Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- Why NFL teams should be wary of drafting wide receivers in the first round.
But first, a look at one of the most disappointing units in football this season ...
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That's the million-dollar question floating around league circles, with the defending NFC champions now sitting at 5-4 following another dismal offensive performance in last Sunday's 17-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Rams' play this season has observers scratching their heads when watching an offense that looks nothing like the unit that dominated opponents during McVay's first two years at the helm. After averaging 32.9 points and 421.1 total yards per game in 2018, those Rams figures have plummeted to 25.1 points and 375.8 yards in 2019. That's a significant decline in production for an offense that appeared unstoppable during the early part of the McVay era.
What happened? Did the NFL finally catch up to the creative schemes dreamed up by the ballyhooed young coach?
"McVay's gotten too cute," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He's gotten too far away from the 'bread and butter' schemes that made the offense pop. They're not using Todd Gurley as the focal point of the offense. The fly-sweep motion and runs to various perimeter players have diminished. And the passing game has become more dropback than play-action-based. ... Plus, the offensive line isn't nearly as good as it once was.
"They're a completely different offense than the one that took the league by storm."
Rams fans might not want to hear that kind of cold, hard truth, but the veteran defensive coach is simply pointing out the flaws that stand out on tape. McVay's offense looks nothing like the version that pummeled opponents during his first two years on the job. Just over halfway through the 2019 season, the Rams already have more games with fewer than 30 points (6), fewer than 400 total yards (6) and fewer than 100 rush yards (6) than they had during the entire 2018 campaign. They're just not nearly as explosive, dynamic or consistent on offense this season -- and their decline has been utterly apparent to anyone who has studied the film.
Reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film, the first thing that stands out is the lack of punch in the running game, and McVay's waning commitment to Gurley. I've heard all the theories on Gurley and his arthritic knee. Obviously, I don't have all of the medical information that Gurley and the Rams have at their disposal. But at times this season, the 25-year-old back has run quite effectively. He just hasn't received anywhere near the workload he used to get. I don't know if this is some kind of "load management" plan or just a change in strategy. Bottom line: Gurley's no longer the center of gravity in this offense. From 2015 through '18, Gurley averaged 21.2 touches and 110.9 scrimmage yards per game, tallying 56 total touchdown in the process. He's not even close to sniffing those bell-cow figures this season, averaging 14.9 touches and 63.6 scrimmage yards per game, with seven scores through eight outings. (Gurley missed L.A.'s Week 6 loss to San Francisco with a quad injury.) After opening the season with 14 rushes for 97 yards against the Panthers, Gurley has averaged just 12.9 carries and 47.3 rushing yards per game since. His percentage of the team's scrimmage yards is the lowest of his career (27.2, 27th overall) after ranking third (44.3) and sixth (38.1) in this category during each of McVay's first two seasons.
With Gurley not as involved in the offensive game plan, the Rams have suffered the second-largest decrease in rushing yards from 2018 to '19, posting 43.2 fewer ground yards per game this season. This has dropped Los Angeles' run game from third in 2018 to 20th this year. And this significantly impacts the entire offense. Although the Rams appeared to be a high-flying attack fueled on big plays in the passing game over the past couple seasons, the ground game was actually the foundation of the offense, with Gurley creasing defenses on an assortment of outside-zone runs with wide receivers racing across the formation on fly-sweep action prior to the snap. But Gurley's usage -- and Los Angeles' implementation of the fly sweep -- have decreased drastically.
"The fly sweep was a big part of their offense in McVay's early years," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "McVay would give the ball to any of their receivers (Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods), so you had to stay home on the edges, which created lanes for Gurley. Without the persistent threat of the sweep, defenders can lock in on No. 30 and keep him under control in the box."
The fly sweep not only helped Gurley enjoy success, but it was a big driver in Jared Goff's ascension as a quarterback. The Rams featured a play-action passing game during those early years with the young quarterback thriving from the pocket, thanks to defenders being left dazed and confused by the misdirection action the backfield. Defensive hesitation created huge voids at intermediate range, which led to easy completions from the pocket for No. 16.
Without the threat of the running game creating easy throws for Goff, though, the former No. 1 overall pick hasn't been nearly as effective as a passer. He is one of only six quarterbacks with at least three more giveaways than passing touchdowns (14 giveaways, 11 touchdowns). In fact, Goff has seen his numbers decline in every major statistical category, including completion percentage (-4.6), yards per attempt (-1.0) and passer rating (-18.4). With an 82.7 passer rating, Goff has the lowest mark of the 11 active quarterbacks who started a playoff game in 2018. Yes, even lower than much-maligned Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky (85.2).
Considering Goff's disappointing performance, you wonder why the Rams have attempted to put so much on his shoulders when he is also playing behind a porous offensive line. Goff has been pressured on 30.5 percent of his dropbacks, which is the highest rate that he's faced since his rookie season under Jeff Fisher. With the 25-year-old QB also suddenly struggling against the blitz (53.4 percent completion rate, 7.0 yards per attempt, 2:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 74.4 passer rating, per Next Gen Stats) -- after torching blitz pressure in 2017 and '18 (58.3 percent completion rate, 8.9 yards per attempt, 19:4 TD-to-INT ratio and 103.4 passer rating) -- questions should persist over the Rams' offense approach.
"We have to get back to the basics," a Rams official told me. "It's not too late, but we have to play the right way to turn things around."
If playing the right way means leaning on the running game, the Rams will need to get a better performance from the front five. L.A.'s offensive line has struggled following the losses of Rodger Saffold (free-agent departure) and John Sullivan (contract option declined). Without as much deception and misdirection in the offense, the Rams have been unable to block defenders at the point of attack and the resulting traffic jam at the line of scrimmage has left the offense stuck in neutral. Not to mention, the New England Patriots' Super Bowl-winning blueprint -- which featured a variety of exotic stunts, line games and fronts -- has been copied by defensive coordinators, and the Rams haven't come up with solid counters.
If the Rams are going to re-emerge as contenders in a loaded NFC field, McVay will need to come up with answers to the league's copycat tactics while returning the offense to the "bread and butter" approach that used deception, misdirection and a strong, Gurley-led ground attack. Let's see if the offensive wizard can rediscover his magical powers and fix the league's most disappointing attack.
DEREK CARR'S REVIVAL: Jon Gruden maximizing his QB in Year 2
I know some folks question Jon Gruden's true bona fides as a purported quarterback whisperer, but it's hard to knock his impressive work with Derek Carr. The Oakland Raiders' QB1 is quietly playing at an MVP level, catapulting his team back into playoff contention at 5-4, one game behind the AFC West-leading Chiefs. In fact, Carr has been so effective in Gruden's offense that it reminds me of watching my former teammate, Rich Gannon, blossom into a Tier 1 quarterback under the coach's tutelage.
OK, I know it's a bit premature to seriously discuss Carr as a potential MVP vote-getter, but his numbers suggest that he is playing at a level reminiscent of Gannon's performance in 2002, when the veteran quarterback earned MVP honors. Don't believe me? Just look at their numbers directing the same system:
Gannon through nine games in 2002: 70 percent completion rate, 7.6 yards per attempt, 19:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 101.2 passer rating.
Carr through nine games in 2019: 70.8 percent completion rate, 7.8 yards per attempt, 14:4 TD-to-INT ratio, 104.4 passer rating.
In 2019, Gruden's back up to his old tricks, crafting an offensive scheme that has Carr playing at a level we haven't seen since 2016, when the passer was indeed an MVP candidate. At the moment, Carr is on pace to become only the fourth quarterback to finish a season (min. 250 attempts) with a completion percentage of 70-plus and a passer rating of 100-plus. This accomplishment would put him in pretty good company, alongside Hall of Fame inductees Joe Montana and Steve Young, as well as future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. With this in mind, I wanted to pop in the All-22 Coaches Film to see how Gruden has elevated the play of his QB1.
Immediately, I noticed Carr is playing in a quick-rhythm system designed to get the ball out of his hands, like a point guard playing in the Princeton offense. No. 4 has excelled in the "catch, rock and throw" offense, with an average time to throw of 2.67 seconds (eighth-fastest in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats) and an average of 6.4 air yards per attempt (third-fewest). Why does that matter? Carr is one of the least-pressured quarterbacks in 2019, and pass rushers' inability to harass him in the pocket has enabled the veteran passer to pick apart defenses with a dink-and-dunk game that's indefensible unless opponents are willing to play -- and win -- on the perimeter with tight man coverage.
When opponents have attempted to utilize blitz-pressure tactics (five or more pass rushers), Carr has responded in outstanding fashion with a 108.5 passer rating and a 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio, per NGS. That's a drastic improvement over his effectiveness against the blitz a year ago (61.7 passer rating, 3:6 TD-to-INT ratio), which is a testament to his ability to settle into Gruden's system in Year 2, with the quarterback guru making tweaks and adjustments along the way.
One of the schematic adjustments that stands out on tape has been the Raiders' clever utilization of "21" personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs), with the play-action passing game as a foundation. Carr has not only held defenders with masterful ball fakes and great eye manipulation (moving safeties by looking in one direction before throwing to the back side), but he has also targeted his running backs and tight ends on checkdowns when coverage takes away the primary target. He has mastered the art of taking the layup, and the barrage of dump-off passes eventually lures defenders out of position, leading to open voids at the second level.
With the "cat and mouse" game in mind, Carr's success on intermediate throws is a byproduct of the veteran quarterback connecting the dots at a high level. No. 4 is simply identifying coverage and hitting the open receiver without hesitation. Granted, most average quarterbacks should be expected to follow the progression and get the ball into the hands of open receivers, but Carr's efficiency at intermediate range has enabled the Raiders' offense to roll against a variety of defensive tactics designed to slow down Offensive Rookie of the Year front-runner Josh Jacobs and neutralize the team's quick-rhythm passing game. Considering he's the NFL leader in completion percentage (70.8), yards per attempt (12.9) and passer rating (139.2) on intermediate-range throws (10-19 air yards), Carr's discipline and efficiency as a pocket passer should be celebrated in league circles.
At a time when everyone is debating which players deserve to be included in the MVP discussion, you might want to pay closer attention to the Raiders' QB1 as he engineers a surprising run at the AFC West title.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Buzz for 2020 WR class a trap for NFL teams? When my Move The Sticks Podcast partner Daniel Jeremiah tweeted out high praise for the 2020 NFL Draft's WR class earlier this week, he sparked some social-media debates about the value of pass catchers in the upcoming class. While it certainly makes sense for teams to stockpile dynamic wide receivers in a league that's becoming more pass-centric by the day, I believe the WR position has become overvalued in the team-building process.
I know the "overvalued" argument has typically been reserved for running backs in recent years, but a quick review of recent draft classes suggests that teams would be wise to wait before pulling the trigger on a wide receiver in the draft. Just look back at the past four drafts and you can make a strong case that the first round hasn't produced more impactful playmakers at the position than the second round. Here are the WRs selected in the first or second round since 2016, along with their career stats:
Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers (36th): 8 games, 30 catches for 339 yards (11.3 avg), 2 TDs (one rushing).
A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans (51st): 10 games, 27 catches for 446 yards (16.5 avg), 3 TDs.
Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs (56th): 10 games, 21 catches for 437 yards (20.8 avg), 5 TDs.
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Philadelphia Eagles (57th): 9 games, 2 catches for 14 yards (7.0 avg).
Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts (59th): 6 games, 15 catches for 115 yards (7.7 avg), 1 TD.
Andy Isabella, Arizona Cardinals (62nd): 9 games, 6 catches for 174 yards (29.0 avg), 1 TD.
D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks (64th): 10 games, 35 catches for 595 yards (17.0 avg), 5 TDs.
Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos (40th): 25 games, 86 catches for 1,396 yards (16.2 avg), 8 TDs.
Dante Pettis, San Francisco 49ers (44th): 21 games, 38 catches for 576 yards (15.2 avg), 7 TDs.
Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals (47th): 19 games, 83 catches for 1,057 yards (12.7 avg), 6 TDs.
Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears (51st): 24 games, 50 catches for 641 yards (12.8 avg), 7 TDs.
James Washington, Pittsburgh Steelers (60th): 23 games, 39 catches for 586 yards (15.0 avg), 2 TDs.
D.J. Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars (61st): 20 games, 57 catches for 866 yards (15.2 avg), 6 TDs.
Zay Jones, Buffalo Bills/Oakland Raiders (37th): 39 games, 96 catches for 1,095 yards (11.4 avg), 9 TDs.
Curtis Samuel, Carolina Panthers (40th): 31 games, 88 catches for 1,051 yards (11.9 avg), 9 TDs.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers (62nd): 40 games, 207 catches for 2,867 yards (13.9 avg), 17 TDs.
Corey Coleman, Cleveland Browns/Buffalo Bills/New England Patriots/New York Giants (15th): 27 games, 61 catches for 789 yards (12.9 avg), 5 TDs.
Will Fuller, Houston Texans (21st): 38 games, 141 catches for 2,011 yards (14.3 avg), 16 TDs.
Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins/Minnesota Vikings (22nd): 33 games, 81 catches for 1,100 yards (13.6 avg), 8 TDs.
Laquon Treadwell, Minnesota Vikings (23rd): 47 games, 62 catches for 601 yards (9.7 avg), 1 TD.
As you can see, there are a handful of first-round picks who have played up to their draft status, but it's hard to ignore the individual and collective production of their second-round brethren. Considering the significant sample size of the pass catchers in this discussion, NFL executives should pause before tabbing wide receivers as "must-haves" in the first round. We've seen a horde of second-round (a.k.a. "value") selections exceed expectations despite entering the league viewed as "eventual starters" (second-round grades on my NFL grading scale suggest prospects selected in that round will crack the starting lineup a year or so after entering the league).
This is exactly how Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf and coach Mike Holmgren viewed the position when I was a player with the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, and it continued to be the draft philosophy when I worked as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks (under Holmgren) in the early 2000s. Holmgren believed his system could elevate pass catchers by creating easy catch opportunities through scheming. He did not subscribe to the notion that a team needed a bunch of A+ pass catchers to field an explosive offense. In fact, he preferred developmental receivers with the physical traits and skills that could be enhanced with solid teaching and a mastery of the fundamentals.
I watched Holmgren utilize this approach to build a dynamic passing game in Green Bay with Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman (both third-round picks by the team), who helped the Packers win Super Bowl XXXI. He replicated it in Seattle with an aerial attack featuring Darrell Jackson (third-round pick of the Seahawks), Bobby Engram (second-round pick of the Bears), Joe Jurevicius (second-round pick of the Giants) and D.J. Hackett (fifth-round pick of the Seahawks), who joined forces for an NFC title team in 2005.
With that in mind, NFL scouts will need to determine whether the "name brands" in the 2020 wide receiver class are better options than the "generics" who could be available in the second round. Based on the recent success of second-rounders, I would suggest evaluators opt for talented route runners or "bullies" (big-bodied receivers with physical games) who could be available in Round 2. We've seen multiple instances of coaches creating opportunities for pass catchers on the perimeter through clever scheming, so I would lean toward a skilled playmaker with a polished game over a dynamic athlete with tantalizing physical traits.
Although speedsters enjoy success as vertical playmakers, it's harder to generate sustainable production from one-trick ponies when the film circulates around the league. While there are always exceptions, I believe route runners and bullies are better suited to enjoy consistent success due to their refined skills and/or strength advantages over defenders. This enables coaches to build game plans around them and continue to make them the focal points of the passing game despite coverage tricks.
Hopefully, the tantalizing potential of the 2020 WR class is fully realized, but as I've laid out in this item, it usually doesn't work out that way, and missing on a first-round receiver can be a massive setback for a franchise. With that in mind, executives and scouts should spend more time looking for hidden gems instead of focusing their gaze on the star power at the top of the draft.
2) Don't sleep on Watson as runner in matchup with Jackson. When the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravenssquare off on Sunday, sports fans will get a chance to see option football at the highest level. While the Ravens' dynamic running game continues to receive a great deal of attention, the best option attack in the NFL might reside in Houston.
I know that statement might come as a surprise to observers who've become big fans of watching Lamar Jackson perform Houdini acts on a weekly basis as a rusher, but Deshaun Watson is quietly the master of sleight of hand. The Texans' offense is torching opponents with an option package that brings a tear to the eye of Texans fans familiar with the Veer created by Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston in the 1960s.
Although the Texans aren't completely a throwback squad with Watson at the helm, they've certainly been an efficient unit when utilizing the double and triple option on the perimeter. The Texans have amassed the most rushing yards in the NFL (341) on option handoffs/pitches with an average of 7.8 yards per carry, which nearly doubles the rate produced by the Ravens (4.4), per Pro Football Focus.
Texans running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson have tallied 225 and 88 yards, respectively, while averaging 6.4 and 17.6 yards per rush on option runs. Those numbers are not only eye-popping at first glance, but they suggest the Texans should utilize the option game more with the magician in the No. 4 jersey.
Now, I'm not ready to anoint Watson as a better runner and playmaker than Jackson, but he's posting numbers (6.8 yards per rush) that are comparable to No. 8's production (7.2) on option keepers. Granted, Watson isn't a high-volume runner like his counterpart (Jackson has 58 option keepers to Watson's 16), but the threat of Watson breaking loose on the perimeter has prompted defenders to pause whenever he sticks the ball in the belly of a running back.
"The option game evens out the numbers in the running game," the former NFL defensive coordinator from the first section of this piece told me. "You lose the 'plus-one' advantage when the quarterback is a runner and it requires the defense to assign a defender to him in case he keeps it. This creates some big-play opportunities for the running backs if the rest of the defense is out of position or loses their gap integrity at the point of attack.
"It only takes one or two runs by the quarterback to throw things out of whack, so I can see why more teams are using the option and quarterback running game when you have a decent athlete at the position."
With all eyes on M&T Bank Stadium for Sunday's enticing matchup of young QBs, the football world might discover that Watson is really the one directing an option attack that will inspire more teams to add a little Army football to their playbooks.