As the NFL draft approached this past offseason, Chicago Bears General Manager Ryan Pace sneaked downstairs to Coach Matt Nagy’s office late one night. Eyes glued to a screen, Nagy examined the route-running and athletic traits of a wide receiver prospect, scribbling his evaluation in a notepad. That was standard. Pace also noticed a second notepad, which was not. Each time Nagy saw a play he liked, he jotted down a reminder in the second notebook to go back for further study, with the aim of incorporating it into the Bears’ playbook.
“I love that,” Pace said. “I just think that that progressive style of thinking is what you need to stay ahead in the league.”
If the summer is any indication, uproar over issues pertaining to the national anthem and new helmet-contact rules will dominate conversation this NFL season. For an idea of what will define the season on the field, start with Nagy’s second notebook.
The Bears’ hiring of the 40-year-old Nagy, along with his creative outlook, provides a window into the direction the NFL is headed. For years, the league has been a place where coaches hopped in lateral cycles and the upward flow of creative offensive schemes stopped at the college level, with most teams running similar, risk-averse offenses and innovation taking root slowly.
But more than ever, franchises have started to embrace new ideas and hunt for coaches willing to implement them. The offseason suggests a trend that began last season will accelerate this year. It’s hard to say what NFL football will look like this season because teams are increasingly willing to challenge convention and try — or steal from college — new plays.
The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback last year, in part, because second-year Coach Doug Pederson built an offense reliant on concepts borrowed from the college game. The Los Angeles Rams morphed from a plodding exemplar of mediocrity to a thrilling division winner in the mold of then-31-year-old first-year Coach Sean McVay, whose up-tempo offense helped Jared Goff evolve from a potential bust into a likely franchise quarterback.
The rest of the league took notice. Of the seven new head coaches hired, five had never held the title before. Three — Nagy, Matt Patricia (Lions) and Mike Vrabel (Titans) — are 43 years old or younger. The NFL has not wholly changed into a freewheeling place — the Raiders pulled Jon Gruden out of the broadcast booth — but a league that for so long was set in its on-field ways is now prioritizing creativity.
“It feels good when . . . you’re the creative team,” Pace said. “You’re the aggressive team. You’re the team that’s going to be dictating things. That’s obviously a good feeling. When you talk about the young coaches in our league, our league is constantly changing and evolving, in some cases maybe even cycling. That innovation is important.”
As new ideas flood the NFL, the league appears primed for an offensive explosion. The Super Bowl last year may have provided a preview. The New England Patriots, always innovative under Bill Belichick, scored 33 points. They still lost as Pederson’s attack scored 41, gashing the Patriots with run-pass option plays that have become a staple of college offense.
“The Chiefs last year came in, and all of a sudden they’re running some stuff that North Dakota State was running,” former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current CBS analyst Tony Romo said. “And they brought some stuff back from Utah that Alex Smith had back then, and it was really beneficial because teams didn’t have tape on it. They didn’t know how to defend it. They didn’t know the rules against it. Then they figure part of it out, and then it’s time to adjust again. The National Football League is nothing more than continually adjusting and giving your players a small advantage.”
Rule changes benefiting offense have allowed more room for creativity, placing an emphasis on offensive systems that create space for receivers who don’t feel threatened by crushing hits, catching passes from quarterbacks who are protected from many blows. The new helmet-contact rule figures to shift the balance toward offense further.
“The more athletes you have on the field, it’s all set up to make plays,” CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said. “It’s all about big plays.”
As the league has made it easier to attack defenses, technology has made it easier for ideas to spread. The ease with which coaches can find and watch game film to seek innovative concepts or plays has enabled the wider incorporation of ideas.
“I just think now with the ability to study the game, the video is so much easier to take a look at now than 10, 15 years ago,” former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan said. “You had to work the whole offseason just to study what the other team was doing. Now you can get it very quickly, in five minutes. If you want to learn more, it’s out there.”
Fresh ideas typically come from fresh faces, and last season started a move toward younger coaches. Kyle Shanahan, who helped usher run-pass option plays and the zone read into the NFL as Robert Griffin III’s offensive coordinator in Washington, took over in San Francisco last year at age 37. The Rams went a step further, making McVay the youngest head coach in the league’s modern era.
Rams General Manager Les Snead took age out of the equation when he first evaluated McVay and came to an analytical conclusion that McVay’s offenses were elite. He contacted McVay’s former players, who told him McVay had no problem commanding a room despite his youth. He interviewed McVay for five hours, then continued the discussion over dinner. Snead decided he had found his coach, no matter McVay’s age.
“You read about some of the titans of our planet,” Snead said. “Maybe it’s no longer the Lee Iacoccas, but it’s . . . some of those guys who are in their 30s or late 20s. They’re just good at what they do.”
It’s telling that most of the NFL’s youngest head coaches have offensive backgrounds. Pace, incidentally the league’s youngest general manager at 37 when he was hired in 2015, came up as an executive with the New Orleans Saints. He saw the power of the quarterback-head coach bond between Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
Pace wanted to give the same thing to 2017 second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky: a coach the quarterback could grow with. He recognized that hiring an offensive coordinator for the task would be impossible, with so many teams looking for the next McVay or Shanahan.
“You can’t break that partnership,” Pace said. “If you have a good offensive mind, he’s going to get hired out of here in two seconds. Now you’re starting over on offense.”
The effect McVay had on Goff provided a blueprint for other teams with young quarterbacks. Goff appeared to be a bust in 2016, losing all seven starts under then-coach Jeff Fisher, a poster child for conservative NFL coaches. McVay installed a fast-paced, spread system built around Goff’s strengths, and Goff became one of the most promising passers in football.
In Chicago, Trubisky could follow suit after a rookie season played under John Fox. Pace, who made another bold move this weekend when he agreed to trade two first-round picks to Oakland for star edge rusher Khalil Mack and then signed Mack to a contract extension that made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, believes he found the perfect fit in Nagy, who learned under Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid and possesses an eagerness for experimentation.
“A big influence on me was the Sean Payton-Drew Brees connection, how long they’ve been together and what that’s accomplished,” Pace said. “They just look at each other and they know what to do. Now we could expand to McVay and Goff, [Green Bay’s Mike] McCarthy and [Aaron] Rodgers, Pederson and [Carson] Wentz, [Kyle] Shanahan and [Jimmy] Garoppolo. It can be powerful if you get the right person, and then, oh, by the way, he happens to be a young, innovative, outside-the-box thinker as a head coach.”
Even though he had never worked with former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, Nagy hired him as his offensive coordinator. Nagy’s willingness to look to college football for inspiration fits where the league is headed.
NFL teams have recognized the best way for young players, especially young quarterbacks, to succeed is to put them in systems with which they are familiar. Arkansas Coach Chad Morris, an early innovator of the RPO, said several NFL teams have called to pick his brain. In Tampa Bay, Todd Monken, a former offensive coordinator for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State who last served as a head coach at Southern Mississippi, will call the plays. The Buffalo Bills hired offensive coordinator Brian Daboll after he spent a season at Alabama under Nick Saban.
“The NFL has the greatest farm system in the world,” Vrabel said when he was hired. “We pay [college coaches] $10 million to be our farm system. Nick Saban is our farm system. Urban Meyer is our farm system. That’s where the game is at. You have to try to be creative with what you’re doing. You have to cause conflict. That’s what college coaches are doing. They’re taking great athletes and putting them in good positions to succeed.”
For so long resistant to college-style offensive ideas, NFL teams have started to embrace them. They will be everywhere this season, starting with the notebook in Nagy’s office.
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