Is Lincoln Riley the Next Sean McVay?

Evan Coleman on Oct. 15, 2018

There’s an offensive explosion happening in the NFL right now. With the changing of the NFL rules to benefit offenses, the yardage and point totals are piling up. What these changes also bring in is a change in offensive philosophy. The spread attack that is so prevalent in college football has made its way to the pros. Now coaches are studying film from their NCAA counterparts in order to learn how to implement them at the highest level.

As the dynamics of the NFL landscape change, there is a need for new and innovative minds to lead teams into the future. Look no further than LA Rams Head Coach Sean McVay as the perfect example of this. He’s transformed that team from one of stagnation and bland offensive football into arguably the most exciting team to watch on Sundays. In the next series of articles, we’re going to profile coaches who might fit the bill of what teams should be looking for if they want to make a similar jump in success. First up is University of Oklahoma Head Coach, Lincoln Riley.

Coaching Background

Lincoln got his start coaching in 2003 after playing QB at Texas Tech, where he learned the Air Raid scheme under HC Mike Leach. He was Student Assistant until 2007 when he began to coach Wide Receivers. He left in 2010 when Defensive Coordinator Ruffin McNeill brought him along to East Carolina University to run that offense. From 2010 until 2014, Riley was the Offensive Coordinator. During his 5 years there, the Pirates averaged 34.1 PPG and 448.5 YPG.

His success at East Carolina led to him getting hired as OC at Oklahoma for 2 years until Bob Stoops stepped down prior to the 2017 season. In his first year as HC, the team won the Big 12 Conference Championship and the Sooners were one game away from playing against Alabama in the national title game. His starting QB Baker Mayfield won the Heisman trophy and would eventually become the Number 1 pick in the following NFL Draft.  Here is a look at Oklahoma’s offensive ranks since Riley stepped on the sidelines in Norman:

2015: 43.5 PPG (4th in FBS), 530.2 YPG (7th FBS)

2016: 43.9 PPG (3rd in FBS), 554.8 YPG (2nd in FBS)

2017: 45.1 PPG (3rd in FBS), 579.6 YPG (1st in FBS).

2018 (as of 10/12/18): 48 PPG (8th in FBS), 524.7 YPG (11th in FBS)

Offensive Scheme

As mentioned earlier, Riley runs the Air Raid offense he learned while at Texas Tech. While the Air Raid scheme is designed to hurt defenses aerially, his version of this offense has also built an above-average running game into it. Inside/Outside zone runs are a staple of the Air Raid, but Oklahoma added counter run plays to the playbook last year. They were able to do this for two reasons: Their offensive line play is, and was, outstanding and their ability to still recruit elite RB’s.

Even so, Air Raid allows for the passing game to act as an extended running game with the use of Bubble/Tunnel screens. This offense is designed to get the playmakers in space and get them the ball quickly, whether it’s by run or pass. By spacing out the offense it also puts pressure on the D by having them cover more ground. Instead of having your offense bunched up, you spread them out and force the defense to decide who they want to cover. 

One of the staple plays of the Air Raid offense is 4 Verticals.  On this play, you have four receivers wide and have them run identical routes evenly spaced out. Receivers are given the option to break off their routes if they find open space or continue to stretch the route. This allowed for everything underneath those routes to be opened up. The defense cannot double team every receiver and it puts them at a disadvantage.

Another staple play “Mesh,” calls for two receivers to run crossing routes that opens up the middle of the field. From this very formation, the Sooners run draw plays, QB Runs, and more. They also use pre-snap motion to get their receivers into the matchups they want. Seeing as how Air Raid primarily runs out of the Shotgun Formation, and NFL offenses are in Shotgun a majority of the time now, it’s an ideal fit. With their ability to run the ball well, OU was also able to add some RPO (Run/Pass Option) plays as well, which adds another element of disguise.

Final Verdict

I think Riley would be a great hire for a team with a young franchise QB. Particularly a team who’s QB can make plays with both his arm and his leg. Had they not given Bill O’Brien an extension, I would’ve liked to have seen him work with Deshaun Watson and the Texans. I think he has the football mind to unlock Watson’s talents similar to how he was used at Clemson.

The other team that comes to mind is in Cleveland and being reunited with his old QB, Baker Mayfield. The Browns are finally respectable, largely in part to Mayfield. Hue Jackson is an okay coach but I don’t think he will be the coach to take them to true contender status. I predict that NFL teams will come knocking on Riley’s door by the end of the season, if they haven’t already.

(All stats provided by https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb)

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