The Most Important Game in the History of the Spread Offense, and its Legacy

The 2000s were undoubtedly the decade of the spread offense. We’re still feeling the reverberations of the tectonic shifts; what began in backwater practice fields, the synthesis of old ideas with new ones, is now omnipresent — overexposed, quite possibly — on most levels of football, and even the NFL is now beginning to adapt. Some of this charge is led by innovative coaches; some by fan request; some simply by players too good to not be part of a changing landscape.

Sons of the spread

The spread was not born on November 4, 2000, when lowly Northwestern, coached by the late Randy Walker, defeated Michigan, but that was the day it no longer belonged to the fringe: It had been conceived long before, from a variety of parents, but that day it was born to the world, live on our TV screens. I’ve previously written about the game and what it meant going forward.

Northwestern defeats Michigan 54-51. This is shocking enough. Northwestern scored fifty-four points against a Michigan team known for great defense and great defensive talent. Doubly shocking. Quarterback Zak Kustok threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Not so shocking from a spread quarterback in victory. We’d seen the run and shoot before; Drew Brees, also in the Big 10 playing for Purdue, commonly put up big passing numbers in a spread-to-pass system. Indeed, don’t they always have to throw for this much to win? That’s why they get in the gun, right?

But wait, there’s another stat.

Northwestern Rushing: 332 Yards; 6.64 average per carry. 332 yards.

What? Three-Hundred and Thirty Yards rushing?

How did they do that? Yes their running back had a huge day, but the yards that also made everyone sit up and take notice were the 55 yards from Northwestern’s quarterback, Zak Kustok – hardly Vince Young or Pat White [or Cam Newton] in raw athleticism. But the light went off across the country. If Zak Kustok can do it, maybe my guy can too. And even if he’s not superman just the threat that he can make the defense pay if they over pursue by getting me eight yards, then let’s do it.

And if by the threat of the quarterback, that opened up my runningback for the huge day, then we’d really have something. The gateway for the ubiquity of the spread — by definition, a system with multiple receivers — was not by appealing to every coach’s impulse to be Mike Leach and throw it 50 times a game; believe it or not, most coaches do not want to be Mike Leach. Instead if you could show them how to run the ball for 300 yards and score 54 points against an historically great rushing defense, that is something people will sign up for. Walker and his offensive coordinator, former Oklahoma offensive coordinator and current Indiana head coach, Kevin Wilson, were traditional, power, tight-end and fullback guys. If they could make it work — against that opponent — well, there was hope for everyone.

More than a decade later, maybe the spread is already past its prime.
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What is the Inverted Veer / Dash Read?

In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:

Inverted veer works better when this is your QB

TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .

“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.

I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.

But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.

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Alex Gibbs teaches the outside zone/wide zone to Dan Mullen, Steve Addazio, and Urban Meyer’s old Florida staff

This unbelievable set of videos is courtesy of Brophy. I don’t know what he had to do to obtain these (nor do I want to know), but you’re all the beneficiaries of what was undoubtedly some unspeakable sacrifice he made. Brophy has put up roughly six or seven hours of video; check out parts one and two.

The context is that Alex Gibbs, then offensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons while they had Michael Vick at quarterback, visited with Florida’s staff to learn about potentially adding some quarterback read plays to his vaunted zone schemes (the same scheme they ran with the Denver Broncos). Florida’s staff, meanwhile had just spent their first season in the SEC to decidedly mixed results.

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What I’m reading (and watching)

Pistol Offense DVDs, by Chris Ault, and Coaching the Spread Offense, edited by Earl Browning (same guy that does the Nike COY clinics). I just ordered these so I can’t yet give full reviews just yet. The Pistol DVDs by Ault are self-recommending, though if you’ve seen them, please let me know your thoughts. The table of the contents of the book can be found here; I take it that this book includes old Nike COY clinic articles/talks packaged into one volume. Again, any insight is appreciated.

- The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This book is better than I expected (all 832 pages!) though I suppose that is both evidenced by the fact and maybe because I read it in non-linear fashion: I expected to only read the parts I cared about so I began when Buffett joined the hedge fund of his mentor Benjamin Graham, but found myself backtracking and then finishing the book straight through, as Buffett went from local Nebraska stock-picker to the buyer of entire companies he is today. Buffett comes across as a genuinely nice guy, enjoyable to be around, and slightly but affectionately odd,. Yet the lesson I primarily learned was that you don’t become the richest guy in the world without being obsessive, and that includes obsessiveness to the point of neglect of your family. Buffett isn’t a bad person, but obsessed with money and more interested in his own business dealings than with really anything else in life, and it’s clear what he wanted from a wife was more caretaker than anything else, as evidenced by his bizarre yet amicable separation from his wife who hooked him up with one of her own friends to be her successor (Buffett would still go to public events with his legal wife, Susie). Tom wrote a review of The Genius, which is about Bill Walsh, and said it reminded him of the Snowball. I had the same reaction, though in the opposite direction. About the Walsh book, Tom observed: “After finishing the book, and including the description of Walsh’s open and notorious adultery (see Buffett above) and general neglect of his family, I’m starting to firm up my belief being a great football coach is incompatible with the rest of humanity is about. Walsh was, comparatively at least, acclaimed for his interest in stuff other than football, but his obsession with the game and its tumults is at odds with that reputation of his.” It’s likely that this kind of obsession is not only a hallmark of successful coaches, but many professionally successful people as well.

- Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, by Noah Feldman. I don’t necessarily recommend this book to those who aren’t predisposed to book-length works about Supreme Court justices, but the subjects here — Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, and William O. Douglas — are as good as it gets as far as judicial biographies go. Hugo Black went from former Ku Klux Klan member to civil rights champion; Robert Jackson began as a country lawyer and ended up maybe the greatest Justice on his Court and the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials; Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard law professor and close confidante of Roosevelt, was known as a leading liberal scholar and architect of the New Deal, but once on the Court became known as one of the more conservative justices while the Court marched forward on civil rights and the first amendment; and William O. Douglas was, well, unlike anyone else, as described by a fantastic review by Judge Richard Posner (ignore the title of the blog post here; the article was originally published in the New Republic):

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Thoughts on Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS title game

Four thoughts on last night’s game:

  • Nick Fairley gets the game ball. As I predicted, the differences in the game were Cam Newton’s ability to do things no one else can do — convert short yardage plays, scramble for big plays on third down, and generally as reader/decoy to open things up for McCalebb and Michael Dyer — and Auburn’s superior defensive line, particularly Nick Fairley. Fairley was incredible throughout. Maybe most importantly, he didn’t tire out like we all expected. Much of this was because Oregon failed to get in their tempo for much of the night, as they couldn’t get consistent first downs and thus couldn’t sustain that tempo, but Fairley deserves a lot of credit for just being able to be on the field and keep his energy at a high level. Not easy for such a larger human. Yet the images that stick out to my mind are those where he completely destroyed Oregon’s attempts to read him on the midline option by blitzkrieging both quarterback and runningback and arriving at the option mesh point before the read could be made. I spoke with some coaches after the game who figured what Chip Kelly obviously did: if we can’t block him, let’s read him, except Fairley, when unblocked, took out everyone. A great performance. (And when Oregon got tired of that and tried to block him and read someone else, he split the double-teams. He’ll be a top five NFL draft pick, if not one or two.)
  • War Daddy

  • Stick to the plan. Oregon and Chip Kelly, however, did themselves no favors by coming out of the gates with a lot of funky stuff they’d never shown this season. I get that you want to do something different for Auburn — and that you’re Chip Kelly, a very bright guy — but that team averaged 49 points a game on the outside zone with a read from spread sets, and the Ducks came out with a bunch of three back sets with a triple option look off the inside zone. Now, Auburn’s defensive coordinator Ted Roof came out with a lot of fire zones and zone blitzes from the field or wide side to take away the stretch plays, but I’m still shocked that those runs weren’t a bigger part of Kelly’s gameplan.  It didn’t help that Darron Thomas, Oregon’s quarterback, struggled with his reads (though for good reason — see above).
  • Malzahn and Cam. Gus Malzahn (oh, I’m sorry, I meant “Guz”) called an effective game, and Cam Newton made some special plays. It wasn’t a Vince Young-esque domination, but Cam did things no one else can do. He also made three very costly mistakes: the shorthopped goalline pass to a wide open receiver on fourth down, the late fumble, and, to my mind, the worst, the overthrow when Gus had called a great double-move and his receiver was wide open. Only the last one really stung because it would have blown the game open in the third quarter while the Tigers led 16-11, but the kid played great. And from the second half on, Malzahn relied on the inside zone with a bubble screen to the opposite side — where Dyer got most of his yards and Cam Newton a lot of simple throws — and of course called that post-dig/wheel route combination for several big plays, including the touchdown. Sometimes you don’t have to be fancy to call a good game; you just have to call the right plays for the situation.
  • Defensive special? A lot of the commentariat claimed this was a defensive game — and most of my points above indicated faults I found with both offenses. But these two teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense — 968 in fact — and featured multiple turnovers and goal line stands. I thought it was pretty entertaining, as it’s more fun to watch good coaches deal with good players and issues than it is to watch one of those steamroller-where-is-the-defense games. Those who tuned out because “there wasn’t enough scoring” can’t be faulted, but you can still appreciate what the teams are trying to do, and thus why a performance like Fairley’s was so unreal (i.e., yes he went unblocked, but that was intentional and it’s what he then did that was so impressive). It was a fascinating — though slightly sloppy and erratic — title game.

Deconstructing: Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses as spread revolution

My breakdown of Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses in anticipation of tonight’s BCS title game is up over at Yahoo!. Check it out.

Also, hat tips and thanks to Brophy and the Offensive Breakdown site for some great info (especially to Brophy for the image on the power scheme). Check out great info from both sites on Malzahn’s offense here and here.

Gaining leverage on overhang players and access to the “alley” against odd fronts

[Ed. Note: The piece below is by Mike Kuchar, a defensive coordinator and researcher with the new site, X and O Labs. Mike previously wrote a piece for Smart Football called "Breaking Down Boise," about Chris Petersen's Boise State offense.]

Defenses across the college and prep ranks have been forced to adjust to the rise of four receiver spread formations.  Commonly referred to as “sub” personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four defensive line teams have shifted to three down linemen structures to match speed with speed.  What started out as nickel packages has grown into an every down defenses.   Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids to combat speed and defend the width of the field.

After surveying over 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety).  Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter.  Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap. Eventually, you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately?  Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.

Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 11 or 12 Personnel

Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one.  Over 80 percent of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs), or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the tight end is pivotal in the run game.

We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years.  What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs.  According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:

1.      It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do.  Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.

2.      It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty.  These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.

X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Mike Canales, who is also the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report.   Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying a ton of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed sweep and option series.  “Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme,” said Canales.  “Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage.  Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch.  You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand.”

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Oregon offense installation videos

Brophy has a full collection of Oregon installation videos, i.e. video cutups showing the plays for teaching purposes. Check them all out here.Very useful stuff.

And, to pile on unnecessarily (though it’s fun), contrast this statement by Gregg Easterbrook:

[In Oregon's offense, p]ass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback’s mind from melting under the pace. Oregon runs hitch screens, then occasionally fakes a hitch screen and sends a receiver on the fake side deep. That’s it — that’s the blur offense passing tree.

With this video:

Visual evidence of the evolution of the spread offense

Compare Woody Dantzler running the Clemson Tigers offense under coordinator Rich Rodriguez:

…with the new school spread from Oregon, coached by Chip Kelly:

It’s not quite fair to draw major conclusions off comparing just these two teams, coached by different guys, but I see some themes that emerge:

  1. A wider variety of sets. Clemson uses only a couple of formations — mostly two-by-two with four receivers — while Oregon uses three receivers and a lot of sets with H-backs and tight-ends. Indeed, if there’s one change I can point to about the newest spread offenses is that they are less spread. Guys like Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn use tight-ends as often as pro-style teams, though they integrate them into their offenses in slightly different fashion.
  2. A wider variety of reads. Much of the development in the spread run game has been to counteract advanced defense reactions to the zone-read, like the “scrape exchange.” A lot of Clemson’s runs aren’t reads at all, and rely on the surprise element of having the quarterback run at all, whereas Oregon employs significantly more deception and movement in the backfield, and the reads go well beyond the old “read the defensive end” of the zone read. Instead, they include reads of the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker for bubble screens built into the play.
  3. Increased polish of footwork and fakes. Chip Kelly does an excellent job of coaching his quarterbacks and runningbacks to carry out their fakes and to emphasize them, whereas with Clemson everything was so new the threat alone was often enough. (Rodriguez’s teams, especially at West Virginia, got very good at this as well.)
  4. Increased emphasis on “power” schemes. In the spread’s nascent days, almost all the runs were based off the inside and outside zones, with a few simple reads. And Rodriguez’s teams still emphasize the zone, much like some pro teams do. But other teams, including Oregon, have meshed spread principles like QB reads and an integration of slot receivers and a focus on angles and leverage in blocking with traditional “power” schemes, like the “Power O” and “Counter Trey.”

Those are the major themes I notice. Feel free to add your own in the comments. One thing I will add though is that the Clemson clip contains my favorite play out of those shown in the videos above — the “play-action” pass from no-back where the quarterback dips down as if it was a QB Draw and instead fires a pass downfield. Call it the predecessor to the “jump pass.

Thoughts on Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s next coach

briankellyPeople somewhat rightly criticize Notre Dame and its fans for what they perceive as an outsized view of the team’s importance: In the cable TV/internet age, the NBC contract isn’t anything that special; the so-called “echoes” have slumbered in an ancient sleep for decades; and the Notre Dame head coaching job — now taken on by Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly — is so fraught with pratfalls and these oversized expectations that it’s foolish to even take the job.

But, if the job comes for you, there’s really no way you can turn it down unless you have something pretty special lined up, i.e. Urban Meyer at Florida. Indeed, even if success there, under present circumstances, is elusive, the reward remains among the highest that football can offer: immortality. Even Notre Dame’s failed coaches remain part of the public psyche; I don’t remember many of the names who coached Oklahoma during the lean years, but nearly every football fan can recall Gerry Faust. But, rightly or wrongly, winning a national title at Notre Dame ensures your legend.

So I think Kelly was right to accept the job. The more interesting question is whether Kelly was the right ma

n for it. Given the choices this year, I’d say yes. I liked the “fit” of a Gary Patterson more than Brian Kelly in South Bend, but I think he’ll succeed. A few unconnected thoughts:

  • In terms of recruiting, Kelly has done an excellent job getting talent into Cincy, and will continue to recruit many of the same areas.
  • This might be heresy, but schematically I don’t find Kelly that interesting. Now he’s a spread guy (which plays to my preferences), and he’s been doing it a long time (so he has a pedigree), but I think much of the talk about Kelly as an “offensive genius” is misplaced. He runs a very simple, and even at times simplistic, spread offense. That’s the bad news.
  • The good news is that really doesn’t matter. The Irish just got done with a guy who was pretty convinced of his schematic brilliance, and likely the sooner ND can get beyond just winning the scheme battle and win some actual ones on the field, the better. And with this is the fact that Kelly is an excellent teacher, which is what really matters.
  • And don’t get me wrong here, his scheme isn’t bad. His staff gameplans very well and they put their kids in position to succeed, which is really all that matters. You’ll see some fun stuff from quads — or with four receivers to the same side — but otherwise everything is pretty basic. Yet I liken it to when Holtz arrived at Notre Dame. No one perceived him as an offensive guru, but for what they did at the time, relative to everyone else in college football (and with some very good players), it was sophisticated enough. I think it will be similar for Kelly: If he gets good players in he’ll do a great job of teaching them, and as a result the offense will succeed.
  • Which brings us to probably the scariest similarity with Weis: Kelly needs to find a good defensive coordinator, and I’m not sure who that will be. This need to find an offensive guy to whom that entire side of the ball can be dumped on sort of the Sword of Damocles that hangs over all the offensive obsessed gurus. Charlie Weis never figured it out; Steve Spurrier never won a national title until he got Bob Stoops in as defensive coordinator; Urban Meyer’s first championship at Florida, the championship game last year, and much of his success this year was driven by the great defenses of Charlie Strong (who is now at Louisville); and in the NFL the New Orleans Saints have gone from bubble playoff team to undefeated with the introduction of some new faces on defense and a new defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams.

    So more than any single recruit, I’d want to know who Kelly is going to hire as his DC. Had Weis’s defense been better this year it’s likely that he’d still be in South Bend. (And once you go to the revolving door, it becomes hard to get settled, as it takes awhile to get the program up to speed. It’s hard to transform a defense with a few weeks of spring and fall practice.)

  • All this, however, obscures the bottom line: Brian Kelly has won everywhere he has been. He turned Grand Valley State into a title winning team; he resurrected Central Michigan, where Butch Jones has continued much of that success; and in Cincinnati he has led the team to three of the best seasons in school history — maybe the best — in back-to-back-to-back years. I agree with the commentary that Notre Dame is best off hiring a guy who has succeeded at the college level. With Weis I think the goal was to sort of emulate Pete Carroll’s success at USC, but it didn’t work. And the Notre Dame job is fraught with all the issues that plague all college head coaches, but, often enough, on steroids. A little time in the meat grinder can only help.

Hopefully no one takes my criticisms too harshly. As I said, the bottom line is that Kelly is a winner, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to do that at Notre Dame. I’ll definitely watch more Irish games next fall.