Much of the confusion about the Spread stems from different usage of the term. Spread can either refer to a formation or to an offensive system. Also, since it frequently is combined with the shotgun the terms are sometimes, incorrectly, used interchangeably. Let's explore these different terms.
Reeves, Shanahan, and the Shotgun
What is the shotgun? Essentially, whenever the QB lines up in the backfield to receive a direct snap from the center it is referred to as the shotgun. Many writers will tell you that the shotgun is the original formation in football, though that's not technically correct. Football originated from rugby and originally the center had to roll the ball backwards with his foot. The QB would then pick the ball up and lateral it to one of the other backs. In the late 1800s, the direct snap was developed and institutionalized in football. From the 1880s until the 1940s almost every team used the direct snap. This ended abruptly with the advent of the T-formation.
In the early 60s the 49ers briefly experimented with the shotgun formation but soon abandoned it. Then in the 1970s the Dallas Cowboys resurrected the shotgun. The Cowboys faced the Redskins twice every year. George Allen's nickle and dime defenses, coupled with substitution of pass rushing specialists, were frustrating the Cowboys on obvious passing situations. Landry countered by moving Staubach into the shotgun and substituting a 3rd WR. The Cowboy's shotgun offense reached its apex in the 1975 NFC Championship game. The LA Rams were heavily favored over the Wildcard Cowboys who had upset the Vikings on the original Hail Mary Pass. The Cowboys unveiled a shotgun heavy offense that included frequent runs out of the gun, including the shovel pass, resulting in a stunning 37-7 upset. The OC for those Cowboy teams was Dan Reeves.
When Dan Reeves was hired as HC by the Broncos he brought his shotgun offense with him from Dallas. In the 80s Denver was one of the few teams, beside Dallas, who used the shotgun extensively. Reeves hired an innovative OC named Mike Shanahan from the University of Florida. Among many innovations that Shanahan developed were several refinements to the shotgun offense. In a memorable MNF game the underdog Broncos faced a heavily favored Chicago Bears team featuring their ferocious 46 Defense. Like the Cowboys in 75, Shanahan brought out a shotgun heavy game plan featuring many runs from the gun. The Bears vaunted defense was befuddled and the Broncos shocked everyone with a 31-29 upset. Eventually every NFL team adopted the shotgun for obvious passing situations.
Since the QB is already lined up in the backfield it makes reading the defense easier and provides slightly better pass protection. However, many teams believed that you couldn't run from the shotgun, despite the evidence to the contrary. While the shotgun is frequently associated with the Spread, a team can run a spread without being in the shotgun and teams can line up in a shotgun without being in a spread. Neither the Cowboys, not the Broncos, used spread formation very much in their shotgun offenses. So if the shotgun isn't the Spread, what is the Spread?
Dutch Meyer and the Spread
Many announcers talk as if the Spread is something new. In 1952, coach Dutch Meyers of TCU wrote a book entitled:
His opening line, "Spread formations are not new to football." In fact coach Meyer created the spread formation in 1934. Using his spread offense, from 1934 to 1952 Meyer's teams compiled a 109-79-13 record. TCU played in six major bowl games - 3 Cotton Bowls, 2 Sugar Bowls and one 1 Orange Bowl at a time when bowl games were few. His 1938, 1944 and 1951 teams won Southwest Conference championships, and the 1938 team finished 11-0, outscored opponents 269-60, and was selected as national champion. Hall of Fame QB Sammy Baugh said of Meyer:
Dutch Meyer taught us. All the coaches I had in the pros, I didn't learn a damn thing from any of `em compared with what Dutch Meyer taught me. He taught the short pass. The first day we go into a room and he has three S's up on a blackboard; nobody knew what that meant. Then he gives us a little talk and he says, `This is our passing game.' He goes up to the blackboard and he writes three words that complete the S's: `Short, Sure and Safe.' That was his philosophy - the short pass. "Everybody loved to throw the long pass. But the point Dutch Meyer made was, `Look at what the short pass can do for you.' You could throw it for seven yards on first down, then run a play or two for a first down, do it all over again and control the ball. That way you could beat a better team
So if the Spread was so successful why did it disappear? In the words of coach Meyer:
Just one word of warning. Some teams have tried the spread as a surprise element - putting on only a few plays and passes in the hope of catching an opponent unaware and unprepared. And it has worked fairly well at times, too. But to get the full benefit of the spread, it must be installed as a principal formation and must be developed so that advantage can be taken of any weakness developed in the defense.
Some teams, stopped cold on the few maneuvers given off a spread setup, have given up in disgust and returned to their "main stuff." This may have happened even though the few spread plays used disclosed some glaring weakness in the defense encountered. Sometimes the failure is due to the fact that the blockers had not worked enough with the idea to master the flexibility of assignments.
To be really successful, a spread team must be equipped with enough weapons to hit every weakness and the players and the coaches must study the setup thoroughly."
TCU's Spread looked like this
Mouse, Tiger and the Run and Shoot
The next evolution in spread offenses was the Run and Shoot inspred by high school coach Tiger Ellison and refined by Mouse Davis. Ted Bartlett has already written a fine history of the RnS as it relates to the spread so rather than bore you I will just refer to his post. The RnS used 4 WRs with a single RB in the backfield. Half rolls and sprint-outs were used to compensate for the reduced pass protection. Very few NFL teams were willing to put their QB at risk. The lack of TEs made it difficult to run inside the 20, where the back of the end zone acts as a 12th defender. Also the rise of zone blitzing made protecting the QB too difficult in traditional RnS systems.
While the RnS has practically disappeared (except wherever June Jones is) many of its concepts have been assimilated into other systems. Ellison developed the RnS by watching kids on the playground. One of the principles in RnS is "run to the open grass." This is implemented through what are called Choice Routes. As the name implies, the receiver has an option between routes based on what the defense does. An example is the middle-open (MO)/middle-closed (MC) choice route. Essentially a TE or SR pushes up the seam and reads the middle of the field. If a safety is playing middle (MC) he will run one route, e.g a square out or curl. If there's no safety in the middle (MO) he runs another, e.g. post or cross. RnS teams also used lots of switch routes and crosses to create confusion in the secondary. Most of these concepts are used by teams today. When Mike Martz developed the "Greatest Show on Turf" he essentially implemented RnS concepts into a Coryell system.
BYU the Airraid and the Modern Spread
While Mouse Davis was developing the Run and Shoot another innovator, Lavell Edwards, was at work in Provo, Utah. While a 300 or 400 yard day passing is not that unusual today, in the 1970s it was unheard of. Yet under LaVell Edwards BYU QBs routinely racked up such perfomrances. Edwards wrote:
I decided to throw the football, not just the normal 10 or 15 times a game but 35 to 45 times per game on any down from our own end zone to the opponents end zone. The only success we had ever had at BYU was when Virgil Carter was our quarterback (in the mid 1960’s) and we threw the ball.
The BYU pass offense is based on a timing system. We design the quarterback drops, route depths, and protection schemes so that the quarterback can throw the ball in a specific timed sequence. If the defense and coverage will not allow us to execute our rhythm or timing, then we convert our attack with route adjustments. We want to throw the ball upfield by attacking the vertical seams created by coverage and the horizontal seams created by using our running backs in a flare-flood control concept. By doing this we can still be a ball control offense and take advantage of what the defense is giving us.
We have five basic tenents in our passing game. First, we must protect the quarterback. Second, we want to play ball control football, primarily with the forward pass. Third, it is important to incorporate an effective running game with the passing attack. Fourth, we will take what the defense gives us. Fifth, we as coaches must constantly KISS the offense (Keep It Simple Stupid).
In the 80s Hal Mumme was an offensive coordinator at UTEP. Mumme watched those prolific BYU teams and emulated them. When he became HC at Iowa Wesleyan, then at Valdosta State, he worked at implementing the BYU offense from a shotgun spread formation. Working with Mike Leech they developed a pass first offensive system called Airraid which they took to Kentucky in 1997. Soon HS and small college teams were implementing the Airraid. Weaker schools were consistently upsetting stronger programs. The keys to the Airraid were the essential BYU concepts it employed. A few plays, practiced to perfection. Simple concepts made to look very complex to the defense. And probing for weaknesses then exploiting them.
As an example of the concept of simplicity made to look complex, imagine a team with only five pass plays. But if each of those plays have 5 options, and each play can be run out of 5 different formations, then to the defense it looks like 125 different plays. The offense can practice 5 plays to perfection while the opposing defense has to prepare for 125 different possibilities. When Leech took the Airraid first to Oklahoma, then to Texas Tech it became mainstream in the NCAA.
Rich Rodriguez and the Spread Option
While Hal Mumme and Mike Leech were creating havoc in the SEC with their Airraid attack an OC at Auburn was paying close attention. When Tommy Bowden was hired as HC at Tulane he in turn hired an OC named Rich Rodriguez, from a tiny school in WV, to implement a spread offense like he had seen from Kentucky. Rodriguez was originally a Veer coach but he was hired to implement a Spread so that's what he did. But as he studied the Spread and came to understand it better, he also realized he could implement a Veer type option game from the shotgun spread. When Rodriguez was hired as HC at WV he had the perfect opportunity to fully develop the Spread Option attack. This is the offense that Urban Meyer has so successfully used at Utah and at Florida. Although Meyer has added a number of his own improvements to it.
Randy Walker, Northwestern, and the Zone Blocking Game
While Rich Rodriguez was still an Airraid guy he received a visit from Randy Walker of Northwestern. Walker had taken over the Northwestern program but was struggling to complete in the Big 10. While he had a very successful zone-blocking running game, the passing game was not as successful. As Walker discussed the Spread he had an epiphany. The Spread was to passing what ZB was to running - spread the defense out and attack the holes as they develop. Joe Tiller had already implemented the spread at Purdue so Walker had seen what it could do for a passing game. He decided to integrate it into a running game as well. In November 2000, Northwestern shocked the big college football world when they upset National Champion Michigan 54-51. While upsets happen in football the nature of this upset was what was so shocking. Lightly regarded Northwestern put up 54 points on a very powerful and talented Michigan defense. In the process they racked up over 650 yards of offense - 322 yards passing and 332 yards rushing. 332 yards rushing! The Spread was no longer just a passing offense. A serious running game could be conducted out of the shotgun spread formation.