New Jets offensive coordinator John Morton is a bit of an unknown quantity, having never called plays before at the NFL level. However, we've been trying to figure out what some of the primary tenets of his offensive system might look like.
We've been analyzing various clues in an effort to figure out the basics of his offensive scheme and play design. While it's difficult to know what to expect from him in terms of play selection, we can infer certain things based on the assumption that he will share the values and philosophies of some of his influences.
In part one, we summarized what we know so far and today we're going to try and build on that with a more detailed look at some of the aspects we can expect him to include in his offensive gameplans.
Let's first summarize some of the main things we identified in part one:
- West coast offense principles
- Spread, tempo, play action and downfield passing elements
- Detailed preparation and precise execution
- Ball security
- Running back by committee
- Use of a fullback
- Use of inside-out protection schemes
- Mix of zone and power blocking schemes
- Calling plays from the booth
- Tailored gameplans
- Adapting the system for personnel
Adding together all the clues leads us to the conclusion that Lane Kiffin's scheme is likely to form the basis of Morton's system with the Jets, with other aspects pulled in from Morton's other influences and based on his own perspectives.
Before we consider what this evolved version of the Kiffin system might look like, let's look in some detail at how Kiffin's system itself has evolved to adapt to the modern college game and the personnel at Alabama. Remember, ArDarius Stewart basically told the media that Morton's system is essentially the same as Kiffin's albeit with different terminology.
Lane Kiffin's system
In much the same way Morton's scheme is expected to be, Kiffin's is adaptable to the personnel he has at his disposal. We charted games from both 2016 and 2015 and the difference was notable.
In 2016, Kiffin's quarterback was Jalen Hurts - a dual threat quarterback - while in 2015, most of the reps went to Jake Coker - more of a game-manager type. The 2016 offense was built around read-option and run-pass options, while in 2015 they leaned more on Derrick Henry and their running game to set up the opportunity for big plays.
Let's analyze some of the trends:
In 2016, Alabama took advantage of the fact that Hurts was a threat to run the ball so they could employ one less blocker. This enabled them to run three-wide sets over half the time.
However, in 2015, the more prevalent personnel packages saw Alabama employ 12 or 21 personnel. (One back, two tight ends or two backs and one tight end). A lot of the time, these personnel groupings were the same, as the tight end would usually be off-the line and sometimes inside the tackle box as an offset full-back.
So, while they employed a fullback, it was primarily just a tight end lined up in the backfield. They never employed a conventional I-formation lead-blocking fullback in either year.
Kiffin's offense mainly operates out of conventional sets. One back, one receiver on either side, a tight end and either a slot receiver or a second tight end.
There are variations in terms of balance (more receivers on one side), bunching and motions but an overall straightforward approach.
Here's a look at their most common run formation and an inside zone counter-type look. The motion from the receiver and the threat of play action both contribute to opening up the running lane on the right side.
Morton has been tasked with designing different looks for certain passing concepts in the past and, legend has it, that he went above and beyond, coming up with hundreds of different variations. Hopefully that would be used to identify some particularly effective wrinkles, rather than all being incorporated into a dizzyingly complex 700-page playbook.
The game has certainly evolved since Morton was at USC, operating his version of Kiffin's old scheme. The shotgun formation has become more prevalent at the college level and more and more teams at the NFL level are following this trend.
In 1996, the Jets led the league by being in the shotgun 27% of the time, but 13 teams never operated out of the shotgun. 20 years on, NFL teams operated out of the shotgun 60% of the time on average, with Chip Kelly's 49ers under center less than 10% of the time.
This doesn't completely tell us about a team's preferences though. If a team is constantly falling behind in games (like the 1996 Jets or the 2016 49ers), then they are more likely to operate a hurry-up and play from the shotgun a higher percentage of the time. Sure enough, four of the five teams that were in the shotgun the most were in the bottom 10 for offense.
In games charted from 2016 and 2015, Alabama still operates with the quarterback under center over a quarter of the time. That's probably more than most college teams and something many college teams (including Bryce Petty's Baylor) would never do. However, it would be a lot less than they did when Matt Barkley was Morton's quarterback in 2009.
When the quarterback isn't under center, Alabama mixed in a lot of pistol formations, albeit moreso with Coker than with Hurts.
Alabama does mix in some spread concepts with four and occasionally five wide receivers. Their starting tight end OJ Howard is capable of moving out into the slot, although this was something he did a lot less than all of the other top tight end prospects in this year's class.
In a couple of games, they seemed to open up in spread formations, perhaps to help set up the running game later on.
They will also bunch formations and stack the receivers at times as well. Ultimately, it seemed like using spread concepts was more of a situational thing or just a concept introduced to add variation to the offense rather than spreading the defense out being a primary objective of the offense.
Alabama will typically tend to employ conventional pass protection packages, although they would operate inside-out protections from time to time, as well as using roll-outs and play-action to keep the defense off balance.
They operate inside-out protection out of a five receiver set here, which you can see doesn't really work because the right tackle loses his one-on-one match-up, flushing the quarterback from the pocket:
As noted, with Hurts in, they had a lot of run-pass options with quick tosses. However, Coker actually got rid of the ball faster than he did on average, probably because of Hurts' ability to elude pressure.
Play action is still a more common function of the college game than it in in the pros, where a less-is-more approach is favored. Both Coker and Hurts were in the 35-40% range. That would have comfortably led the NFL last year.
Interestingly, Bryce Petty ran play action on about 50% of his dropbacks at Baylor whereas Christian Hackenberg was closer to 20% at Penn State.
Within the Kiffin offense, the running game is designed much like a pro-style offense, mixing inside and outside zone with the occasional power play.
Here's an outside zone-type run out of a two-tight end set, although one is aligned more as a fullback:
Morton is expected to be heavily influenced by Jim Harbaugh, who he has worked with in the past. Harbaugh is renowned for using power schemes, but the overall mix of plays he uses is actually similar to how the Kiffin offense is already designed. The difference is in terms of the fullback position, which Harbaugh employs with greater regularity.
Here, Alabama executes a power counter to perfection, but out of their typical three wide shotgun set. Perhaps Morton's offense would execute a similar play with another blocker in and a more conventional fullback, as Harbaugh would:
In 2010, Morton was the passing game coordinator, while Kennedy Polamalu (then Pola) was the running game coordinator. That suggests Morton's strength is in the passing game and he might defer to his other coaches to help construct the running game.
Offensive line coach Steve Marshall is a holdover from the previous staff, but new running backs coach Stump Mitchell might be the guy with a bigger say here.
Mitchell left the Cardinals because he was looking for a better opportunity only to then accept the same position with the Jets. In the process, he reunited with Todd Bowles who was on the Cardinals staff with Mitchell in 2013 and 2014. Could Mitchell be taking on a running game coordinator-type role in Morton's offense? He has been an offensive coordinator and head coach at the college level and making this step towards reaching the coordinator level in the pros would make sense in the context of the ambitious Mitchell's career path.
We don't know yet what Morton's play calling style will be. He's already talked about the importance of ball security, which might suggest a more conservative play-calling style from what is typically seen from Kiffin's offenses.
Surprisingly, Alabama developed into a big play team over the past few years. They didn't have a lot of extended drive of 10 plays or more and took plenty of successful shots at the end zone once they got in range.
If something is working, Kiffin will keep running it. A lot of the time in 2015, Henry was just going up the middle over and over again and, in 2016, they leaned heavily on read-option and RPOs. He'll also often repeat a play by giving an identical look and not necessarily doing anything different.
All of this enables Kiffin to establish tendencies which can later be broken. This plays into them taking shots at the end zone when they get within range.
Here's an example of that. They had run up the middle several times on inside zone type runs, but on this one the guard pulls and the defense overreacts to the power look. Hurts fakes the hand-off and throws deep for a touchdown:
Looking at the Kiffin offense is instructive because even though it's several years since Kiffin and Morton worked together, it seems apparent that Morton will have taken many of these philosophies into his approach to creating his first NFL offense. The ways Kiffin's approach has evolved in line with the modern game likely tell us something about how Morton's approach will similarly have evolved since he was last a coordinator at USC.
Back then, shotgun use was a lot less prevalent and Morton's offense was no exception to this.
Morton has also had more time with Harbaugh since then, which may have been influential in terms of his current offense. The pair had worked on the same staff in 2005 with the Chargers, but worked together much more closely in the years since Morton was at USC.
It's easy to project how ArDarius Stewart might be used, since he was already in "the same offense" over the past few years and it seems likely that Quinton Patton - who followed Morton over from San Francisco but has since suffered a season-ending injury - would also have been used in the same fashion. Based on how Morton is expected to operate, we can expect him to try and tailor the offense to create roles for everyone else, which should mean more opportunities for the tight ends based on what we've seen.
Ultimately, we have to extrapolate to arrive at a close approximation of what to expect from Morton's offense and Morton himself. It's going to be challenging for him to make the most of the opportunity he's been craving, especially since he's dealing with what most consider to be inadequate personnel.