The NFL narrative in 2023
The game has changed.
Rather: the game is constantly changing. Not just year to year. Month to month. Week to week. But for a period of time in the year, right now, that flux has paused in anticipation to kick off.
Now is the time for coaches and coordinators to prepare their strategies for the upcoming season. Now is the time to figure out which players are going to lead you to your goal. They’re not showing their cards. Not to you, not to me, not to their wives, and certainly not to any of the team insiders. All we have to glean from the future is the narrative that has been evolving since football was created and paused after red and white confetti fell upon Patrick Mahomes and his victorious teammates on February 12th.
This is the narrative for the battle between offenses and defenses in the 2023 NFL season. It is this narrative that will give us clues as to which teams—and more importantly for us fantasy players—which players will be successful in the upcoming season. This is the narrative running through coordinators’ heads as they game plan, and prepare for the upcoming schedule, and the best ones will understand how that narrative changes and adapt. It is a dynamic and mutable organism.
Consider the play-action game: defenses have caught on. It’s no longer an easy button that can be used for mid to lower-tier quarterbacks to give them an edge. It was around for a few years but it has not only been figured out but rather used in its effect against the user. Who said defensive coordinators are incapable of telling a joke?
The play-action design was meant to buy time for offenses. Defenses were caught off guard by everyone showing rush, the quarterback seemingly stuffing the ball in the running back’s belly only to boot and find a crossing pass catcher unencumbered flying down the field. It is now defenses that are buying time. They show one mask only to switch it when the quarterback is not looking to another structure. It is now the quarterback who is confused, his first read dissolved and now a defensive end is bearing down on him.
The offensive explosion that yielded the awe-inspiring Mahomes season in 2018 and the Lamar Jackson season of 2019 and the Josh Allen season of 2020? The same formulas that lesser teams sought to replicate and used on less-talented quarterbacks to gain an edge have been obliterated.
NFL defenses have wised up. Cover-two has blanketed the league. Explosive plays have been tamped down. Thus, the decline in offensive numbers in the past years. Thus, the free fall of pass EPA. Like the offensives that belittled them a handful of years ago, they too now emphasize flexibility and creativity and are capable of showing different looks.
Those deep bombs to Stefon Diggs and Jaylen Waddle and Deebo Samuel are not going away, but defensives have been better to guard against them, and so in order to create those explosive plays that are so necessary to the modern offense they must first be efficient. Cut the defensive a million ways if you will. Bleed them dry with paper cuts. They use purposeful motion, a quarterback who can eat up yards with his legs, and the ability to run the f**king ball.
That’s right. In a summer where the talk is about the devaluation of the running back and how Saquon Barkley and Tony Pollard and Josh Jacobs are not getting long-term extensions, we are at a pivot point where the smart teams know the way to efficiently march up the field is to go against the grain. They will run varied looks. Emphasis on varied. Without variety, teams will not go far, even if they have a great move that defenses struggle to contain.
And here’s the unspoken secret that’s known to all the coaches and coordinators and players: the best ones will succeed. Talent will prevail. Not just talented players, but talented coordinators and coaches.
We fantasy players must emphasize talent this year. Not that we haven’t before, but there were other factors in play: strength of schedule, opportunity, etc. This isn’t to say these factors won’t matter, but they will be secondary to the pure talent on the field and the one calling the plays. That’s the only way to be varied and efficient so the big play opens up.
The easy button that was play-action and boot is gone, along with so many more ways that less-talented players and coordinators were able to buy that extra second on the field. Defenses have learned, and now offenses must counter the counter to the counter.
The good offenses do this by targeting their top pass catchers. Targets are funneled more to talented players and less to the ancillary characters. Offenses can be built through the top receivers and have secondary options that can take advantage of softer coverage and are showing the ability to create opportunities for their talented pass catchers to get open. Think of Travis Kelce last year. Everyone knew he was the target in the red zone, and yet he came up with a dozen touchdowns.
This is the narrative — the key to winning this year in fantasy football: bet on talent. That’s what coordinators and head coaches and GMs are doing. You can’t be any different. The best offensive coordinators will drum up ways to get their talented players open and defenses have to figure out in milliseconds how the play is unfolding.
There are no shortcuts anymore. Offenses must figure out a way to be efficient, to be deceptive to open opportunities for their top-tier players to capitalize. No more easy buttons. Let the bottom dwellers thrash about in the water and look toward the next year’s draft. Defenses have wised up, and now comes our turn as fantasy football players.
The game changes, and so we must too.