Lichtenstein: New Jets Coach Adam Gase Was More Conservative Than Todd Bowles Last Season

Steve Lichtenstein
June 28, 2019 - 8:19 pm
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For years, Jets fans bemoaned their team’s ultra-conservative bent from all their defensive-oriented head coaches, most recently Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles. Playing “not-to-lose” typically resulted in the opposite of the intended effect, with the limited exception of Gang Green’s back-to-back AFC Championship seasons in 2009-10. Those coaches “trusted their defenses” despite all the historical analytics that proved they were lowering their chances of winning by doing so.    

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We won’t know until real games are played how aggressive new Jets head coach Adam Gase intends to be. However, thanks to the internet, we can gather information from his previous engagement to find clues about his tendencies. Gase coached the Dolphins the past three seasons and served as offensive coordinator for the Bears in 2015. He also coordinated the Broncos’ attack for two seasons, but when Peyton Manning is your quarterback, I’m not sure how much actual play-calling responsibility the coordinator has.

Similarly, there clearly is a trust factor between the coach and the quarterback, and a case can be made that Gase was wise not to have full confidence in Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler in Miami last season. He clearly was more comfortable with Jay Cutler behind center when Tannehill sat out the entire 2017 season with a knee injury. Cutler worked with Gase in Chicago. 

The Dolphins ran on about 53% of their first-and-tens in 2016 and 2018, and a league-low 44% in 2017, per sharpfootballstats.com. The league average last season was 50%. Miami also dialed back on second-and-long, presumed to be a passing down by most NFL teams. Instead, the Dolphins ran on 43.3% of second downs of at least seven yards last season, almost 10% more than the league average. In total, the Dolphins went run-run-pass on 18% of their series last season, which was the NFL’s seventh-most frequent, per fivethirtyeight.com. They made a first down on a league-low 22.6% of those sequences. 

Jets coach Adam Gase
Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com

Even the Jets were more aggressive with rookie quarterback Sam Darnold under center last season. Under catatonic coach Todd Bowles, they went run-run-pass on 13% of series. They threw on 51% of first-and-10s and 61% of second downs when needing at least seven yards. Granted, those percentages dropped to 45.6% and 55.6% when you took away the situations where the Jets trailed by more than one score. Even factoring those in, however, the Dolphins were still more conservative.

In his introduction to the Jets’ media in January, Gase curiously provided a lame excuse for Miami’s puny scoring output during his tenure, claiming the offense’s primary mission was to avoid turnovers. Meanwhile, their 23 giveaways last season tied for the 12th-most in the league.

The other area I looked at was how Gase viewed fourth downs. In his first season as head coach, the Dolphins went for it just four times, converting none. The second-fewest teams had nine. The NFL average that year was about 15 and has been rising slowly since.

Again, the 2017 season proved to be an outlier because of Gase’s faith (however blind) in Cutler. Miami went 7-for-24 on fourth downs, which was both the third-most attempts and the fourth-worst conversion percentage in the league.

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With the Tannehill/Osweiler duo last season, the Dolphins turtled more often, attempting 13 fourth-down conversions, including one on a fake punt, which tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. Five of the 13 attempts were at the tail end of blowout losses. The Jets, in comparison, were tied for the third-most fourth-down attempts (22), converting 50%.

Now, not all fourth-down situations are created equally. No coach rolls the dice on fourth-and-long or when they’re pinned in their own territory, except maybe when the game has already been decided. So I went back through last season’s play charts to determine how many opportunities Gase could have gone for it but instead kicked. 

I zeroed in on fourth downs with three-or-fewer yards to go from opponent's territories or very close to midfield, areas where taking chances has been proven by analytics to pay off. Again, I discounted situations where it didn’t take courage for Gase to go for first downs, such as when he was trailing big late. Also, for example, he wasn’t going for a fourth-and-one in Bears territory in overtime—the Dolphins simply kicked the game-winning field goal in Week 6.

It turns out there were other situations where his decisions to kick didn’t come back to bite him, including the punt from his own 40-yard line with 4:34 left versus New England when trailing 30-28. Normally, a team shouldn’t expect to get the ball back from Tom Brady. It turned out the Dolphins did get one final play—the miracle hook-and-ladder for the game-winning touchdown. Gase also punted on a fourth-and-two from the Bengals 42 with 1:21 remaining in the first half in Week 5 but was bailed out when the Dolphins ran the subsequent Cincinnati punt back for a touchdown. 

However, I counted only five other times where Gase could have been second-guessed for kicking, twice in a Week 8 loss to Houston where he opted for 40-yard field goals on fourth-and-shorts. Meanwhile, Jets fans might remember (or have done their best to forget) the following week’s game where Gase twice converted fourth downs during a drive before halftime of an ugly 13-6 Dolphins victory. He went 1-for-3 on other similar attempts on fourth downs during the course of the season.

What does this all mean for the Jets? It seems that this is one of many reasons why training camp will be a crucial time. Darnold, entering his second season, will be tasked with mastering a brand-new system. Not just the verbiage, but protections and route trees. Gase may have been hired under the presumption that he has been a “quarterback whisperer,” but his track record suggests that not every QB has been able to hear him. Will Gase trust Darnold enough by the season opener to allow him to be unleashed?

If not, we could be watching a coach who was more conservative than Todd Bowles.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.