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The new basketball on grass

The future of football?

NFC Divisional Playoffs - New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

First, a synopsis.

In 1997 Joe Tiller was hired as head coach at Purdue, which at the time was a basketball school that happened to have a football team, Boilermakers football hadn’t had a winning season since 1984, the men’s basketball team had four top 10 finishes during that time. Tiller and his then-leading edge spread offense went 9-3 in his first year, going from 93rd in scoring to 18th and he wouldn’t have a losing season until going 5-6 in 2005. In 9 of his 11 seasons Purdue football was at one point ranked, during that time Purdue basketball was ranked 7 times. That same year Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and their Air Raid offense took over basketball blue blood and football also ran Kentucky. The Wildcats went from next to last in scoring to 25th, and were 11th in year two. High flying offenses at basketball schools were easy to market as “basketball on grass,” Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton described Mumme’s offense as a “fast break on grass.”

Though they immediately turned around bad programs, at the time these offenses seemed like something closer to a gimmick than to an actual way of playing football. But it turned out to be revolutionary. Today’s game is based on the foundations of those offenses; the Super Bowl just featured two QBs who played in college for Air Raid disciples. Basketball on grass wasn’t just a marketing ploy, it stuck.

But it was also a marketing ploy. The spread and the Air Raid had nothing in common with basketball either on the field or in concept, it was just fast paced football.

Which brings us to the Eagles.

The 2022 Eagles offense was almost impossible to stop. The only thing that was really able to slow it down was itself; either through turnovers, injury to Jalen Hurts, or by taking their foot off the gas late in games with big leads: they scored 35 TDs in the 1st half of games and just 22 in the 2nd half. But even their depressed rate of scoring in the 2nd half would have put them 9th in offensive TDs over a full season. They did this by plowing through teams by leaning almost exclusively on their stars.

AJ Brown finished four yards shy of 1500 yards and Devonta Smith 4 yards shy of 1200 yards, which put them 4th and 9th in receiving yards even though the Eagles were 23rd in pass attempts. In his 12 games Dallas Goedert was on pace to finish 5 yards shy of 1000 yards, he still finished 7th in yards among TEs. Jalen Hurts was 2nd in the league in rushing TDs and had more than 11 teams, while he and Miles Sanders on their own scored more rushing TDs than any team, aided by an elite offensive line.

If that all seems very top heavy it is because it was. No team leaned so heavily on its best players like the Eagles did. In the passing game, Brown, Smith, and Goedert accounted for 69.3% of pass targets, and in games they and Hurts all played the trio got 73.4% of targets. That 69% didn’t simply lead the league, it led it by a good distance. The next highest usage rate by a team throwing to their top 3 targets were the Jaguars, at 61.3%. That gap between the Eagles and Jaguars was the same as the gap between 2nd and 14th. In 2021 the highest trio usage rate were the Seahawks at 63.2%. In 2021 no team threw to its top two WRs on at least half of attempts, this year two did, the Dolphins at 51.1% and the Eagles at 55.6%. We’ve seen teams lean on their best players, but not quite like how the Eagles were.

Intentionally or not, the Eagles have created a new version of basketball on grass, but one that at least as a high level concept resembles basketball (for now, as the new NBA CBA tries to do away with the super friends teams) by running nearly their entire offense through a trio of players.

Basketball, for all its complexities, is a straightforward game. If you have the two or three best players on the court, you will win a lot of games. A large part of the reason for that is the nature of basketball, with five players per team and the best players playing at least 2/3rds of games, who dominate touches (at least the offensive minded ones do). That can’t be carbon copied in football, but components of it can be replicated.

Take the Eagles QB sneak that isn’t a sneak, which operates under the similar principle. The Eagles have the best players on the line of scrimmage and the ball carrier is extremely well built for short yardage gains. Cries that the league should ban the play are silly for several reasons, the biggest of them being that there’s not actually a way to ban it, the Eagles are so good at it because their players are so much better at it than the other team’s are.

Likewise in the passing game their big 3 are better than players the defense throws at them. In 10 of the 12 games Brown, Smith, and Goedert played together, two of them combined for at least 159 yards a game. In the two they didn’t they won one and in the other Goedert was injured. Even in the five games without Goedert, the Brown and Smith duo averaged 179 yards per game. In the Super Bowl the trio had 256 receiving yards, only 5 teams averaged that much during the regular season.

As always, some context is key. The Eagles had two things going for them to allow them to be so reliant on their own big 3 (or is it 4?).

-You can’t be productive on the sideline, and the Eagles stars were healthy. AJ Brown and Devonta Smith didn’t miss a game, Dallas Goedert missed only five games, and Jalen Hurts missed two.

-They are really talented. AJ Brown is one of the best WRs in the game, and Devonta Smith would be the #1 WR for at least half the league. Dallas Goedert’s inability to stay healthy for a full season is the only thing keeping him from being a top tier TE. And Jalen Hurts was runner up for MVP. The Eagles weren’t just using their best players, they were using some of the best players in the NFL.

The Eagles usage rate concentration had to come at someone’s expense. One of them was that the Eagles were the only team that had only 4 WRs to have a pass thrown at them, and that WR, Zach Pascal, had just 19 targets. Brown and Smith accounted for 80% of Eagles throws to a WR.

The other is that no team threw to their RBs less often than the Eagles. Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, and Boston Scott combined for just 12.1% of targets, and only the Rams (12.2%), Ravens (13.6%), Vikings (13.7%), and Jaguars (14.3%) were also under 15%, the league average was 19.4%. Additionally, over half of the Eagles rushing attempts on 3rd/4th and short were taken by Jalen Hurts. The value of the running back position is on its deathbed and the Eagles are smothering it with a pillow.

The Eagles high usage rate seems intentional. Quez Watkins struggled this season, but he was targeted more than twice in only one of the Eagles first 8 games, and half his targets for the season were when Goedert was hurt. Zach Pascal, a favorite of the head coach who started 40 games in three seasons from 2019-2021, played 29% of snaps and saw just 19 targets. In five games in relief of Dallas Goedert, Jack Stoll and Grant Calcaterra combined for just 15 targets. And this wasn’t a byproduct of Jalen Hurts, in Gardner Minshew’s two starts, Brown, Smith, and Goedert combined for 71% of attempts.

Is this the future of football? There’s something to be said about spreading the ball around and not being too predictable. But with a good–not even elite–trio of pass catchers capable of receiving the ball anywhere on the field, what is there to gain by intentionally spreading the ball around to inferior players?

12 teams threw at least 56.6% of their passes to their big 3, whether they were 2 WRs and a TE or 3 WRs (no team’s RB was top 3 in target share) while the rest of the league threw it at most 54.5%. Of those 12 teams with at least a 57% usage rate, 9 were in the top 12 in scoring. The three that weren’t were the Falcons, who finished 15th with their WR1 and RB1 and end of season QB1 as rookies, the Browns, who got six starts from a QB who hadn’t played in a year and a half, they were 18th in scoring; and the Steelers, whose QB1 and WR2 were rookies and they traded away WR3 during the season, they were 26th in scoring.

A Super Bowl team will play 20 or 21 games, which is usually fewer total games than an NBA finalist will play solely in the playoffs. This year the Nuggets played just 20 playoff games, the same as the Chiefs and Eagles, but the Heat played 23 (25 with the play-in), while last year’s finalists played 23 and 24 games. Because every game matters, getting players the ball just to get them the ball doesn’t happen in the NBA playoffs.

In the NFL if you’re a rebuilding team, sure, spread the ball around to your young, developing players. But if you’re a team with playoff aspirations or better, you only have 17 regular season games, at most four playoff games, and 10-12 possessions a game. That’s fewer games and fewer possessions per game than the NBA playoffs, where they don’t screw around with player usage. Why bother doing anything but putting the ball in the hands of your best players to maximize those possessions?

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