— As the lockout lingers, teams are not just cutting back expenses. With minicamps lost and training camps threatened, coaches are starting to trim their playbooks.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has already stated that he may have to scale back his system, telling Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald that “something’s going to have to go.” If gameplans start getting the Spark Notes treatment, some teams will be hurt more than others. The more complex an offense, the harder it will be to install on short notice once the lockout lifts. Meanwhile, coaches who follow the "Keep It Simple" approach all of the time may have a distinct advantage come, hopefully, September.
So which teams have the “simplest” offenses? There’s no way to tell without looking at the playbooks or learning the philosophies and terminologies of all 32 teams. Still, we can make some very good inferences with the help of the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project. With a database of every play from the 2010 NFL season at our fingertips, we can determine which offenses consist of lots of fussy icing, and which rely on easy-to-bake cake.
Gimmicks, Funky Formations, and Screens
A typical team runs about 1,000 offensive plays in a season. Some of them are more complicated to learn and execute than others. Without sitting in on positional meetings and practice sessions, the best we can do from the game tape is to isolate clear examples of gadgetry or hard-to-execute plays like these:
Trick Plays. End-arounds, running back options, shovel passes, and so on. Some teams never use this kind of chicanery; the Giants, for example, ran just one end-around last year. (He’s Tom Coughlin, not Tom Foolery). The Eagles, meanwhile, ran 17 plays we might consider “tricky,” from DeSean Jackson end-arounds to goal line shovel passes. If practice time is at a premium, these plays are probably the first to go.
Funky Formations. Using empty backfield and full-house backfield formations as barometers, we can determine just how many different “funky” formations a team runs. The more formations an offense uses, the harder that system must be to install. The Packers (149 “funky formation” plays) and Saints (104) led the league in this category, while the Jaguars emptied their backfield just eight times and never used any kind of full house backfield.
Screens. Screen passes don’t seem that difficult — your local high school runs them — but they require precise timing for offensive linemen (and for receivers on wideout screens). Some teams, such as the Broncos (70) and Eagles (65), were very dependent on the screen game. Others, such as the Seahawks (25) and Titans (26) are not. Reduced practice time means reduced time to focus on screen fundamentals, so a team that wants to run four or five of them per game could be in trouble.
Combine trick plays, funky formations, and screens, and a pattern emerges. The Packers use these tactics on 19 percent of all offensive plays, the Eagles 16 percent. On the flip side, the Titans use these “complex” tactics only 3 percent of the time. The results jibe with common sense: the Packers and Eagles throw the kitchen sink at opponents, while the Titans feed the ball to Chris Johnson.
We can also come at this from another angle. The plays above are evidence of complexity. What if we look for simplicity? There’s nothing more simple, after all, than a basic running play.
It’s easy enough to find a team’s rushing totals, but the raw numbers don’t give an accurate picture of a team’s rushing tendencies. Some of those “runs” are really scrambles; Michael Vick accounted for 23 percent of the Eagles’ running plays. Other running plays are score dependent: when it’s 35-10 in the fourth quarter, the winners are running and the losers are throwing, no matter what each team’s offensive philosophy might have been.
Luckily, the Football Outsiders database allows us to filter out scrambles and no-brainer running situations to focus on what we want: instances when teams chose old-fashioned hammer-it-out running plays. These “True Runs” filter out:
Take all of that stuff out, and you discover a wide range of running philosophies in the NFL. The Packers used just 161 of these True Runs, the Eagles 162. The Jets, meanwhile, ran the ball 289 of their own free will. Since many of our “complex” strategies, such as empty backfields and screens, emphasized the passing game, there’s a pretty strong inverse relationship between our complex plays and True Runs.
By dividing the percentage of True Runs by complex plays, we get a number called the Simplicity Score. The higher the score, the simpler (at least superficially) the offense.
The Titans led the league with a Simplicity Score of 4.7, meaning that they were 4.7 times more likely to call a running play than something exotic. That would suggest the Titans offense is easy to learn … except that the team just changed coaching staffs, making it a moot point. Still, the Titans result suggests we are on the right track. The Titans were a run-oriented team that had to simplify its offense to accommodate backup quarterbacks: exactly the kind of team we would expect to resort to an easy-to-learn system.
The next two teams on the list, the Browns and Panthers, also disposed of their coaches in the offseason. Like the Titans, they had major quarterback problems and had to scale back systems which were already pretty straightforward. In looking for teams with a 2011 edge, we need to find simple offenses which actually worked.
The following five teams are likely to gain a distinct advantage if teams have to resort to “accelerated learning” in training camp:
1. Buccaneers. (Simplicity Score 3.8)
The Buccaneers used funky formations just 16 times and pounded out 225 True Runs. They also return a core of young starters who have grown up in the system and now know their roles.
2. Jets. (Simplicity Score 3.6)
The Jets use a lot of Wildcat window dressing, but they call very few screens (29) while pounding out 289 True Runs. It’s a ball control-oriented scheme built to pound out low-scoring wins, and it should be easy to reboot in a shortened training camp. The Raiders would come next, but they have changed coaches.
3. Ravens. (Simplicity Score 3.2)
Just five trick plays and 24 funky formations, with 240 True Runs. When we think of a simple offense, we think of the Ravens, with their I-formation dives and play-action bombs.
4. Chargers (Simplicity Score 3.0)
Not all of the teams on this list are run oriented. The Chargers are among the most effective passing teams in the league, but there is not a lot of junk in Norv Turner’s system. The Chargers ran just four trick plays and 34 screen passes. Norv Turner’s scheme is somewhat old-fashioned, which should help players pick it up faster.
5. Jaguars (Simplicity Score 3.0)
The Jaguars used empty backfields just eight times. They call a lot of screens (64), but they also pounded out 252 True Runs. With everything flowing through Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars offense can make a quick transition from Dave Garrard to Blaine Gabbert.
On the flip side, here are the most complex offenses.
1. Packers (Simplicity Score 0.9)
Sudden shifts from empty backfields to jumbo T-formations made the Packers hard to defend last year, but the crazy personnel groupings and formation shifts cannot be easy to master on a tight deadline.
2. Eagles (Simplicity Score 1.0)
End-arounds, screens (65), and an utter lack of interest in straight-ahead running (163 True Runs) make the Eagles offense very gimmick oriented.
3. Saints (Simplicity Score 1.0)
Before Mike McCarthy took his crown, Sean Payton was the Coach of a Thousand Formations. When Mark Ingram finally gets his playbook, he will think the new phone book arrived.
4. Bills (Simplicity Score 1.2)
Chan Gailey called 145 Funky Formation plays last year, and that’s not counting his “Pistol” wrinkles. The Bills ran more than our other complex teams (227 True Runs) but their offense still looks like a stew of everything that could fit in the stock pot.
5. Patriots (Simplicity Score 1.3)
The Patriots may have scrapped many of their spread principles, but they still use a lot of empty backfield formations (95), and their low number of True Runs (183) suggests that much of their “Rushing Renaissance” last year occurred in fourth quarters and blowouts. The Patriots are also more likely than many of the teams on this list to line up running backs or tight ends as wide receivers, which adds another element to an offense’s learning curve.
Coming Soon: I flip to the other side of the ball and try to find the league’s simplest defenses.