Editor’s Note: Jeff Miller is one of the newest writers here at DLF. We welcome Jeff to the writing team and look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.
When news broke that the Cleveland Browns hired Kyle Shanahan as their new offensive coordinator, my first reaction was, “I wonder what they will do with Norv Turner?” Then I remembered he was fired after just one season. My second reaction was, “It will be interesting to see how Shanahan does with the influx of talent Mike Lombardi should bring in with all those draft picks.” Then I remembered Lombardi was fired, again, after only one year on the job. My third reaction was to wonder aloud (which was awkward because I was at my daughter’s ice skating lesson) how Little Shanny would impact the Browns’ offense the next 12 months, before, I can only assume, he is fired by the Donald Trump of the NFL (in so many ways), Jimmy Haslem.
My initial research into the topic was dominated by looking at Mike Shanahan red face memes for an hour. This led me to Web MD (he either has rosacea, was rubbed with poison oak, or is just angry a lot), and finally, Pro Football Reference. Once there, I pulled stats for Kyle Shanahan coached teams, which includes the 2008-2009 Texans and 2010-2013 Redskins. After several late nights of retina searing statistical analysis, I emerged from my office with two stone tablets, upon which I had carved the following words. Or maybe I was just delirious from the lack of sleep/rosacea? In any event, here is what I learned.
Before and After
My favorite statistical method of looking at the impact made by an offensive coordinator is to compare how his players performed the years he was on the sideline versus the season before he came to tow, along with the season after he left. Unfortunately, Shanahan has only held two gigs in the NFL, so our sample size is lacking, but it still gives us a good jumping off point in our quest for knowledge.
Using PPR scoring, which we will do throughout this column, in the season prior to Shanahan’s hiring, the Redskins and Texans combined to average 79.3 fantasy points per game (FPPG). If we do the same math for the six total seasons he worked for these two franchises, we see that they averaged 85.2 FPPG’s – this represents a near nine percent increase in production.
The year after Shanahan left Houston, they managed 92.8 FPPG, which is a significant improvement over the 79.5 they tallied his final season there. To be fair to Mr. Shanahan, 2010 is the year Arian Foster exploded onto the scene in the form of 2,400 total yards and 18 touchdowns. I would find it hard to hold that against our esteemed OC.
As with any statistical exercise, it is important to gain perspective on what we are looking at. In order to do that, I took a gander at historical data from 2003-2013 for every single offensive coordinator change in the NFL. The findings are fascinating. Bear with me, as this may be a little heavy.
Each time a new coach is installed as play caller, there is a 2.4% expected increase in fantasy production for his first year at the helm. For the totality of their tenure, we see a 6.1% average annual improvement over the final year of their predecessor. Now let’s account for inflation.
Over the past decade, there has been a 1.35% average annual increase in fantasy production across the NFL. With the average coaching tenure in our sample being 2.15 years, 2.9% of the 6.1% improvement can be attributed to inflation – this brings us an adjusted expected annual increase in production of 3.2% for each change at the offensive coordinator position.
Looking at the difference between the first year increase (inflation adjusted to 1.05%) and the expected increase over a coach’s entire tenure (3.2%), we can draw the conclusion that the longer a coach is in a position, the better their results. This stands to reason since poor coaches aren’t generally kept around for long. On that note, if you look at offensive coordinators who had tenures lasting three or more years, their teams saw a 4.55% adjusted increase, which is 1.35% better than the league average.
Now that we have waded through all the numbers, how does this pertain to the subject at hand? Well, when we take inflation into consideration with regards to Shanhan’s career, his teams improve at a rate over two percent below the league average. This isn’t significant in terms of actual fantasy scoring, but doesn’t necessarily give us a ton of hope he will cause a fantasy explosion in Cleveland.
One more point on the team talk before we move on: Norv Turner was with Cleveland last year. Out of the two dozen or so coaches I’ve studied individually, he is by far the most successful (Turner more than doubles the league average increase). Because of that, we should not be surprised if Shanahan’s first year doesn’t look as good as we would hope; Norv can be a tough act to follow.
The Main Event
With team scoring information in hand, we can finally concern ourselves with the main eveners - Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. Let’s start off with a look at it how legitimate number one receivers fare under Shanahan.
There have been four seasons where Coach Kyle has had a bona fide number one receiver for all 16 games – Andre Johnson in 2008-2009, Santana Moss in 2010, and Pierre Garcon in 2013. During those years, Johnson, Moss, and Garcon averaged 17.9 FPPG. If you take the rest of their careers and eliminate seasons where they didn’t start the majority of games they played or had fewer than 95 targets (I did this to get an accurate representation of in-their-prime production), they combine for a 14.7 FPPG average. They also each beat their individual career averages under Shanahan.
Why is this happening? Is it because our venerable offensive coordinator keeps getting studs in their prime? Is it the scheme he runs? Leprechauns? In looking at each situation separately, I can safely say at least two of those three things are in play. Here’s what I found:
1.) The in-their-prime argument is simple. A quick glance at age, health and situation makes it obvious that Shanahan found all three guys at exactly the right time.
2.) If you watch even 20 minutes of film, it is pretty clear the scheme helps immensely. The X receiver (the player who lines up on the opposite side as the tight end when both are on the field) is the focal point of his game plan week-in and week-out. Numbers bear this out as well.
3.) Going back to our four seasons of number one receivers, they were the recipients of 49% of all balls thrown to wide receivers. A look around at other teams with legit number one guys reveals this is on the very high side of normal; most teams direct about 45% of such targets to their best receiver.
4.) Oh, and try as I could, I was unable to verify there is a leprechaun in play. However, I did find reports of a mysterious presence starting with the 2010 season in Washington. Speculation on its cause ranges from the spirit of a deceased fan to Rex Grossman.
The news at tight end is less rosy.
Under Shanahan, they haven’t shown any real increase or decrease in production over prior or future seasons or career averages. From a target perspective, his quarterbacks direct just under 21% of their passes to tight ends. The league average in 2013 was 20.1%. This is disappointing, but not disastrous.
Shanahan has been very quarterback friendly, posting an average two FPPG bump versus the season prior to his hire. That is impressive, but when you consider Turner (who has an even better record with quarterbacks) was there last season, we cannot expect the same result.
Running back is a much more interesting topic. As with quarterback, we see a big improvement with Shanahan in charge (over 2.1 PPG). The news gets better when we broach the subject of lead backs. They average 260 touches per season under Shanny versus 172 the year before his arrival. If there are signs he is comfortable with the 2014 presumed starter in Cleveland, their stock should take a significant leap up. This could be one of the most important positions in all of the NFL to track during the offseason.
After going over all the facts, I am of the opinion Shanahan will have a negligible impact on the value of any non-number one running back in Cleveland. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the two most fantasy relevant players had a pretty dang good 2013. Shanahan’s play calling will ensure Gordon sees a high volume of targets, giving us hope last year was just the beginning of a long run atop the fantasy landscape. We can also expect Cameron to see his share of targets and, hopefully, based on how Jordan Reed was used in Washington, continued development as he rounds out his still somewhat raw game. If any of this is a bit of a letdown, don’t be too disappointed. There are much worse things than a continuation of 2013 production from these two young studs.