the Titans react if that becomes reality?