News & Analysis

Ranking the NFL's best offensive play callers ahead of the 2021 season

May 25, 2020; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur during the second day of organized team activities. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

With the 2021 NFL Draft and free agency now well in the rearview mirror, OTAs and minicamp are giving us some much-needed clips of our favorite players in action. In preparation for the 2021 NFL season, PFF has ranked the numerous position groups, posted simulation results for the campaign and discussed enticing bets on the PFF Daily Betting Podcast and the PFF Forecast.

We've been fairly buttoned up about our coaching rankings, which we’ve cited a number of times in other content pieces and use in our PFF Greenline and fantasy products, but the method is pretty straightforward: Using PFF grades and play-by-play data, we handicap how a team should have performed on each play using expected points added. We then look at how the team actually performed on that play, weighing such outcomes by how often they happen and how noisy said plays are.

Thus, a coach who is repeatedly getting better play out of his players on first and second downs will rate highly, while a coach with bad red-zone variance will mostly be forgiven by a metric like this.

After listing the top head coaches heading into the 2021 season, we now present the six offensive play callers with the highest ratings. (Last year’s list can be found here.)

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1. Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers

People will forever associate the fourth-down call in the NFC Championship game with LaFleur, and while that dings him as a head coach, he gets high marks in terms of maximizing team talent on a play-for-play basis. A calendar year ago, we were talking about why the Jordan Love pick made some sense, given Rodgers’ decline at the time. Now we're at the point where he both earned and received the NFL MVP award. The Packers were the most efficient team in terms of turning cap dollars into wins above replacement in the passing game in 2020, and they did so without much in the way of productivity from secondary wide receivers.

2. Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen’s emergence was one of the most fun storylines of the 2020 season, with the Bills generating the second-most points in football despite playing their home games in cold weather, and in a division with good defenses in Miami and New England. Stefon Diggs went from a really good wide receiver to a player who led the league in receiving yards, while mid-round UCF prospect Gabriel Davis added seven touchdowns from his WR4 spot. Daboll should be on the shortlist for head coaching positions next offseason if the Bills continue ascending in a crowded AFC.

3. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs

Reid is the only head coach in NFL history to host three straight conference title games with two different teams, and he has gone over his market win total in each season as the Chiefs’ head coach. The Super Bowl, the only game in which Kansas City has lost by multiple scores in the Patrick Mahomes era, stood out like a sore thumb in the sense that it was the first time in a while that an opponent stymied Reid’s offense in back-to-back halves. But it served as a prelude to what could be this team’s Achilles' heel should they not hit on a third option in the passing game moving forward.

4. Jon Gruden, Las Vegas Raiders

This one is tough to explain, since Gruden is very much part of the grocery shopping for a team that has brought home rotten vegetables and expired canned goods in both the draft and free agency. Be that as it may, Gruden is still a pretty good chef with these ingredients, as evidenced by the fact that the Raiders ranked 10th in the NFL in yards per play offensively despite having the league’s 17th-ranked pass-blocking unit, 26th-ranked run-blocking unit and 18th-ranked running game by PFF grades. Derek Carr has performed really well the past two years, and the Raiders are 15-17 despite fielding one of the league’s worst defenses during that stretch.

5. Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers

After blowtorching the SEC in 2019 with the LSU Tigers, Brady headed to Carolina and was the highest-performing offensive play caller in this metric over the first half of the 2020 season. Despite fading in the second half of the campaign, Teddy Bridgewater averaged 7.6 yards per pass attempt (12th) while earning just a 66.4 PFF passing grade (24th). With lead back Christian McCaffrey sidelined, Brady helped Mike Davis manage a 75.1 overall grade and generate over 1,000 yards from scrimmage despite Davis' notoriously low pedigree. 

6. Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The former Jaguars first-round pick returned to Florida and helped acclimate a new (albeit Hall of Fame) quarterback, a veteran tight end, a rookie right tackle and a couple of secondary receivers en route to the Bucs’ first Super Bowl title since 2002. That the offense overcame injuries to Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin and the interior of the offensive line at times, and improved as the season progressed, landed Leftwich in this spot. The team earned the second-most wins above replacement per dollar in the passing game among NFL teams in 2020.

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