Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
LESEAN MCCOY: How Anthony Lynn freed Shady
Who says coaching doesn't matter?
Now, I know tallying 1,187 yards from scrimmage (895 rushing; 292 receiving) in 12 games, as McCoy did in 2015 under former coordinator Greg Roman (who was fired this season after a Week 2 loss to the Jets), is nothing to sneeze at. But the running back is one of the most explosive players in football, capable of churning out 2,000-yard seasons as a versatile playmaker out of the backfield. In fact, he had already surpassed that mark once in his career (2,146 yards from scrimmage in 2013) before being traded from the Eagles to the Bills in March 2015; he also topped 1,500 scrimmage yards on two other occasions as the feature back for Philadelphia.
Considering McCoy's impressive production as an electric RB1, I expected the Bills to lean on the eighth-year pro as the anchor of a ground-and-pound attack that could fuel a playoff run. Although Buffalo featured the slippery playmaker as the bell cow in the backfield, in the 14 games McCoy played under Roman, McCoy averaged just 19.6 touches per contest. In addition, Roman didn't appear to cater his playbook or game plans to maximize the four-time Pro Bowler's talents as a runner/receiver.
A look back at the All-22 Coaches Film from the Bills' 2015 season showed that McCoy routinely carried the ball on runs directed to the edges. As an explosive runner with exceptional stop-start quickness, burst and acceleration, he is more than capable of turning the corner on most defenses. But the steady diet of perimeter runs essentially made him a feast-or-famine runner for the Bills: He'd either burst through creases for big plays (as in the video below) or run out of bounds for minimal gains:
While I can't blame Roman for featuring a number of off-tackle or outside runs in a shotgun offense that featured some of the concepts and elements that helped McCoy capture the 2013 rushing title in Philadelphia, Shady has always been at his best when running between the tackles on an assortment of downhill runs that actually limit his creativity at the point of attack. Yes, I know it sounds crazy to suggest an elusive runner with a knack for making defenders miss needs some restrictions placed on his game, but McCoy's desire to turn every run into a big play leads to some negative plays when he bounces around looking for a crease on the outside.
That's why the promotion of Lynn to play caller has paid immediate dividends for McCoy and the Bills. The former running backs coach knows the strengths and weaknesses of his RB1 as a playmaker. Moreover, Lynn asked his star pupil for his favorite plays and built the running portion of the game plan around his skills. I'm sure it seems like a no-brainer for a coach to ask one of his top players for input, but a lot of offensive coaches elect to make their game-planning decisions without consulting others. That lack of communication can prevent players from fully buying into the plan.
Lynn, on the other hand, empowers McCoy and his teammates by soliciting their opinions when formulating his game plan. This simple act gives ownership to the players, which increases their interest in seeing the plan work successfully.
"[Lynn] immediately sought out the quarterbacks and a few other offensive stars to get their opinion on what plays worked for them," a Bills official told me. "As a former player, he realizes that it's a 'player's game,' and the coach's job is to put players in a position to succeed. Sometimes that requires seeking their input and trusting what they tell you."
Studying the Bills' recent games, it is obvious that McCoy and Lynn have reached an agreement on featuring more downhill runs in the game plan. Against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5, the Bills repeatedly handed the ball to McCoy -- who finished with 150 rushing yards -- on powers, counters and draws that allowed him to hit the hole with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. In addition, the Bills used a fullback (Jerome Felton) on most of McCoy's runs, providing Shady with a "sweeper" to clean out any debris in the hole, as you can see in McCoy's highlights from that game:
The call sheets against the New England Patriotsin Week 4 (when McCoy had 108 yards from scrimmage) and Arizona Cardinalsin Week 3 (when he ran for 110 yards and two scores) featured similar concepts designed to get McCoy to the second level. The veteran carved up Bill Belichick's squad on an assortment of powers/counters, tosses and Wildcat runs designed to attack the belly of the defense. That was after bludgeoning the Cardinals with powers and wind-back isolation runs (in which the running back and fullback start heading in one direction before bowing back to the opposite-side A- or B-gap) that enabled McCoy to escape out the back door.
Glancing at the numbers from the past three games, it is obvious that McCoy has found his groove. With Lynn strategically putting his back in positions that allow him to maximize his talents as a "Houdini in a phone booth" (that is, a shifty runner in tight quarters), and with the veteran offering his own input on what plays work best for his game, the Bills have suddenly found a way to unleash their star runner in a new-and-improved ground-and-pound offense.