This past Saturday, the much-maligned defense of the New England Patriots stepped up to the challenge of the Denver Broncos, and then some. As was to be expected, much the postmortem focused on Tim Tebow and the option elements of the Broncos offense. After all, those are the two things that stand out about this team. Forget the dropped passes, the blown blocking assignments, and whatever other inefficiencies that plagued that unit Saturday night: the NFL punditry and their acolytes in the public are trying to have the last laugh by claiming that the Denver suffered this embarrassing comeuppance because it dared to fly in the face of traditional wisdom. I, obviously, disagree.
Before getting into mock drafts in the past, I’ve always down a roster breakdown of sorts so that we can openly discuss the state of the team and you can all see where I’m coming from when I finally do start publishing mocks. This year that evaluative process begins even further away from the draft board, all the way back in a discussion about more general football theory. I hope you’ll forgive the extended length of this post and contribute to the discussion in the comments below: I come to you with a strong opinion of my own, but open to changing my mind and at least interested in what you all have to say about it. Follow me below the fold, if you please.
Just One of the Guys: the Option Offense
Ever since Tim Tebow took the reins of the Denver Broncos offense earlier this season and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy incorporated some spread and read option elements into his game plans, there has been a heated debate about the merits of such a scheme at the highest level of football. I believe the orthodox thought process goes a little like this: the spread option is a college scheme that thrives on inferior opposition, but professional defenses are superior to those offenses, therefore it will fail in the NFL. That is valid logic, as each claim seems to follow from its antecedent, but is it truly sound?
What the spread option tries to do is two-fold, yet simple: the spread component intends to create space in which to locate and exploit mismatches, while the option element is designed to eliminate the conceded numerical advantage of an immobile quarterback. Since the spread is now a viable foundation for professional offenses thanks to the passing revolution of recent years, I don’t think I need to defend it. What I will say about it is that, much like the now nearly ubiquitous shotgun formation before it, the spread was once believed to be untenable in the NFL; now, however, they are at the cutting edge of offenses at every level of football. I believe the option can follow suit, but you have to have the right players with which to make it work.
Why do teams pull offensive linemen, or bunch wide receivers? Why do they slant defensive linemen, and call overload blitzes? The answer to these questions is one and the same: to create an isolated numerical advantage. An offense with a traditional quarterback is playing ten against eleven on every snap. They have to overcome this deficiency by others means. The very first thing that the option does is return the balance on the playing field back to eleven on eleven, but that’s not all. The option also adds an additional layer to every play call, because a QB run is a possibility on every down. This forces the defense to either play back on its heels, or gamble one way or the other at their own peril.
I’ve heard and read comparisons to the Wildcat offense, popularized in the NFL by the Miami Dolphins. That offense was initially successful, to the point that many other teams implemented similar packages, before it fizzled out. But the Wildcat is an even worse numerical disadvantage than the traditional offense. Rather than making the QB position a two-fold threat and thereby recreating an eleven on eleven match-up, the Wildcat simply trades a pure passer for another rusher. Moreover, it trades a slot receiver for a secondary running back. Finally, it completely sacrifices an outside receiver by putting an immobile QB in its place. That’s a threefold weakening of the passing game (which completely guts it as a threat) in exchange for a two-pronged rushing threat. Defenses predictably made the easy adjustments and squashed the formation.
The spread option is different from the Wildcat in so many ways that it’s almost pointless to compare the two. First, the player receiving the snap is still a threat to pass the ball effectively. Second, by having the two rushing threats already in the backfield, there is no need to sacrifice a slot receiver for the secondary potential ball carrier. Moreover, this allows for a multi-directionality to the running options that is largely lacking in the Wildcat. Third, the passer does not need to occupy a foreign position on the field, thereby rendering it useless like is the case with the traditional quarterback at outside receiver in the other offense. In all of these ways, the spread option is not only different, but superior to the Wildcat. "If it’s such a decided schematic advantage," you ask, "why don’t more teams try it?" Well, like I said above, you need the right people with which to do it.
One of a Kind: Tim Tebow
One of the main concerns about running the option in the NFL is the durability of the quarterback. This is a valid concern, especially when you juxtapose the type of QBs that usually run spread options in college and the defenses they’ll be facing in professional football. Smaller, quicker players are usually tapped to lead option attacks in college football, probably because it adds explosiveness to the position that’s useful in exploiting less polished defenses. NFL defenses, however, are populated by players that are not only better at their jobs: they’re also bigger, faster, and stronger. This combination does not bode well for the future of the aforementioned offensive prospects at the next level. But what if you used a different archetype for the QB position in a spread option?
What if you sacrificed speed for power, explosiveness for durability? What if your quarterback was still fast enough to give even athletic defensive ends a run for their money around the corner, comparable physically to the linebackers at the next level, and too big for the defensive backs that composed the last line of defense behind them? That’s what you have in one Tim Tebow. The reason that even detractors like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay thought Tebow could move to H-back, fullback, tight end or some other such nonsense in the NFL is because he has the size and athleticism to excel at those positions. And what do they always say about good TEs? "He’s too fast for LBs, too big for DBs." Well, Tim brings similar traits to similar matchups at the QB position in a spread option offense! That said, you can’t just plug in one player, draw up and call some specialized plays, and judge that as an option offense: T.T. already has some perfect help, but he needs some reinforcements.
Every King Needs a Court
One thing that an option team needs is wide receivers that can block. Thankfully, we have two very good ones at that in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. They also need to be explosive down the field with their limited opportunities in the passing game and both of those outside guys have demonstrated that ability to some extent. Another possibility from the position, particularly in the slot, is a player that can be an option in the running game. I’ve noticed that Eddie Royal has been playing in this way some and his return skills justify this usage. At the University of Florida where Tim Tebow ran a spread option, this position was referred to as the Percy position, named so after superstar Gator Percy Harvin; it adds unique wrinkles to the offense and can be an invaluable part of its success against tougher defenses.
The spread option usually utilizes smaller speed backs at the running back position, but we’ve seen how effective it can be with a power runner like Willis McGahee instead. That said, we’ve also seen the sort of depth that is required at RB in order to sustain the attack. Finally, our offensive line is well suited for this attack, as it consists of smaller, more athletic linemen. While some look at our roster and see a need more impact playmakers, I believe we could use more deployable depth throughout. Versatility in formations and depth are keys if we are to make this style work for us.
Moneyball on the Gridiron
One of the hidden advantages of employing a unique offense is that the players that are required may well be undervalued commodities in the NFL market. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the concept of Moneyball, but it could apply to us in a way. Moneyball is the term applied to the Oakland Athletics approach to roster-building. Since they did not have the payroll to compete with the big market teams in the salary-cap-less Major League Baseball, they could not afford to look at the game in the same way as those competitors. In other words, if they went after the same things that the big money teams did, they’d lose out because they’d always be outbid. So they decided to find a different way to win games, and they found it by eschewing the traditional stats in favor of more advanced metrics that were being overlooked at the time. They used this approach to acquire undervalued assets with which to build a winning team in an unorthodox way. They were ridiculed at first, but they had enough success to then be emulated by others that would finally achieve the ultimate success. We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in the NFL.
When the league first started turning back to the 3-4 defenses a while back, the first teams that did so enjoyed the advantage of an untapped talent pool. Those few that made the leap had their pick of all of those players that better fit their system. It was acknowledged in the statement that "3-4 defenses can always find talent to fit their scheme later in the draft." The reason why was because they weren’t competing with that many others for the services of those prospects. Supply was fairly high, demand was quite low, and so the price (in terms of draft resources and free agent dollars) was depressed. This has since changed because there are so many more such defenses in the league. It’s one of the reasons why some of those original 3-4 defensive powerhouses have fallen off, or why they’ve had to commit so many resources to sustain that side of the ball that their respective offenses have languished behind.
Right now the Denver Broncos have a unique opportunity. They can embrace it, become the first dedicated spread option offense, and reap the rewards. They have the perfect quarterback for it, solid pieces around him to add to, and the wind of a great winning streak because of it at their back. They can target other players that fit the scheme that are overlooked elsewhere because they’re unconventional, so they can get them for less. The media will mock us and some fans won’t believe, but winning cures everything. If it fails, it fails and we have to rebuild, just like any other team whose nucleus doesn’t reach that critical mass. But if it succeeds, we could run roughshod for quite some time before anyone else has the good sense to do anything about it. I believe it can work and you might not, but shouldn’t we at least find out for sure?