Where Coaching Matters – NFC Edition

by Ikey Azar · NFL

Team Plays Per Game have been a relatively stable statistic among coaches, fitting into the narrative of how they want their culture and team philosophy to be represented on the field. In 2020, we saw the average team run 1,030 plays for the season, which is a league-high since 2015. 

With the increased use of play action, higher neutral Game Script pass-to-run ratios, and going for it on fourth downs, we saw teams average 43.8 touchdowns. 

In this series, we will attempt to provide insights on how coaches can affect your fantasy teams. While players on the field are mainly responsible for their production, there are some clues we can pull from a coaches tendencies to see how they can either help or hurt a player’s volume and efficiency. 

2020 NFC Neutral Pass Rate

2020 NFC Average Target Depth

2020 NFC Play Action Rate

2020 NFC Go For It Rate


Arizona Cardinals

Kliff Kingsbury enters his third NFL season in what has become a make-or-break year. The Cardinals continue to play fast, ranking No. 2 in Pace of Play according to Football Outsiders in 2020. However, this past season’s volume increase can largely be attributed to their defensive improvement, leaping from No. 20 in defensive DVOA to No. 10. This allowed the offense on the field more frequently, boosting them from No. 21 in plays ran in 2019 to No. 4 in 2020. With Chandler Jones returning from injury and J.J. Watt arriving in free agency, the defense should be able to sustain similar play, allowing the offense to remain voluminous. The Cardinals led the NFL in going for it on fourth and short. If they can improve their third down conversion rate from No. 22, it can lead them to finish with the league’s highest play-per-game average in 2021.

Seattle Seahawks

Pete Carroll has been Seattle’s head coach since 2010. In that time, they have been a slow-paced, conservative team. Over the first nine games of the season, it seemed like Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer were continuing a six-year trend of increasing their plays per game to 65.5 while averaging a league-high 61.8-percent Pass Rate, finally allowing Russ to cook. However, Carroll reverted back to his old ways. The Seahawks averaged only 62.5 plays per game, with a 54.6-percent Pass Rate over their last eight games, including their playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

After the season, the Seahawks fired Schottenheimer and hired the newest Sean McVay disciple in Shane Waldron, who has been the Rams’ passing game coordinator since 2018. The Rams have ranked in the top five in both Pre-Snap Motion Rate and Play Action Rate since 2017 when McVay took over as head coach. Over that same time period, Russell Wilson has ranked in the top 10 of Play Action Rate once. That was in 2018 when he led the NFL in passing touchdown rate. While many believe the new hiring is a shift back to a run-first offense, it will be interesting to see if the team’s Neutral Pass Rates remain similar. They ranked No. 3 in the NFL last season, while Waldron’s previous Rams team ranked No. 9.

San Francisco 49ers

Kyle Shanahan has been an NFL coach for 13 seasons and has ranked outside the top 18 in total yards once; his lone year in Cleveland. Through those 13 seasons, his teams have been top 10 in the NFL in plays per game. Playing three different quarterbacks in 2020, while dealing with a slew of injuries and defensive regression, the 49ers were forced to increase their pass-to-run ratio by eight-percent, attempting nearly 100 more passes compared to 2019. The opposite scenario is now in play for 2021. San Francisco will get players back from injury, and their defense remains top 6 in DVOA.

Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay regained some of his mojo in 2020, despite the Rams slowing down their pace from the league’s No. 3 mark in 2019 down to No. 16 in 2020. Despite the decrease in pace and the defensive improvement helping them finish No. 4 in defensive DVOA, they still finished No. 3 in plays per game, and have ranked top 10 in plays per game every year since McVay took over as head coach. The Rams have actually been below league average in Pass Rate in three of McVay’s four seasons, but the Rams run so many plays that they still have averaged 577 attempts per season. In addition, they rank top ten in Neutral Game Script Pass Rate, top five in Pre-Snap Motion Rate, and No. 3 in Play Action Rate.



Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bruce Arians enters his fourth season as the head coach for the Bucs, and now has a Super Bowl ring after acquiring Tom Brady. Total play volume was down last season, with an Arians-led squad averaging fewer than 66 plays per game for the first time in eight seasons. However, the core philosophy is still there. They did attempt over 600 passes, leading the league in Deep Ball Attempts and Intended Air Yards Per Attempt. Ranking No.  27 in Play Action Rate, the Bucs are a straight drop back and pass offense.

Carolina Panthers

Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady will get to stick together for a second season after speculation that Brady could get a head coaching job after his first year as an NFL coordinator. After spending two seasons as an offensive assistant in New Orleans under Sean Payton and putting together a historical college offense at LSU in 2019, Brady’s offense emphasized vertical routes and getting his running back out in space, similar to what the Saints do. The Panthers were top ten in Deep Ball Attempts, while ranking No. 9 in running back Target Share despite losing Christian McCaffrey for most of the season. The Panthers ranked No. 26 in plays per game, but if they can improve their QB play or their No. 24-ranked defensive DVOA, we can see an uptick in total volume.

Atlanta Falcons

After another disappointing season, the Falcons fired head coach Dan Quinn, who had been there since 2015. A previous defensive coordinator, Quinn handed offensive decisions to his three coordinators during that time: Kyle Shanahan, Steve Sarkisian, and Dirk Koetter. Over the last three seasons, the team averaged a 64.8-percent Pass Rate, No. 1 in the league over that time. Now heading into 2021, Atlanta hired Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith as head coach. Smith’s offenses in Tennessee were run-heavy, but have ranked in the top five in both Play Action and Pre-Snap Motion Rates, while Koetter’s Falcons have been in the bottom half of the league. Even if he dials back the sheer volume of the passing game, an efficiency boost can make up the difference.

New Orleans Saints

Since Drew Brees age-37 season in 2016, Sean Payton has slowly started to dial things back. The Saints have run at one of the slowest paces, and have shaved nearly 100 plays per season from their totals. In addition, they have only averaged 539.5 passing attempts per season, with a well below league average 53-percent Pass Rate. The good news is that they picked up their volume and ran 65.5 plays per game this past season. However, the team’s QB plans after Brees’ retirement will determine how they skew their pass-to-run ratio.


Washington Football Team

In his first season as head coach with the Washington Football Team, Ron Rivera won the NFC East despite finishing with a 7-9 record. Rivera hired now-retired longtime coach Norv Turner’s son to be his offensive coordinator. Rivera served as Turner’s defensive coordinator for three seasons in San Diego, and Norv served as Rivera’s offensive coordinator for two seasons in Carolina. Scott picked up right after his father. The Football Team ranked top 10 in Pace, No. 8 in plays per game, and finished No. 9 in total passing attempts with the league’s third-highest running back Target Share.

However, for 2021, the Football Team return nine of ten defensive players who played over 50-percnt of the snaps on their No. 3-ranked DVOA defense. The only player to leave is cornerback Ronald Darby, who the Football Team is expecting to upgrade with their signing of William Jackson, PFF’s No. 17-ranked cornerback last season. If the defense remains as effective, or even gets better, and they get stable QB play, the Football Team’s No. 24-ranked Neutral Game Script Pass Ratio can put a bigger damper on the passing game than many realize.

New York Giants

Joe Judge enters his second year as the Giants head coach while retaining OC Jason Garrett. In their first season together, the Giants ran the third-fewest plays per game and had a league average pass-to-run ratio. With a defense that is projected to improve in 2021, it will be hard to see an uptick in volume, especially after a season where they trailed on 48.5-percent of their snaps. If you’re looking at the Giants for fantasy scoring, it will most likely have to be done through efficiency versus volume. They were top 12 in Neutral Game Script Pass Ratio and No. 14 in Play Action Rate, giving hope that the efficiency spike is possible. However, they certainly will need to improve on their dead last finish in pressure percentage allowed last season.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles fired Doug Pederson after another disappointing season in 2020 with the complete collapse of Carson Wentz’s play. In walks Nick Sirianni for his first head coaching job. Sirianni has spent five of his twelve seasons under current Colts head coach Frank Reich, two seasons as an assistant with the Chargers when Reich was the OC there, and as the OC over the last three seasons in Indianapolis. While Philadelphia’s personnel is different than what Sirianni had with the Colts, we should be able to expect a high-volume offense based on his tutelage through Reich, whose offenses have consistently ranked above average in plays per game.  

Dallas Cowboys

Jerry Jones is bringing back both Mike McCarthy for a second season as head coach and Kellen Moore for his third season as offensive coordinator. They ran the second-most plays per game in 2020 despite losing Dak Prescott for the majority of the season. In 2020, they had a top ten pass-to-run ratio, dropping back to pass over 60-percent of the time. The Cowboys have now been top two in plays per game in both seasons with Moore as OC and have attempted 1,236 passes over that span. With good health, the Cowboys offense should be a bounceback target for this coming fantasy season.


Green Bay Packers

Over his first two seasons, Matt LaFleur’s Packers have been among the slowest-paced teams in the league and have run a below-league-average number of plays per game. With the offense firing on all cylinders in the first half of games, averaging a league high 18.2 points, Green Bay dialed back their pass attempts by nearly five percentage points. They should not expect the same sort of efficiency in 2021, especially early on in games, which could lead to increased volume to offset those losses. The Packers are around league average in both Neutral Game Script Pass Ratio and Average Target Depth, but they did run play action at a top five rate in addition to going for it on fourth and short at the league’s third-highest rate.

Chicago Bears

Matt Nagy returns in what may be his last season as Chicago’s head coach, despite making the playoffs in two of his three seasons with a combination of Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel, and Nick Foles as his quarterbacks. As Trubisky has gotten worse over the last two seasons, Nagy’s Bears have increased their plays per game and their pass-to-run ratio. With Andy Dalton now under center, we can expect a similar output for the Bears as we have over the last two seasons where they have run an above average number of plays per game and passed the ball at least 580 times.


Minnesota Vikings

A defensive-minded head coach, Mike Zimmer likes his offenses to reflect his defense as strong and physical grinders. Despite trailing on 54.4-percent of their plays last season, the Vikings still were four points below league average in Pass Rate and were below league average in plays per game. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has retired, but his son Klint will take over for his first coordinator opportunity, and one would assume he will continue to run a similar offense to what his father ran last season. If the defense takes a step forward, Kirk Cousins and the passing game will have to continue to be highly efficient since they could dip back below 500 passing attempts in 2021.

Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions cleaned house and have brought in an entire new coaching staff, starting their rebuild with Dan Campbell as their head coach. Campbell has brought in former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn to run his offense. Lynn spent 13 years coaching running backs before becoming the Buffalo’s OC in 2016 and taking over the Chargers head coaching position in 2017. Last year was a complete flip of the script for Lynn, with the Chargers running the most plays per game and throwing the fifth-most passes in the league. In his previous seasons as OC and HC, his preference has been to run a slow-paced offense that leans below average in pass-to-run ratio, which would seem to mesh well with Campbell’s “bite their kneecaps” coaching style. The question will be how stubborn they will be to abandon those gameplans as one of the league’s bottom teams.