2016 Offensive Personnel Analysis
by Bryan Knowles
If you're a football fan of a certain age, and you're asked to draw a basic offensive formation, you'll probably do what I still do, instinctively: you'll draw a pro set, or maybe some variation of an I-formation. Something with a fullback in the backfield, the way the game was played throughout the 20th century. If you do that, though, you're out of step with modern times. We hate sounding like a broken record, but for the sixth consecutive year, three-wideout formations saw an increase in 2016.
For our younger readers, a "record" was a large vinyl disc with grooves in it that, when played properly, produced music. Old music fogies insist that this is better, in some way, despite evidence to the contrary. And a "fullback" was a large running back with good blocking skills who, when used properly, produced a strong running game. Old football fogies insist that this is better, in some way, despite evidence to the contrary.
Before we get into things, a quick note: this is personnel data, not formation data. When David Johnson goes out wide, he's still counted as a running back. When Tavon Austin lines up in the backfield, he still counts as a wide receiver. We're using the standard numerical system where the first digit is the number of backs, and the second digit is the number of tight ends. We count formations with six or more offensive linemen separately, rather than counting the offensive linemen as tight ends. A formation with two backs, one tight end, one wideout, and six offensive linemen is marked as "621" and not "22."
For the first time, 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) topped 60 percent of all offensive plays in 2016. Also for the first time, every single offense used it on at least 40 percent of their snaps, with the Titans and Jets finally joining the party this year. For the first time, an offense ran 11 personnel on more than 90 percent of its snaps, with the Giants running fewer than 100 plays not in that personnel package. If you don't have a third receiver who you trust to play 400 snaps, you're not playing modern football.
|Offensive Personnel Groupings|
|Personnel||2015 Pct||2016 Pct||Difference||2016 DVOA|
Again, though, this isn't just a one-year trend. While 11 personnel has been the most prevalent grouping since we started charting in 2010, it wasn't so dominant. In 2010, it was only twice as frequent as 12 or 21 personnel. Nowadays, it's more than three-and-a-half times as common as any other formation. The gap is only getting wider.
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Every single team used 11 personnel as their primary offensive setup in 2016. Twenty-seven used it more than half the time -- everyone but the Patriots, Bills, Falcons, Titans, and Jets. Twenty teams used 11 personnel more frequently in 2016 than 2015. It's everywhere, and the league is more homogenous than it ever has been.
And here's the thing -- there's an argument to be made that teams aren't using three-wide sets enough. Teams aren't using it more and more just because it's hip and trendy -- they're using it because it works.
It's basic market efficiency -- if a certain personnel group is producing better-than-expected results, teams should run it more often until it reaches a state of equilibrium. Teams had a 7.5% DVOA in 11 personnel in 2016 -- better than the 4.6% DVOA they put up in general -- but it really stands out when you look at individual teams.
(Ed. Note: Obviously, the average offensive DVOA should be 0.0%. However, we don't have personnel data for all of the penalty plays we include in offensive DVOA, so they aren't included here. 4.6% DVOA is the average for the league when Delay of Game and Offensive Holding plays are removed.)
There are 32 teams in the NFL. Thirty of them had a higher DVOA in 11 personnel than they did overall. Thirty! It's not just slight increases, either; 23 of them saw their DVOA go up five or more points when they went three-wide. Every other significantly used formation sees some teams do better than normal and some do worse than normal, but nowhere else is the difference this stark.
|Comparing 11 Personnel to 2016 DVOA|
|Rank||Team||11 Pct||Yds||11 OFF DVOA||2016 OFF DVOA||Difference|
|Rank||Team||11 Pct||Yds||11 OFF DVOA||2016 OFF DVOA||Difference||17||CAR||53%||6.0||6.0%||-8.1%||+14.1%|
The only two teams that saw their numbers get worse in 11 personnel were the best offense in the league, Atlanta, and the worst offense in the league, Los Angeles.
The best team in 11 personnel? That would be New England, which had a DVOA of 43.3% with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and usually Malcolm Mitchell on the field. They only used 11 personnel on 47 percent of their snaps, too. With Martellus Bennett out of town, there's an opportunity for the Patriots to go three-wide more often and take advantage of their success. Because if there's one thing the Patriots needed, it's another way to be successful, right?
The worst team in 11 personnel was Los Angeles, which is just evidence that no amount of scheming or great formations will help you when your third receiver is Brian Quick (or your quarterback is Jared Goff). The Jets were the second-worst team in 11 personnel, but at least they seemed to be aware of that fact -- they used it on a league-low of 40 percent of their snaps.
The other personnel group that saw big gains in 2016 was six-offensive lineman sets, which rose above 5 percent of all plays for the first time this decade. They have been growing in popularity as well, albeit not as fast as 11 personnel, which makes a certain amount of sense. As teams use fewer and fewer fullbacks or second tight ends in their regular packages, they're more and more frequently turning to extra offensive linemen to add extra blocking and oomph on running downs.
Unlike 11 personnel, this is not yet a league-wide trend. Oakland accounted for 15 percent of all six-lineman sets in 2016, and only New Orleans and San Diego joined them with more than 100 such plays. Across the Bay -- and about half an hour down Highway 880 at this point -- San Francisco was the only team to not use a single six-lineman set. Arizona, Atlanta, and Chicago each used fewer than 10.
Furthermore, this was the first year when two different six-man sets each registered more than 1 percent of all plays. Oakland and New Orleans favored 611 personnel, while 612 sets were more common in Dallas and Tampa Bay. Of those two groups, 611 personnel has generally been more effective over the past few seasons. That was the case again in 2016, with a DVOA of -4.9% compared to -10.0%. The simplest explanation for this may be that leaving two receivers on the field makes the formation more versatile and less predictable; teams run 65 percent of the time out of 611 and 81 percent of the time out of 612. Keep the defense guessing, and you're more likely to have success.
Of course, just because the league in general is becoming more homogenous in its personnel selections doesn't mean that there weren't still some teams that bucked the trend. Here are the five most unique offenses of 2016 -- the ones that strayed the furthest from league averages for various personnel groups:
- As mentioned above, the Jets are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 11 personnel era, with a league-low 40 percent of their snaps coming with three wideouts. That's not because they stuck to classic, two-back formations, however. Instead, they lapped the field by having 33 percent of their snaps in 10 personnel. Forget the tight end and get a fourth receiver out there! No one else had more than 12 percent of their snaps in four-wide packages. Were the Jets thinking that if three receivers are good, than four must be better? Not really; it's more to the point that Brandon Bostick and Kellen Davis aren't thrilling options at tight end. The four-wide packages really didn't work, either; the Jets had a -27.6% DVOA in 10 personnel, compared to -21.6% offensive DVOA overall. They are the reason the league-wide DVOA for 10 personnel is poor.
(Ed. Note: The Jets actually went four-wide even more often in 2015, when they used 10 personnel as their primary personnel group, on 38 percent of all snaps.)
- The Giants were not interested in your "different formations" or "offensive diversity" or anything like that. They ran 1,009 plays, and 925 of them were in 11 personnel -- 92 percent! In the seven years we've been specifically tracking personnel, the previous record for one team in one formation belonged to... the 2015 Giants, who had 81 percent of their plays in 11 personnel. No one else since 2010 has topped 75 percent. Odell Beckham, Victor Cruz, and Sterling Shepard were a good trio of receivers, but this seems a bit like overkill. Probably means Brandon Marshall should be ready for lots of snaps in 2017, though!
- Like the Jets, the Titans shied away from 11 personnel. Unlike the Jets, this is because they love their big men. Thirty-nine percent of Tennessee's plays last season had at least two tight ends on the field, the highest total in the league. Both Delanie Walker and Anthony Fasano played more than half of Tennessee's snaps. Only three other teams had two tight ends who were each on the field at least half the time. Tennessee led the league in 22 personnel, as well, a formation rapidly falling out of vogue.
- The Raiders were not one of the teams that used two tight ends frequently, because they skipped right past that and just loaded up with offensive linemen. They ran 252 plays with an extra offensive lineman on the field, 81 more than anyone else. That's nearly a quarter of their play selection! They only ran 35 six-lineman plays in 2015, so this was a drastic change in style. It will be interesting to see if it continues in 2017; new tight end Jared Cook is a much better blocker than Clive Walford or Mychal Rivera, perhaps negating the need for an extra lineman.
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- Finally, we have the best offense in the league: the Falcons. They only used 11 personnel 45 percent of the time, third-lowest in the league. Instead, they led the league in 21 personnel -- the old-fashioned pro set! Between Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Patrick DiMarco, the Falcons ran 262 plays out of classic two-back formations, the most in the league. They weren't cheating by slipping Freeman or Coleman out as a wideout, either. All told, 212 of those snaps were just good old fashioned I-formation football. Denver and New England were the only other teams to use that formation more than 100 times.
In a league where everyone's running more and more three-wide sets onto the field, it was the team who stuck closest to 1980s-style formations that ended up topping the DVOA charts. Maybe the fullback and the blocking tight end still do have a role in modern football. And maybe you shouldn't throw out all that vinyl quite yet.
33 comments, Last at 03 Jul 2017, 8:15am
#1 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 27, 2017 - 2:52pm
BONUS STAT LIGHTNING ROUND.
*If you ignore minimum play requirements, the worst formation in football last season was 601. Three wideouts but seven people on the line (including the tight end)? Kind of a bizarre idea. It was run one time by New Orleans against San Francisco. Brees through a possibly batted pass on 3rd and 12, which fell to the ground. That's -315.0% DVOA; failing against San Francisco's defense is never a good thing.
*Moving up the "minimum play requirement" scale, that's followed by 14 (3 plays, -101.9% DVOA), a mondo-jumbo formation used mostly by Kansas City which gained a net total of -2 yards on the year. Then you have 711 (10 plays, -25.8%); five of those plays were by Philadelphia against Chicago in the fourth quarter of Week 2. Then it's 610 (135 plays, -19.5%), a particular favorite of Oakland. Then it's 621 (263 plays, -18.2%), 10 (846 plays, -15.2%)-- mostly the Jets there, which drags it down --, 21 (2273 plays, -0.2%), 1.2 (5502 plays, 1.3%) and 11 (19,643 plays, 7.5%)
*That's not to say that big formations are inherently BAD, it's just not something you're using to be particularly efficient. It's for when you need exactly two yards and only want to get exactly two yards. DVOA's going "we know you can do better than THAT", and teams are going "we don't WANT to do better than that. We want to ensure we get EXACTLY that, and move on." It's risk vs. reward, and possibly another example of NFL coaches playing things too safe in general. But hey, if the six-lineman trend continues, maybe we'll start seeing a role of a blocking lineman with decent hands for pass routes. You know, like ~tight ends used to be~ before they became "a pretty big wide receiver".
*Going the other way around, the best formation without regards to play limits was 03 (22 plays, 73.7% DVOA). It's another formation that Kansas City was nearly alone in using -- and it was frequently with Tyreek Hill lined up as a running back, making it more of a 13. Either way, it was pretty effective for them; they averaged more than 10 yards per play.
*It's a shorter slide up the scale this way. We from 03 to 01 (294 plays, 28.5%); that was a particular favorite of Green Bay due to their injured running back situation, flipping Montgomery, Cobb or Adams into the backfield to make it yet another 11. Then it's 13 (918 plays, 8.6%) and 11 again.
*In other words, if you have a receiver who can line up in the backfield and take hand offs, that's a pretty nice weapon to have; especially in the pass-happy modern NFL.
#19 by DraftMan // Jun 27, 2017 - 8:19pm
Does the data set for any of the seven years in the sample include any instances of a team coming out in 00 personnel (either because their TEs can't be trusted with pass catching for some reason, or because injuries have a WR filling in for someone else)?
#20 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 28, 2017 - 4:03am
It's not a super-popular formation, but it happens -- 65 times last season, as a matter of fact. Again, not done very often because flashing, blinking, blindingly obvious "this is a pass" sign, but still...
Mostly Green Bay last season, with 45 plays; Denver, Oakland and Kansas City all chipped in at least one making the AFC West a 00 kinda place, apparently.
Some of Green Bay's plays were, again, "emergency wide receiver filling in as running back", but not all of them; sometimes, you just wanna spread 'em out and go. All of the plays with no one in the backfield (so ~true~ 5-wide plays) were passes or QB scrambles, so again, not exactly a formation for general use.
#5 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 27, 2017 - 3:27pm
We do, albeit formatted differently in a way that makes it somewhat difficult to directly compare; 2010 was a good epoch-defining point in the charting for various dry and boring reasons.
11 has been increasing pretty much as far back as we can go; it was used on less than a third of snaps as recently as 2008.
#14 by Aaron Schatz // Jun 27, 2017 - 6:33pm
Before 2010, we had people tracking formations rather than personnel, so it's hard to make apples to apples comparisons. So, for example, before 2010 if Tony Gonzalez lined up wide that got listed as a WR, not as a TE.
#26 by jgibson_hmc95 // Jun 29, 2017 - 8:05am
I'm really curious when 11 passed the 21. I see 21 is the biggest crasher from 2010 to 2016 (20% to 8%). How long have we been playing fantasy football incorrectly if using 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, and 1 TE to simulate a standard offensive lineup?
#3 by gmoney_714 // Jun 27, 2017 - 3:10pm
This was very interesting Bryan. Thanks for pulling all that data together. I would still rather see a fullback paste a linebacker in the gap to open up a big run than a circus catch for the same yardage.
You kids get off my lawn!
#4 by Alaska Jack // Jun 27, 2017 - 3:19pm
A key in Oakland is that Lee Smith, who supposedly is one of the best blocking TEs in the league, was placed on injured reserve in early October.
I think Walford and Rivera are both more receiver-types. (Could be wrong about that.)
#8 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 27, 2017 - 3:46pm
You've pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Oakland ran just ONE big-offensive line play prior to Week 5, and that was a goal-line plunge from the 1-yard line.
Smith breaks his leg in week 4, and the next week, Oakland suddenly comes out with extra linemen all the time -- 31% of the time, as a matter of fact.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, though it's interesting that Oakland went "eh, we'll just stick a lineman in there" rather than picking up a street tight end. They moved Ryan O'Malley to the active roster when Smith went down, but he only got seven offensive snaps, and he was back to the practice squad at the end of November. Smith only gets about one target a game, so it's not like it was a HUGE loss, it's just an interesting sort of "eh, forget even the threat of a pass" decision.
Every year, it seems like ONE team shoots ahead of the others in six-linemen usage; it'll be interesting if any of 2016's work has Oakland work it in more, even with healthier tight ends (in theory).
#9 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 27, 2017 - 3:54pm
Well, 12 is still the second-most frequent personnel group used, and some teams use it quite a bit: Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Carolina, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Arizona... if you're watching one of them, you'd probably think 12 was as strong as ever before.
Part of it might be -- and this is speculation -- that there's really TWO types of 12 personnel groupings. One is two in-line tight ends, great for pounding the ball on the ground; big, bulky jumbo-type formations. The other has at least one tight end split out wide, in what is essentially a 11 formation only with a tight end as receiver. We might be seeing less of the latter, because unless you have one of the really great pass-catching tight ends, why not just stick an extra receiver out there and be done with it?
I'd have to dive deeper into the stats to see if that's ACTUALLY what's happening, but that'd be my gut feeling.
#11 by MilkmanDanimal // Jun 27, 2017 - 5:27pm
I suspect the drafting of OJ Howard is going to make the 12 personnel more popular in Tampa. You didn't mention the Patriots in that list; when Gronk was healthy, did New England not lead the league in two-TE sets? Seems like with Gronk and Bennett that'd be the logical move.
#12 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 27, 2017 - 5:49pm
During the Gronk is Healthy Times, New England was actually fifth in multi-tight end sets (though I just have that in raw numbers and not percent of total plays). They weren't even the best at it; that'd be Atlanta.
I suppose it's possible that Gronk and Bennett duplicated the same role a bit too frequently? I mean, they used it a lot, and more frequently than your average team, but they were still better when they went three-wide.
#23 by MilkmanDanimal // Jun 28, 2017 - 1:03pm
Interesting bit there that the Pats were only fifth; I guess with the Falcons they could trot out a two-TE set with a pass catcher in Hooper and then more of a run blocker guy, and keep defenses guessing. Just surprised that putting a less-than-great WR #3 on the field was more common than loading up with two really good TEs for New England.
#16 by IrishBarrister // Jun 27, 2017 - 7:40pm
I mostly end up watching NFC teams, particularly those in the West because of where I live, so I think that's a big part of it.
My mental perception, which is no way based on overall usage statistics, was that 11 personnel was at least 50%, 12 personnel was like a third, and then not a lot of anything else. Which makes sense given that the NFL is a passing league and that you'd like have 4 guys on or near the line of scrimmage to go out for a pass while keeping at least one tight end in-line for when you want to run the ball. But it maybe that as a league, 12 personnel isn't as popular as I thought. We all get surprised sometimes.
#10 by Theo // Jun 27, 2017 - 5:23pm
I'm really surprised that 10 personnel is called only 2.5% - what's that big advantage of having that tight end lined up tight? Is it for chipping when the End is lined up C-gap, is it widening out the End if the End is wide? Are there so many better Tight Ends than 4th Wide Receivers? Yes to all 3?
#13 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 27, 2017 - 5:55pm
I would bet that there are more solid 2nd tight ends than there are fourth receivers. Four teams didn't even attempt a 10 set at all (Carolina, Dallas, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh) and 13 more didn't get out of single digits.
Plus, when you go four wide, you're basically holding up a big sign that says "THIS WILL BE A PASS". Only the Jets and Broncos ran out of 10 set more than once a game. That means your pass rushers can pin their ears back and go.
#15 by Pen // Jun 27, 2017 - 7:09pm
If man were meant to play football without fullbacks they wouldn't come with names like Mack Strong. We wouldn't have Mack Strong in today's era and that's wrong. Fullbacks with names like Mack Strong belong in football like linebackers with names like Dick Butkus.
As for vinyl. Does your CD come with a huge poster of the Hotel California? Or a poster of nude girls on bicycles? No. Didn't think so. Vinyl is therefore unequivocably better.
#31 by Mountain Time … // Jun 29, 2017 - 4:43pm
Believe it or not, we still have the technology to create rock bank posters, college students still have the wherewithal to acquire said posters. Every other dorm room STILL has that Pink Floyd poster, even despite the crash in vinyl sales...
#24 by MilkmanDanimal // Jun 28, 2017 - 1:05pm
I would readily agree that the packaging of LPs would be the one thing to miss about that format, and that there is absolutely nothing of any sort whatsoever outside of that that makes me long for LPs ever again. I grew up buying those things and playing them constantly and then getting one little scratch that ruined one song in one spot forever. I cannot fathom why the hell anybody would ever want to actually listen to LPs over the awesome convenience of digital music again.
And, no, I don't hear any "warmth". I hear crappy background hissing whenever there's an LP on.
#28 by jtr // Jun 29, 2017 - 10:17am
I can quickly tell if the local jazz station is playing vinyl instead of CD's because of all the hiss and pops. That and the long awkward pauses in the music as the college-age DJ's try to figure out how to flip the record and drop the needle in the right spot.
#22 by ChrisS // Jun 28, 2017 - 12:24pm
I think the difference in the Team-by-Team chart is the wrong difference. Instead of the difference between Total DVOA and 11-DVOA, shouldn't it be the difference between 11-DVOA and DVOA excludinng 11 personnel? So for NE the incremental benefit of 11 personnel plays is actually about 42%. Where Non-11 DVOA is found from solving 47%*43.3+53%*(Non11-DVOA)=21.1%
#30 by mehllageman56 // Jun 29, 2017 - 2:53pm
Funny, but as the article states, the Jets didn't use 11 personnel because their tight ends stunk. They kept trotting out 10 personnel instead of bringing two backs out. They might have been better off playing Forte and Powell and splitting one of them wide, since the fourth receiver didn't help much (having an actual quarterback would have helped a lot more than anything else.)
Since Austin Seferian Jenkins seems to be playing better than anyone else in camp, and they drafted Leggett, I doubt they'll have the same problem this year, just Ghidrah the 3 headed monster missing open receivers due to bad eyes.
#29 by serutan // Jun 29, 2017 - 12:48pm
>>The only two teams that saw their numbers get worse in 11 personnel were the
>>best offense in the league, Atlanta,
OK, this begs the question : What was the formation breakdown for the Falcons
by half in the Super Bowl?