2014 NFL Coaching Changes: Offensive Coordinators

John Tuvey, @jtuvey

Five NFL teams replaced their offensive coordinator this offseason, with varying degrees of impact and fantasy importance. Here’s a look at the new OCs taking over within established administrations.

Gary Kubiak, Ravens

A couple offseasons ago, looking to upgrade their offense, the Ravens’ coaching staff spent time studying the Houston ground game—even going so far as to adding some of the Texans’ playbook into their own. So when Jim Calhoun’s departure created an offensive coordinator vacancy in Baltimore, Kubiak seemed a logical choice.

“In your mind, you keep a list of the guys that give you the most trouble as coaches,” Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh said in a published report. “Right out of the gates, that’s the first thing I thought about. It looks like, in a lot of ways, like we want to look.”

Kubiak’s track record strongly suggests that, after limping along at a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season, the Ravens want to regain their ability to run the football. In more than half of his NFL seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak’s clubs have ranked in the top five in the league in rushing yards.

Of course, with Kubiak that means the zone blocking scheme. It’s something the Ravens have tried to incorporate the past couple of seasons, but this year they’ll jump in with both feet—much to the delight of Baltimore fullback Vontae Leach, a Pro Bowler during his five seasons in Houston.

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“We were just running partial run scheme,” said Leach. “Now we’re going to have the full zone scheme.”

Given the success a litany of backs with significantly lesser pedigrees have had in Kubiak’s system, the change should mean good things for Ray Rice coming off the worst season of his NFL career. And if Rice misses time due to either the hip issues that plagued him last year or a league-mandated vacation due to his off-the-field transgressions, Bernard Pierce is equally capable of productivity in Kubiak’s one-cut-and-go scheme; 1,000-yard rushers like Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns and Steve Slaton are proof of that.

Earlier in the offseason, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome had discussed getting bigger on the offensive line. Now, going all-in on the zone scheme, that’s not as big of a concern. Moreover, in guys like Marshall Yanda, Eugene Monroe, and newly acquired Jeremy Zuttah Baltimore already has the athletic linemen required to make this offense work. Just don’t expect defensive linemen in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Cleveland to be excited about getting cut-blocked twice a season.

Aiding in the o-line’s transition is quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison. Dennison was Kubiak’s offensive coordinator in Houston; he didn’t call the plays, but he was in charge of the running game and helped set all the schemes. He’s also a disciple of Alex Gibbs, the revered offensive line coach known for implementing the zone-blocking scheme in Denver (and elsewhere). His familiarity with Kubiak’s system will make it easier for the entire team to transition to the new playbook.

Another Kubiak hallmark is a productive tight end. The Texans have squeezed plenty of fantasy mileage out of Owen Daniels, and in Dennis Pitta the Ravens have a similarly (perhaps even more) talented tight end poised for big numbers.

Andre Johnson also found success in Kubiak’s offense, in no small part because he was the only show in town. Torrey Smith has a little help with the signing of Steve Smith, and while Smith isn’t quite the talent A.J. is he could see an uptick in numbers—especially as the deep threat on the business end of an improved play-action game.

The marriage of Kubiak’s play-action scheme and Joe Flacco is made in heaven. Last year, for example, Case Keenum posted a 100.7 quarterback rating on play-action passes last season. Flacco’s QB rating on play-action passes was 90.7, compared to a 70.3 rating on non-play action. A rejuvenated ground game, twin deep threats in the Smiths, and Flacco on the play action… after hitting rock bottom last season, the Ravens offense looks poised to bounce back in a big way under Kubiak.

Hue Jackson, Bengals

When the Bengals added Jackson to their staff as a defensive backs coach a couple years ago, it seemed odd; after all, Jackson’s 20-plus seasons of coaching had all been spent on the offensive side of the ball, save for his tenure as the Raiders’ head coach. But there was a method to the Bengals’ madness. Last season Jackson switched back from the dark side to coach Cincy’s running backs, and with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden now the head coach in Washington it was a logical move to promote Jackson to the OC gig.

Keeping the offense in-house should ease the transition, as terminology shouldn’t change much and the playbook will remain largely intact. But Jackson has a more dynamic personality than Gruden, and his offense will take on a more aggressive look as well.

Jackson’s influences are wide and varied, ranging from Marty Schottenheimer’s run-heavy attack to Don Coryell’s vertical passing game to Steve Mariucci’s West Coast approach. What Jackson’s offenses have looked like in the past is a hybrid of the two, something you might compare to a Norv Turner offense that leans on the power running game but also takes plenty of vertical shots down the field.

“We know we need to run the football,” Jackson told the Cincinnati Enquirer shortly after his promotion. " I think that's where it starts. From there, we have some very talented players on the outside. We have to give them opportunities to make plays. We're not going to shy away from having to throw it when we need to. In order to win and be a very good offensive football team, you have to be able to run the ball, and that's going to be a starting point for us.”

"You have to have something that you can lean on,” continued Jackson. “Our offense starts with being physical. You have to be able to run the football, in my mind, to win football games.”

It’s the offense Jackson employed in Oakland when he squeezed a career year out of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, which certainly bodes well for Giovanni Bernard—and maybe even BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Under Jackson’s guidance, the Raiders finished second and seventh in the NFL in rushing; the Bengals haven’t ranked that high since the Corey Dillon days at the turn of the millennium.

With Jackson calling the shots McFadden recorded his only 1,000-yard season and averaged better than five yards per carry over 20 games in Jackson’s offense on 16.8 carries and another 4.2 targets per game—numbers more than attainable for Bernard. And yet Bush still mustered almost 14 carries per game—and 15 touchdowns—over that same two-year span, even though McFadden actually played in 20 of the 32 games.

Given that Jackson worked directly with Cincy’s running backs last season, he has first-hand knowledge of what he has at his disposal… and what he needs to succeed. So be it BJGE or an upgrade via the draft, expect Gio to have a complementary back to keep him fresh—and perhaps garner fantasy value of his own in the process.

No need for A.J. Green owners to fret, either. As Jackson’s quote above alluded to, he knows he has passing game play-makers and he won’t be afraid to use them.

"Hue likes to run the ball, but he'll also find a way to get it in the hands of his playmakers in that division if you can't run the ball," said T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had his best seasons while Jackson was the Bengals’ receivers coach. "I'll bet half my earnings that the offense is going to be better."

Jackson is also expected to help in the continued development of Andy Dalton, who took plenty of heat after turning the ball over three times in the Bengals’ playoff loss. Not only is Jackson an unabashed Dalton supporter—"There's no doubt in my mind about Andy," Jackson said in his first interview after the promotion; "I think he has tremendous upside… I'm going to be the guy that pushes Andy and I think Andy will push himself”—he’s also evolved his offense over the course of his coaching career to be extremely quarterback friendly.

"I saw how he worked with Carson [Palmer] and I think he's really going to help Andy," Houshmandzadeh said. "Andy Dalton will get better. He'll have no choice. Andy is a good quarterback. Hue will sit down with him a lot. They'll meet a lot. They'll be joined at the hip. Hue will ask him what he likes and what he doesn't like and start from there.”

Look no further than Jackson’s work in a similar type of offense in Baltimore during Joe Flacco’s first two NFL seasons. While the Ravens remained run-heavy, Flacco posted his best completion-percentage season (63.1%) and second-best yards-per-attempt (7.24) in his second pro season. With the more experienced Dalton, the ceiling is certainly higher.

So, even though their OC left for a head-coaching gig, the Bengals’ offense could actually be even more productive under Jackson—welcome news to fantasy owners.

Bill Lazor, Dolphins

Lazor became a hot coaching candidate on the heels of Nick Foles’ successful season under his tutelage in Philadelphia, and he parlayed that run into a job in Miami replacing Mike Sherman as the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator.

“Obviously, Nick deserves credit because Nick’s the one who’s playing,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said in a published report. “But Billy was the guy that got him prepared to play, so I think Billy did a great job with him. I think he’s got great experience in terms of being a coordinator at the college level but has also coached with the Seahawks and the Falcons and the Redskins.”

Lazor does have experience, both at the pro level with the aforementioned clubs as well as play-calling experience at the University of Virginia. His initial statements upon being introduced as Miami’s play-caller were of the generic, clichéd variety, but indications are the Dolphins will continue to roll with Joe Philben’s take on the West Coast offense.

To that mix Lazor will bring tidbits he picked up with Kelly last season as well as working under Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs, and Mike Holmgren.

“I’ve had a chance to really work for great head coaches,” Lazor said in a published report. “Most of them have been offensive head coaches, but every one of them have had some kind of impact on my philosophy offensively and my philosophy on what works for football.”

“The number one thing that was common was that they had a vision of how offensive football should look,” Lazor added. “They knew what it was going to look like and it was an absolute drive to push the football team in that direction.”

While Lazor will call the plays, don’t expect the Miami offense to change dramatically scheme-wise.

“The clearest way to say it, and it’s probably disappointing, is to say this is the Miami Dolphins’ offense,” Lazor said shortly after being named Miami’s OC. “The number one factor in how we do it and specifically how it looks is going to be the ability of the players we have.”

Of course, Job One for Lazor will be working the same magic with Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill that he worked with Foles in Philly last year. As a former All-Ivy League quarterback at Cornell, Lazor has both the experience and intelligence to help develop Tannehill. And in Tannehill Lazor has at least if not more raw material to work with than he had with Foles.

One key to Foles’ success last season was the Eagles’ balanced offense, so the Dolphins’ addition of Knowshon Moreno to complement Lamar Miller in the Miami backfield makes sense.  And a dose of Kelly’s creativity into what was a relatively static offense last season wouldn’t hurt, either.

Bottom line, there’s plenty of room for improvement in a Miami offense that ranked 20th or lower in both rushing and passing last season. Putting Lazor in charge offers the prospect of improvement, starting at the top with Tannehill and running throughout the underachieving Dolphins attack.

Ben McAdoo, Giants

In a true test of whether or not you can teach an old dog new tricks, Eli Manning will change offensive schemes for the first time in his NFL career with Ben McAdoo taking over for the retired Kevin Gilbride.

Change was certainly warranted on the heels of Manning’s 27-interception season as the Giants limped to a bottom-five ranking in total offense. But from philosophy to formation, Eli will be asked to move outside of the comfort zone that netted him a pair of Super Bowl rings.

“Every offensive system is its own living, breathing organism,” McAdoo said at his introductory press conference. “At the end of the day you have to make sure you're flexible enough, so it depends on what type of personnel you feed it to what it's gonna look like, and it's a little early to know what we're gonna look like right now.”

So no specifics at this juncture, other than McAdoo using descriptives like “uptempo” and “attacking-style” when referring to the Giants’ new offense. What McAdoo and the New York staff will be trying to do heading into offseason workouts is blend the power-running/vertical passing game Gilbride employed with the West Coast principles McAdoo has operated under during his past eight seasons in Green Bay.

"Most teams in the league do have West Coast principles in their offense and we'll be one of them," McAdoo added. “The offensive system here with the Giants has been in place for a long time, and the offensive system that I'm coming from I've been in for 10 years. Those two systems being in place as we merge them together and build towards the future we'll be multiple enough that we can use any type of personnel.”

The precision passing required of a WCO constitutes a definite change for Manning, who has a career accuracy rate of 58.5% and hasn’t topped 60 percent since 2011. On the bright side, McAdoo will certainly bring more three-receiver sets to New York; the Packers operated out of that formation on first down 60 percent of the time (and 67 percent overall), compared to 39 percent on first downs and 51 percent overall for the Giants. Also, the WCO’s shorter drops and quicker throws should help keep Eli upright as the Giants rebuild an offensive line that allowed Manning to be sacked a career-high 39 times in 2013.

Victor Cruz has already lobbied to play the Randall Cobb role in McAdoo’s offense, and while it would be unlikely to see him operating out of the backfield as much as Cobb has in Green Bay the fit is there. With Hakeem Nicks gone, Jerrel Jernigan and Mario Manningham should push for fantasy relevance in three-WR sets alongside Cruz and Rueben Randle.

There’s also an opening for a pass-catching tight end with Brandon Myers gone, a vacancy the Giants could turn to early in the draft to address. McAdoo saw how effectively the Packers’ passing game operated when Jermichael Finley was on the field—and how oftentimes it struggled when he wasn’t—so look for the team to upgrade from Adrien Robinson, Larry Donnell, and Daniel Fells sooner rather than later.

McAdoo’s offense will also challenge his running backs to take on a bigger role in the passing game—both as receivers and as blockers, especially with the 3WR formations leaving the Giants in single-RB sets. Rashad Jennings has the size to hold up in pass protection and is a solid receiver in his own right; he could easily step into the three-down back role Eddie Lacy and James Starks held at various times for the Packers last season.

Does that make Peyton Hillis the Giants’ version of John Kuhn? West Coast offenses tend to make good use out of versatile fullbacks, so he could have a vulture-type role in New York—especially if their tight end question remains unanswered.

Of course, McAdoo’s success will be based on what he can do to resurrect Eli’s career. Further down the road, he’ll also be asked to develop backup Ryan Nassib. As Green Bay’s quarterbacks coach last year, McAdoo receives at least some credit for keeping the team competitive though forced to use Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn when Aaron Rodgers was hurt so he does have a track record in that area. And with success in New York, the ultimate prize might be a promotion to the big chair when Tom Coughlin calls it a career.

Frank Reich, Chargers

With Ken Whisenhunt taking the head coaching job in Tennessee, Mike McCoy promoted from within to fill the Chargers’ offensive coordinator vacancy by elevating Reich from quarterbacks coach to the role of play-caller.

Reich has never called plays before, but that shouldn’t be a concern as continuity reigns in San Diego. Reich was heavily involved in game-planning last season so he knows the existing offense and personnel, and he can lean on the experienced McCoy with any play-calling questions.

Additionally, as quarterbacks coach Reich worked closely with Philip Rivers last season so the duo should be squarely on the same page. Rivers had expanded freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage last year, so ultimately the actual play-call may not matter as much as getting the right personnel and formation.

"He'd be a first-time playcaller, but in the offense he was in and the time he spent with Jim Kelly and what they ran in Buffalo, there's no doubt he can do it,” Rivers said in a published report before Reich’s anticipated promotion was made official. “His 14 years of playing experience is valuable in itself. Here is a guy that stood in the pocket and can relate to you on a personal level because he has done it.”

If anything, the Chargers should be more comfortable in McCoy’s second season as head coach, so the offensive staff can spend less time teaching and implementing.

“I think you got to be an aggressive play caller,” Reich said following his promotion. “You got somebody on the ropes, you go for the kill.”

That aggressive approach meshes with Rivers’ personality. And with existing personnel already used to the playbook, scheme, and staff the Chargers’ offense should continue to move forward—aggressively.

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