Phil Perry

What Patriots' offense could look like with a McVay assistant at OC

Three assistants with ties to Sean McVay's Rams have interviewed in New England.

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Both Zac Robinson and Nick Caley interviewed with the Patriots via Zoom this week -- two Sean McVay assistants with the Rams who could be tabbed to lead New England's offense into the post-Bill Belichick Era. As CBS reported Friday, Thomas Brown has interviewed for the job as well.

All are branches off the McVay tree, some growing longer out in Los Angeles longer than others. 

Robinson has been with McVay in a number of capacities since 2019, including pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Caley joined the Rams last year as their tight ends coach after a long run in New England in the same role. Brown was running backs coach, tight ends coach and assistant head coach under McVay from 2020-2022. 

That makes four Patriots interviewees with direct Rams ties checking in with head coach Jerod Mayo and putting their names in the running to escort Mayo's offense into the modern age. (Shane Waldron, who since has signed with Chicago to coordinate their offense, interviewed as well.)

It's clear what the Patriots are interested in. But defining the Rams offense and McVay's approach offensively is not quite as easy.

Let's try to bring some clarity as to what the Patriots may be bringing aboard schematically if they end up with Robinson, Caley or Brown.

Getting things in motion

McVay has long used motion to create favorable angles for his offense in both the run and pass game. It seemed to be a force multiplier for whatever was in his bag from a play-calling standpoint. Getting dynamic offensive players on the move pre-snap and at the snap -- whether it was in the screen game, on play-action dropbacks or on straight handoffs -- seemed to make everything better for the Rams. 

There's a reason it's been a staple for McVay's teams for years now. With Jared Goff behind center in 2018, the year the Rams eventually met the Patriots in the Super Bowl, they led the league in pass plays and rushing plays that featured "jet" (at the snap) motion, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Even after L.A. acquired Matthew Stafford, a quarterback with different strengths, jet motion remains a key to McVay's plans. The team was sixth in pass plays using jet motion and third in run plays using jet motion in 2021. Last season, they were third in jet-motion pass plays and second in jet-motion run plays.

Whoever ends up in New England, if he has McVay ties, odds are he's going to want to get bodies moving at the line of scrimmage -- and quickly -- when the ball is being snapped.

Relying on '11'

Another staple of McVay's offenses over the years -- whether with Goff or McVay -- has been his reliance on 11 personnel, with one back, one tight end and three receivers. 

The Rams ranked first this year in three-receiver pass attempts (the Patriots were 30th by comparison), and 32nd in two-tight end pass attempts. In 2018, they were second in three-receiver pass attempts and once again last in the NFL in two-tight end looks.

New England's offense has often featured heavier personnel to try to get bigger defensive bodies on the field and then toy with them. The Rams have taken the opposite approach. 

With receivers like Cooper Kupp and 2023 rookie Puka Nakua -- both of whom are more-than-capable blockers -- the Rams have been able to go light while staying balanced. Despite leading the NFL in lighter offensive personnel groupings, they were 12th in rushing attempts, and they were efficient moving the ball on the ground.

McVay's smaller-but-hard-charging offense was 10th in the NFL this season in EPA per rushing attempt with three receivers on the field. They were fifth in terms of their three-receiver rushing attempts that resulted in positive EPA. 

The ability to run the ball out of lighter sets -- and having willing and able blockers at the receiver position, who can help sell run fakes just by aggressively getting off the line of scrimmage -- allowed them to be arguably the most efficient play-action team in all of football in 2023.

Helped by marrying their running- and passing-game looks together, they averaged 10.3 yards per attempt on play-action passes with three wideouts on the field, according to SIS. That led the league. Their total EPA on play-action passes with three wideouts on the field (34.91) also led the NFL last season.

Dynamic 'Duo'

The offenses run by Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan get a bit conflated when it comes to how they want to deploy their running games. The Shanahan system run by Mike Shanahan -- the boss of Kyle Shanahan and McVay in Washington, where they both served as his assistants -- always leaned heavily on the wide-zone run game with "keepers" (boot-action passes) as the explosive change-up to what Shanahan liked to do on early downs. 

Kyle Shanahan continues to live in that world. His 49ers were fourth in the NFL this year in the total number of stretch, inside zone and outside zone runs they called in 2023, per SIS. McVay's Rams, meanwhile, were 13th. That's still top-half of the league, but it's nowhere near where McVay's offense was a few years ago.

In 2018, with Goff, the Rams led the NFL in their use of zone runs. Now, they're much more of a downhill, gap-running offense. In 2023, they were fourth in the NFL in their use of gap runs and ranked first in their use of "Duo."

That may look like a familiar play-call to Patriots fans, since it's exactly what the Patriots leaned on last year when they handed the ball off. They ranked only behind McVay in their use of "Duo," where linemen and tight ends attack the opposition with double-teams across the line of scrimmage before advancing to the second level of the defense. 

Perhaps as a means to combat lighter defensive boxes that have resulted from defensive coordinators around the league deploying more bodies in the secondary to slow down explosive passing attacks, McVay has been a big fan of "Duo" for the last few years. In Stafford's first year with the team in 2021, the Rams were a top-10 zone-rushing-attempt team, but they were also second in the NFL in "Duo" attempts.

For folks who would like to see Patriots lineman Mike Onwenu re-sign with the team this offseason, landing a McVay disciple as offensive coordinator might help in that regard.

Onwenu's size and power have made him a menace on Patriots "Duo" calls the last few years. He combined with rookie right guard Sidy Sow last season for some devastating double-teams at the line of scrimmage as Patriots backs got downhill quickly.

Bottom line

It makes sense that McVay's assistants are lining up offensive coordinator interviews all over the league. They have been for years, and that'll likely continue to be the case as McVay has established himself as one of the top offensive minds in the game.

He's adapted to his personnel. He's adapted to his quarterback. He's adapted to league trends defensively. And he hasn't necessarily followed every trend that seems to have swept the league offensively.

His Rams were 26th in RPO usage last year. They were 27th in play-action attempts. And they were in the bottom-half of the league in their use of shotgun. But by using motion, by running effectively out of lighter personnel packages, and by selling downhill runs with under-center snaps, McVay has crafted an efficient attack of his own. 

Getting someone as offensive coordinator who may have learned to do some of those same things and why they work? Could be a boon for an offense like New England's, which is in search of direction.

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