Last year when it was announced that Todd Downing would take over as offensive coordinator, I dove into what we can expect from this Titans offense and Downing. In the end, due to injuries and sub par QB play, we got a whole lot of bad.
Enter Tim Kelly. The Titans tried interviewing Kelly last year for the vacant OC position, so it is no surprise that with him being fired from the Texans, and the Titans offense flailing about, and looking for solutions have brought Kelly on as “Senior Offensive Assistant/Passing Game Coordinator” according to Chase McCabe of 102.5 who broke the news.
I put Passing Game Coordinator in bold, because that is the title that matters, and that is the aspect of the offense we will mainly be focusing on as we dive into what can Kelly bring in that role to this offense.
You guys know Downing did not have a good year, and this section isn’t really about rehashing the offensive disaster that was 2021. Instead, I want to see what I got right from my article last year about what to expect.
- More plays from shotgun – 2020: 43%, 2021: Full Data not out yet
- More passes to running backs – 2020: 58 targets, 2021: 99 targets
- More 11-personnel – 2020: 38%, 2021: 58%
- More passing plays called on 1st downs: 2020: 169 pass plays, 2021: 193
Overall a pretty good indication that the tendencies of the past can predict the future.
Tim Kelly in Houston
I am not going to bore you with all the trivial stuff about Kelly. How he got started and moved up. What I am going to tell you is about his time in Houston starting with the year he became offensive coordinator in 2019.
Throughout the 2019 season, the play caller was Bill O’Brien, not Tim Kelly. O’Brien knew he was on the hot seat with the front office and decided at the end of the 2019 season to give play calling duties to Kelly for 2020. This happens regularly with a play calling head coach trying to save his job.
Despite having worse talent to work with in 2020, Kelly was able to take the 2019 offense, put his mark on it, and make it better in a lot of ways, which I will detail as the article goes.
Despite having Deshaun Watson, O’Brien was of the same school of thought as Mike Vrabel: the mentality that in order to preserve our quarterback we must run the ball more on early downs. Also like Vrabel, O’Brien wanted a very balanced, run-first approach, because this prevents the quarterback from being pressured and having turnovers. (Yes, I know Tannehill had a ton of turnovers, this is about Kelly not Tannehill.)
Far too often, coaches say, “we’ve got to help our quarterback.” And to do that, they think they need to pass less on early downs when the exact opposite is true. More passing on early downs means more passing when the defense might be playing the run. That means fewer pass rushers. It also means more of a chance to avoid third downs. You know, those predictable passing situations where the defense knows a pass is coming and can send the pressure.– Warren Sharp, 2021 Sharp Football Preview
When you have a quarterback like Watson, it makes sense to pass early and often. O’Brien just didn’t do it. Tim Kelly changed that, when her took over play calling duties, by going from 19th in early down pass plays called, and moved that ranking all the way up to third.
I think everyone and their mommas know what happened in 2021. To put it succinctly: The Texans decided to build both the NFL’s worst roster, and the NFL’s oldest roster in light of the Watson allegations.
Their quarterbacks were Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills, throwing passes to the likes of Brandin Cooks, Nico Collins, and Danny “Titans Destroyer” Amendola.
Obviously, the whole disaster of the 2021 Texans led to the firings of both David Culley and Kelly who are both better off without having the front office in their headset during the game.
Passing Game Coordinators
Passing game coordinators are relatively a new position in the NFL, and only some teams employ them offensively. So what is a passing game coordinator?
In short, a passing game coordinator organizes the passing game. From concepts to personnel to formations, etc etc, based on any and all in-game situations. Most passing game coordinators tend to position coaches of some sort.
In 2021, from what I can find, the NFL had 13 teams who employed an offensive passing game coordinator. Among those teams: the Rams, Packers, Chiefs, Bills, 49ers, Chargers and Seahawks. Not a bad list to be associated with.
The 2020 Texans
As I mentioned above, the 2021 Texans roster is arguably one of the worst assembled rosters ever in the NFL. So for the purposes of what Kelly can bring to the Titans offense, I will be using data from the 2020 season.
You may think thats “unfair” or “bias”, but to get the best look at what he does as a play caller it serves everyone best for comparing a more fleshed out, talented roster and seeing the tendencies and results. We won’t completely ignore 2021, but when you have a depleted roster that is built around Tyrod Taylor, the results are always going to look worse than the reality.
Also, don’t bring up “Watson was 4-12”. QB wins aren’t a real thing. The Texans were dreadful on defense that year and Watson put up MVP level numbers. The QB wins is as useless stat as, X-Quarterback is 0-5 when doing this through the air, or X-Team is 15-0 when this running back has a certain amount of carries. Those are both products of other parts of the game. Side tangent over.
To much of the dismay of a segment of the Titans fan base, Watson and Tannehill are closer to the same level of quarterback, than Tannehill and Mills/Taylor. Also, if you are still clinging to that 0.01% possibility that Rodgers or Wilson are coming to the Titans, then again better to compare Watson to those guys.
The Raw Metrics
I am not a big fan of box score scouting, and using that data as a measure of offensive success, but it does serve somewhat of a purpose just for a quick glance. So below you’re going to see some of the basic offensive rankings for the 2020/2021 Texans, and 2021 Titans, keeping in mind the state of the rosters for each year.
Watson really had an amazing 2020 campaign on multiple levels despite losing his top wide receiver, and having no run game whatsoever.
As we all know, while Tannehill regressed this season. However, in 2020 he was all around most of these passing stats under Art Smith. This should provide some hope that with a better conceptualized passing attack, and a healthier offense, that Tannehill should bounce back in these categories.
These next few sections are the fun parts of looking at a Kelly driven pass game. Let’s take a look at some specific efficiency metrics. Early down success rate for a quarterback is a good indicator of what a quarterback can do when he’s passing early and often.
Watson ranked first in passing efficiency on early downs, despite having Cooks, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee, and Randall Cobb as his WR corps. Combined they missed 20 games due to either suspension or injury, not a recipe for success, but still Kelly passed early and often because he had Watson.
Here are the top-5 quarterbacks ranked in passing efficiency on early downs:
This trend also continued into the second half when trailing. Teams knew that the Texans would be passing, and still couldn’t stop this team finding success through the air. Watson ranked first in passing efficiency when trailing in the 2nd half, with 0.45 EPA/att, 10.5 YPA, and a 61% success rate. Below is a top-5 comparison of EPA/att:
Despite ending up with a 4-12 record, Watson looked better than he arguably ever has under Kelly. Watson remarked in the lead up to the 2020 season about how optimistic he was in regards to the change in play caller due in large part to communication. With O’Brien sharing duties as head coach and play caller, Watson did not have a lot of opportunities to meet with O’Brien throughout the week.
Sounds pretty familiar about the change in the defensive rooms with the switch from No defensive coordinator to Bowen in 2021.
Kelly helped Watson improve virtually in every passing category across the board in 2020. One of the most important areas he helped Watson improve in? Seeing significantly better production when passing against zone coverage.
|vs zone in 2020||0.46||10.2||68%|
|vs zone in 2019||0.39||8.8||60%|
On top of that Kelly also helped design plays and improve the success and efficiency of Watson on Level 2 throws. Those are throws with an up-and-down trajectory over a linebacker and in front of the secondary.
|Level 2 in 2020||0.66||13.1||62%|
|Level 2 in 2019||0.46||13.1||55%|
Kelly was able to take a passing attack that ranked 15th in passing efficiency in 2019, and bump it up to seventh in 2020. On top of that he was able to take Watson, who ranked top 10 in both completion percentage above expectation and completed air yards in 2019, and improve upon that.
Watson was 1st in CPOE and 3rd in completed air yards. Despite the fact his passes were thrown in more difficult windows and his receivers were getting less separation. Watson did all of this while being the 13th most pressured quarterback on drop backs and also 13th in sacks.
Overall, from an efficiency standpoint, Tannehill was still a top-10 quarterback in 2021, despite everything that went wrong both in and out of his control. Now with the addition of Kelly to improve the passing game, we should see Tannehill bounce back to a more 2020 level of success.
Play Calling Tendencies
Nothing frustrated fans of the Titans more than the inconsistency of the play calling. While obviously injuries do a play a factor, bringing in Kelly signals that Downing does in fact share in the blame and responsibility for lackluster play calling.
Kelly’s role is going to see some things be done more, and important things possibly done less. There’s a lot to unpack in this section, but I am going to try and keep it simple to understand.
Play Action: In 2020, Tannehill had the highest percentage of drop backs in the league that were utilizing play action. That same year Watson was ranked 23rd. In 2021, because I tracked it and tweeted it weekly, we know that the Titans didn’t overall use enough play action with consistency. Kelly probably will not change that based on his previous OC tendencies.
The table to the right shows the percentage of drop backs by team and year that utilized play action. On top of that the Kelly led Texans in 2020 with Watson dropped in early down play action rates. Dropping from 29% in 2019 to 27% in 2020. However, this was surprisingly a good thing in 2020 as EPA/att dropped when using play action for the Texans. Dropped from 0.26 EPA/att without play action to 0.17 EPA/att with.
This is not to say that Kelly won’t come in and see that Tannehill and this offense thrives off play action, especially with Derrick Henry in the backfield, but I am not sure we will see the high % of play action drop backs that were in 2020.
Pre-Snap Motion: Another thing I saw routinely complained about not being used is that the offense was inconsistent in the 2021 with their use of pre-snap motion. In 2020, the Titans ranked 6th with 53.9% of plays using pre-snap motion. In 2021, the last data I show from Seth Walter has them ranked 9th with 52.3%, as of Nov 23rd, 2021.
What you see on the tweet by Walder to the left is the use of motion AT the time of the snap. In both 2020 and 2021 the Titans rank in the bottom third of the league in this category.
This is important because once again this is something that has a high probability of not changing or even being utilized less under Kelly. In 2020 they ranked 27th in all pre-snap motion, but 15th in motion at the snap.
In 2021, you can see they barely beat the Titans in the motion at the snap, so it dropped from 2020, and also they dropped to 29th in all pre-snap motion.
There’s a good reason for the 2020 lack of usage, which may correlate to the 2021 tendency: Much like play-action the efficiency got worse when using pre-snap motion.
Without using pre-snap motion the Texans netted a 0.24 EPA/att, when utilizing pre-snap motion they earned a 0.12 EPA/att. This is typically abnormal to see those dips in EPA, but in Watson’s case in 2019, and 2020 this is was the norm. His pressure rate increased by 10% when a play action pass was called. However, again, this is not to say that Kelly won’t build the offense around Tannehill’s strengths, just insight to his tendencies.
On the Move: It just didn’t seem that this team wanted, or felt he’d be safe enough, to get Tannehill on the move. He’s no Patrick Mahomes, but getting Tannehill out of the pocket by design seemed to be something this team did not want.
Kelly’s play calling and design in 2020 really helped to make Watson one of the best quarterbacks when moving. When moving in 2019, under O’Brien, Watson had a 0.19 EPA/att, 6.2 YPA, and 50% success rate. Kelly was able to improve those numbers in 2020. When moving in 2020, Watson had a 0.46 EPA/att, 9.0 YPA, and 60% success rate.
I expect the Titans will get Tannehill on the move more, especially with the threat he poses with his legs.
Early Down Tendencies: This could be the biggest change we see in the Titans offense. When Downing was hired, I thought the number of passing plays on early downs in games would jump based on his 2017 year in Oakland. It did, just marginally.
However, adding Kelly we could see an offense that runs through AJ Brown, as it should, early and often. When Kelly took over the play calling in 2020, the biggest change was that he called more pass plays. Not only just from a volume standpoint, but just from an overall philosophy standpoint. To the right is how often the Texans passed on early downs in the first half of games from 2018-2021, and the success of those pass plays.
As you can see, in 2021, the Texans offense did not want to put the ball in the hands of a rookie third round quarterback, and a play-it-safe journeyman. In 2021, the Titans in the same situation in first half found higher success when passing with a 52% success rate. With a Ryan Tannehill throwing passes on designed plays to the likes of Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Chester Rogers in most games.
Now factoring in Kelly, I think you are going to see a major bump in both categories on early downs due to the better talent he has on offense at almost every level.
Opening Drive Success
The Titans’ opening drive success took a nose dive in 2021 under Todd Downing. I detailed all of that in the tweet below.
It was absolutely abysmal. However, with Kelly now in charge of constructing and conceptualizing the script for the opening drive, could we see an uptick in scoring? Honest answer? Probably not.
What you are hoping for is that this is a two wrongs make a right kind of situation, because Kelly’s offenses could not score on the opening drive. Just how abysmal was it?
In 2020, with Watson at the helm, the Texans only managed to score on one…ONE opening drive, and that was a touchdown in Week 8. Yes, even with all the praise I have bestowed upon both Kelly and Watson as seen above. They could only manage one touchdown, and 0 field goals.
There is a silver lining to this 2020 number though! They never turned the ball over on the opening drive in 2020. They just punted 15 times. How did 2021 look? Better than the Titans.
The Texans somehow managed to get 5 opening drive touchdowns and one opening drive field goal for a totally of 6 opening drive scores. They added eight punts, and three turnovers to the mix.
There is one piece of good news. The Texans managed to average 36.4 yards per opening drive in 2021. That’s 12th most in the NFL. Compare that to the Titans who averaged 16.2 yards per opening drive who were all the way at the bottom.
I’m not sure what to make of this, and I am sure some of you have left the article due to throwing the device you were reading this on off a bridge, but the sad fact is, that the opening drive woes have a high probability of continuing below the league average.
MORE 11-PERSONNEL! I have seen a lot of people say on the Twitter that Tim Kelly “loves” 12-personnel. While he does use a lot of it compared to other teams, his one true love still is 11-personnel. So now pair that with 11-personnel lover, Todd Downing, I think you’re not only going to see a lot more 11-personnel in general, but more passing from 11-personnel. Here is the frequency of personnel groupings.
|Personnel||2020 Texans||2021 Texans||2021 Titans|
Not only does he love 11-personnel more, but he absolutely is randy for some passing out of 11-personnel.
|Personnel||2020 Texans||2021 Texans||2021 Titans|
|1-1 [3WR]||71% (54%)||70% (44%)||64% (43%)|
|1-2 [2WR]||49% (58%)||36% (48%)||40% (51%)|
|1-3 [1WR]||25% (50%)||31% (50%)||16% (67%)|
When given a good, reliable quarterback. Kelly is going to want to pass it from 11 most of the time. This is what Titans fans should be wanting by the way. If you want a more modern passing attack and offensive philosophy then utilizing 11-personnel is what you do.
The Titans tight end room should be deleted from the roster in its entirety, but even if it is, and its compromised of a rookie and a journeyman or two, then you still want 11-personnel used. This offense needs to be designed to run through AJ Brown and the passing attack if it wants to compete in the playoffs.
Explosive Pass Plays
The final category we have, and it is a shorter one because it’s just so matter of fact, is explosive pass plays. The Titans were absolutely burnt dog turds in this category compared to the 2020 season.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Titans were ranked 31st in explosive pass plays. After the final week, they ended up 29th. An abysmal performance. In 2021, the Texans with Davis Mills and Tyrod Taylor as their QB ranked 23rd! Six spots higher than the Titans.
In 2020, with Deshaun Watson, the Texans ranked 1st in explosive pass plays in the NFL. They had 69 explosive pass plays. This is something that this team is in desperate need of if it wants to be taken seriously among the NFL elite.
To sum it all up, here is what I expect for the 2022 Titans Offense:
- Passing early and often
- 2020 Tannehill returns
- More 11-personnel
- More passing from 11-personnel
- Roughly the same play action usage
- Marginally better opening drive success
- Way more explosive pass plays
What’s lost in all of these passing statistics and concepts is the fact the Texans have done this with no run game whatsoever. What this means is that Kelly has designed offensive concepts to where the run game and pass game are able to be independent of each other.
Unlike the Titans who’s passing game is handcuffed to the run game due to the team’s old school philosophy, the Texans can find routine success, with an above average QB, through the air without any kind of run game threat. That is massive for the prospects of this 2022 Titans offense.
I said right after the Bengals loss, that if you need some hope to cling to, there are two options for you in regards to this offense:
- A healthy offseason for everyone with more chemistry/experience in the same system and a new WR3/TE1, or
- A healthy offseason for everyone with a better offensive system under Tim Kelly and a new WR3/TE1
Looks like Option 2 is in full force right now, but none of this matters if a Ryan Tannehill led Titans team chokes in the playoffs again.
All stats courtesy of either Pro Football Reference, Sharp Football Stats, or Pro Football Focus