Turk Schonert - Promoted to OC from QB Coach
Unfortunately for Bills fans, neither Jim Kelly nor Thurman Thomas nor Andre Reed are coming out of that tunnel. And with Dick Jauron still overseeing the proceedings Schonert won’t be implementing the attack huddle or even moving the needle to the other side of conservative. What Schonert, who has spent 12 years serving as quarterbacks coach for five different teams—including two stints with the Bills, is doing is tailoring the offense to the strengths of second-year quarterback Trent Edwards. That means more three-step drops and quick passes to take advantage of Edwards’ accuracy; it will also put more pressure on the receiving corps to generate YAC, something the trio of Lee Evans, Roscoe Parrish, and Josh Reed did quite poorly (a combined 3.8 yards after each catch) last season. The addition of 6-foot-6 James Hardy will help, as will getting the ball into the hands of their speedy smurfs sooner to allow them to make plays. After spending last season working extensively with Edwards, Schonert will give him the freedom to audible this year as well.
You can also expect the tight end, nonexistent in recent Buffalo game plans, and backs to be more involved in the passing game as well. With little tight end talent on the roster, the Bills may turn to Hardy to fill some of the same duties—specifically as a checkdown for the young quarterback. And Schonert has already indicated Marshawn Lynch will be on the field in more third-down situations, assuming he’s not in a courtroom answering to hit-and-run allegations. Buffalo will still be run-first—good news to those banking on Lynch to produce first-round-worthy fantasy numbers—and the plan is to incorporate a fullback into the game plan as well; last season Buffalo mainly used tight ends as H-backs, and that’s the personnel they’re still working with.
Ultimately the changes in Buffalo’s offense will be subtle, with Schonert and Edwards learning together—one as a first-time coordinator, the other in his first full season as an NFL starter. Outside of a heavier load being placed on Lynch’s shoulders, that doesn’t bode particularly well for an immediate fantasy impact.
Jim Colletto - Promoted to OC From OL Coach
“It’s not rocket science,” Colletto said at the news conference introducing him as the Lions’ replacement to deposed offensive coordinator Mike Martz. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure these things out.”
If you get the impression that Detroit’s offense will be simplified significantly from the aerial-chess-match-on-meth approach favored by Mad Mike… well, you’d be 100 percent correct. The playbook will be pared down, the shifts and motions decreased, and the emphasis will be moved to the ground game as Colletto focuses his charges on the execution of a few basic plays as opposed to multiple options—most of them involving passes—for each situation.
“Last year we just had too much in the system, and we couldn’t do it all,” Colletto said in a published report. “This year, we will find the thing that we can hang our hat on and build from there. We’re definitely going to run the ball more.
In fact, Colletto himself will focus on the running portion of the offense and leave the passing game in the capable hands of assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Kippy Brown. The move to a power running game led to the drafting not only of Kevin Smith to handle the work but also of first-round pick Gosder Cherilus to open the holes up front. Smith, who produced gaudy numbers in a similar scheme at Central Florida, said in a published report that “maybe 85 percent of the playbook is the same,” which will only help expedite his transition to the NFL. The zone blocking system should also fit Tatum Bell, who has a familiarity with the scheme from his days in Denver. And if Colletto truly wants to run the ball more often, there should be touches enough for both backs.
Brown’s passing game will focus on the outside receivers, meaning you won’t be able to scrape another Shaun McDonald or Mike Furrey off the waiver wire in a PPR league and get fantasy production. While the Lions indicated that there will still be work for McDonald in the slot, there will be far fewer three- and four-receiver sets and the bulk of the passing game will filter through Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. The Lions also plan to use shorter drops and quicker releases than Martz’s offense called for, which not only helps the quarterback—especially if the Lions opt at some point to turn the reins over to Drew Stanton—but also should reduce the Lions’ sack totals. Colletto, who has spent 19 of his 38 years of college and NFL coaching overseeing the offensive line, freely admits that “whatever puts the line in jeopardy, I don’t like. We’re going to make it as easy for [the offensive line] as we possibly can and be functional as a football team.” Colletto also intends to allow his quarterbacks to call audibles, something the Martz system strongly discouraged.
In other words, this year’s Detroit offense will be about players making plays instead of the mad genius of the coaching staff. What immediate fantasy dividends there are to be found in Detroit this season likely remain with the two first-round wideouts and the rookie Smith. Simple; just like Colletto wants it.
Kyle Shanahan - Promoted to OC from QB Coach
Gary Kubiak played wingman to Mike Shanahan in Denver for all those years, and now Kubiak returns the favor by making Mike’s kid the youngest offensive coordinator in the NFL. And while Shanahan’s resume—walk-on receiver at the University of Texas, graduate assistant at UCLA, offensive assistant in Tampa Bay, receivers coach and quarterback coach in Houston—gives us little information as to what wrinkles he may add to the Texans’ offense, another Houston hire helps clarify some of the gray areas.
The addition of offensive line guru Alex Gibbs was hailed by the Houston Chronicle’s Lance Zierlein (one of my favorite NFL bloggers) as nothing short of “the most important addition in Texans history.” And while that history doesn’t exactly span the eons, it doesn’t downgrade the potential impact of Gibbs’ hire.
If you’re not familiar with Gibbs, he’s the offensive line genius and veteran NFL coach whom Mike Shanahan hired to work with the Broncos back in the mid-90s. Gibbs also served as a mentor to the Broncos’ 32-year-old offensive coordinator—Gary Kubiak.
So if the Houston offense looks a whole lot like what the Broncos ran when Shanahan the elder and Kubiak were calling the plays, don’t be surprised. The overhaul of the offensive line began with the selection of tackle Duane Brown in the first round of the draft and will continue throughout OTAs and training camp. The Texans have been zone blocking for a couple years anyway, but Gibbs is the master; he transformed the Broncos and then the Falcons into elite rushing squads no matter who was in the backfield, so it matters not if it’s Ahman Green or Chris Brown or Chris Taylor or Steve Slaton—Houston will run the football.
Shanahan’s track record working with quarterbacks (Matt Schaub last year) and receivers (Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, who had his big year while young Shanny was in Tampa, Andre Johnson in Houston) suggests he knows his way around a passing game as well. His familiarity with the system and the personnel—specifically Schaub and Johnson—should allow him to get maximum production from that portion of the game plan. And if the running game hits as big as Gibbs’ units typically do, the Texans could be poised to make noise—even in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.
Kansas City Chiefs
Chan Galley - From Georgia Tech HC (ex-Dallas HC) to Kansas City OC
To say that Chiefs fans are pleased the Mike Solari era is over would be an understatement; while the deposed offensive coordinator cannot be blamed for all the woes that led to the Chiefs scoring just 14 points per game last season—more than four points per game fewer than any Chiefs team had scored in the past 30 years—he definitely needed to go. Enter Chan Gailey, whose 37-year coaching career has spanned the collegiate and professional ranks, including OC gigs with the Broncos, Steelers and Dolphins and head coaching stints with the Cowboys and, most recently, Georgia Tech. Will magic ensue?
“I told the players I don’t have any kind of magic offense,” Gailey said in a published report. “I don’t have any pixie dust that I sprinkle and all of a sudden we become good. We have to work at it. There’s nothing magic about what we’ve got.”
What Gailey does have is a track record of successful ground games. During the heart of his tenure in Pittsburgh the Steelers finished second in the league in rushing at 144 yards per game, then followed that the following season with a league-leading 155 rushing yards per contest. In eight seasons as either an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, Gailey’s offense has produced seven 1,000-yard rushers. Clearly, that bodes well for the fantasy prospects of Larry Johnson, assuming he’s healthy after missing half of last season with a broken foot. Gailey’s opinion has carried significant weight in the shuffling of Kansas City’s offensive line—which returns just two starters from a year ago—but his persuasion appears to have worked in convincing Damion McIntosh to move to the right side, making room for first-round pick Branden Albert at left tackle. While the Chiefs aren’t quite back to Will Shields/Willie Roaf level, Albert and Brian Waters on the left side isn’t a bad start.
Working off a power running game, Gailey has simplified the playbook in hopes of making Brodie Croyle—whom Gailey emphatically endorses as the team’s quarterback of the future—more comfortable. “This offense gives me a chance to be patient and more consistent… make the right reads and don’t try to force things,” Croyle told the Kansas City Star during the teams minicamp in late May. “It’s a pretty simple offense. It’s giving guys the chance to go out and play, not a whole lot of thinking about it, just go out and line up and go.”
A back-to-the-basics approach from a coordinator with a strong ground-game pedigree who’s been dealt a young quarterback, a stud running back, and a retooled offensive line. If LJ can get and stay healthy, this sounds like a system that should produce very nice fantasy numbers for him. Don’t expect the gaudy Shiels/Roaf era digits and you won’t be let down. As for the passing game, at least Croyle is comfortable—something he certainly didn’t appear to be during six starts over the second half of last season. Whether that translates into better digits for Dwayne Bowe and Tony Gonzalez, however, remains to be seen.
San Francisco 49ers
Mike Martz - From Detroit OC to San Francisco OC
It seems so wrong, and yet it seems so right. Why not bring in Mad Mike, one of the most renown offensive minds in the game, to direct an offense that finished last in the NFL in points, yards, passing yards, first downs, offensive touchdowns, and third-down conversions? After all, Martz was the architect of the Greatest Show on Turf, an offense the 49er organization saw up close and personal as the Rams ran (and passed) all over them in the late 90s and early 00s.
On the other hand, the 49er roster seems to be as logical a fit with Martz’s style as Cars lead singer Ric Ocasek did with supermodel Paulina Porizkova. San Francisco’s collection of receiver makes Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey look like Rice and Taylor; meanwhile, the Niners’ strength appears to be the running of Frank Gore and athletic tight end Vernon Davis, facets of the game Martz isn’t well-known for exploring.
For the moment that doesn’t seem to be a problem, as even Martz recognizes the dissimilarities. “There’s different personnel here than what I’m accustomed to,” Martz said in a published report during his first minicamp with the Niners. “The tight end is a terrific athlete, and we’ve got a whole stable of really good runners. It will be different than perhaps what you’ve seen us do in the past.”
Actually, it won’t be all that different. The core of TGSOT-era Rams was Marshall Faulk, who put up MVP numbers as the focal point of Martz’s offense. “It was all on me,” Faulk said in a published report. “The onus was on me to control a lot of things within our offense. Frank is going to be in that same way. He’s the core. It’s all going to be built around him.”
And Gore is ready for the challenge. “Practicing right now, I like it,” Gore told the Associated Press during the latest OTAs. “We’re spreading the ball around, and hopefully this year we won’t see eight, nine men in the box every play. I think I’ll get used in the passing game, too. I want to show I can do it all—run, catch, block. People think I’m just a running back.”
The tight end situation is a bit more puzzling, because Martz has always favored three- and four-receiver sets that spread the field—usually at the expense of any meaningful numbers for the tight ends in his offenses. With Davis, however, Martz sees a new opportunity.
“We’ll formation him probably a little bit more than he’s probably done in the past,” Martz said in a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “He’ll be outside as a wide receiver some. He might be in the backfield. We’re going to put him in different positions, see how he deals with it. The next step for him is using all that great speed and athleticism he’s got. We’ve got to channel it now. See if we can’t isolate him.”
“He said he’s never had a tight end of my stature,” Davis added. “We’re starting to focus on things we haven’t focused on in a while, like getting the ball to guys who can make plays.”
In other words, at the moment it appears Martz isn’t trying to force a square peg into a round hole. He sees the top two weapons in his arsenal are Gore and Davis and will find ways to get them the ball. Of course, that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to spread the field and throw the ball to his slot receivers—turning them into fantasy helpers like he did with Furrey and McDonald.
One of those slot spots may very well be filled by Davis in the variety of roles listed above, but Martz has already talked about how infatuated he is with Bryant Johnson, Jason Hill, and Ashley Lelie. He also brought in Isaac Bruce to mentor the troops, Arnaz Battle is working back from injury, and the club drafted Josh Morgan as well. Nothing there screams “fantasy helper”… but the same could have been said about McDonald and Furrey prior to the past couple of seasons. In other words, be prepared to pick up San Francisco’s third receiver off the waiver wire early in the season, especially in a PPR league.
Of course, this offense is going nowhere without at least adequate quarterback play—and given the talent (or lack thereof) San Francisco has at the position that’s far from a given. Alex Smith seems to be the antithesis of a Mike Martz quarterback—quick reads, accurate passes—but he’s actually looked okay during OTAs. Martz can always fall back on J.T. O’Sullivan, who followed him westward from Detroit, or Shaun Hill, who stepped in late last season and played quite well. Again, Martz has made the proverbial silk purse out of sow’s ear-level talent, though this group may be a stretch even for his magic. And, given the Martz offense tradition of allowing copious amounts of sacks, the Niners might need all three quarterbacks this season.
With Martz at the helm, fantasy folks will at least be paying more attention to the Niners. If you’re feeling Gore in the Marshall Faulk role, he should be knocking on the top five; after all, there’s a track record of success for backs in his system. Davis is a bit trickier of an evaluation, though if he’s being split out more like a slot wide receiver he’ll be in position to put up some very nice numbers. From amongst the actual wideouts, given the way Martz’s receiving corps responded in Detroit you might be best served picking the two you like most… then crossing them off your list and taking the next best option.
St. Louis Rams
Al Saunders - From Washington OC to St. Louis OC
You may find it difficult to believe that Saunders and Martz are pulling pages from the same playbook; of course, since the playbook in question is roughly the size of the stack of cards Travis Henry receives on Father’s Day, there are more than enough pages to go around. Saunders was on the Vermeil/Martz staff in 1999 and 2000, and he’s turning back the clock in St. Louis to those glory days—everything from old-school t-shirts with the team’s motto from the Super Bowl season, “Gotta Get To Work”, to tweaking the playbook so that the terminology matches that from The Greatest Show On Turf era.
Of course, where Martz focuses on the passing portion of the playbook, Saunders is more apt to use two tight ends and a power running game. The evidence of his take on this scheme can be seen in his offenses across the state in Kansas City, where the Chiefs led the NFL in yardage in back-to-back season thanks primarily to the efforts of Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson.
“We’ll probably look more like Kansas City did than the four-wide looks they used here,” Saunders noted shortly after his hire.
The key to the success of that KC masterpiece was a dominant offensive line; unfortunately for the Rams, their offensive line was predominantly banged up last season. Between the healthy return of Orlando Pace, Brett Romberg, and Richie Incognito, the free agent acquisition of Jacob Bell, on-the-job training acquired by several understudies during last year’s injury-riddled campaign, and the arrival of a couple rookies to shore up the line, Saunders at least has some pieces to work with. The addition of blocking tight end Anthony Becht won’t hurt, either; if you recall the Chiefs offense of a few years back, think of Becht as the Rams’ version of Jason Dunn.
Which would put Randy McMichael in the Tony Gonzalez role and brings me to another hallmark of the Saunders offense: the tight end. Yes, despite Martz and Saunders both pulling from the same scheme, one offense almost entirely eschews the position while one embraces it wholeheartedly. One of the first things Saunders told McMichael upon arriving in St. Louis was that his offense had sent a tight end to the Pro Bowl each of the past eight seasons.
“As soon as I found out that they’d hired Coach Saunders, I got really excited; this is the kind of offense I’ve dreamed of playing in my whole career,” McMichael said in a published report. “I think it’s going to be a fun year for everybody.”
And especially for Steven Jackson. As giddy as fantasy owners are picturing Jackson in the Holmes/Johnson role, Saunders is equally as excited about his multi-faceted weapon. “The real good backs that I’ve been around—Chuck Muncie, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson—have all been three-dimensional backs,” Saunders told ESPN this May. “Steven is in that class. I don’t think Steven Jackson has any limits to what he can do if everything is pulled together. He has not even begun to reach his potential as a back. He has some exceptional skills and we plan to use him in a lot of different ways in our system.”
If by “a lot of different ways” Saunders intends to use Jackson the way he used Holmes in KC, brace yourself: Priest averaged 1,500 rushing yards, 600 receiving yards, and 20 touchdowns a season in his first three years with Saunders calling the plays. About the only limits to Jackson’s upside this season will be placed by the offensive line. If Pace stays healthy, Jackson is in line for a repeat of his 2006 campaign (2,334 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns)—maybe more.
Oh yeah, the wide receivers. Saunders didn’t have much to work with in Kansas City or more recently in Washington, but he was with the Rams when Torry Holt was drafted so he is certainly familiar with what he brings to the offense. And while Saunders’ track record suggests a more run-heavy offense, the entire premise of TGSOT was to get the ball into the hands of playmakers and allow them to make plays. In KC, those playmakers were Holmes and Gonzo, not Snoop Minnis or Marc Boerigter or even Eddie Kennison, the only wideout to lead the Chiefs in receiving since the turn of the century. So Holt will get his… but if you’re expecting Martz-ish numbers for secondary receivers like Drew Bennett or Dane Looker or Donnie Avery, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
And let’s not overlook Marc Bulger. In the midst of all that Holmes/Johnson rushing, Trent Green averaged 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns a season during Saunders’ tenure. Those are the kind of numbers Bulgers has hit only once in his career—not coincidentally, the only season he stayed healthy for 16 games. Again, if the line doesn’t implode again this season, Bulger should return to elite status.
Finally, perhaps the most important shift his offseason was Scott Linehan’s decision to take play-calling duties off his plate. With Saunders calling the shots, the Rams are poised to resume the mantle—maybe not TGSOT, but of an offense fantasy folks can turn to with confidence.
Mike Heimerdinger - From Denver OC/ex-Tennessee OC to Tennessee OC
The Titans are going green, recycling their former offensive coordinator and bringing Heimerdinger back for a second stint in Tennessee. The Dinger was instrumental in the development of Steve McNair from an athlete into an MVP quarterback, and the hope is he’ll be able to do the same for Vince Young. “He [Young] knows what Mike has done and what he can do,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said in a published report this May. “Mike clearly understands and sees Vince’s potential, so they are working hard to try to get the ball in the end zone. That is the bottom line.”
Much of the Dinger’s May/June time has been spent working on Young’s footwork in hopes of improving his accuracy. McNair was a 56% career passer when Dinger took over in 2000; his completion percentage never dipped below 60% after that, as he connected on 62% of his throws the rest of his career.
Young’s completion percentage heading into 2008? 57.1%.
But VY won’t be the Dinger’s only focus. His reputation forged in Tennessee also included taking a collection of heretofore unknown receivers and molding them into solid NFL wideouts. Derrick Mason had 47 catches in three seasons and was primarily a return man before the Dinger arrived in Tennessee; four 1,000-yard seasons later Mason was considered a solid, if not spectacular, NFL pass-catcher. Dinger also helped groom Drew Bennett from an undrafted converted quarterback into a 1,000-yard receiver who cashed in with the Rams, and Justin McCareins from a lightly-regarded fourth-rounder into a big-ticket free agent signee with the Jets.
Not surprisingly, McCareins is back with the Titans as the Dinger attempts to pull off a similar miracle with a group that includes four Williams (Roydell, Mike, Paul, and Edward) in addition to Justin Gage, Brandon Jones, Biren Ealy, Chris Davis, and Lavelle Hawkins. The Dinger hopes to cull three pass-catchers from this mötley crüe to plug into his regular rotation; at present McCareins and Gage are working with the first team while Roydell Williams rehabs an injury, with Ealy and Mike Williams next in line. The rep of the Titans’ offense under the Dinger previously was that of a run-first unit, but over his five-year tenure the passing game averaged 24 scores a season so the emerging trio present at least some fantasy value. And if Dinger is able to develop another Mason, or perhaps complete some unfinished business with McCareins’ development, fantasy folks will at least have a player worthy of roster depth and bye-week consideration.
Some might recall Frank Wycheck being the go-to Titans receiver of that era, but what Wycheck really was was a transitionary device. His two biggest yardage seasons came prior to Dinger’s arrival, and while he did match a career high with 70 catches in 2000 (the Dinger’s first year as Titans’ OC), his numbers steadily declined as the Dinger’s receiving corps developed. Alge Crumpler can expect to serve a similar role in Tennessee this year; any development amongst the Titan wideouts will come at the expense of Crump’s digits. Remember, Tennessee’s near-record year of throwing to the tight end came under Norm Chow’s watch.
Of course, the hallmark of turn-of-the-century Titans football was the running game. In Dinger’s first four years at the helm—Eddie George’s last four seasons in Tennessee—the Titans averaged 503 rushes per season; only after George left and brittle Chris Brown took over did Tennessee run the ball fewer than 468 times in a season or rank outside the NFL’s top 11 in rushing attempts.
I’m sure you’re thinking what I’m thinking: there is simply no way LenDale White holds up to an Eddie-like workload; hence the arrival of Chris Johnson via the draft. Not only will the 4.29 speedster bring some quicks to the lineup, he can change the pace with White—dramatically—for a dozen or so carries per game. That still leaves 20 inside hammer plays for White (a far more reasonable workload) and satisfies Fisher’s apparent career mandate of running the ball 30-plus times per contest.
In a nutshell, we’ve seen this offense before. Unless you’re banking on rushing scores, Young’s optimal fantasy value is likely a year or two away (based on McNair’s development under the Dinger), and the best bet with Tennessee’s wideouts is to take a wait-and-see attitude, pick your candidate for “the next Mason” (a dynasty league hint: the Cal rookie Hawkins drew comparisons to the former Titan in the predraft runup), or expect McCareins—the player most familiar with the Dinger’s system—to be the early No. 1. The Titans ground game will continue to deliver, though results won’t be housed with one back like they were when the Dinger ran George into the ground.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hop in my Delorean and see if I can get this bad boy up to 88 miles per hour.