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The Daboll-Kafka collaboration: Personnel usage

Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka come to the Giants from prolific but slightly different offenses. What will their collaboration look like?

Syndication: The Record
Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka with Darius Slayton at minicamp in April.
Danielle Parhizkaran/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

The New York Giants took a big step into the modern NFL when General Manager Joe Schoen hired former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as head coach. Daboll in turn hired Kansas City Chiefs quarterback coach Mike Kafka as his offensive coordinator. The Giants’ offense will now be directed by coaches from two of the most prolific, passing-oriented teams in the league.

An emphasis on passing is often associated with having as many wide receivers on the field as possible on any play. Here is a plot from Ethan Useloff of The 33rd Team showing the relationship between the frequency of three or more receivers on the field and total offensive yards per game for the 2021 season:

There is a weak positive relationship between offensive productivity and personnel usage, but personnel grouping explains little of the variance (only 5 percent). What is true, though, is that in today’s NFL, a strong offense is needed for success: Every 2021 playoff team except the Pittsburgh Steelers averaged at least 330 yards of offense per game. (And if the Los Angeles Chargers had managed the end of their overtime vs. the Las Vegas Raiders more wisely, it would have been all 14 playoff teams.) The Giants were near the bottom of the league at about 290 yards per game.

It’s still possible to have a prolific offense that emphasizes the run (49ers, Ravens), and it’s possible to miss the playoffs even with a top-flight offense if your defense is bad enough (Chargers). However 10 of the 14 playoff teams last season not only had strong offenses but had three receivers on the field at least 60 percent of the time. Two of those happen to be the former homes of the Giants’ new head coach and offensive coordinator.

From the outside, Daboll and Kafka seem like a match made in heaven, a meeting of the minds about how to run an offense. It’s not that simple, though. Daboll is used to calling the plays himself, and Kafka understandably would like an opportunity to do so this season. It will be interesting to watch how this develops as training camp proceeds. Will it make much of a difference to the product we see on the field?

Pass vs. run in today’s NFL

We can learn a little more about similarities and differences by digging a bit deeper into personnel usage. Of course, Daboll as coordinator was directly responsible for personnel groupings the past four years while Kafka was not. But it’s reasonable to imagine that Kafka was influenced to some extent by how Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy utilized personnel.

The NFL used to be a run-first league, as encapsulated in traditional phrases such as “establish the run” and “run to set up the pass.” Not any more. After the 2019 season, John B of Gang Green Nation looked at how teams balanced the run vs. the pass in the first quarter of their games. There was one team that ran more than 50 percent of the time in the first quarter (you guessed it, the Ravens, at 60 percent). Ten teams were relatively balanced, with runs called 45-50 percent of the time (including the Giants at 46 percent). And 21 teams ran less than 45 percent of the time. At the very bottom? Kafka’s former team, the Chiefs, at 33%. Daboll’s offense at Buffalo ran 44% of the time. The NFL is now mostly a “pass to set up the run” league.

The Bills, Chiefs, and Giants have all evolved over the years, though, and the first quarter is just one part of a game, so let’s look at full game statistics for the past four years for each team. For this we use data compiled by Team Rankings and Sharp Football Stats:

Offensive tendencies

 Pass Rank Pass success Rank Run success Rank 11 pass 11 succcess 10 pass 10 success
 Pass Rank Pass success Rank Run success Rank 11 pass 11 succcess 10 pass 10 success
2018 54% 29 36% 31 45% 27 80% 36% 0% 0%
2019 55% 26 41% 28 49% 10 78% 39% 0% 100%
2020 62% 11 54% 2 50% 19 74% 55% 18% 54%
2021 59% 15 50% 6 53% 6 79% 51% 8% 48%
Kansas City
2018 61% 10 53% 2 56% 2 63% 53% 0% 0%
2019 61% 10 50% 3 53% 4 69% 51% 0% 0%
2020 63% 5 53% 4 54% 7 83% 53% 1% 0%
2021 62% 6 54% 1 57% 2 78% 53% 0% 0%
2018 64% 5 43% 26 42% 30 70% 41% 1% 0%
2019 64% 3 42% 24 48% 18 82% 42% 1% 50%
2020 59% 16 42% 29 48% 24 67% 40% 0% 100%
2021 60% 9 39% 32 44% 29 69% 36% 0% 100%

The 2018-2021 period is ideal for comparing the Buffalo Bills, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the New York Giants. For Buffalo it is the entirety of Daboll’s tenure there as offensive coordinator, and it separates nicely into the Josh Allen wilderness (2018-2019) and Superman (2020-2021) years. For Kansas City it is Kafka’s full time as quarterbacks coach there, in addition to being the complete career of Patrick Mahomes as starting quarterback. For the Giants it of course separates into the Pat Shurmur (2018-2019) and Joe Judge/Jason Garrett (2020-2021) years, with the former roughly divided into Eli Manning’s final season and Daniel Jones’ first.

The first few columns document how often each team passed vs. running the ball (for the entire game), along with where they ranked in the NFL in each category and how successful they were. Sharp Football Stats defines a successful play as follows: “A play is successful when it gains at least 40 percent of yards-to-go on first down, 60 percent of yards-to-go on second down and 100 percent of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.”

Although we think of teams as being “passing” or “running” teams, there is not all that much difference among them. The most any team ever passes in a season is about two-thirds of the offensive plays, and the least is a bit under half of the plays. Buffalo was one of the most heavily rushing teams in Josh Allen’s first two years, ranking near the bottom of the NFL in passing percentage. It was also among the least successful, at 36 percent and 41 percent. During the past two years, though, the Bills have been passing more and succeeding more. Coincidentally or not, they have also had more success running the ball even though they are running it less - pass to set up the run?

Kansas City by comparison has been a model of stability, passing 61-63 percent of the time and succeeding 53-57 percent of the time every year during Patrick Mahomes’ career. This may not be surprising considering Mahomes’ success from the time he first set foot on an NFL field - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Actually, though, this may be more an indicator of Andy Reid’s offensive philosophy. In 2016 and 2017, when Alex Smith, a very different and more limited QB, was at the helm, the Chiefs still passed 59 percent of the time. However, they only succeeded 46-47 percent of the time. Note also that Kansas City has been among the most successful rushing teams in the NFL during the Mahomes era, despite not having a marquee running back.

The Giants passed more than either team during the Shurmur years, but with not much success, regardless of whether Manning or Jones was behind center. They didn’t run well either. During the Judge/Garrett years they predictably passed less and had equally little success, nor did the running game improve.

Personnel groupings

The last few columns show the frequency and success rate of specific personnel groupings for each team and year. A team can run or pass from any personnel grouping, but the chart focuses on the groupings most associated with an aggressive passing game: 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR). The success rates are only for passing plays out of each grouping.

Buffalo was one of the most frequent 11 personnel teams in the NFL while Daboll was their offensive coordinator. He decreased the use of 11 slightly when Josh Allen broke out in 2020 - but not because he wanted to be more conservative. Instead, he started using 10, a formation most teams only use in desperation when they are losing late in a game, as a standard part of the Bills’ game plan. Only a couple of other NFL teams (the Cardinals and the Jets) do this. It worked, though - the past two years, Buffalo has succeeded about half the time on passing plays from either formation, among the best in the NFL.

Kansas City has been more conventional, sticking to 11 as their primary offensive grouping and almost never running 10. Interestingly, though, the Chiefs went from middle-of-the-pack 11 usage (63, 69 percent) in Mahomes’ first two years to among the league leaders the past two years (83, 78 percent). This appears to be part of a longer term evolution: The Chiefs ran 11 personnel 58 and 57 percent of the time in Alex Smith’s final two years there. Regardless, they’ve been among the league’s most successful in 11 every year Mahomes has been behind center.

The Giants, of course, have gone in the opposite direction: High 11 usage under Shurmur to more moderate 11 frequency under Judge/Garrett. Of course, when your offensive line can’t pass block and and your receivers are injured, more TEs and fewer WRs is understandable. Regardless, the Giants have been one of the least successful 11 teams in the league.

Looking toward 2022

Assuming that Kafka’s views have been shaped to some extent by those of Reid and Bienemy, he and Daboll would seem to be kindred spirits. Both come from programs with heavy use of 11, so we can expect that to continue (compare to Miami and Atlanta, who used 11 only 28 and 31 percent of the time last season). And both teams’ offenses liked to spread the field, with considerable use of play action and the run-pass option (Allen and Mahomes were first and third, respectively, in the NFL in play action passes, and second and third in RPO pass attempts, in 2021, according to Pro Football Reference).

Kafka’s tenure in Kansas City was one of great stability from year to year, with remarkably similar pass-run ratios each season, rare use of more exotic groupings like 10, and only a modest increase in 11 usage differentiating his earlier and later seasons.

Daboll, on the other hand, has changed over time. He went from a more run-heavy to a more pass-heavy offense as his quarterback matured, as well as liberally using one of the most aggressive pass formations possible. (He even used THE most aggressive formation, 00, i.e., five wide receivers, on 12 plays in 2021, leading the NFL.)

The difference between the two may come down to how they see the talent on the Giants’ roster. Kafka coached in an environment in which Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce terrorized opposing defenses on a weekly basis over the full four years he was there. Little tinkering was needed except at the edges. Daboll was dealt the hand of a slowly developing rookie QB and no true WR1 when he started, but then arrived at the destination of a mature Allen, Stefon Diggs, and Gabriel Davis by his final year. The Giants’ situation appears to be more like Daboll’s experience than Kafka’s. Even if Kafka winds up calling the plays, the reality of the Giants’ roster may convince him to be more exotic than what he saw Reid and Bienemy do in Kansas City. We’ll know if we ever see Golladay, Toney, Shepard, Robinson, and Slayton on the field at the same time.