John DeFillipo and What Could Be

NFL coaching staffs are constantly changing. Struggling offenses often dismiss their offensive coordinator at the end of the season, while offenses that overachieve lose their offensive coordinator to a better team. The Cleveland Browns lost Kyle Shanahan to the Atlanta Falcons this past off-season, and he left huge shoes to fill. As daunting of a task it was to replace one of the best offensive minds in football, the Browns front office did about as well as they could have with their new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo. 

Flip! If nothing else, DeFilippo has the best nickname of any coordinator in the league. Having a fun nickname is not what has earned Flip his keep, though. Flip is one of the smartest, creative passing game masterminds around. Cleveland’s rushing attack/approach has not been quite as good as it was under Shanahan, but considering Flip’s focus is quarterbacks (formerly Oakland’s QB coach) and Shanahan is a rushing mastermind because of his father Mike, it is no surprise that Flip has not quite been able to live up to Shanahan’s rushing prowess. Flip has made a name for himself through the air, however.

Prior to being scooped by the Browns, DeFilippo worked with the Raiders as their quarterback coach. In both the 2013 and 2014 season, Flip’s effect on the quarterback was evident. 2013 is not quite the same success story as 2014, but what Flip got out of Matt McGloin in 2013 was unexpected. More than anything, Flip got McGloin to believe he was good. Getting production can be as simple as that. Of course, McGloin was no world beater and was rightfully replaced, but the fact that Flip got McGloin to not think and just throw the route was a feat.

A year later, the Raiders gifted DeFilippo with a young, moldable quarterback in Derek Carr (who, ironically, was the preferred quarterback prospect of Shanahan). While at Fresno State, Carr had developed bad habits in pocket movement and reaction to pressure because of the nature of Dave Schramm’s protection calls in his putrid offense. These deficiencies reared their head throughout Carr’s rookie season, but to a much lesser extent than they should have. Carr had finally begun to look comfortable sitting in the pocket, which was a rarity at Fresno State. Carr’s comfort became confidence and so on and so forth, and ,though Flip is no longer in Oakland, he left a lasting effect on Carr that has helped him become one of the best young passers there is.

Now, in Cleveland, Flip has continued to help his quarterbacks immensely, but this time with a much larger tool. With control of the play calls and play designs added to his knack for inspiring confidence in his passers, DeFilippo was the perfect target for Cleveland, who drafted a project of a quarterback in Johnny OVO two years ago. What is interesting is that despite DeFilippo’s lack of experience and the frightening task of harnessing Manziel, Cleveland’s front office still put their faith in Flip. Cleveland is the first team that Flip has coordinated for at any level, though that would be tough to guess based on the success of the offense thus far. Josh McCown has been the starting quarterback in Cleveland this year and has been able to be not-terrible, which is accomplishment enough for any recyclable quarterback. Much of his success is rooted in Flip’s passing concepts, as well has Flip’s ability to coax quarterbacks into taking aggressive shots.

Some of Flip’s concepts are fully dependent on McCown throwing with confidence. In essence, there are a handful of plays that Flip has that are telling McCown, “Trust me, the throw is there. Just make it.” These plays almost always feature Travis Benjamin or Gary Barnidge, both of whom have stepped up this season as key targets. Also, these plays are predominantly deep out breaking concepts, like “Smash” variations or “Corner” throws. Any lack of urgency in these throws and it is an easy incompletion, but because Flip has done a damn good job at timing these play calls and has gotten McCown to buy into his concepts, these tough throws work for the Browns- or at least they should, but McCown can not be counted on to throw accurately.

Here is an example of both Flip creating a simple read/throw for his quarterback and said quarterback then not giving the receiver a chance at the ball.

Flip3

The pre-snap motion- a major staple of Flip’s offense, especially with tight ends and fullbacks- clues McCown in on whether or not the defense is playing man coverage. The New York Jets defender follows the motioned receiver on this play, indicating man coverage. With one defender on the play side being ran to the middle of the field and another being ran to the boundary, Barnidge’s deep corner route is a mano-y-mano situation. McCown then proceeded to do little to let Barnidge at the ball, albeit good coverage. Still, DeFilippo pulled his weight on this play, just as he always does.

DeFilippo’s call sequencing/timing and awareness of the opposing defense is outstanding, and that may even be why McCown has bought in so religiously. Flip walks into every stadium with a sound game plan, only to be bolstered by the adjustments he makes as the game ebbs and flows. Weaknesses are attacked often; seldom does DeFilippo over complicate a play call in an effort to look smarter than everyone else (looking at you, Todd Haley). Cleveland’s narrow loss to the San Diego Chargers exemplifies Flip’s ability to work on the fly and keep a defense on their toes.

San Diego has two major defensive weaknesses through the air: their inside linebackers and the infamous Steve Williams. San Diego’s linebackers are neither smart nor particularly athletic, so there is a lot to be taken advantage of. Flip’s favorite way to attack the linebackers was to clear the middle of the field with seam routes to Barnidge or full on “four verticals” concepts. The Chargers linebackers continued to flow down field with the deep threats, opening up the underneath for delayed passes to the running back. These plays end up looking like an elongated high-low concept, and that makes perfect sense as Flip also used more common high-low route combinations. For example, this Drive/Dig combination can catch stubborn linebackers off guard.

Flip Drive-Dig

The circled linebacker is the focal point of this play. The linebacker may peek over and see that the two outer receivers in the trips formations took steps down the field first, meaning they could be getting deep, so the linebacker must too. On the other hand, the linebacker could see the underneath route and jump on it immediately. Against linebackers who were not smart enough to quickly recognize the high-low and not athletic enough to recover from their mental mistake, Flip allowed his quarterback to thrive.

Flip also gave McCown plenty of opportunities to pick on- you guessed it- Steve Williams. The way in which he attacked Williams was a testament to him knowing when to move on from one strategy to another. Namely, Flip called for a lot of plays that stressed Williams, especially when in San Diego territory. There would be stretches where DeFilippo would attack him a couple times in a row, then focus the attack elsewhere in order to not get his offense exposed. Flip gets all he can out of moments of defensive weakness, but is not too stubborn to move on and chip away at a separate weakness.

Though, the best offensive minds force weakness into the defense. On top of using heavy doses of motion, mostly with tight ends and fullbacks, DeFilippo does a good job of cycling the defense out of position. High/lows and wheel routes (undefeated) are the best way to do this- and you bet Flip knows it.

Flip7

This play forces a lot of rotation from the defense. Underneath defenders flow to their rights while the defensive backs all move to their lefts. Had the intended target not slipped and fouled up his timing with the catch point, this would have been complete. What makes this particular play work is the tight end’s shallow cross route. Lining up the tight end to move him from the right side of the field to the left forces the inside linebacker to the right side of the field to hold his coverage. If the linebacker vacates too early, the tight can stop his route and make the catch there. Conversely, playing the shallow route with too much patience will lead to a crease in the defense for the “dig” route to be complete.

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Wheel routes are undefeated, especially when aided by misdirection. The boot-action to the right side indicates that the throw is almost certainly going to the right side of the field, so the defense played the odds. The Ravens lost their bet big time as Barnidge was able to slip by the defense by disguising himself as a pursuing blocker. Barnidge broke into open field, turned around for the easy reception and, just like that, put the Browns in scoring position.

DeFilippo controls the skies. He has a gift for exposing defenses and getting his passers to buy into the offense. The same sentiment can not be expressed about his handling of the run game, though. That is not to say Flip’s rushing attack has been a total flop, but DeFilippo is leaving yards to be desired, even if the base of his rushing attack is sound.

“Power” and “counter” concepts are the heart of Flip’s ground attack. Theoretically, this is similar to a lot of successful rushing teams right now, but Cleveland personnel is struggling to hold up. Power/counter plays require a kick-out man, who is more than likely a fullback or a tight end. Nobody in this player group can block adequately. They are pushed back into the backfield more often than they seal off the rushing lane. Granted, expecting a fullback or tight end to be like a 6th offensive lineman is absurd, but they should be able to provide a healthy constant of sealing off linebackers. Cleveland’s do not, and their starting tight end is the worst of them all.

Though, Flip does not get a laundry list of excuses. A good deal of the blame can be thrust upon him. As a young offensive coordinator, DeFilippo has yet to hone his craft as a coordinator of the rushing attack. Often, this means making minor adjustments based on the opponent to better the chances of the unit holding their ground. Flip has been able to show this level of aptitude with his aerial attack, though he does not have a strong identity as a creator for his running backs, largely because some of his blocking schemes fail to create defined rushing lanes, instead looking like a mosh pit of one 300 pound man trying to out-muscle the other.

DeFeillipo’s coordination of the rushing attack is a bit of a clunky mess right now, and that is probably to be expected of a first year coordinator who has exclusively worked with quarterbacks throughout his career. As his career as a coordinator progresses, his understanding and manipulation of the rushing attack will become increasingly evident. Flip’s passing approach, however, is one of the best in the business and he has already done more with Cleveland’s quarterbacks than was to be expected of them.

2015 is not John DeFilippo’s year to shine. Hell, 2016 probably won’t be his breakout year either because the Cleveland offense seems to be a piece or two away. DeFilippo appears to be more of an investment in the future than an immediate powerhouse of a coordinator like Shanahan was.  With as brilliant as his passing concepts and play calling have been at just 37 years old, DeFilippo is one of the best budding minds in the league. Flip’s time to shine has yet to come, but Cleveland has a young mind primed to be a renowned presence in this league.

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