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How run-heavy will the Detroit Lions’ offense be under Anthony Lynn?

A deep look into Anthony Lynn’s offense of the past five years.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Just about every hire the Detroit Lions have made this offseason indicates they are going to value the running game a lot this year. Head coach Dan Campbell played as a blocking tight end and was initially groomed by Bill Parcells, a ground-and-pound guy through and through. Campbell went out and aggressively got former running back Duce Staley as the running backs coach, and slapped him with the assistant head coach label, as well.

Most notably, however, was the hire of former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn as offensive coordinator. A former running back himself, Lynn has earned a reputation as someone who values and curates a solid running game wherever he goes.

But how legitimate is this perception of Lynn and Campbell? During his introductory press conference, Campbell already tried shedding this reputation as a run-heavy guy.

“Here’s my philosophy on offense, and defense for that matter: We’re going to run a system that puts our best on your worst,” Campbell said. “That’s what we’re going to do because that’s what we did in New Orleans. We’re going to find a way to put our guys in one-one-one matchups, whether it’s run or pass.”

While he later admitted he likes running the ball because “there’s a mentality to it,” it’s clear Campbell is open to doing whatever works for his set of players.

This may leave many of the decisions in Lynn’s hands. So, let’s take a closer look at his history. While Lynn has only been an offensive coordinator for a single year, and he didn’t call plays as head coach of the Chargers for the past four seasons, he was still heavily involved in the game-planning process.

Here’s a look at how his offenses have performed in the past five seasons.

2016 Buffalo Bills (Offensive coordinator)

Neutral situations (Between 20 yard lines, first and second down, game within 10 points)

Pass percentage: 45 percent (31st)
Run percentage: 55 percent (2nd)

Season totals:

Passing attempts: 474 (32nd)
Rushing attempts: 492 (2nd)

Thanks to Sharp Football Stats, we can look at how often Lynn chose to run the ball in neutral situations—a down in which a team wasn’t forced (or more likely) to specifically run or pass. I’ve defined those parameters as a 10-point game on first and second down between the 20-yard lines.

In his first and only season as an offensive coordinator, Lynn ran one of the most run-heavy offenses in the league. This is likely where he earned his reputation as a run-lover.

But let’s also put this into perspective a bit. The Bills had three recent draft picks on the offensive line all drafted in the first three rounds (left tackle Cordy Glenn, center Eric wood, and right guard John Miller). They also had a 27-year-old LeSean McCoy still in the prime of his career.

Their receivers were Robert Woods, an injured Sammy Watkins and Marquise Goodwin, and their quarterback was Tyrod Taylor. Not exactly a great set of weapons for a good passing attack.

Success:

Overall

  • 24.9 points per game (10th)
  • 10th in DVOA

Passing

  • 6.9 yards per attempt (22nd)
  • 17th in DVOA

Rushing

  • 5.3 yards per carry (first)
  • 1st in DVOA

Lynn was able to orchestrate the best rushing attack in the NFL, and it led to a top-10 offense by most metrics. The passing game wasn’t great, but it was good enough to be average.

The team went 7-9 overall, but it was mostly due to a defense that ranked 27th in DVOA. Hard to blame Lynn’s offense, which created the 10th-most points in the league and only turned the ball over 12 times (third-fewest).

2017 Los Angeles Chargers (Head coach)

Neutral situations (Between 20 yard lines, first and second down, game within 10 points)

Pass percentage: 57 percent (4th)
Run percentage: 43 percent (29th)

Season totals:

Passing attempts: 583 (8th)
Rushing attempts: 419 (19th)

As the new head coach of the Chargers, Lynn completely flipped the script. His offense, under coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, became pass heavy. And, again, when you look at the personnel, it makes complete sense. The Chargers had Philip Rivers, one of the most underrated receivers in Keenan Allen, and an up-and-coming tight end in Hunter Henry. Even rookie running back Austin Ekeler made an impression with 27 catches. The Chargers also spent a first-round pick on receiver Mike Williams, but it would not turn out to be a memorable rookie season for him.

Success:

Overall

  • 22.2 points per game (13th)
  • 8th in DVOA

Passing

  • 7.8 yards per attempt (4th)
  • 2nd in DVOA

Rushing:

  • 3.8 yards per carry (25th)
  • 21st in DVOA

Interestingly enough, despite having one of the best passing attacks in the NFL, the Chargers did not put up as many points as the 2016 Bills. A big reason was their struggles in the red zone, scoring touchdowns just 46.8 percent of the time (28th).

Part of that problem may have been their inefficient rushing attack. While Melvin Gordon enjoyed his first—and only—1000-yard rushing season, he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.

2018 Los Angeles Chargers (HC)

Neutral situations (Between 20 yard lines, first and second down, game within 10 points)

Pass percentage: 52 percent (23rd)
Run percentage: 48 percent (10th)

Season totals:

Passing attempts: 512 (24th)
Rushing attempts: 399 (19th)

In 2018, the Chargers changed course and leaned more on the run game, but were overall pretty balanced. Austin Ekeler became a bigger part of the offense both in rushing and in the receiving game.

The Chargers’ commitment to the running game was only made more obvious by their draft choices—picking left guard Dan Feeney in the third round and right tackle Sam Tevi in the sixth round of the 2017 draft. Both were full-time starters by 2018.

It’s also worth pointing out that tight end Hunter Henry lost the entire season due to injury, which may have caused a change in game planning to a more run-heavy attack.

Success:

Overall

  • 26.8 points per game (t-6th)
  • 3rd in DVOA

Passing

  • 8.4 yards per attempt (3rd)
  • 2nd in DVOA

Rushing

  • 4.7 yards per carry (7th)
  • 4th in DVOA

Despite the heavy reliance on the run game, the Chargers were amazingly efficient throwing the ball, as well. Philip Rivers had one of his best career seasons, tying a personal best 105.5 passer rating. Their running game was also incredibly efficient, resulting in a Pro Bowl for Melvin Gordon.

The team went 12-4 that year, but fell to the Patriots in the divisional round.

2019 Los Angeles Chargers (HC)

Neutral situations (Between 20 yard lines, first and second down, game within 10 points)

Pass percentage: 61 percent (3rd)
Run percentage: 39 percent (30th)

Season totals:

Passing attempts: 597 (t-10th)
Rushing attempts: 366 (28th)

The pendulum swung back in favor of the passing game in 2019, still under offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.

Again, it feels like this transition was due to big personnel changes. This time, it had to due with injury. Pro Bowl offensive linemen Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey played a combined total of 11 games. As a result, Melvin Gordon’s yards per carry dropped from 5.1 in 2018 to just 3.8 in 2019.

So, by necessity, the Chargers went heavy on passing the ball, even as Philip Rivers’ physical skills were on the sharp decline. So how’d it work out?

Success:

Overall

  • 21.1 points per game (21st)
  • 12th in DVOA

Passing

  • 7.8 yards per attempt (9th)
  • 9th in DVOA

Rushing

  • 4.0 yards per carry (23rd)
  • 22nd in DVOA

Not so great. While the Chargers were somewhat effective moving the ball through the air, the offense was ultimately killed by Rivers’ 20 interceptions in 2019. They still moved the ball somewhat efficiently, but because of the turnovers and another poor year in the red zone (52.8% red zone TDs, 22nd), the scoring was way down again.

With the decline of Rivers and Gordon, some big changes were needed in 2020. The Chargers got a head start on that by firing offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt midseason.

2020 Los Angeles Chargers (HC)

Neutral situations (Between 20 yard lines, first and second down, game within 10 points)

Pass percentage: 53 percent (23rd)
Run percentage: 47 percent (11th)

Season totals:

Passing attempts: 627 (5th)
Rushing attempts: 466 (9th)

2020 was a transition year for the Chargers. They moved on from Philip Rivers, they used a first-round pick on Justin Herbert, and they promoted former quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen as the offensive coordinator.

Understandably, they went heavier on running the ball to keep Herbert protected, but even more interesting is the fact that they ranked in the top 10 in both rushing and passing attempts. Their offense, in short, ran a ton of plays, and they were relatively balanced, though slightly more focused—on neutral downs—no the running game.

Success:

Overall

  • 24.0 points per game (18th)
  • 15th in DVOA

Passing

  • 7.3 yards per attempt (17th)
  • 7th in DVOA

Rushing

  • 3.8 yards per carry (30th)
  • 31st in DVOA

Herbert wasn’t done any favors by a poor running game in 2020. Injuries, again, plagued the Chargers offensive line, but as soon as Herbert was forced into the starting lineup, he looked like a natural.

You could make the argument the Chargers did too good of a job protecting Herbert, as the run game failed him, but he had solid weapons in the pass game. Keene Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry and Austin Ekeler provided him with plenty of options.

As a result, the offense was average in 2020. With a below average defense, the team went 7-9, and decided to move on from Lynn.

Overall

So what did we learn? First, it’s obvious that Lynn’s offenses are much more adaptable—and willing to throw the ball—than his reputation suggests. It truly does seem like Lynn may see eye-to-eye with Dan Campbell when the Lions head coach suggests that the team’s strategy will be simply to put their best players in the best position.

Another thing to take from this data is that despite some occasional struggles in the passing game or running game, Lynn’s offenses never once ranked in the bottom 10 in points scored nor DVOA. On the other hand, his offenses ranked in the top 10 in scoring twice and in DVOA three times in five years. They never had a DVOA ranking below 15, either.

Given that the Lions have a solid offensive line returning, a young running back in the backfield and no solid receivers under contract right now, it’s reasonable to think Detroit leans on the running game in 2021. However, if the Lions go out and add some weapons in the passing game, don’t be surprised to see Lynn unleash Jared Goff, who we’ve seen as a capable passer before.