It feels as though the winds of change are blowing in the NFL.
Although it has been creeping up on the sport for a few years, it has never been more apparent than now that a new era is dawning.
So where has this feeling stemmed from and are we really in the midst of a league-wide revolution?
To start off with, let’s take a look at the most important position in football.
Changing of the guard behind centre
The players that have been considered the faces of the quarterback position for the past two decades are fading right before our eyes. Future Hall of Famer Eli Manning announced his retirement after the 2019 season. Meanwhile Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are all set to enter free agency this off season.
The thought of any of those three veterans being on a different roster come September is strange to say the least. They all helped to shape the league from their respective franchises. But change is inevitable because no one can stop father time. Although Brady has been trying to evade him for way longer than we thought possible.
But it’s not like their decisions this off season will leave a hole in the league. The new kids on the block have already stepped into the light and are ready to take over from where the previous generation is leaving off.
Lamar Jackson, 23, Patrick Mahomes, 24, and Deshaun Watson, 24, each played huge roles in their teams finishing as the three of the top four seeds in the AFC this year. Jackson in particular had an incredible 2019 campaign which ended in his MVP selection.
Meanwhile, 2018’s MVP Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years. Ending one of the longest Super Bowl droughts in the league was impressive enough. Just to add to it, this also marked the first time since 2002 that an AFC Super Bowl team wasn’t quarterbacked by a man with the surname Brady, Roethlisberger, Manning or Flacco.
To put that into context, 15 different NFC quarterbacks have lifted the George Halas trophy in the same time span.
The Air Raid effect
But it’s not just the quarterback position that is evolving. It is the game itself. The college-style ‘air raid’ offence quickly infiltrated NFL playbooks with young quarterbacks and coaches changing the game to suit their style and not visa-versa.
Collegiate coaches Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury both helped to establish a new scheme that has already started to turn the tables at the pro-level. As products of the same college coaching tree, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes are all cut from the same cloth. They may prove to be the driving force behind the new offensive norm for the foreseeable future.
Since Kingsbury became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and selected Murray number one overall in 2019, it seems like nothing can stop this exciting new craze from taking over.
However this isn’t news, the air raid offence has been in the works for several years. The difference now is that it seems like it’s being taken seriously for the first time, rather than just being a niche talking point.
The evolving running back position
The scheme focusing heavily on the passing attack may have some people thinking that the running back position will become more and more disposable, but that isn’t the case.
Instead, the position seems to be taking a new direction. The likes of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffery have highlighted the importance of a halfback who can catch out the back field as well as run the rock.
This modified style can be extremely complimentary of an air raid or pass-heavy offence and the rewards of this change are already being reaped by teams like Carolina. In 2019 McCaffery became the third player in NFL history to total 1000 rushing and 1000 receiving yards in a single season.
Now of course there is the argument that McCaffery had a heavier workload this year because of the revolving door that the Panthers installed in their quarterback room. But the achievement is still impressive nonetheless.
Before you know it other franchises are going to catch on to what’s working and follow suit.
Todd Gurley has already been rumoured to be on the Rams’ trading block one year after signing his huge four-year contract. Again, there are multiple reasons for this, such as injury concerns, but despite this, the changing dynamics of the position can’t be ignored.
There are multiple teams across the league who have been able to make the most out of lower-market running backs. Broncos back Philip Lindsay made NFL history this year by being the first undrafted rookie to average at least 1000 rushing yards in his first two seasons.
Alongside the air raid offence there is another play style that is also becoming more and more popular league-wide. With Lamar Jackson running around looking like the new Mike Vick, offences are starting to welcome the idea of mobile quarterbacks who can make plays outside of the pocket.
The pure-pocket passers are dying out and making way for a new era of quarterback. Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson are all prototypes of this new style. The ability to evade defenders, who are much quicker, stronger and intelligent than ever before, and make a play down field under tight pressure, is slowly becoming the new way of doing things.
How will the D respond?
With all these offensive evolutions taking place it’s only a matter of time before the other side of the ball is forced to make some changes too. Soon NFL defences will adapt to combat pass-heavy offences and mobile quarterbacks.
The ‘spy’ linebacker will be a position of great value in the near future in order to keep an eye on elusive throwers like Jackson and Watson. Meanwhile in the secondary, there will be a need for stronger players to counter the increased number of positions who are running routes. Double tight-end sets and running backs coming out of the backfield more often will lead to an increased need to find defenders who can cover those types of players downfield.
Now that’s not to say this is definitely the direction the league is taking, it’s simply a prediction, an educated guess if you will.
But if things continue the way they have been the past few years then ‘The New NFL’ is on the horizon, and boy does it look exciting.
Banner Image: Lamar Jackson NFL MVP 2020 symbolizes the evolving style of play in the NFL. Image from NFL.com