How Play-Calling Tendencies Affect Fantasy Football (2019)

How Play-Calling Tendencies Affect Fantasy Football (2019)

For the past few summers, I’ve released a series here at 4for4 examining playcallers on new teams and how they might impact fantasy football. Through that process, there has been one major recurring theme—the best players are going to command the most touches and most coaches are at least somewhat fluid in their tendencies. Like anything, there will be outliers—Greg Roman is going to run and Sean Payton is going to throw. Most coaches fall somewhere in the middle.

While the past playcaller profiles have offered some fantastic data, it’s often difficult to do a deep dive on a single coach while also putting his player usage or play-calling into the context of things such as wins and losses or league trends. In the hopes of giving 4for4 readers the most actionable and digestible content possible, I’ve decided this year to move away from that isolated analysis and move on to a study that gives a historical, zoomed-out view of all the current playcallers in the league, dating back to the 2006 season. This will allow us to compare tendencies side by side while focusing on the parts of the game where these decision-makers have the greatest impact. 

These situations include how coaches react to game script and whether they are taking advantage of opportunities to maximize efficiency—trends such as deep-ball rate and pass/run splits in short-yardage situations directly impact the upside and drive sustainability of an offense.

Throughout this analysis, I will specify any notable tendencies of playcallers on new teams as well as which coaches stand out overall in each category. For most of this project, I focused on where a coach ranked in each category rather than actual play or usage rates. The reason for this was to keep everything in context—Jon Gruden, for example, gave his running backs 62.4% of his team’s touches in 2008, a number that ranked 15th in the league; last season Raiders’ backs accounted for 59.2% of touches but that was a touch share that ranked in the top third of all teams. Also, note that I did my best to select only those seasons where a coach was actually the playcaller. Kyle Shanahan, for instance, served as the OC in Washington for multiple seasons but his father Mike called plays there.

Once we go through each situation, I will highlight any major takeaways for new playcallers that will be on the headset for the first time in their career. 

Before we get into it, let’s take a look at the current coaching staffs across the league. The coaches whose names are bold are expected to be the primary playcaller. Those marked with an asterisk are new to their team with previous play-calling experience at the NFL level. Coaches with two asterisks will be calling plays for the first time in the pros.

2019 NFL Head Coaches and Offensive Coordinators
Team Head Coach Hired Offensive Coordinator Hired
Arizona Cardinals Kliff Kingsbury** 2019 Tom Clements 2019
Atlanta Falcons Dan Quinn 2015 Dirk Koetter* 2019
Baltimore Ravens John Harbaugh 2008 Greg Roman* 2019
Buffalo Bills Sean McDermott 2017 Brian Daboll 2018
Carolina Panthers Ron Rivera 2011 Norv Turner 2018
Chicago Bears Matt Nagy 2018 Mark Helfrich 2018
Cincinnati Bengals Zac Taylor** 2019 Brian Callahan 2019
Cleveland Browns Freddie Kitchens 2019 Todd Monken 2019
Dallas Cowboys Jason Garrett 2010 Kellen Moore 2019
Denver Broncos Vic Fangio 2019 Rich Scangarello** 2019
Detroit Lions Matt Patricia 2018 Darrell Bevell* 2019
Green Bay Packers Matt LaFleur* 2019 Nathaniel Hackett 2019
Houston Texans Bill O'Brien 2014 Tim Kelly 2019
Indianapolis Colts Frank Reich 2018 Nick Sirianni 2018
Jacksonville Jaguars Doug Marrone 2017 John DeFilippo 2019
Kansas City Chiefs Andy Reid 2013 Eric Bieniemy 2018
Los Angeles Chargers Anthony Lynn 2017 Ken Whisenhunt 2016
Los Angeles Rams Sean McVay 2017 Aaron Kromer/Shane Waldron 2018
Miami Dolphins Brian Flores 2019 Chad O'Shea** 2019
Minnesota Vikings Mike Zimmer 2014 Kevin Stefanski** 2018
New England Patriots Bill Belichick 2000 Josh McDaniels 2012
New Orleans Saints Sean Payton 2006 Pete Carmichael Jr. 2009
New York Giants Pat Shurmur 2018 Mike Shula 2018
New York Jets Adam Gase* 2019 Dowell Loggains 2019
Oakland Raiders Jon Gruden 2018 Greg Olson 2018
Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson 2016 Mike Groh 2018
Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin 2007 Randy Fichtner 2018
San Francisco 49ers Kyle Shanahan 2017 Kyle Shanahan 2017
Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll 2010 Brian Schottenheimer 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Bruce Arians 2019 Byron Leftwich 2019
Tennessee Titans Mike Vrabel 2018 Arthur Smith** 2019
Washington Redskins Jay Gruden 2014 Kevin O'Connell 2019

Passing Rates in Neutral Game Script

One of the first questions asked about playcallers in the NFL is whether they favor the pass or the run. While this question is often well-intentioned, the answer can be deceptive if game script isn’t taken into account. Consider the 2017 Browns—Cleveland passed 60% of the time that season but they ran 74% of their plays while trailing. If we filter for neutral situations—when the game was within a single score—the Browns were one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, rushing on just over 50% of neutral plays.

By looking at neutral play splits, we can get an idea of how a playcaller truly wants to run their offense:

Playcaller's Passing Rates in Neutral Game Script (Ranking), 2006–2018

All numbers for Freddie Kitchens are only for weeks 9–17 of last season. 

Takeaways

While Sean Payton has been among the most consistent pass-heavy playcallers in neutral game script, 2018 marked the second year in a row that his team finished outside the top 10 in that category. An aging Drew Brees and the lack of a reliable number two after Michael Thomas has contributed to this recent trend. The upgrade from Ben Watson to Jared Cook at tight end might get the Saints closer to their 2017 status than 2018, but don’t expect New Orleans to chuck it all over the field like in years past.

Although Doug Marrone—one of the most run-heavy coaches in the league—is listed here as the primary playcaller for the Jaguars, it should be noted that he hired John DeFilippo as his new offensive coordinator. In two seasons as a primary playcaller, DeFilippo’s offenses have both ranked in the top-10 in neutral passing rate. With a new quarterback in Nick Foles, this could be a sign of Jacksonville trending more towards the pass than a typical Marrone offense. 

In their first years as primary playcallers, Randy Fichtner and Frank Reich ranked tops in the league in neutral passing rate. While this might seem obvious for an Andrew Luck-led offense, Indianapolis hasn’t ranked this high in neutral passing rate since 2010. Pittsburgh jumped from an average 60% neutral passing rate in 2015–2017 to a whopping 65.4% in 2018, the second-highest rate of any team dating back to ‘06. While it might seem obvious to throw more without one of the best running backs in the league and a breakout season from JuJu Smith-Schuster, some close to the organization believe it had more to do with Ben Roethlisberger's influence over the inexperienced Fichtner. With Antonio Brown no longer in the fold, it will be important to assess preseason tendencies when evaluating this offense’s potential play splits.

New Playcallers

It’s somewhat common knowledge by now that Greg Roman and Brian Daboll are team #establishtherun but it might be a surprise that Matt LaFleur’s Titans ranked 30th in neutral passing rate since LaFleur studied under Sean McVay with the Rams. Green Bay ranked third in neutral passing rate in 2018 and dead last in total running back touches. If the theory holds true that most coaches default to their stars, then we should give LaFleur a mulligan on last season.

After ranking in the top six in neutral passing rate in 2016 and 2017, the Lions dropped to 17th last season. Although Jim Bob Cooter was still the OC in 2018, it was likely head coach Matt Patricia forcing the run. Patricia doubled down this offseason, bringing on Darrell Bevell, who has traditionally been one of the most run-heavy coaches in the league, save a couple of standout seasons from Russell Wilson

After a four-year hiatus from Atlanta, Dirk Koetter is returning as the Falcons’ playcaller. While his splits have been all over the board, Koetter’s Buccaneers aired it out the last two seasons and in his three years with Matt Ryan, Atlanta never ranked lower than second in neutral passing rate.

Game Script Sensitivity

Most fantasy football enthusiasts are aware that game script directly impacts player volume—teams that are winning will run to protect the lead and losing teams are forced to pass to catch up. This is valuable information for any league format but not all coaches react similarly to game script. Combined with neutral passing rates, we can get an idea of not only what a coaches’ general plan is, but how they will typically adjust that plan.

Playcaller's Passing Rates in Positive vs Negative Game Script, 2006–2018
Coach Team Pass % Up 8+ Points Pass % Down 8+ Points Difference
Brian Daboll Buffalo Bills 23.2% 65.5% 42.3%
Jon Gruden Oakland Raiders 33.3% 72.1% 38.8%
Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys 34.8% 71.1% 36.3%
Freddie Kitchens Cleveland Browns 41.3% 77.4% 36.0%
Frank Reich Indianapolis Colts 36.4% 72.3% 35.8%
Norv Turner Carolina Panthers 37.4% 72.1% 34.7%
Matt Nagy Chicago Bears 44.4% 77.4% 33.1%
Brian Schottenheimer Seattle Seahawks 33.5% 64.9% 31.4%
Ken Whisenhunt Los Angeles Chargers 42.0% 73.3% 31.3%
Adam Gase New York Jets 40.1% 71.3% 31.3%
Randy Fichtner Pittsburgh Steelers 57.1% 87.1% 29.9%
Greg Roman Baltimore Ravens 37.1% 65.3% 28.2%
Darrell Bevell Detroit Lions 38.2% 65.9% 27.7%
Doug Marrone Jacksonville Jaguars 43.6% 71.1% 27.4%
Bruce Arians Tampa Bay Buccaneers 43.1% 69.9% 26.9%
Doug Pederson Philadelphia Eagles 42.5% 69.1% 26.5%
Matt LaFleur Green Bay Packers 37.5% 63.6% 26.1%
Sean McVay Los Angeles Rams 43.3% 68.8% 25.5%
Jay Gruden Washington Redskins 45.4% 70.8% 25.4%
Kyle Shanahan San Francisco 49ers 40.5% 65.7% 25.3%
Pat Shurmur New York Giants 45.3% 70.5% 25.2%
Sean Payton New Orleans Saints 45.9% 71.0% 25.1%
Josh McDaniels New England Patriots 46.1% 69.1% 23.0%
Dirk Koetter Atlanta Falcons 46.1% 67.7% 21.6%
Bill O'Brien Houston Texans 44.9% 64.8% 19.9%
Andy Reid Kansas City Chiefs 50.9% 68.3% 17.4%

Takeaways

When using a playcaller’s game script adjustments for fantasy projections, start with their tendencies in neutral situations, which will best represent how they generally want to run an offense.

Vegas future win totals and weekly lines can be used as a guide to project how situational play-calling tendencies will play out on the field in the upcoming season or in a given game.

Playcallers who are more run-heavy in neutral situations tend to be more game-script sensitive, as they are forced to deviate from their original game plan the most when playing from behind—of the 10 most game script-sensitive coaches, only three rank in the top 10 in their average rank in neutral passing rate.

To that note, those who already run a lot in neutral situations tend to really sit on the ball with any significant lead. 

Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are the only playcallers who throw more than average in neutral game script but run at an above-average rate in both negative and positive game script.

New Playcallers

Freddie Kitchens was relatively neutral in his nine weeks as the Browns playcaller last season but he was extremely sensitive to game script. As a team that is expected to have an explosive offense and a likely wide range of outcomes, being able to predict game flow for this team could be an extremely valuable skill for fantasy footballers in 2019.

Given Dirk Koetter’s history with Matt Ryan, we should expect the Falcons to air it out and that shouldn’t change with game script. Koetter has typically thrown more than average with a big lead and generally deviates far less than most coaches from his plan of attack. 

Deep-Ball Rate

Like touch or target volume, how often a team throws deep (15+ yards downfield) is usually dependent on the roster—remember that air yards are a receiver stat— but some coaches have a clear affinity for the deep ball. This is especially important for fantasy purposes—while deep passes have proven to be the most efficient types of passes for fantasy, they also lead to more scoring volatility. Maybe more so than any of the trends in this article, this is where it’s most important to consider the coaches on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

Playcaller's Deep-Ball Rates (Ranking), 2006–2018

Takeaways

Fantasy owners might blindly avoid passing offenses with coaches who trend towards the run but that may be a little shortsighted. Of the five playcallers with the highest average deep-ball ranking, three (Roman, Daboll, Nagy) rank in the bottom five in average neutral passing rank. This suggests that while quarterbacks on these teams might not throw often enough to put up consistent numbers through the air, there could be some massive boom weeks in store. It doesn’t hurt that the quarterbacks on each of these teams are of the mobile variety.

Over the last two seasons, no quarterback has scored more points per pass attempt on deep balls than Russell Wilson. Although generally hesitant to call deep passing plays, Brian Schottenheimer did rank seventh in deep-ball rate last season. Wilson willed his way to a QB8 finish last season in spite of Schottenheimer’s affinity for the run. The deep ball is at least somewhat to thank.

Another impact that Randy Fichtner had on the Steelers was on their deep passing game. From 2015–2017, Pittsburgh ranked no lower than fourth in deep-ball rate but they dropped outside the top half of the league under Fichtner. Without AB, there is potential for this once-explosive offense to look very vanilla.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this section, a single wide receiver can often transform an offense. Two of the more notable offseason additions in this respect are Antonio Brown to the Raiders and Desean Jackson to the Eagles. Only one player has more deep targets than Brown over the last two seasons. If we assume Jackson’s 25-30 deep targets per year, Philadelphia would have ranked in the top five in deep-ball rate. This should quell some concerns about Jon Gruden’s and Doug Peterson’s apparent aversion to the deep ball.

New Playcallers

Bruce Arians has typically been the gold standard when it comes to coaches who dig the long ball. His offenses have ranked outside the top 10 in deep-ball rate just once in his 11 seasons as a playcaller and he’s inheriting a team that has ranked no lower than sixth in that category since drafting Jameis Winston. While the departure of DJax will surely have some impact, note that Mike Evans ranked seventh in average depth of target (aDOT) last season (minimum 40 targets) while O.J. Howard’s aDOT has only been challenged by Gronk among recent tight ends. Chris Godwin’s 11.9-yard aDOT is well above average, also.

Cleveland’s 23.6% deep ball rate led the league in 2018 but that number soared to 27.1% under Kitchens, a rate no team has hit in my 13-year database. Baker Mayfield was already arguably one of the best deep-ball passers as a rookie and now he will play with a top-five receiver in the league in Odell Beckham.

We shouldn’t expect LaFleur to suddenly take the ball out of ARod’s hands but the new coach could impact where Rodgers throws the ball. LaFleur ran an extremely conservative passing game in Tennessee and while the Packers have ranked in the top 10 in deep rate in each of Rodgers’ last two full seasons, they ranked no higher than 18th from 2012–2015. Of the players that saw at least 40 targets in this offense last season, none posted an aDOT in the top 30.

Short-Yardage Situations

How playcallers handle short-yardage situations may be one of the most overlooked aspects of coaching as it pertains to fantasy football. These high-leverage circumstances often determine how well offenses sustain drives and, in turn, how many scoring opportunities players will have. Although the NFL is clearly a pass-first league now, there are two situations where the league should be running more often in order to maximize efficiency—on 2nd-and-short and 3rd-and-short. In his season preview last year, Warren Sharp explained that the success of running on 2nd-and-short far outweighs the upside of taking shots downfield. On third down, teams are prudently running at a high rate with one yard to gain but pass far too often on third down with two-to-four yards to go. Both passing and running, Sharp says, have nearly identical success rates in this specific situation.

Playcaller's Rush Rates on 2nd-and-Short (Ranking), 2006–2018

Playcaller's Rush Rates on 3rd-and-Short (Ranking), 2006–2018

Takeaways

Four playcallers have a top-10 average ranking in rushing rates in these high-leverage, short-yardage situations but three (Roman, Nagy and Doball) rank in the top five in neutral rush rate—in other words, they are likely exploiting this inefficiency by accident. The other is—unsurprisingly—Josh McDaniels. Exploiting situations that can help sustain drives makes sense for one of the consistently great offenses in the league.

Ken Whisenhunt, Jason Garrett, Freddie Kitchens and Randy Fichtner have been among the most pass-heavy playcallers in both of these situations, relative to the rest of the league. Though the sample is small with Kitchens and Fichtner, Whisenhunt and Garrett have consistently thrown much more than average in these spots. 

Rookie NFL Playcallers

There are six teams that will have new offensive playcallers with no experience at the NFL level but there can still be some insight to be had by looking at their previous jobs. Of course, coaches don’t always follow suit. See LaFleur, Matt. Often, simply looking at a team’s trends from the previous season is the best predictor of tendencies for these new coaches. The following will take a brief look at each situation.

Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals

Arizona made the biggest splash this offseason, hiring the former Texas Tech head coach. Kingsbury is bringing his Air Raid offense to the desert and that will be made possible with the addition of Kyler Murray and, to a lesser extent, rookie receivers Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler. The Cardinals are expected to run four and even five wide receiver sets more than any team in the league, which means there could be a third relevant pass-catcher after Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson.  

There will surely be a learning curve for this team with a rookie quarterback and a new system, but Murray’s rushing ability—he topped 1,000 yards on the ground in his final year at Oklahoma—will keep him fantasy relevant. At the very least this offense will be uptempo and run as many plays as any team in the league. One of the biggest concerns for this team is their offensive line, but having a mobile quarterback not only helps avoid sacks but it opens up lanes for the running game.

Zac Taylor, Bengals

Zac Taylor has been an assistant under Sean McVay for the last two seasons and is expected to be the primary playcaller in Cincinnati, despite coaching alongside the experienced Bill Callahan who will serve as OC. Taylor is coming from an offense that has been one of the most pass-heavy in the league over the last two years and he is inheriting a team that has ranked in the top half of the league in neutral passing rate in three of the last four seasons, including two top-10 finishes. 

Technically Taylor does have some play-calling experience as he was the interim OC for the Dolphins for five weeks in 2015. In that stretch, Taylor let Ryan Tannehill throw 56.8% of the time in neutral game script, a rate that would have ranked 21st that season. 

Rich Scangarello, Broncos

Denver overhauled their coaching staff, hiring defensive-minded Vic Fangio as head coach and former 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello as the OC. Prior to working under Kyle Shannahan in San Francisco, Scangarello served as an offensive quality control coach for Atlanta in 2015 when Shanahan was the OC, so there may be some parallels in philosophy there. While Shanahan is generally neutral in most aspects as a playcaller, one area that stands out is his running back usage. In five seasons as a primary playcaller, Shanahan’s teams have ranked in the top half of the league in running back touch share every season with three seasons ranked in the top six.

Chad O’Shea, Dolphins

Another coaching overhaul, Miami’s new head coach Brian Flores hand picked Chad O’Shea as his OC. Both Flores and O’Shea have spent the last decade in New England with Flores most recently coaching the linebackers and O’Shea manning the wide receivers. Belichick disciples don’t have the best track record after leaving the Foxboro nest but it’s worth noting that O’Shea was in contention for the Patriot’s OC job when it looked like Josh McDaniels was headed to Indianapolis.

Dating back to 2012, New England has ranked outside the top half of the league in neutral passing rate just once and McDaniels’s offenses have finished in the top third of the league, on average. Of course, that’s easy to do when you have arguably the best quarterback of all time running the show. O’Shea will take over a squad that ranked 21st in neutral passing rate last season and will be handing the reins over to second-year quarterback Josh Rosen, assuming he can hold off Ryan Fitzpatrick in training camp. 

With a less than stellar receiving corps and questions at the quarterback position, it wouldn’t be surprising to see O’Shea use his running backs heavily in the game plan a la the Patriots, as long as game script allows—Miami’s over/under on wins sits at just five.

Kevin Stefanski, Vikings and Arthur Smith, Titans

Stefanski and Smith were both promoted from within the organization under a head coach that was already there last season so I grouped them together since little should change in either scheme. As the former quarterbacks coach for the Vikings, it’s safe to assume that Stefanski has a decent relationship with Kirk Cousins—in case you’re wondering if Cousins will get in his new coach's ear, it’s going to be tough to throw much more than they did last season, as the Vikings ranked eighth in neutral passing rate. Smith spent the last four seasons as the Titans’ tight end coach so it’s not a stretch to look for a bounce-back season from Delanie Walker after missing virtually all of 2018.

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