True spread, apexing

An interesting article out of CBS Sports:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -The spread isn’t dead, but Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the offense isn’t thriving like it was in recent seasons in the Big 12 and the rest of college football.

Defenses appear to be catching up to the dinking and dunking of the quick-pass offense, meaning it might not be long before a new fad crops up.

“It’s not based on empirical evidence, but I just sense so many people run versions of the spread offense – even I-formation teams – that people are getting better at defending it because they see it all the time,” Pinkel said Monday.

Pinkel’s comment came two days after his Tigers’ spread was limited to 99 yards passing in a 41-7 home loss to third-ranked Texas. Missouri, which had been averaging 405 total yards, generated 173 against the Longhorns.

Oklahoma and Nebraska also have shown a knack for slowing down the spread, but no one is doing it better than Texas of late.

The Longhorns have allowed an average of 166 total yards and 2.9 yards per play in their last four games, each against spread attacks.

Texas coach Mack Brown has made the recruitment of anti-spread defenders an emphasis.

He said all players in the secondary, safeties included, must be able to be shut down receivers in man coverage. Linebackers have to be fast and able to cover running backs or receivers coming out of five-receiver sets. The linemen all must be effective pass rushers so the need for blitzing is reduced.

So if the spread goes away, what will be the next hot offensive trend?

Maybe it’ll be the spread option, a descendent of the triple-option that Tom Osborne used at Nebraska to hammer opponents for 25 years.

Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads tried without much success to defend Navy’s spread option when he was defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh two years ago. The father of the spread option, Paul Johnson, was coaching Navy then, and the Midshipmen rolled up 497 yards.

Johnson now coaches 11th-ranked Georgia Tech, which ran on 71 of 79 plays while beating Virginia Tech 34-9 last Saturday.

“I don’t care what level of football,” Rhoads said, “that offense has a chance to be successful and it could indeed be more commonplace as we move forward.”

Texas’ Brown said he’s not so sure fans would accept the spread option because they have been so accustomed to the excitement of passing offenses.

There also is another drawback, he said: “Would you be able to come from behind if you got down three touchdowns?”

I don’t think that the spread option or flexbone will become that popular. (Though a part of me wishes it did, just to hear the NFL guys long for the days when colleges were producing QBs who threw it forty times a game from the shotgun. Didn’t know how good they had it.) But I think Mack Brown’s comments are instructive: If he can get top talent at every defensive position, and each of his defenders is better than the guy across from him, what do you gain by spreading him out to get a one-on-one? The answer is not much. Indeed I discussed this a few years ago:**

The offense has arguably become the opposite of an equalizer, it has become an amplifier: if you are talented you can really rack up the points because no one can cover Vince Young, Ted Ginn or the like one-on-one. But if you’re not, you just get sacked and no one gets open.

This is not to say that all “spreading” is out. I think there’s been a real change in the game, and athletes in space is never going out of style. I do think there already is a theme of contraction where certain players, like H-backs and the like are useful because they add blocking dimensions (both for running and pass protection) and can still leak out into pass routes. The spread stuff will be gobbled up into the whole but will still be present. But I think Pinkel is right that it doesn’t pay to just be four and five wide every single play. You become too predictable.

**FN: I looked back at that January 2006 article and saw that I said this: “(If I had to predict something [to be the wave of the future] I would say the jet/fly offense, but it has not caught on as much as I’d thought.” Was I right? Hello Wildcat!

(H/t Blutarsky.)

  • elwood

    On Brown’s comment re: spread option…

    You know what’s exciting, Mack? Winning. Running to 7-1 beats the heck out of passing to 4-3.

    And honestly, who ever has success coming back from three touchdown down? You’re usually down three touchdowns for a reason.

  • Brad

    I wouldn’t be terribly suprised in a few years to see some true power running offenses find success running antiquated 3 yards and a cloud of dust style at people. The only reason is that as more and more teams prepare for the spread or the option, most teams now spend a majority of their time in nickel and dime defenses. Like Mack Brown said, he recruits guys who can cover, and LBs who can use their speed to cover, and DL who can pass rush. So what happens when a team tries to smash mouth the ball down their throats 40-50 times a game? Can a defense built for speed and pass protection that spends most of its time in the nickel revert back to an old school base 4-3 and stop the power running game?

  • Hemlock

    I guess Mack forgot how many time Paul Johnson coached teams came back from large deficits. I think the Georgia game from last year comes to mind.

  • Not Mack Brown

    Don’t all coaches want to recruit fast safeties, cornerbacks who can lock down 1-on-1, speedy and athletic linebackers, and defensive lineman who are dynamite pass rushers?

    Is it just The Spread that dictates that kind of recruiting?

    Just askin’.

  • Scott

    Halftime GT 12 UGA 24

    Final GT 45 UGA 42

    GT scored 26 points in the 3rd quarter. Yeah, can’t comeback with Paul Johnson’s system, alright. Considering GT had more long plays last year than anyone in the nation, it’s hard to imagine people think this way. Of course GT leads the nation in time-of-possesion this year and has in fact been grinding out long, sustained drives, which is a little different than 2008. So he can do it either way.

    Of course, so far in year 2 at GT, the good new is, it appears that it’s not necessary to comeback, because they seem to be ahead most of the time.

  • obvious

    “He said all players in the secondary, safeties included, must be able to be shut down receivers in man coverage. Linebackers have to be fast and able to cover running backs or receivers coming out of five-receiver sets. The linemen all must be effective pass rushers so the need for blitzing is reduced”

    If any team has a defense personnel described above, then it can virtually stop any offense.

  • Zach Havenor

    I would have to ask Mack Brown how many exciting big offensive plays were in that OU v UT game. His high flying offense wasn’t so good if I remember and that was with a heisman contender at the helm.

  • Score?

    Check your GT v VT score…

  • If the spread is going away (because you can just recruit studs on defense), why are the New England Patriots, the New Orleans Saints, and the Denver Broncos having so much success?

  • stan

    Talent needs cycle and responses cycle. When big tall receivers were in vogue, DBs needed to be more physical. When the run and shoot featured smurfs, safeties had to be cover guys.

    If defenses adapt to the spread by going small and quick, offenses with physical running games will have more success.

    The principle behind Wee Willie Keeler’s adage of “hitting it where they ain’t” still covers a lot of territory in sports. If they zig, you zag.

  • Joe

    Actually the halftime score was UGA 28 GT 12.

    I love option football and think it has some definite advantages schematically. But as always, it comes down to personnel and execution. I understand the bias against option teams not being able to come from way behind b/c I can remember the old wishbone teams attempting to pass. It was embarrassingly hopeless and pathetic. However, the modern version of the option has a competent passing attack integrated into it, at least as practiced by Paul Johnson and Rich Rodriguez, et al. If you have a competent QB and WR, you can have an effective big-play passing attack since you rarely get good safety help since they have to be so involved with defending the option runs. Bay Bay Thomas of Georgia Tech is among the national leaders in yards/catch this season, and I believe he was leading at one point recently (and may still).

    On a separate but related point, I’m always a little confused by the terminology used when discussing the “spread” offense. It seems to imply a constant passing attack from a 5-wide empty backfield set. I always think about the “spread” as developed and implemented by RichRod that was primarily a running attack out of the shotgun zone read option. There are definitely many variations of the “spread” and this needs to be clarified IMO. As always, love your site!

  • The Spread is here to stay like any Offense you need to be three dimensional, Run, Pass, Playaction etc you can still run effectivly from the spread providing that you have slots that can assist in blocking in the Box as well as on the perimeter. last years game where oregan State played USC was a good example of that. The Spread Offfense is Flexible in that you can be either more run orientated or pass oriented depending on your personelle that you recruit. The key to any Offense is Execution the added advantage of the Spread is when you get a QB that can run with the ball and is tough enough to take a Hit. Heck even vs 7 in the BOX run the QB Power and leave the Backside end unblocked and still have succes.

  • Dupes

    it is kind of like why the pros do not run the spread (other than the Pats to an extent and the Saints) because everyone can cover and your quarterback just gets hit on every play…even if you are a pass-first team, you must run to set up the pass at some point…Texas Tech has a system and that makes them compete with the big boys, but unless they get the top guys from their state, it is hard to win every big game with a pass-only attack…I miss the I formation, play action, student body right and hitting tight ends for 8 yards…50-46 isn’t too bad as a casual fan watching Texas Tech v. Houston though

  • duckfanmo

    Uh, the Oregon Ducks have had pretty good success with a spread offense. Ranked 8th in the country. Hung 47 points and 613 yards on USC. Among the nation’s offensive leaders in yards and points for the last 3 years. Their version is versatile, quick-striking and spreads the field with deception and explosiveness. It’s entertaining football and not showing any signs of obsolescence.