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Kevin O’Connell didn’t call much play action in Washington in 2019

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Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

First and 26th. It’s not a weird down, it’s the rankings in play action passes called in the 2019 season by the LA Rams and Washington.

1. LA, 195 play action passes for 1,564 yards

2. Baltimore, 169 play action passes for 934 yards

3-25. Some other teams

26. Washington, 98 play action passes for 811 yards

Dead Last. Pittsburgh, 65 play action passes for 289 yards

This is notable for several reasons, but the reason I bring it up today is that new Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell may have been one of the most reserved playcallers in the NFL last season when it came to play action. So much so that it could be part of the reason that O’Connell is now coaching for LA instead of remaining in Washington, where new head coach Ron Rivera interviewed both him and Scott Turner and ended up giving the job to Turner.

Per NBC Sports Washington:

Many expected 2019 Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell to maintain his position when the team hired Rivera as their new head coach earlier this month. That didn’t happen.

As Rivera moved quickly to assemble his coaching staff, the biggest question seemed to be running the offense and working with second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Rivera interviewed O’Connell and Turner for the job, and asked to interview former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur.

Shurmur declined the interview, and at that point, a source explained that Rivera then made his decision to go with Turner over O’Connell.

So why Turner?

Both candidates got their first experience calling plays last year after an in-season firing to the head coach. The results weren’t great for either coach, but Turner’s game plans involved more play action passing than O’Connell.

Turner’s resume working with Cam Newton and Teddy Bridgewater mattered, as did the plan Turner presented for working with Haskins.

Despite expectations to return O’Connell, Rivera chose Scott Turner, who was his quarterbacks coach with the Carolina Panthers over the last two seasons. Prior to that, Turner was in Carolina from 2011-2012 as an offensive quality control coach before making stops in Cleveland, Minnesota, and with the Michigan Wolverines. The craziest part is that Turner’s dad is former NFL head coach Norv Turner, which I would have never expected.

An NFL coach is in some way helped out by his bloodlines???

It’s perhaps an interesting transition for O’Connell then to go from an offense with little play action to the league leader, but then again it is probably not that much of a shock to the system for the new offensive coordinator; though Sean McVay and O’Connell did not work in Washington at the same time, they both had the duties of coaching under Jay Gruden, including as offensive coordinators.

We also know that McVay will be calling plays, not O’Connell. McVay did allow assistant Shane Waldron to call plays in the 2019 preseason for good practice. The same opportunity might be given to O’Connell this year, and would likely include more play action than he ran with Case Keenum and Dwayne Haskins. O’Connell also didn’t get to call plays and take absolute control of the passing offense until after Gruden was fired following an 0-5 start and interim Bill Callahan allowed him to take more control. Per running back Chris Thompson as told to The Athletic:

“Now, he has full control of the offense — well, with Jay not being here, he has full control of pretty much everything,” running back Chris Thompson told The Athletic. “Him and Bill talk about the run game, but the pass game is all Kev right now. He’s just doing everything his way. He’s figured it out to the point where no matter which quarterback is in, the game plan doesn’t change.”

It may also be that Washington’s lack of play action, if that indeed were a factor in Rivera choosing Turner over O’Connell, could be overblown as it relates to O’Connell. In another piece on The Athletic, “What Kevin O’Connell’s offense might look like if he were the Redskins’ coach” by Mark Bullock, O’Connell’s end of season offense, which featured eight offensive touchdowns in losses to the Eagles and Giants, is summed up as this:

But his philosophy is clear, using the quick game to get the quarterback settled before exploiting match-ups by formation and alignment. It’s a mix of the west coast offense and Gruden’s influence along with some of the influence from his time with Tom Brady and the Patriots.

O’Connell, a former QB who was selected in the third round in 2008 and hopped around with five different teams, has stressed a focus on quarterback play and giving that position the most amount of protection and time possible to do what he needs to do to move the ball. In an interview last season, O’Connell stressed that he’d learned a lot from his previous bosses such as Josh McDaniels when O’Connell was Tom Brady’s backup in 2008 (“McDaniels would say that 80% of the job is to keep the QB protected”) and Gruden (“Attack matchups and what the defense is trying to give you”) and that in a perfect world, he’d mesh those ideas together. As to being a “conservative” playcaller, O’Connell says that he doesn’t want to expose players to potentially negative plays and that “90%” of that falls on the quarterback.

“A lot of teams lose games before they win. It’s not conservative, it’s risk vs reward.”

O’Connell’s career as a coach includes working with Johnny Manziel in 2015, as Colin Kaepernick’s last ever QB coach in 2016, then with Kirk Cousins in 2017.

He now goes from Haskins and Keenum to trying to get Jared Goff back to the numbers he posted in 2018 that got LA to a Super Bowl and got him a $140 million contract that he still needs to play out after a down season in 2019. We know that will still involve a heavy amount of play action.

And probably some more wrinkles added by O’Connell. Anything it takes to convert 1st and 26th.