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Ranking the Best NFL Coaching Innovations of All Time

Pro Football Network ranks the top coaching innovations in NFL history. Which ideas changed how the game is played?

To become a successful NFL coach, you have to be willing to adapt. Staying fixed isn’t an option for play-callers and designers as they scheme up game plans each and every week.

Competition and high stakes have resulted in ingenuity throughout league history. Visionary coaches have solved problems with indelible solutions, creating groundbreaking ideas that changed how football is played.

What are the best coaching innovations in NFL history? Pro Football Network is counting down the list.

Top Coaching Innovations in NFL History

7) Run-Pass Options

Run-pass option (RPO) plays became commonplace in college football after a 2009 NFL rule revision allowed offensive linemen to block three yards downfield on passing plays. When longtime collegiate head coach Chip Kelly took over the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, he brought the concept to the pros.

RPOs are run calls by default. Offensive linemen block as if the play will be a run, but the quarterback can pull the ball and complete a quick pass.

Every NFL team ran some version of RPO plays in 2023. Per Pro Football Reference, NFL clubs passed 1,677 times and ran 982 times on RPOs last season.

6) No-Huddle/Hurry-Up Offense

The 1988 Cincinnati Bengals were the first team to use a no-huddle or hurry-up offense as its primary offensive strategy. By eschewing a huddle and going directly to the line of scrimmage, the Bengals — who made a Super Bowl appearance after that season — could wear down defenses while preventing substitutions.

The Buffalo Bills went to four straight Super Bowls from 1991 to 1994 while using a no-huddle offense. Peyton Manning often deployed a slowed-down version of the no-huddle with the Indianapolis Colts, while Kelly brought the hurry-up offense — along with RPOs — to the NFL.

Of course, no-huddle offenses are primarily deployed in two-minute or comeback situations where an offense needs to conserve time. In 2023, the Colts ranked first with an 18.2% no-huddle rate; the San Francisco 49ers (1.9%) were last.

5) Pre-Snap Motion

NFL offenses used to be static before the snap. In 2017, teams put a man in motion on just 4% of plays.

By 2023, that number had shot up to 22%. Fourteen clubs used pre-snap motion of at least 20% of their offensive plays, while four teams were above 30%. The Miami Dolphins put a man in motion on a league-leading 68.2% of their offensive snaps, 24 percentage points ahead of the second-place Los Angeles Rams.

Initially, offenses used pre-snap motion to determine the defense’s coverage. Moving one receiver from one spot on the field to another could help a quarterback parse out whether the opposing defense is ready to play man or zone pass coverage.

Defenses adapted by disguising their pre-snap looks, but offensive motion is still highly effective for myriad other reasons. Motion can create advantageous leverage angles for offensive players, force defenses to simplify their responsibilities, get defenders in the wrong gaps, and disrupt defensive communication.

4) Zone Blitz

While the traditional blitz was invented around 1950, the zone blitz took nearly 20 more years to come into play.

Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger invented the zone blitz, creating a play that would harass quarterbacks for decades to come. Dick LeBeau augmented the zone blitz as the Cincinnati Bengals’ DC in the 1980s and popularized its use as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ DC in the 1990s.

In a zone blitz, pass rushers can come from all directions. While a typical blitz involves four defensive linemen and one additional rusher, a zone blitz asks one or more linemen to drop into coverage while sending other defenders to get after the passer. Zone coverage –instead of man — is used behind the blitz package.

3) 4-3 Defense

Intent on stopping the run, pre-1950s NFL defenses typically stacked defenders near the line of scrimmage. However, after vertical passing offenses started to show up in the mid-1940s, the New York Giants began to experiment with a 6-1-4 defense in which two defensive ends would drop into coverage.

Giants defensive back Tom Landry helped install the system, then further tweaked it upon becoming New York’s defensive coordinator in 1954.

In 1956, he became the first NFL DC to deploy a base 4-3 defense. The Giants ranked first in defense and won the NFL Championship. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the league took note and adopted Landry’s scheme. 4-3 defensive alignments have since become the norm in the NFL.

2) Shotgun Formation

Landry was part of popularizing another NFL innovation that has since become widespread — the shotgun formation.

While some clubs, including the early 1960s San Francisco 49ers, had used some version of the shotgun, no NFL team regularly deployed it until Landry deployed it for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach in 1975.

Landry hoped Dallas’ shotgun offense would protect Staubach and allow him to see the field better. Over the next four years, the Cowboys appeared in three Super Bowls, winning one, leading other NFL clubs to copy Dallas’ offensive strategy.

Still, shotgun usage stayed relatively low even into the millennium. In 2000, just 12.8% of offensive plays were run out of a shotgun formation.

However, shotgun has since become the default formation for most NFL teams. In 2023, clubs used shotgun on 71.3% of their snaps.

1) West Coast Offense

Most of the NFL’s early offensive history was centered around rushing-based attacks and high-risk, high-reward passing attempts, but this began to change in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense.

As a Bengals assistant under Paul Brown in the 1970s, Walsh helped develop an offense suitable for weak-armed QB Virgil Carter. Instead of focusing on running and vertical shots, Walsh’s offense was based on short, horizontal passes that stretched the opposing defense.

Walsh refined his plan after accepting the San Francisco 49ers’ head coaching position in 1979. The West Coast offense suited quarterback Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls (three with Walsh) and three league MVP awards using a short passing attack.

Although the original version of the West Coast offense is no longer used in the NFL, its effects are still felt around the league. Modern-day head coaches like Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan, and Sean McVay run offenses with West Coast-inspired route combinations.