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Fantasy football success boils down to one very basic ideology - predicting the future (sounds simple enough). The owner in our league who is able to most accurately forecast each players upcoming “fantasy point production” will be the person going home with all the accolades, including the league trophy, a large payout and all the bragging rights.
When conducting our player evaluations we should recognize that “production” is the byproduct of “opportunity.” In terms of fantasy football, opportunity is synonymous with a team’s offensive system. For example, if a quarterback plays in a “passing system,” he would then have increased opportunity. If a quarterbacks plays in a “running system” he would then have decreased opportunity (sorry Mark Sanchez).
The only known method to correctly identifying each team’s offensive system is examining the history of the coaching staff. Upon doing so, we’ll find 90 percent of all NFL coaches around the league adhere to the same offensive system that has propelled them to the pinnacle of their coaching career. Every coach around the NFL has an equally distinct coaching history we can study.
When researching a team’s coaching staff there are few glaring questions we should be looking to answer. Which teams has this man coached? What position did he play? What offensive system did he learn as a player or assistant coach? Who has he coached under? Who are his mentors? What players were successful on his former teams? By reaching a conclusion, we are able to extract a team’s “offensive identity” even before examining the players on the roster.
Without a doubt, the most wide spread example are the numerous head coaches and offensive coordinators nurtured under the “Bill Walsh Coaching Tree.” Each coach with ties to Walsh, even dating back to his predecessor Paul Brown, will employ some version of the famous “ West Coast offense,” a system predicated upon short-to-intermediate passes utilized to soften the defense and open up the field for the running game and vertical passing attack. The west coast offense has produced overwhelming success throughout the years, including countless fantasy superstars (Aaron Rodgers and Arian Foster come to mind).
Current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid is a direct disciple of Walsh – and his West Coast offense – via Mike Holmgren. Due to Reid’s firm belief in the West Coast system, we can predict, with great certainty, the Eagles will continually finish the season with a 60-40 pass/run ratio regardless of the players on Reid’s roster. From this knowledge we then determine “whoever’s the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles will be given every opportunity to be an impact fantasy player in the coming year(s).” In our pre-draft player evaluations, we then upgrade any quarterback or wide receiver on the Eagles roster solely based on the coaching staff and offensive system (teams currently utilizing the West Coast offense entering 2012 are the Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns).
Although the West Coast offense remains the most pronounced system utilized to date, Brown and Walsh aren’t the only coaches to influence the growth of the NFL’s passing game. Don Coryell is widely considered amongst the pioneers of the modern the day passing offense with his patented “ Air Coryell system” – originally dating back to his mentor, and Hall of Famer, Sid Gillman. Both Gillman and Coryell believed in a “vertical passing attack” to stretch the defense, thus opening up other areas of the field. Numerous coaches raised under the tutelage of Coryell have achieved success, including Norv Turner, Mike Martz, Rob Chudzinski, Cam Cameron, Al Davis and my all-time favorite coach Dick Vermeil. When examining these coaches, we upgrade the quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends playing inside the Air Coryell Offense.
The other prominent offensive system of our generation is the “ run-and-shoot,” made popular by the Houston Oilers in the 1980’s and into the early 90s. This system is predicated upon the quarterback and wide receivers ability to read and recognize the “soft spot” in the defense, be it vertical or underneath, after breaking the huddle. The run-and-shoot also provides the quarterback a tremendous amount of freedom to study the defensive alignment, and audible at the line of scrimmage between a pass or run play accordingly his pre-snap judgment. Teams having recent success running a variation of the run-and-shoot in today’s NFL include the New York Giants, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints.
Another popular offensive system linked directly to a coaching staff is the running-back-by-committee (ugliest four words in fantasy football). Reinvented by Mike Shanahan in 2005, many NFL coaches around the league are directly linked to this hideous form of running the football, including Bill Belichick, Sean Peyton, Tony Sparano, Tom Coughlin, Gary Kubiak, Jim Harbaugh, Todd Haley and John Fox (to name a few). We then downgrade accordingly any running back playing for these coaches. On the flip side, certain coaches still firmly believe in a one-back system or three-down-running back, including Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher, Mike Holmgren, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Mike Tomlin and Rex Ryan. Running backs playing in a one back system are becoming a relic of the past, receiving considerable upgrade during our running back research.
Proceeding through our evaluation, we should recognize not every offensive system is designed by a team’s head coach. Many NFL head coaches have spent their entire career coaching defense. When this situation occurs we typically find that the offensive coordinator is the coach directly responsible for designing the team’s offensive system, creating the weekly game plan and calling all offensive plays during the game.
For example, current Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis has been a defensive coach his entire 30-year career. After examining the history of Lewis, we find that he was the architect behind the vaunted 2000 Ray Lewis-led Baltimore Ravens defense (arguably the best defense all time). It was Lewis’ talents as a defensive guru for which he was hired by Cincinnati.
In order to identify the Bengals offensive system, we must examine recently hired offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Gruden is most notably the brother of Super Bowl winning head coach Jon Gruden, making him a spinoff disciple of the Walsh West Coast offense. Furthermore, Jay Gruden was a prolific quarterback throughout his playing days, including great success in the Arena Football League, winning multiple championships as a player and coach.
When conducting our pre-draft evaluation of each of the Bengals' players, our instincts will tell us to look past Lewis, and instead examine the history of Gruden as the coach directly responsible for the offensive system and play calling. Coming to this realization, we will upgrade key members of the Bengals’ passing game moving into future seasons. In 2011, fantasy owners who recognized Gruden’s role on the Bengals coaching staff capitalized on the success of wide receiver A.J. Green, despite his ninth-round average draft position.
I’m not suggesting “defensive head coaches” have zero input when it comes to offensive play calling. In fact, history has proven most defensive head coaches prefer a “run-first” offensive system. A great example is current New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan has never been anything but a defensive coach, including four years as the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. At nearly every press conference, Ryan continues to repeat his now famous mantra of “ground-and-pound,” an offensive system predicated on running the football all game.
As we further examine the Jets' coaching staff, we quickly recognize the hiring of new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, a long-time offensive line coach, but most recently the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Next question we ask ourselves is – “what offensive system did Sparano employ with the Dolphins? A “run-first system” whereby both Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown found success, but also providing the resurgence of Reggie Bush in 2011. Having gathered these historical facts of the entire coaching staff in New York, we know the offensive system will lean heavily on running the football. In our pre-draft player evaluation, we then downgrade the Jets’ quarterbacks and wide receivers, while upgrading any viable running backs.
Evaluating the offensive system of an established team is fairly simple. For example, it’s no surprise that Green Bay and Dallas are going pass all game long. We should expect Baltimore will remain evenly balanced, leaning heavily on Ray Rice. But how about coaches joining a new team, such as Jeff Fisher, Greg Schiano, Todd Haley, Chuck Pagano and Joe Philbin? How will the offensive system influence players recently added during the offseason, including Trent Richardson, Peyton Manning, Brandon Jacobs and Brandon Lloyd? What affect will it have on those players who just lost a teammate, such as Ryan Mathews, Greg Olson, Shonn Greene and Marques Colston.
The scenarios are endless, but the application is obvious. A player’s “opportunity” to generate “production” is greatly influenced by his teams coaching staff and their offensive system.
“Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity” – Henry Hartman
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