Firing LaFleur should not be about scapegoating
Whenever an NFL team underachieves, everyone involved in the organization needs someone to blame.
Usually, that someone is going to be a coach. If it’s not the head coach, it’s often the coordinator of the most underachieving unit on the team.
In the case of the Jets, their offense was what failed them in 2022, and many fans want to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. After all, the defense is still in the top 10 in the NFL in most statistical categories and the top five in many, and yet the Jets clinched a seventh consecutive losing season.
Michael Nania argued that the offense’s struggles cannot be placed solely on the shoulders of LaFleur. After all, he cannot control the accuracy of his quarterback, and the Jets’ QB room ranked last in virtually every measure of getting the ball to their teammates, regardless of how open those teammates were. LaFleur did a decent job of scheming guys open, but the passers just could not hit them.
All of that is true. At the same time, there is still a reason to move on from LaFleur—and it is the same reason they likely should not have hired him in the first place.
In over his head
When your head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, and quarterback are all rookies, you are betting on an awful lot going right. Yes, Gregg Knapp was supposed to be the quarterback whisperer before his tragic accident, but that is not enough offensive support for Year 1 of a system.
It is not LaFleur’s fault that he was placed into a difficult situation. His track record in terms of pure scheme in the first year wasn’t that bad according to the eye test. However, the poor rookie year from Zach Wilson certainly heightened the questions about whether LaFleur knew what he was doing. When it came out in the offseason that the Jets had thrown the entire playbook at Wilson and not given him any shortcuts, eyebrows were raised.
In Year 2, as it has become clearer that Wilson is not the answer at quarterback, many have wanted to place the blame on LaFleur. I do not believe that’s fair; it’s just as likely that Wilson is simply a bust QB as that LaFleur cannot develop him. At the same time, LaFleur’s lack of experience may have contributed to just how bad Wilson has looked.
Think about how Brock Purdy looks in San Francisco. He was Mr. Irrelevant because of a slow release, weak arm, and slow decision-making, but Kyle Shanahan’s system has thus far masked those flaws. I’m not saying LaFleur should be Kyle Shanahan or that Zach Wilson should have played like Brock Purdy has, but the fact that Wilson is up there with Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell is puzzling and seems to require other explanation besides just “bust.”
It’s easy to point to Wilson’s character as the other factor, but there have never been any questions about his effort or motivation. He was always known as a film junkie. Whatever accountability questions came up in the media have nothing to do with his work ethic.
It does seem like LaFleur just does not have what it takes to develop a quarterback.
Beyond Zach Wilson’s play, though, there are other reasons to question LaFleur. It’s telling that not too many people blamed LaFleur for the Jets’ offensive failures in 2021, but the questions abound in 2022. His play-calling often left much to be desired, as did his personnel usage.
It’s easy to blame the coordinator when the plays don’t work. However, it’s not just that they didn’t work, but how they didn’t. The fact that LaFleur uses empty formation so often in short-yardage situations and that the Jets are also the worst team in the league in short-yardage conversions is not coincidental. The Jets’ league-worst number of loss plays on first down is partially attributable to teams knowing what they are going to do. Sticking stubbornly to split-zone and outside-zone runs out of the shotgun (plays that Joe Blewett has been criticizing heavily on his film reviews for weeks now) when they are not working is on the coordinator.
Although this is purely anecdotal rather than data-driven, the number of times that you scratch your head and say “What was that play call?” throughout a game seems to be very high. Jets fans are accustomed to the count, having endured years of watching Paul Hackett, Mike Heimerdinger, Brian Schottenheimer, and Adam Gase call plays. Still, the fact that the question still burns as often as it does, coupled with the results, calls LaFleur’s plan into question.
When a casual spectator knows what the play call is going to be just from seeing the formation, you can bet that the opposing coordinator and defense know it, too.
I have used the nflfastR metric called XPASS to examine Mike LaFleur’s play-calling on several occasions. With one game remaining, I believe that some of the play-calling data has taken a turn for the worse and leaves the Jets’ offense as stale and predictable.
XPASS provides the probability that any given play will be a pass play based on the game situation and historical play-by-play data. In some game situations, the play selection split between run and pass will be pretty even, resulting in an XPASS close to 50%. However, when XPASS is above 55% or lower than 45%, there is a clear expectation of what a team will do. What the team actually does in those situations gives you a good idea of how predictable the offensive coordinator is.
I decided to look at the data both with and without the win probability filter. In other words, when a team is winning or losing big or the game is close late, the play-calling for each team becomes far more predictable, regardless of what the coach would ordinarily do in that situation. Therefore, I took the unpredictability rankings both overall and when the win probability is between 20% and 80% and then compared the rankings. (I chose to take the data in the direction of how unpredictable a coordinator is.)
Here are Mike LaFleur’s numbers:
- Overall unpredictability: 22.6% (25th) league average: 28.0%
- Unpredictability with 20-80% win probability: 26.3% (T-20th) league average: 26.0%
In other words, LaFleur’s total body of work indicates highly predictable play-calling, while his work specifically in situations in which the outcome is still in doubt is closer to average but still below the 50th percentile. He did not adjust to his personnel limitations with play-calling designed to keep the defense guessing.
Since Chicago was the most unpredictable team, I wondered if eliminating QB runs from the picture would change the rankings at all. Surprisingly, Chicago’s ranking did not change much; however, the Jets’ ranking when the game outcome was in doubt rose drastically, from 25th all the way to 14th. (Their overall ranking remained 25th.) This means that when you don’t take into account QB runs, LaFleur was actually a slightly above-average play-caller in terms of unpredictability, which could be taken as an encouraging sign.
However, I would argue that this is precisely the point: LaFleur did not take into account QB runs when he could have. Although the second matchup with New England seemed to indicate that a spy would knock out Zach Wilson’s ability to run, most defenses do not have the same level of gap discipline as the Patriots.
Mixing up the play-calling to include more designed QB runs and telling Zach Wilson to take advantage of his mobility could have been a big boon for the Jets’ offense, even with Wilson’s limitations. Instead, the Jets rarely called QB runs, and when they did, it did not seem that it was called with the correct read of the defense. (That could have been Wilson’s fault, but the film seemed to indicate it was the call itself.)
Average isn’t good enough
Michael Nania wrote in his article that he would rank LaFleur around the 20th-to-22nd best offensive coordinator in the league. I agree with that assessment, but not with its adequacy. Yes, the Jets’ struggles at the quarterback position are not LaFleur’s fault. However, barring a highly unusual occurrence, they will not be trotting out a top-tier quarterback next season, either.
Even if the Jets acquire Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo, they’re still looking at quarterbacks who rely on play-calling to reach their ceilings. Just look at what has happened to Carr with Josh McDaniels not scheming to suit his strengths.
I do not think that Mike LaFleur has proven he can get the most out of a non-elite quarterback. He did not do a great job with play-calling against Buffalo and Minnesota, both games in which Mike White gave him competent QB play. You’re going to get games like that from Carr or Garoppolo, too. Not having the ability to maximize that level of production at the QB position will cap the Jets’ offensive potential next season, as well. The inability to get an offensive rhythm going despite a QB hitting most of his targets often tells you there’s something up with the play-calling.
Yes, LaFleur did some good things this season. There are wide-open receivers on the film in virtually every game. However, a lot of that was because defenses played very aggressively, not caring about open receivers in areas of the field that they believed the QB could not reach—and they were right. Would those receivers have been as open if the defenses had to respect the quarterback? Would LaFleur’s scheme have caught them in high-low conflict?
It has seemed during the five-game losing streak that the opponent knows exactly what LaFleur wants to do and has the perfect defense schemed up to defend it. The Jets have faced inferior defenses through most of this stretch, and they’ve completely crumbled.
If LaFleur is, indeed, a basically average coordinator, that could still be a reason to let him go. This does not have to be a referendum on LaFleur or an exhortation to other teams not to hire him. Perhaps a team with a more established, veteran team and a strong offensive line could execute his offense better and give him more experience in how to mix things up.
For the New York Jets in 2023, though, with the pressure to win now, they cannot afford to let LaFleur keep figuring things out. They need someone who already has it figured out, someone like Frank Reich or another well-respected offensive mind.
Robert Saleh seemingly leaves the offense alone. He must have someone who actually deserves to take those reins and run with them.