Friday, June 11, 2010

Spread the word

Pro-style or spread offense?

The spread offense has been given this brash new upstart persona even though the concept has been around for close to a century. It could be because most of the teams that are emerging in recent years to national prominence are mostly employing some form of the spread. Or it could be because most opinions on a spread offense are at extreme ends - it either works wonders or fails miserably. Pro-style offensive systems are a lot less under fire with them being called dinosaurs at worst.

The incorrect use of the words spread and shotgun interchangeably can really be confusing. Though the basics of the spread offense starts at the offensive formation, it is not about how the snaps are taken. Both pro-style and spread offenses can be run out of the I-formation, the shotgun or what have you. A pro-style offense is about balance. It is about utilizing your talent to beat the opponent. Whether the QB takes the snap under center or in the shotgun, it is how he goes through his reads and picks the right receiver to pass to. It is about how the receivers' complicated yet complete route running skills are utilized. It is about how you play physical smash mouth football to beat the opponent. The focal point of a spread offense on the other hand is to create mismatches and open routes up for running or passing the ball.

A spread running offense primarily utilizes the read option to create mismatches either in size or speed. For success in that set, nimble speedy backs, big-sized pass catching tight ends and a quarterback who can also run the ball would be ideal. The 2009 Florida Gators team is a typical example of a spread run-first offense with speedy backs in Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, a big sure-handed tight end in Aaron Hernandez and a running QB in Tim Tebow. A spread passing offense on the other hand focusses on using a stable talented receivers with a quick releasing and accurate QB. These offenses tend to create big passing numbers by beating the secondary with speed, size and sound catching ability. Most passes are quick and sometimes premeditated, before the pass rush gets to the QB. Most of the successful big 12 teams use this style but a typical example is the the 2007 and 2008 Texas Tech Red Raiders team with Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell putting up some serious numbers.

A pro-style offense can also depend more on the run or passing ability based on personell and the nature of the defense. A typical run-based pro-style offense would be the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide team which won the national championship despite only 58 passing yards in the game. The victory was all about the supremely talented Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson breaking through tackles and running straight through defenders. A typical pro-style passing offense would be the 2009 Notre Dame team with QB Jimmy Clausen, WRs Golden Tate and Michael Floyd and TE Kyle Rudolph. Clausen put up big passing numbers with Golden Tate winning a number of close games but the Irish defense failed to show up through the season.

The success of a spread offense would definitely depend on how good the players are and how effectively they suit the system but it also depends critically on how many mismatches are possible with a given defense. And because of that it is true to a certain extent that a primarily spread-based offense may not succeed as an NFL system. However the spread systems cannot be simply dismissed that way.

The reason for the feeling that a spread may have limited success in the NFL goes back to the original focal point of a spread offense. To create mismatches. Now a spread offense where Jeff Demps was faster, Hernandez was bigger and Tebow was more powerful than most defenders allowed the gator offense to sneak past most college defenses where many players are simply average quality or lesser but talent-loaded NFL teams with defenders that have Tebow's size and close to Demps' speed (the kid is really the fastest!) would not have a very hard time stopping at least Demps (Tebow is still more powerful) and handicapping the spread attack. This is evidenced by how the speed of Demps and Rainey were negated by top defenses like Alabama. A top-quality secondary with ball hawks like Troy Polamalu would make life extremely difficult for Graham Harrell or Colt Brennan's passing ability with both speed, size and power in the secondary. The bottom line is that there are few cracks in an NFL defense to exploit because they are made of the choicest players.

However still, there are a number of myths about spread offenses and spread offense players that are unnecessarily out there. For starters, there was a belief that talent in a spread offense, especially from a QB or WR spot does not translate to the NFL; the big numbers generated are simply side-effects of the system against bad defenses. While it is true that pro-style routes and progressions are very different from the spread, and some NFL teams may like players with experience in pro-style routes, it still does not negate the ability of a player to adapt to a new playing style. The top rookie receivers from the 2009 NFL draft - Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree and Percy Harvin all came from spread offenses and had decent success with one of them even winning rookie of the year. Vince Young with his exceptional running and passing ability won similar honors in his rookie year and now is the starting QB for the Tennessee Titans. There are numerous such examples of non-prototypical players who have come through by sheer talent and ability. It was believed that Urban Meyer's spread experiment at Florida in 2005 would never work against SEC defenses. Suffice to say 5 years later that Urban's offenses are not doubted so much anymore.

So is a pro-style better than a spread offense? The 2009 Crimson Tide team after demolishing the Gators at the SEC championship would certainly like to claim so. But a match-up the previous year between more or less the same roster ended with a win for the spread-happy Gators. The 2009 Oregon Ducks offense was all over a well-rated USC Trojan defense while the acclaimed Trojan offense with Damien Williams, Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford could barely get within 30 points of the Ducks. The plays are call to the players strengths but it is who played well on that day and made the catches, tackles and runs.

A match-up of different playing styles only creates intrigue and nothing more. Whether you run the pro-style, the west coast, the run-option, the air-raid, the triple threat, the run and shoot, the wildcat or simply mix it up, make sure you bring your best on gameday because that is all that matters.

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