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How Team Chemistry Affects NFL Offenses

Every year, NFL teams must make decisions about which players to keep and which to cut. There are innumerable factors that determine which players teams decide to keep. Two of the most important factors are chemistry and talent. Elite players almost always make the roster, as they are typically higher draft picks and are the true difference-makers on the field. While all NFL players have incredible talent, not all can be considered elite relative to the entire league. Teams attempt to stock as many of these elite players on their teams every year, but filling an entire roster with them is impossible. The remaining spots must be filled with players of varying talent, where factors such as chemistry come into play.

Team chemistry is an intangible defined as an interplay of physiological, social, and emotional forces that elevates performance. This manifests in several ways on the football field, on both sides of the ball. The more snaps players have together, the more they are able to understand and predict the behaviors and reactions of their teammates. Players with this ability are more valuable to teams because of their ability, not only on the field but in meetings and in the locker room as well. As players stay in the same system over multiple years, they gain an understanding and ability to teach that can remove some of the pressure of teaching players new to the league or to the particular system. This additional value is typically what separates the players that make the team from the players that do not. 

Year after year, we see talented teams that underperform as well as teams without significant talent that consistently outperform expectations. A big factor in this is typically chemistry. We can look at the Patriots dynasty from 2001 to 2019 as an example of this. We all know Tom Brady had a significant impact on the success of these teams, however, he was not the dominant offensive threat early in his career that we now see him as. In the early years, the team’s success was based on a strong defense and an efficient offense that did not make mistakes. Because of Bill Belichick’s ability to get players to buy into his scheme and culture, the Patriots were able to build consistent winning teams without spending a surplus on elite talent. We consistently see teams with talented quarterbacks or talented rosters that cannot put everything together for a successful season, while teams with fewer elite players but a solid identity and a culture centered around players holding each other accountable find success almost every season. 

While talent is no guarantee of success, it is still necessary for successful teams. No matter how much players buy in or how well they know a system, being bigger and faster than the other team will always be an advantage. One of the issues with having talented players is that sometimes it can be a struggle to have them commit to playing as a team. As cliche as it sounds, working as one synchronized machine is the only way to win in the NFL. We can look at the 2018–2019 Browns as an example of a team with significant talent that could not make it work. The Browns’ offseason was one of the most exciting for any fanbase in several years, as they added several big names both through the draft and free agency. This resulted in a team with significant talent spread all over the field but no real team identity. There were too many talented players on offense who believed they needed more touches to positively impact the game. This type of confusion can cause hesitation, both in-game and in the locker room. The tension created by this leads to talent being misused and being relatively ineffective for the capital invested. 

Chemistry has become much more popular among front offices when determining which players to draft and pick up from free agency. We have seen this a lot recently, with teams teaming up their quarterbacks with their respective college receivers. This method has already shown fantastic results, as we have watched the Bengals, Eagles, Jaguars, and Dolphins all find success pairing college teammates together. We have also seen the effect of splitting up players with a well-developed chemistry in Las Vegas. Davante Adams has had a tough time this season without the rhythm he had developed with his former college teammate Derek Carr. With defenses being able to apply pressure in new ways while dropping more players into coverage, it is more important now than ever to be able to get rid of the ball on time. Because of this, the chemistry between the quarterback and wide receiver is one of the most important on the field. The quarterback needs to know exactly where his receiver will be coming out of a cut and needs to be able to throw it before the receiver is ready to prevent the defense from reacting and making a play. All of this is accomplished through repetition, creating chemistry between the players. 

Both offensive and defensive lines require a certain level of synchronicity for success. Offensive lines must communicate all their responsibilities pre-snap, but when a random event occurs mid-play, causing a change in schedule or responsibility, the unit has to react together to recover. The ability to do this comes from an understanding of how the surrounding players will respond to specific actions of the defense. Just as the offensive line must work in cohesion, the defensive linemen have to understand the spacing and movement of their surrounding teammates. As teams have begun to run new and sometimes complex stunts along the defensive line, the necessity of smooth movement has become more obvious. Defensive linemen must understand the timing of the stunt and be able to adjust their movements based on the protection of the offensive line. In order to do this without communicating with one another, players must develop an understanding of the different styles of play of their teammates. 

The chemistry between offensive linemen and their running backs is also crucial to an effective offense’s run game. Teams often give reps to veteran running backs over their young athletic backs. A lot of this has to do with veteran players understanding blocking schemes both in the run and pass games. Even though young backs might have more of a chance to break a big play due to their athleticism and fresh legs, they can struggle to find the hard-nosed extra couple yards that savvy older backs know how to find. In the pass game, veterans are able to understand which player will be allowed to run free because of their experience. We consistently see older backs such as Raheem Mostert and Cordarelle Patterson thrive in their schemes due to their ability to understand how their line will set up blocks. They also help their linemen by positioning themselves in ways that force defenders into favorable blocking positions. These backs specialize in spreading the defense out on wide runs, allowing them to help set up blocks for their line based on how they see the defense reacting. While these two players have both maintained their athleticism into their 30s, their real value comes from their experience and ability to communicate during a play without speaking. 

Only five out of the top sixteen teams in yards per carry had more than six offensive linemen playing over 25 percent of snaps, and ten teams out of the bottom half of the league had seven or more linemen taking over 25 percent of snaps, according to Nine out of fourteen playoff teams last season had six or fewer linemen playing over a quarter of their team’s snaps. Only one playoff team had more than seven, and the last five Super Bowl winners have had six or fewer linemen playing significant snaps. Everyone understands that having more injured players will negatively affect your team, however here we can see that there is more to stepping in as a replacement than just learning the responsibilities of the position. Gaining reps with the teammates that the player will be working with is the only way for the player to understand how and why the play will unfold the way it does. We can see teams that keep their core offensive line together having success despite not having as much talent as other teams. The ability of these teams to work in cohesion in both the run game and pass game is invaluable as defenses attempt to create more confusion with new looks as the season goes on and the playoffs begin. There is plenty to be said about talented and well coached teams having success, but having a team that can react together without thinking is just as valuable to contending teams. 

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