Football Concepts

Tilting the playing field for the have nots: The infancy of the spread offense.

The game of football the past two decades has changed exponentially from an offensive standpoint. The old “Pro style” offenses all us millennials and Gen Xers grew up watching with quarterbacks under center and “three yards and a cloud of dust” with a dash of “play action” passes has very recently seen a sea change at the NFL level.  What you are starting to see on Sundays has been going in college football since about 2004ish or so, but was long determined as being rudimentary to what the NFL offensive “cognoscenti” know it all’s we’re doing, until say three years ago.

These concepts were recently adopted into the NFL by forward thinking Super Bowl winning coaches like Andy Reid and his protégé’ Doug Pedersen. I mean, don’t you find it weird that all the sudden out of nowhere, “spread” QB’s have been drafted number one overall in the likes of Mayfield, Murray, and Burrow. (Burrow had more pro passing in his version, where the Oklahoma guys are running straight Air Raid stuff).

But wait a minute!? I thought all QB’s had to be 6’4” gunslingers that could throw it a mile, and of course be tall enough to “see over the line” so their passes don’t get batted down. I could name a dozen guys in the past twenty years who fit this mold, but couldn’t read a defense if it was the children’s book “Goodnight Moon”, but dang! He’s gotta fit that profile! Right???

A dash of X’s and O’s

This is the giant umbrella term known as the “Spread Offense”. There are variations and branches of this offense, and we’ll get into it next time, but the “spread offense” is what it sounds like, where there are more than two receivers, but the goal is to get the defense to spread out horizontally, by pulling more defenders out of the “box” or the area in front of the offensive line. Now of course, this leaves 6 defensive players in the box, with 4 linemen and 2 linebackers most times, and 7 offensive players with 5 linemen a QB and RB. The goal for the spread as it moved along and former Florida and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is a big proponent of this, was spread the defense out to actually run on them, and so in certain iterations of the spread, it involves making the QB a running threat.

The formations we saw most frequently in college and the pros for most of the last century were two receivers an attached TE, a full back and RB, also called a “Pro” Formation. You may have run some of the same basic power and counter plays out of this offense back when you peaked in high school. Haha. High school teams still run this with common plays like power and counter, and to quote Marty Schottenheimer, they want to “run the damn ball!” Hell, watch any big 10 game from the 1990s on Big 10 Network, guess what you will see?

You will also notice in the spread there is definitely a lack of a fullback, and at times a tight end, especially one that is attached to the line, like we had growing up. Spread teams have a tight end but they can be flexed out usually, or sometimes totally off the field. Guys like Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey, and Antonio Gates in the 2000’s changed that position, even though Kellen Winslow Sr. was doing that shit for the Chargers in 1982. (Don’t confuse him for his sex predator son. That’s Kellen Winslow II.) If the tight end is any good, the defense calls their strength to it because the tight end he offsets the balance of the line, so it is in theory calling out the offenses strength. But, if you go 2×2, where is the strength? Uh oh.

Let’s wrap things up with a fun game to test your fading millennial memory. I’ll name some QB’s on college teams from the late 90s, that didn’t play for traditional powerhouses, but their coaches were some of the first spread devotees, and see if you don’t remember these out of nowhere teams lighting everyone else the hell up. Again, this was simple spread with three or four receivers. All the QB’s did was count. If there were 5 defenders in the box, then run it. If there are six defenders in the box, throw it to a guy who is single covered. Seems easy enough, until you hit the NFL, then that playbook looks like Calculus in comparison.

So, that’s why they were good!

In 1997, “traditional football powerhouse” Kentucky led by Hal Mumme and some plucky QB named Tim Couch ran a newfangled offense known as the “Air Raid”, and went and upset good ole Alabama for the first time in like 60 years. Couch went to the Browns in the 1999 draft, and proceeded to be awful. Also in 1997, Ryan Leaf tore it up at barren outpost known as Washington State in the one back spread, and of course, well the NFL didn’t go well. However, one guy was an outlier in this, and that Drew Brees of Purdue. Known as a solid team, but certainly not Ohio State and Michigan, the Boilermakers took the pound it on the ground Big Ten by storm from 1998 to 2000.

Also If ya’ll remember in the year 2000 the out of nowhere Northwestern Wildcats lit up the conference. I was at this game, and it was absolutely insane.

Let’s get to the crux of the matter as to why it caught on. Air Raid co-founder Hal Mumme had a young savant named Mike Leach on his staff by the way, who installed it at Texas Tech in the 2000’s. Also of note, any QB who played for Mike Leach at Texas Tech at that time who put up video game numbers but didn’t do a thing in the NFL, this is why. Think about it. Texas Tech isn’t a recruiting hotbed in west Texas, so how can a team trying to compete against Oklahoma’s of the world level the playing field. Get a simple system you can plug in, and win yourself 6-8 games a year. There are only so many blue chip players to go around.

There are other iterations of this, and we’ll get to Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly and their use of running QB’s next week. For the best comparison, the move to the spread is similar to how basketball over the past 5 years has become three point happy thanks to the Warriors and the Rockets. The farther guys are from the hoop, the farther out the defense has to go. However, the defenders don’t magically get taller and longer to cover that extra 4 or 5 feet. Now passing lanes are pulled open, it takes longer to get out to contest shooters, and here we are. The spread in football is no different. Football defenses will catch up one day……until…the “mysterious RPO.” (it’s just the option from the 70’s and 80’s all spread out. Tricky, right?) See you all next week.