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.