What are Mike LaFleur’s tendencies when it comes to dialing up different route types?
As the New York Jets ponder whether to keep offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, I thought it would be interesting to look back at some of his 2022 play-calling tendencies. In this particular study, I want to focus on the types of routes he dialed up. Which routes did he like to call the most often? Which routes were lower on his priority list?
NFL Next Gen Stats tracks route data. They categorize every route run in the league as one of 13 different route types:
- WR Screen
- RB Screen
For the purpose of this study, I chose to focus solely on wide receivers, since they are the focal point of most passing concepts. I figured including tight ends and running backs would muddy up the data since it would add too many safety-blanket routes into the mix, distracting us from the information we really want to know: What routes are being prioritized by each team?
So, all of the data we will see in this article includes only routes run by wide receivers.
Let’s take a look at the Jets’ tendencies and how they stack up across the league.
NY Jets OC Mike LaFleur’s route tendencies
Seen below is a breakdown of the percentage of the routes run by Jets wide receivers that were categorized as each route type. I ordered the route types from most-used to least-used compared to league average, based on where the Jets rank in their frequency of using that route.
Example of how this works: The Jets’ WRs ran a total of 1,838 routes, per NGS. Of those 1,838 routes, 202 of them were “out” routes – a rate of 10.8%.
- Out: 10.8% (6th) – NFL Average: 9.7%
- In: 12.0% (7th) – NFL Average: 10.5%
- Slant: 7.9% (11th) – NFL Average: 6.8%
- Cross: 11.0% (12th) – NFL Average: 10.7%
- Go: 25.0% (14th) – NFL Average: 24.1%
- Post: 8.9% (14th) – NFL Average: 8.6%
- Corner: 5.4% (15th) – NFL Average: 5.4%
- Screen: 2.9% (15th) – NFL Average: 3.1%
- Flat: 2.4% (29th) – NFL Average: 3.4%
- Hitch: 13.5% (30th) – NFL Average: 17.7%
I have defended LaFleur in the past. But these numbers concern me. They summarize some of my main criticisms of LaFleur and exemplify why I would completely understand if they decide to part ways with him, even if I do think he gets too much flack at times.
Regarding the numbers seen above, my main complaint is the Jets’ middling usage of slants and crossers. When LaFleur came in, it was expected that his offense would emphasize routes that put the Jets’ playmakers in a favorable position to make plays after the catch. Slants and crossers are among the best routes for doing that. But the Jets used these two routes only slightly more than the league average. I would have preferred to see the Jets rank top-5 in both routes.
Instead, the Jets’ bread-and-butter routes were outs and ins. Many of these were run by Garrett Wilson, who excelled with each route type, so that makes their reliance on those routes somewhat understandable.
However, I’m not sure those were the best routes for this Jets team to focus on. Out routes and in routes (or dig routes as they are sometimes called) take some time to develop, which means you need a good offensive line for them to work. Obviously, the Jets did not have that this year. It seemed LaFleur remained too reliant on long-developing routes despite not having an offensive line that allows those routes to work.
This is the main reason slants and crossers would have worked better as the Jets’ go-to routes. Since they are quick in-breaking routes, these can develop a bit faster than your typical out route or in/dig route. If the Jets depended more heavily on slants and crossers, it would have decreased their reliance on a weak offensive line. The OL’s struggles could have been hidden a bit more.
Plus, these routes could have been a great way to feed Elijah Moore the football. All year, the Jets had problems with getting Moore the football. Moore often won his downfield routes but did not get the ball due to either bad protection or bad vision from the quarterback. Giving Moore a larger diet of slants and crossers would have made it easier for the Jets to get the ball in Moore’s hands.
Moore finished the season running either a slant or crosser on 16.7% of his routes, which is below the position average of 17.5%. Outs (11.7%), hitches (16.9%), and go routes (25.5%) were his most common routes – none of those are YAC-facilitating routes.
I get that LaFleur and the Jets love Moore’s route-running skills and wanted to emphasize that this year, but Moore’s ability with the ball in his hands is just as impressive, if not more so. In 2022, Moore ranked second-best out of 88 qualified NFL wide receivers (min. 30 receptions) with 0.297 missed tackles forced per reception, forcing 11 missed tackles (15th among WR) on just 37 catches.
This is the part of Moore’s game that New York should have prioritized. The Jets should have scrapped the downfield routes and just said, hey, let’s force-feed this guy the ball.
Garrett Wilson was similarly stellar with the football in his hands. He ranked third-best among wide receivers with 0.265 missed tackles forced per reception, one spot behind Moore. Wilson ranked second among all wide receivers with 22 total missed tackles forced. As good as Wilson’s rookie year was, he could have been even more explosive if the Jets offense leaned heavier into in-breaking, YAC-facilitating routes like slants and crossers.
Another one of the most interesting takeaways from this breakdown is how closely the Jets tended to mirror the league-average usage rate for each route. Few teams in the NFL distributed their routes in a more ordinary fashion than the Jets.
Across these 10 route types, the Jets were an average of 1.1% away from the league average usage rate for each route (either above or below). In nine of the 10 routes, they went no more than 1.5% away from the league average. Their most drastic differential against the league average was the hitch route, which they used 4.2% less often than the league average.
However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to employ a route distribution that is similar to the average NFL offense. This is more of a stylistic observation than it is a representation of good/bad. Some of the league’s best offenses rank similarly to the Jets in this same category.
Here is how all 32 teams ranked according to their average distance from the league-average usage rate across the 10 route types:
A higher ranking means the team remained close to the league average in most routes. A lower ranking means the team typically was far from the league average in most routes.
- Titans: Average of 0.8% away from NFL average per route type
- Browns: 0.9%
- Commanders: 1.0%
- Jets: 1.1%
- Bears: 1.1%
- Texans: 1.1%
- Cowboys: 1.2%
- Bills: 1.2%
- Buccaneers: 1.3%
- Broncos: 1.3%
- Chiefs: 1.3%
- Eagles: 1.3%
- Chargers: 1.3%
- Jaguars: 1.4%
- Dolphins: 1.4%
- Giants: 1.5%
- Bengals: 1.5%
- Seahawks: 1.5%
- Panthers: 1.5%
- Saints: 1.6% — NFL Average = 1.6%
- Cardinals: 1.7%
- Lions: 1.7%
- Falcons: 1.7%
- 49ers: 1.8%
- Colts: 1.9%
- Patriots: 2.0%
- Raiders: 2.1%
- Rams: 2.2%
- Ravens: 2.2%
- Packers: 2.4%
- Vikings: 2.5%
- Steelers: 2.6%
There are a lot of good offenses that leaned closely to traditional route distribution rates rather than utilizing more extreme rates – such as the Cowboys and Bills. And there are a lot of bad offenses that leaned toward route distribution rates that strayed far away from the league averages – such as the Steelers and Rams.
So, again, it’s not necessarily good or bad to land on either end of the spectrum in this stat. It’s just a stylistic thing.
But I would say it depends on the team. Some teams would be better off utilizing a more unusual route distribution. Some teams don’t need to be unusual to be successful.
Teams like the Cowboys, Bills, Chiefs, and Eagles have the raw talent to beat their opponents without going too far outside of the box with their route calls. On the contrary, the Jets did not have the requisite level of talent to beat teams with a basic offense – specifically at QB and OL.
Considering the Jets’ talent deficiencies, I would have liked to see LaFleur be a little more unorthodox with his route distribution to try and scheme up some natural advantages that could have helped the Jets overcome their lack of talent at key positions. Specifically, I’ll go back to what I said earlier about slants and crossers. I think those are the two routes where the Jets should have strayed far away from the league average; using them significantly more often than the average team. That should have been the Jets’ identity.
Instead, I don’t really know what the Jets’ offensive identity was. They operated like a basic NFL offense. And when you have a basic offense that features solid weapons but bad quarterbacking and blocking, you end up with a 29th-ranked mark of 17.4 points per game.
This article would be my case against keeping Mike LaFleur. I have already stated my case in defense of LaFleur.
I could go either way on the Jets’ young OC. If he stays, I’ll understand it, and if he goes, I’ll understand that as well.
It will be very interesting to see which way the Jets go. Perhaps the Jets decide to keep LaFleur while adding a veteran offensive mind to assist him – head coach Robert Saleh hinted at this in his Monday press conference. That would be a feasible path.
If LaFleur does stay in 2023, I will be keeping a close eye on the metrics we discussed in this article. Will he do a better job of molding the offense to his talent? Or will he continue to try squeezing square pegs into round holes?