As we near the end of one of the most parity-driven NFL seasons in history, it’s smart to reflect on what transpired around the league and spin it forward to pinpoint what trends will be copied in this notoriously copycat league. Sometimes these trends are drawn directly from the regular season. In other instances, they come from a playoff game, and occasionally, the Super Bowl. This season, it feels like we’ve already gotten the trends that’ll play a role in shaping team-building efforts and game-planning philosophies across the league. Let’s identify those trends before Super Bowl LVI. GO FOR IT! …has probably been yelled from stadium seats and living rooms more this season than any in NFL history. It’s surely taken time, but it now feels like the foundational thought process behind fourth-down decisions has fully been flipped on its head.
Forever, fourth-down choices were rooted in conservatism — let’s not try to lose this game. Now, the underlying philosophy is based in aggression — let’s win this game. For defenses, not the best development. For offenses and all NFL lovers, a tremendous breakthrough. Check how the league, collectively, got bolder on fourth downs.
Kyle Shanahan’s decision to punt on fourth-and-2 from the Rams 45-yard line with a three-point lead in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship will haunt him and 49ers fans for a while, and it’ll serve as the loudest reminder that coaches should be more courageous. In fact, I believe we’ve gotten to the point where coaches will not want to be the one to fold under pressure and punt when, previously, there was an overarching fear to be the overly bold coach who’d get burned by a failed fourth-down attempt.
Yes, there was the infamous Chargers game against the Chiefs in primetime, when Los Angeles head coach Brandon Staley decided to go for it on fourth down three times — and came up empty every time. The Chargers lost. But because Staley is such a staunch advocate for keeping the foot on the gas on fourth down, he’ll be one of the coaches pushing this new aggressive era forward. And, over time, the Chargers will be better off routinely keeping the offense on the field in fourth-down situations than punting or opting to kick field goals. (For what it’s worth, Los Angeles actually finished fifth in fourth-down conversion rate this season.)Related to this, the two-point conversion in unconventional instances will become more common, as evidenced by the NFL record being set during the 2021 season (11%). This article by ESPN’s Seth Walder explains the logic behind one of the analytics community’s boldest ideas — going for two down eight points. Walder spells out the thought process nicely, and it’s more sound than you probably thought, right? My bet is we see the two-point conversion rate continue to rise for the 2022 season and beyond.
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YAC mattersThe 49ers, Chiefs, and Bengals entered conference championship Sunday as the top three teams in yards after the catch per reception. And Cooper Kupp had the most total YAC of any receiver in football. Amazing, right? And YAC is here to stay. Yes, growing is the list of rocket-armed, highly athletic specimens playing the quarterback position today, passers who adore launching it deep and toting the rock. But league-total YAC has increased in four of the last five seasons and set an all-time high this season with 63,161 yards after the catch during the regular season. That was around 3,500 more YAC than in 2020 and nearly 7,000 more yards than 2017. A decade ago, the NFL accumulated 54,403 yards after the catch. Therefore, the league has averaged 1,000 more yards after the catch per season over the last 10 years.
Plus, watching in awe as Deebo Samuel repeatedly trampled through tacklers, Tyreek Hill accelerated past defenders, and Ja’Marr Chase effortlessly eluded them will have a profound effect on how clubs view the talents of their skill-position players. The majority of every quarterback’s passes travel under 20 yards down the field. So, there’s a built-in onus on the receiver, tight end, or running back to make the most out of their opportunity with the ball in their hands. The power of YAC can raise already awesome offenses to unprecedented heights and elevate passing attacks that don’t feature an upper-echelon quarterback.On first down … passThe late, legendary Bill Walsh was an advocate of passing on first down, and this idea couldn’t be anymore straightforward. The NFL averaged 7.4 yards when passing on first down and 4.8 yards when rushing this season. That’s it. That’s the sell to pass it more on first down.
Now, we didn’t get a paradigm shift to everyone always passing on first downs this season. The league-wide rates have been essentially the same the past five years. But some of the high-powered offenses have seemed to embrace the offensive philosophy. In “neutral” situations — when it’s a one-score game, so there’s no added reason to run or pass — the Bills, Chiefs, and Bucs were tops in football in terms of throwing on first down this season. In fact, Buffalo was No. 1 in that category in 2020, and Kansas City held that distinction the year before. During the AFC Championship, NFL Twitter was close to being digitally set ablaze when the Bengals continued to run on first down in the first half. Tony Romo mentioned it during the broadcast on multiple occasions when Cincinnati had the football. Even in victory, the Bengals ran it 59% of the time on first down — a rather high number — and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. On first-down throws, that average skyrocketed to 8.5.Of course, it was anecdotal, but one marquee outing can have a lasting impact on widespread thought processes in the NFL.
From a broader view, there was not one rushing offense within a yard of its yards-per-pass average on first down. The Eagles were the closest at 5.0 yards per rush on first down and 6.3 yards per pass on first down. Even the mighty ground-game aficionados from Indianapolis averaged 5.5 yards per rush on first down and 6.9 yards on first-down passes. Collectively, we aren’t quite to the optimal — and still reasonable — level as a league. But it feels like we’re nearing the boom in this offensive philosophy. And, really, all you needed to do was scroll through Twitter on Sundays. The population of fans ticked when their team’s offense called a run on first down and those thrilled to see their quarterback pass the football in that situation is growing. And I’m assuming it’ll be a storyline leading into and during the Super Bowl for both teams, particularly the Bengals.