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Emulating McVay: How to raise John Ross to Brandin Cooks’ level

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For part one of our Emulating McVay series, let’s examine how the Bengals can get more efficient production out of John Ross like the Rams got out of Brandin Cooks.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” - Oscar Wilde

Copycat league. The deadlines for progress for NFL franchises (well... most of them) seem to be days in comparison to years for organizations in other major sports. In LeBron James’ HBO roundtable discussion program The Shop, James compared the NBA and the NFL like so:

“The difference between the NBA and the NFL, the NBA is... what we believe he can be, like, the potential. In the NFL, it’s like what can you do for me this Sunday, or this Monday, or this Thursday. And if you ain’t it... we movin’ on.”

The NFL is unique due to its parity between all teams: any given Sunday. It’s this levelness coupled with a sheer aggressiveness to evolve for the sake of strategic advantage that creates the whirlwind we know and love every Sunday afternoon in Autumn. Realistically, not every team can be at the forefront of evolution. Some teams adapt.

The Bengals are trying to adapt.

The Los Angeles Rams have become the cream of the crop in the apple orchard of outdated offenses; making Sean McVay the Johnny Appleseed of simplistic innovation. With the hiring of McVay’s former quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, Cincinnati’s plan is simple: allow Taylor to build his own evolution of McVay’s system. Of course this can’t happen overnight, not without talent that’s comparable to what Taylor was exposed to in Los Angeles.

Luckily, the Bengals have comparable talent, with the emphasis on comparable, and talent.

This three-part series hopes to shed light on integral pieces in the Bengals’ offense and how they can be maximized in similar ways seen in the McVay offense.

For part one, we’re going to look at Brandin Cooks and John Ross.

Comparing apples to more bruised apples

Cooks and Ross entered the NFL very similarly. In his final year at Oregon State, Cooks accounted for 35% of the Beavers’ passing yards and 42% of their passing touchdowns. Cooks then blazed a 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL combine at 5-10 189 pounds and wound up becoming the 20th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Three years later at another PAC-12 program, Ross didn’t quite hit Cooks’ marks (32% passing yardage market share and 36% touchdown market share) in his final year at Washington, but his 4.22 40-yard dash at 5-11 188 pounds shot his draft stock into the top-10. Entering 2019, Cooks is on his third team after being traded for a first-round pick twice and has found a home with the Rams. Ross is, well, not exactly valued that high.

Using NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats and a couple of metrics from PlayerProfiler.com, the difference between Cooks and Ross in 2018 is stark in more ways than one.

Cooks vs. Ross Advanced Stats

NAME AVERAGE CUSHION AVERAGE SEPARATION AVERAGE TARGETED AIR YARDS TEAM AIR YARDS % RECEPTIONS TARGETS RECEPTION % CATCHABLE % YARDS YARDS/ PASS ROUTE TOUCHDOWNS YARDS AFTER CATCH/ RECEPTION EXPECTED YARDS AFTER CATCH/ RECEPTION EXPECTED YARDS AFTER CATCH/ RECEPTION +/-
NAME AVERAGE CUSHION AVERAGE SEPARATION AVERAGE TARGETED AIR YARDS TEAM AIR YARDS % RECEPTIONS TARGETS RECEPTION % CATCHABLE % YARDS YARDS/ PASS ROUTE TOUCHDOWNS YARDS AFTER CATCH/ RECEPTION EXPECTED YARDS AFTER CATCH/ RECEPTION EXPECTED YARDS AFTER CATCH/ RECEPTION +/-
COOKS 5.7 2.7 12.9 30.8 80 117 68.38 79.3 1204 2.47 5 4.5 4.8 -0.3
ROSS 5.4 2.2 14 18.36 21 58 36.21 55.2 210 0.63 7 3.1 3.6 -0.5

The first numbers that stand out have to be the percentage of team air yards relative to average targeted air yards. Ross averaged just over one air yard per target more than Cooks but accounted for almost 12% less of his team’s total air yards. This is a testament to the Bengals’ willingness to look for Ross down the field, but failure to get him the ball in those situations.

The discrepancy in reception percentage gets put into proper context by seeing the catchable percentage alongside it. Cooks saw one less air yard per target on average but 24% more his targets were catchable. That’s a monstrous difference. Explains the whopping 1.84 difference in yards per pass route as well.

Expected yards after the catch also showcases a sizable gap between the two. Cooks’ film isn’t a collection of short passes with Cooks in space, but with slightly more average separation, Cooks was able to do more damage with the ball in his hands. Ross dealt with noticeably more contested situations and less room to operate.

Ultimately, a vast difference in efficiency is revealed with this data, and the film can show us why. I went through all of Cooks’ touches during the 2018 season and extracted three main themes for how the Rams’ offense made him an even more productive player.

Route concepts that create meaningful space

First off, Cooks is an extremely impressive receiver, especially for his size. He was asked to win in contested spaces a lot more often than I expected with the Rams and his physicality at the catch-point genuinely surprised me. With that said, his speed and fluidity was put to great use when McVay dialed up effective route concepts with him as the primary read (yes, I accidentally referred to Robert Woods by his teammate Josh Reynolds).

There’s not much separating the route running abilities between Cooks and Ross. When given space to operate, Ross can reach his landmarks in plenty of time. All he needs is an accurate ball.

Play action to allow ideal timing

You can’t talk about the Rams’ offense without covering their use of play action. Building off the concept of creating space for the receivers, play action can do just that as well as slow down a pass rush.

You can definitely expect play action to make up a good amount of the Bengals’ passing game this season, and no, you don’t need to establish the run to set it up. Defenses already have to fear Ross’ deep speed, anytime they have to account for the threat of the run, it makes it even more deadly.

Screens and sweeps

Growing up I played youth basketball with my dad as our offensive coach. We often practiced the three-man weave but in-game, he always preached to never “weave for the sake of weaving”.

The Bengals attempted plenty of screens for the sake of attempting screens without maximizing the specific situation they were in and the defense they were facing. You can throw in jet sweeps in that category as well. McVay has complete situational awareness when pulling tricks out of his sleeve and Cooks’ athleticism was an ideal asset for these simple but effective concepts.

It’s the little wrinkles that seem so easy to implement after the fact that make the most difference. The hope is that Taylor brought the wrinkles with him from the west coast.

What’s the base for Ross?

The plan is all laid out, but football is best when it’s simple. Logical. We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel, and the more we can build instead of reconstruct, the better.

It took some digging, but there were positive examples of the Bengals utilizing Ross’ strengths in 2018, and it didn’t just happen in the red zone.

Player comparisons, specifically pro-to-college player comparisons, represent risky business because it’s difficult to commend one party without diminishing the other. Ross is two years removed from being drafted but his time in the NFL hardly makes him an established veteran. Any conversation that involves his outlook primarily involves his potential, and right now, he belongs nowhere near where Cooks should be discussed in regards to the league-wide landscape of wide receiver play. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of providing a similar impact to that of Cooks, and the physical similarities only enhance his case.

Taylor can put Ross in great situations every week, but it will still be on Andy Dalton to deliver him a catchable ball. We’ll eventually cover Dalton in this series, but not before we first go over Joe Mixon and how Taylor can maximize him like Todd Gurley. That will be arriving shortly, so stay tuned.