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The Air Coryell Ravens

Guest Column by Chris Berney

This winter, I had a great idea. I decided I was smarter than Cam Cameron. My great idea stemmed from one basic theory I couldn’t get out of my head: Cameron was running an Air Coryell offense with players who were not suited for it, and he was failing at it.

However, the data proved me wrong.

Like many Ravens fans, I saw another frustrating offensive season from the team. Baltimore held the lead at some point in the fourth quarter of every regular season game, only to relinquish that lead in a staggering nine of them, many times because they couldn't move the ball in the fourth quarter to keep the defense off the field. The offense was once again in the bottom half of the league in many categories and wasn’t top ten in anything but interceptions allowed, rushing attempts and turnovers allowed.

The Air Coryell system that Cameron employs relies on two things. A power running game that picks up tough yards through the middle of the field, and speedy downfield receivers that are used to strike deep without warning. The Ravens have neither of these assets, which is why I believed Air Coryell was the cause of the offensive issues.

Ray Rice is not a power runner. At 5-foot-9, he’s a shifty back who forces tacklers to miss and is a stellar receiver. Chuck Muncie, who was the Chargers’ primary back under Coryell, was a 6-foot-3, 225-pound pile-pusher who was used as a receiving back half as often as Rice. The receivers weren't deep threats. Between 2007 and 2009, teams threw passes of 16 or more yards (through the air) to Anquan Boldin only 14 percent of the time and T.J. Houshmandzadeh 18 percent of the time. Derrick Mason has been known as a possession receiver specializing in short and intermediate routes with both the Titans and Ravens. Yet in 2010, Boldin and Houshmandzadeh had 28 and 36 percent of their targets go 16 or more yards, respectively. In fact, nearly one quarter of all Joe Flacco passes went 16 or more yards.

The problem is, while that sound like a nice theory, the data doesn’t support that the Ravens were ineffective at throwing the ball downfield. Flacco, when throwing the deep ball, had an 84.2 quarterback rating, primarily due to a relatively normal 36 percent completion percentage. Flacco’s rate of first downs/touchdowns per pass was 34 percent on passes of 16 or more yards to Boldin, Mason and Houshmandzadeh. It was 40 percent for passes of 15 or fewer yards. Here's the real kicker; looking at the DVOA numbers, the Ravens were significantly better when throwing the ball 26 or more yards. Their DVOA when throwing the ball that deep (which they did almost 40 times) was 67.5%, versus the league average of 22.6%.

Additionally, it doesn’t look like they were trying to force Rice into a power middle running role or misusing the run in general. Only 60 percent of his rushes were behind an offensive guard or center.

LeSean McCoy –- another relatively small scat-back who is also used regularly as a receiver –- rushed to the center of the line 58 percent of the time, so the Ravens weren't pounding Rice in true Air Coryell fashion. The Ravens also ran the ball only 52 percent of the time in the fourth quarter. This seems to be an absurd number for a 12-4 team that held a fourth-quarter lead in every game, but the Patriots, Steelers and Falcons – who finished with records equal to or better than Baltimore – ran only 50 percent of the time in the fourth quarter.

With that, my great idea turned into a bad one. If Cameron wasn’t really misusing their players by running an offensive system that couldn't mesh with their talents, where was the problem? The two main culprits seem to be the poor play of the offensive line and the ineffective running game.

The offensive line was a big problem last year. Flacco was sacked 40 times, second highest in the NFL, with the seventh highest sack rate of quarterbacks with at least 14 sacks. Football Outsiders ranks their Adjusted Sack Rate 25th in the league, and while they finished in the top 10 of Adjusted Line Yards last year, they were just 24th place in success rate on power running situations. Michael Oher was injured most of the season and played poorly at left tackle, Matt Birk had an awful year at center, and Chris Chester was a backup forced into a starting role because Marshal Yanda was playing out of position at right tackle. The cascade effect of losing Jared Gaither ran deep for the Ravens last season.

The running game was also ineffective, and the Ravens treated it as such, rushing on only 46 percent of their plays. Rice finished 19th out of the 46 running backs with 100 or more carries in DVOA, and had a career low 4.0 yards per attempt. The Ravens finished 29th in Second-Level Yards and 27th in Open-Field Yards. That points to Rice also deserving a share of the blame, although Willis McGahee (32nd in DVOA out of the same 46) "helped" by tying his career low with 3.8 yards per attempt.

Could the problem be the play calling? It’s possible, but I can’t find the data to support it. The NFL doesn’t run on data alone, of course, but Cameron’s going to have ten years of coaching experience in the NFL after this season and I’ll still have zero. So until they pay me to watch the games at home ala Tom Moore, the data is what I’ve got, and the data says Cameron’s system wasn’t the problem.

Chris is a Richmond resident with strong family ties to the Baltimore area. An analyst by trade, he writes columns for a Ravens fan-site and his football blog in his free time. He grew up watching Orioles and Colts games, and has been a football fan since elementary school. As a Ravens season ticket holder, he attends as many games as possible.

Football Outsiders is always accepting guest columns that have a unique perspective on either the NFL or college football. Send your ideas or samples to Contact Us

Comments

63 comments, Last at 23 Aug 2011, 8:43am

1 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Nice work. I've long held the position that the OL was the single worst aspect of the Ravens last year, despite the majority of fans clamoring to lay the blame at either Cameron or Flacco's feet. It's also worth noting that thus far, they've done relatively little to address this issue--Jah Reed might help eventually, but he's a raw prospect and needs work.

So long as they continue to insist upon shoehorning Michael Oher into an LT spot when he's an average (at best) LT, things will continue along the same path. Note that in his first season, Oher was an exceptional RT, with his only fault being an overabundance of false starts. Being unable to work things out with Gaither has destroyed so many aspects of that offense that it's actually astounding.

2 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

How much are the sacks the fault of the line, vs. Flacco or the receivers? Admittedly, it's been half a year, and 60% of the Ravens games I saw last year were against the Steelers, but my impression was that Flacco tended to hold onto the ball an awful long time before delivery, and the receivers didn't look like they got open very often.

11 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

This not-super-scientific article claims Flacco is pretty bad for holding the ball: http://www.aolnews.com/2011/02/23/when-it-comes-to-holding-the-ball-joe-flacco-tops-ben-roethlisb/

That said, author is absolutely correct about the Gaither domino-effect that destroyed the running game and somewhat hampered the passing game.

3 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

What does a RB's height have to do with whether or not he's a power back? Jerome Bettis was 5-11 and Chris Brown was 6-3 -- which was the power runner?

20 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

In reply to by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified)

Yeah, I'm not buying that argument at all based on height/weight. Muncie at 6'3/225 would be considerably leaner than Rice at 5'8/212. (BMI shows Muncie at 28 and Rice at 32.) Maybe the definition of a "pile-pusher" depends on era, but this was a very weak way of making the argument.

37 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

In reply to by johnnie walker (not verified)

Quibble all you want: Rice and Muncie were very different backs. Defenders were lighter in Muncie's day. Besides, whatever you say about his BMI, I remember watching Muncie on Sundays: the guy was brutal. They used to call him "Chuck the Truck."

44 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Rice's weight on his own site (www.rayrice.org) has him listed as 200 lbs.

Either way, Rice isn't at all the same type of back Muncie was, which was the point I was trying to make, and still holds. Muncie was a power guy that would grind yards between the tackles. Rice is a scat back that is able to bowl some guys over, but for the most part he's built more to make people miss than run over them.

- Chris

4 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I wouldn't say the OL played very bad last year. Actually, I thought they were pretty good. Oher had an average year, but Grubbs, Yanda, and Birk were all pretty damn good. Flacco does tend to hold the ball too long, but then again, QBs who play in a Air Coryell have to hold the ball longer (See Phillip Rivers, Jay Cutler). They're just going to get sacked more than other quarterbacks no matter who's on the line although Flacco can improve in throwing the ball away.

Rice, Heap and McClain were pretty bad in blitz pickups. Flacco seemed comfortable only throwing to Heap and TJ in the middle of the field and struggled against two deep zone coverages. And the Ravens ran the ball way too much in general, especially how ineffective it was. Also, the Ravens were using some zone blocking schemes that didn't really work.

Pretty much any team who could play two deep safeties and cover the out-route simultaneously could shut down the Ravens because the running game was so ineffective.

26 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

"Flacco does tend to hold the ball too long, but then again, QBs who play in a Air Coryell have to hold the ball longer (See Phillip Rivers, Jay Cutler)"

I was very surprised the author didn't make this connection. It seems obvious that running more deep routes would lead to more sacks, and that deep passing attempts is a flawed way of tracking this offensive tendency because it discounts sacks on plays where the ball was supposed to go deep. Maybe more suitable receivers would have got open quicker and turned sacks into completions.

38 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

2010 was the first year Rivers took a lot of hits, mostly because SD's STs were taking the run game away. Before then, he averaged about 25 sacks, even when the run game wasn't working in '08 and '09.

45 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Running deep routes may lead to more sacks, but if you cut the number of deep pass plays the Ravens ran in half, we're not talking about cutting the number of sacks Flacco took in half. Strength of the OL is far more correlated to sacks than length of the field passing plays.

Receivers run the 40 in between 4.4 and 4.6 seconds. QBs are releasing the ball 1-2 seconds before the receiver needs to be under it to catch it. It's not like we're talking about Flacco needing tons of time in the pocket to be able to unleash a deep pass.

A guy like Lee Evans going deep vs. a guy like Anquan Boldin going deep is the difference of right around 0.4 seconds for 40 yards. I don't believe that difference would be enough to make a statistically significant difference in sack rate.

50 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I'd be a little surprised if 0.4 seconds didn't make a statistically significant difference to sack rate, but granted OL play is very important. I just think it's easy to underestimate the effects of scheme, receiver quality and QB play on sack rate. Because I've seen quite a lot of David Carr . . .

55 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Is Lee Evans a better receiver than Boldin?

In 2010, Evans had -27 DYAR and -16.6% DVOA. Boldin had 152 and 4.8%. Now granted, Joe Flacco is a bit better than Ryan Fitzpatrick (and a lot better than Trent Edwards), and you're talking about long passes rather than all passes. But that's still quite a gulf.

58 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Is Lee Evans a better receiver than Boldin?

Does it matter if they are totally different in skill sets and what the team expects them to do?

More importantly, Evans isn't replacing Boldin, he'll be on the field with him. He's replacing Mason and the other Ravens receivers.

59 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Boldin's an outstanding possession receiver who doesn't have the speed to threaten people deep. Evans was an outstanding deep threat and may still be: we don't know because it's years since he was in a situation in which his skill set could be exploited. At any rate, I would be very surprised if his deep speed wasn't still better than Boldin's.

5 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I'm new guys so take it easy on me.

This was a great post. Do you think Ray Rice will keep this up or will he take a hit back with McGahee gone?

13 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I actually think Rice will improve a bit from last year's totals, particularly with Leach in there blocking for him. While I liked LeRon McClain, he wasn't as solid a blocker as Leach is.

However, one thing to keep an eye on is how Dickson and Pitta improve as blockers; Heap was excellent in run support, and so far they aren't quite up to his standards. We may also see the 6OL packages more frequently as a result.

6 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I watched every snap of the Ravens last year so I definitely have some opinions on this - first off, the Ravens were rated 12th in offense according to FO, but this article makes it seem like they were bad.

The OL play could definitely improve, but I'm not sure it will. Birk is not very healthy and there is no viable center to replace him (although they might sign Rabach as a backup). My guess is the Ravens are waiting to sign the best RT that gets cut in the upcoming weeks, I wouldn't be surprised if they look at Stinchcombe. But the power running game should improve if Yanda stays at RG, he's a beast in the interior but only average at RT.

The biggest problem at the end of the year was the WRs could not get any separation, Mason and Housh were really abysmal vs. the Steelers. Without a deep threat, Boldin couldn't work the middle, and Rice couldn't get in space w/ screens and swing passes. Now with Lee Evans (and Torrey Smith as his understudy) the Ravens might actually have a WR combo that complement each other, I'm hoping that will free up a lot more space underneath. Plus, if Flacco improves (like he has each year) the passing game might be really good, even if the line isn't great at pass protection. His pocket presence seems to be getting better, and its true that Heap and McClain weren't good pass blockers but I think Rice was actually fine picking up blitzes.

8 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I've seen a lot of the "with Lee Evans stretching the field, things will open up underneath!" of late, and while I agree to some extent, I can't help but see the similarities between that comment and last year's "with Donte Stallworth stretching the field..." credo. I'm the first to admit that Evans is easily the better of the two receivers, but the prevailing point so far is the perception that the only thing necessary is someone who's fast. I think past experience has proven that that is just not the case.

Don't get me wrong--I loved the Evans signing. I just fear that he'll end up being yet another in a long line of "missing pieces" that end up leaving things in the same condition as when they entered.

But here's hoping I'm wrong!

30 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

That's at least partially my point: they had a "deep threat" weapon, but either never utilized it, or as pointed out below, used it poorly and predictably. I'm simply saying having the guy does not instantly translate to success. As to whether that is due to poor coaching, scheming, or simply because Stallworth was a crummy receiver, I'm uncertain.

46 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I watched every snap of the Ravens last year so I definitely have some opinions on this - first off, the Ravens were rated 12th in offense according to FO, but this article makes it seem like they were bad.

I watched every snap as well, most several times. I charted about half the Ravens season for FO. The offense wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either, and as a Ravens fan, it was terribly frustrating.

The OL play could definitely improve, but I'm not sure it will.

I agree with your OL statements completely. The OL last year was really very bad. Grubbs was average or slightly above. Every other position was below average in pass blocking, and average to slightly above at best in the run game. It's still a big weakness, and my biggest fear going into the season.

The biggest problem at the end of the year was the WRs could not get any separation,

I disagree with this. It was a problem, yes. It was not, however, the biggest problem. Their biggest problems were the inability to run the ball against good defenses (35 yards rushing in the Pittsburgh playoff game in which they held a 14 point halftime lead!) and the OL's inability to pass block to allow the receivers adequate time to create separation. I lost track of how many blown blocks I had to chart very early last season.

That's at least partially my point: they had a "deep threat" weapon, but either never utilized it, or as pointed out below

Lots of chatter about misuse or lack of use of Donte Stallworth. Many are forgetting that Stallworth broke his foot in training camp, and never seemed to be the same since. I believe if he were 100% healthy, he'd have been used as a receiver far more.

7 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Oh, also I forgot to mention, how spoiled us Ravens fans have become! Doesn't anyone remember the Brian Billick era? Its very tough to put together a good offense, defense, and special teams w/ the salary cap in place, the Ravens are one of the few teams that have 3 good units.

9 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

This would be the same Cam Cameron who we remember so well from Miami... the guy who drafted Ted Ginn, Jr. in the first round while he didn't have a quarterback to speak of... (granted, Brady Quinn didn't exactly set the world on fire, but still...)

14 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Also the same Cam Cameron who developed Brees and Rivers into elite QBs and established SD offensive dominance, Norv Turner is riding on his coattails. No one thinks Cameron is a good head coach, but a lot of great coordinators have been crappy HCs.

18 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Um, actually, it's sort of the other way around. Norv was the offensive coordinator in San Diego before Cam Cameron. Cameron kept the same system as Norv, but lacked the receivers to be a true vertical "Air Coryell" offense, so he had to improvise...a lot. After Cam left, GM Smith brought back Turner as the Head Coach instead to keep continuity.

39 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Uh, I'm not sure how much "improvising" Cameron had to do because he didn't have WRs. Unless, by improvising, you mean "handing off to LaDainian." Why throw? Just give it to #21 and he'll activate his teleportation belt, and hey!

41 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Remember how bad the Chargers defense (especially the back 4) was and how much Wade Phillips blitzed? Did you forget how potent the Kansas City and Denver offenses were? Remember the days they could easily put up 28 to 35 points?

Brees had to pass, it just got ugly when you're starting WRs was a journeyman in Keenan McCardell and an undrafted free agent in Eric Parker.

22 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Incorrect on both accounts.

Brees DVOA in 2005 was 33.1%, he was already elite before Norv returned, the roster just hadn't been filled out around him.

And Norv coached SD before Cam arrived for 1 season, its not like he'd been there forever. Norv didn't coach up Brees in game situations in 2001, Doug Flutie was the starting QB.

And Rivers put up a 17.9% DVOA his first year starting after being coached up in Cameron's system for 2 years, then regressed to 6.9% under Norv's first year. Then he obviously became elite, but I'm pretty sure he was on that path since he became a starter.

28 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

DVOA doesn't tell you that the '06 Chargers were primarily a running team which avoided putting Rivers and the passing offense in a position to have to win games. Rivers' traditional stats are useful here, as his completion% and YPA both increased under Turner, as have his passing attempts, and his DVOA has been around 40% the last three years. Flacco wasn't nearly as good a prospect as Rivers, to be sure, but both his conventional stats and DVOA don't come close to Rivers' either in total or in terms of improvement.

48 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Rivers and Flacco in their third year:
460 att, 61.7% comp, 22 TD, 9 INT, 7.4 YPA
489 att, 62.6% comp, 25 TD, 10 INT, 7.4 YPA
Which QB is which?

It's not even a little bit fair to compare Rivers' improvement from year 3 to 5 to Flacco's from year 1 to 3.

56 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

What you're really saying is that it's not fair to compare early seasons for a rookie starter to early seasons for a player who comes off the bench. You can't compare PR's third season (first as a starter) to JF's third season (third as a starter) any more than you can compare JF's third season to PR's third season as a starter (fifth overall).

61 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Why not? It's a FAR more apt comparison. Rivers is at a slight disadvantage due to lack of the amount of in-game experience Flacco's had, but it's not like he's sitting on the bench twiddling his thumbs and not learning anything. Do you really contend that it's not more fair to do that than it is to compare say Bradford's rookie year with Aaron Rodgers' first year as a starter?

33 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Rivers didn't become elite until at least 2008. As noted by someone else, in 2006 he mostly handed off or threw to Gates(yeah, there were a couple games where Rivers aired it out, like in the Cincy game, but he was far from the point of being able to win on his own like he can now). By the end of his second year with Norv, he was one of the best QBs in the game and could carry a team.

57 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

The last month of 2007 he suddenly turned from starter to superstar. I remember it very clearly: the light went on after that crazy Tennessee game, the one where Kevin Mawae landed that dirty hit that ruined Merriman.

34 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Brees dvoa in 2005 was 13 not 33%; he was very good but not elite at that point. In San Diego he only had one season with a top 4 dvoa(2004) and never a top 4 dyar. Since getting coached by payton he's been near the top of both lists every year.

40 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I don't know what you can draw from that. The common feature of Rivers and Brees in their respective "good-but-not-great" eras is perhaps the greatest RB in post-merger football history. What if the thing that held them back was not Schottenheimer/Ramsdell, but Tomlinson?

10 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

First, Chris, thanks for the article. Great stuff.

However, I wish you would have analyzed the problems more--esp. with some #'s to "prove" your points. I was disappointed when I came to the end of the article--I thought there was more to come. Keep up the good work.

49 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Thanks, much appreciated. I have a lot more content to add to this, but made a conscious choice to keep this to article length. I could have fit in maybe another 100 words, but that wouldn't really add to this. Significantly adding to this - diagnosing the issues with far deeper stats and noting how they have (and haven't) attempted to address the issues in the off-season - would turn this into an essay.

I'd love to do a follow-up article, but have no idea if I'll have the time to get it together before the season starts.

12 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Nice article. Thanks. Profootballfocus rated Birk as being just a tick below Mangold, but my eyes and this article say there was too much pressure up the middle and not enough running lanes. It's hard to know what to think. I guess the average of stellar and bad is fair.

24 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Good at some things, bad at others. Not good for power running, but one of the smartest centers around (and center requires smarts).

27 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

I wonder how much of the "Birk was awful" sentiment comes from him lining up next to Chris Chester. I'm pretty sure Chester got abused pretty regularly at RG so a lot of the pressure up the middle may have been coming from there - or maybe Birk was trying to help cover that side. I'm not sure. His knee was definitely not 100%, but from what I saw he was not the weakest link on the interior line. If they can get someone competent at RT (they haven't yet) and move Yanda back to RG where he belongs, I'm guessing it will help both the RG and C positions this year.

15 Re: The Air Coryell Ravens

Rice changed his style in the NFL, but he was a power back in college. He can't play that way every down because he'd be crippled by 25, but he has power to spare when he needs it.