The San Francisco 49ers were undefeated until a wild overtime thriller against their division rival Seahawks. The New England Patriots look better than the version of this team that won the Super Bowl last year. And the Baltimore Ravens are, so far, the only team that’s managed to beat them. Accordingly, per Ben Baldwin’s NFL team tiers that measure offensive and defensive EPA (expected points added), these three teams are the NFL’s only truly elite teams:
Week 10 NFL Tiers!— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) November 12, 2019
The Baltimore Ravens just might be the best team in football. pic.twitter.com/P4Epc2auSf
So what do these three teams have in common? Besides being really good at winning games, there doesn’t appear to be much on the surface. They all have head coaches with very different backgrounds: Kyle Shanahan is an offensive mind and son of coaching legend Mike Shanahan, Bill Belichick is a defensive mind on his second team as a head coach, and John Harbaugh is a former special teams coordinator.
Schematically, these teams are all very different as well. San Francisco runs slight modifications of the Mike Shanahan-Gary Kubiak offense and the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense; New England has a diverse offense and a stifling hybrid defense; Baltimore features an analytics-driven running game and a varied 3-4 defensive front.
But the thing that these three teams have in common, and one of the reasons they’ve emerged as the three best all-around teams in the league through ten weeks, is that they’re willing to adapt and change. Allow me to explain.
In the case of the 49ers, Shanahan hired Robert Saleh, then the Jaguars linebackers coach, as his defensive coordinator back in 2017. Saleh, who’d been coaching under Gus Bradley in Jacksonville and Pete Carroll in Seattle before that, was brought in to replicate the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense. They even signed Richard Sherman and former Seahawks Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith.
After two dreadful seasons of defense in which Saleh was almost fired, the 40-year-old coordinator decided to go away from the Cover 3 heavy scheme he had been working in for the past eight years. Instead, he implemented a Wide 9 defense to take better advantage of his stacked defensive line while also improving their pass defense by not asking one safety to cover the deep back end of the field, as Seattle did with Earl Thomas. For a more in-depth breakdown of this change, check out this video from Alex Rollins of our SB Nation San Fran counterpart at Niners Nation.
The change up in Saleh’s scheme has worked wonders, as the 49ers defense ranks second in total defense, first in run defense, second in scoring, and second in DVOA. The defense has played an integral role in San Francisco’s 8-1 start, and Saleh is now starting to get floated as a name to watch for head coaching vacancies.
In the case of the Baltimore Ravens, they underwent a massive philosophical change to their offense as they transitioned from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson. The most high-profile part was promoting assistant head coach/tight ends coach Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, whose success in the past creating an offense around Colin Kaepernick likely played a role in his promotion.
The more integral part of this change was Baltimore’s drastic shift towards analytics, making several big hires over the offseason to analyze schemes and game management practices, with focus being given to identifying the most effective ways to run the ball and if running backs actually matter (they don’t).
The result was an offense that perfectly utilizes Jackson’s electric athletic ability while making things easy for him in the passing game. Not surprisingly, the Ravens’ rushing attack ranks first in yards and DVOA. The offense as a whole is also second in total yards, first in scoring, and third in DVOA. It was a radical departure from the offense that had been run with Flacco for a long time, but Harbaugh recognized it was necessary in order to maximize his personnel and win games.
And then there’s the Patriots, the model for change. Since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, the Patriots have taken many different forms, sometimes changing schemes between games in a season. It all stems from Belichick’s guiding philosophy, which he in turn learned from his mentor Bill Parcells: identify what the opponent does best, and take that away completely.
Granted, Belichick has taken it to a level Parcells never dreamed of. Over the 20 years he’s spent in Boston, Belichick’s defenses have operated out of every kind of scheme you can imagine, moving players around to bring out their best skills in ways that can affect the opposing offense. The Patriots have done the same thing on offense, switching between run-heavy offenses with the likes of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, to pass-heavy offenses where Tom Brady breaks touchdown and yardage records, and everything in between.
In fact, it’s this very philosophy of being adaptable to every and any situation that has helped Belichick last so long and have such great success. Sure, it helps having a quarterback like Brady and no meddling GM to contend with, but his ability to adapt and change as the landscape of the NFL does has been key to the Patriots dynasty, and it’s why the team looks so dominant this year.
Now, contrast this with the Cowboys, who are trying to recreate the Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams of the 90’s that Jason Garrett played for. The youth and ingenuity of Kellen Moore has helped some, but the penultimate offensive drive on Sunday night reminded us all that this is still a team predicated on Garrett’s idea that the running game should be the straw that stirs the drink.
As mentioned in an earlier piece, the Cowboys are littered with coaches who are refusing to adapt their schemes and philosophies to match their personnel, to highlight strengths and mask deficiencies. If the Cowboys want to win big, though, they’ll have to learn from the NFL’s top teams: adapt or die.