The big game has come and gone, as has another NFL season. Which means there’s going to be a gruelling six months before the league pops back into on-field action. While there’s still the NFL Draft and mini-camps to look forward to, we’ll be waiting a while before we see anything resembling last weekend’s action. However, before we put football back on the shelf, let’s take some time to reflect on the lessons learned from this past season. The league remains as quarterback-reliant as ever, yet there are a few trends that are worth noting as we officially enter the off-season.
The workhorse running back is not dead. That was no more evident than in the breakout season from Tennessee Titan running back Derrick Henry. Too big to take down with an arm tackle and too fast to cover with a plodding defender, Henry was a flashback to football of the mid-90s. Henry, who played in just two postseason games, lead the league in postseason rushing with 446 rushing yards. He also won the league’s rushing title after stacking up 1,540 rushing yards, along with a league-high 303 rushing attempts. While other runners came close — Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey and Cleveland’s Nick Chubb — the league isn’t quite ready for a running back renaissance. Yet, ever so slowly, we’re seeing clubs across the league invest in the running game. A significant change from the platoon and hot-hand system that has been prevalent across the league. There’s no indication placing a heavy workload on the legs of one man will lead to a Super Bowl LV berth, the rest of the league will remain sceptical until this fantasy turns into reality.
One trend that has certainly become more popular is capitalizing on offensive mismatches. Two of the biggest stars in Super Bowl LIV were the tight ends for each team, San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce. Defenses need a chess piece that must be accounted for with every single snap to win consistently. When the defensive coverage has you matched up, you need a piece that can be counted on to win their matchup consistently. NFL defenses are still trying to cope with tight ends, which represent the majority of mismatches on the offensive side. With the growing resurgence of running backs, we’re seeing skills players like the NY Giants’ running back Saquon Barkley and New Orleans Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara.
Regardless of the team’s offensive scheme, there needs to be a concerted effort to get your playmakers the ball as often as the opposition will allow. It’s not enough to have a team built on speed, size, or the best chemistry; you need to have a weapon that defenses can’t find an answer for. To find prolonged success on offense, you’re going to need to find a player who possesses qualities a defense can’t match, forcing them to spend more effort trying to defend. Whether that’s being too fast for members of the front-seven or too powerful for personnel in the secondary to bring down, the NFL continues to reward teams that can exploit mismatches on a weekly basis.
While finding a franchise quarterback remains an inexact science, building a solid supporting cast continues to be a projection that continues to pay off. The 49ers’ core of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and offensive tackle Joe Staley were all in place before receiving an influx of talent and becoming a Super Bowl caliber club. For the Kansas City Chiefs, Patrick Mahommes took over the reigns of the offense two seasons ago. KC has provided the former league MVP with plenty — a solid offensive line and speedy receiving corp — and the Chiefs have elevated themselves to the top of the NFL’s offensive hierarchy. It’s a key reason why they went on to win Super Bowl XLV.
There are 32 franchises, but less than half that number will confirm that they have a QB worthy of being called a franchise talent. Given the difficulty in identifying and acquiring a game-changer under center, it is much easier to build around the position… similar to what the Minnesota Vikings did before Kirk Cousins’ arrival. The Vikings believe it’s easier to invest in a proven commodity than take a risk on a young up and comer in a NFL draft. There are many ways to get the job done, but the same can’t be said about the time you have to execute your master plan as a coach or general manager.
Striving for balance between your team’s offense and defense is overrated. The Chiefs won this past Super Bowl with a high octane offense and a passable defense that made just enough plays in critical moments to get their offense back on the field. The days of fielding a complete team are not over, but the idea of spreading resources to balance the roster as opposed to building up the strength of the team has lost some steam. We watched all season long as the teams that built around their offense thrived — think Ravens, Saints, and Chiefs. The Niners spent previous draft resources on the defensive side of the ball with quantifiable success, proving there are many different paths to creating a successful team.
The beautiful aspect of football is that, while the game itself remains the same, small tweaks and caveats keep it entertaining each and every season. We thought the league would become boring after moving kickoffs up. It did not. We thought that moving back the extra point would be the beginning of the end. That was also false. They even instituted a ridiculous replay system that still finds a way to miss the obvious and overturn minor infractions. So with offenses still carrying the torch, mismatch nightmares dictating defensive coverages, and the return of the running game imminent, it appears the defensive coordinators are going to have less time to relax this offseason. And yet, with a looming hibernation incoming, we can’t wait to see what the league does next.