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What Exactly Is A Spread Offense?

Have you ever stopped to consider that question?  I've observed a lot of commentary about this "offense" here, on the rest of the blogosphere, on the DP-and-RMN-osphere, and from the idiot-on-tv-osphere.  This commentary takes different forms and attitudes.

A.  I don't like Jeremy Bates because he runs the spread offense.

B.  Josh McDaniels is a great choice for Head Coach because he runs the spread offense.

C.  A physical team always beats a spread offense.

D.  A spread offense can't run the ball effectively.

You get the idea.  It is my strong belief that there is no original form of offense called a spread offense.  I think that everybody will agree with me, once they read this post.  See you in continue-reading-ville....

We have to talk about offensive philosophy, in order to get to the question of what a spread offense is.  So, ponder if you will, what the objective for an offense is.  Obviously, an offense seeks to score points, right?  There are several ways to do this, but the best idea is to attack the weak spots of a defense, and even more than that, to make a defense adjust to what you're doing.  If you're adjusting to the defense, you're in trouble from the jump-off.

Since about 1960, there have been only 3 original NFL forms of offense launched.  The first was the Sid Gillman vertical passing game, which started out being called the West Coast offense, and later came to be called Air Coryell.  That featured deep drops by the QB, and downfield routes for the WRs.  Almost everybody eventually came to run some form of it in the 1970s.  It screamed for an antidote, and the 3-4 defense came into vogue to defend it.

The 3-4 hit its peak with Lawrence Taylor (the ONLY real LT) wreaking havoc, and Bill Walsh refined an offense which he started tinkering with in the 1970s in Cincinnati.  This would later become known as the West Coast offense also, and still is typically called that today.  The West Coast offense caused a mostly league-wide shift back to 40 fronts and faster LBs.

In the middle of all of this, during the late 1980s, an offense called the Run & Shoot emerged in the NFL.  It was the brainchild of a coach named Darrel "Mouse" Davis.  He first deployed it at the high school level, then at Portland State University, and then the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts, and Houston Gamblers and Denver Gold of the USFL, before he finally got hired as Offensive Coordinator under Wayne Fontes in Detroit.  His offense worked at every level, but came under much criticism in the NFL before it got a great chance to do well.  Jerry Glanville, Kevin Gilbride, and June Jones all ran it with success at the NFL level.  Glanville and Jones were run out of the league as crazies, and Gilbride pretty much had to stop running it to keep a job.  The fact is, though, it worked.

What makes the preceding troika all forms of offense is that there is an underlying philosophy behind them.  The Gillman/Coryell vertical scheme seeks to move defensive players back from the line of scrimmage, and to make their first step be backward, thus allowing a runner more room to run straight to an assigned hole.  The Walsh West Coast scheme seeks to make defenders move laterally, thus allowing vertical running lanes to open when the defender gets knocked down with the help of his own momentum.  The Run & Shoot used minimum protection, and sent receivers running both vertically and horizontally.  The innovative idea with it though, and what most people forget now, is that the scheme featured a QB rollout or half-roll on every passing play.  That rolling out allowed the QB more time to find all those receivers, despite the minimum number of blockers.  With all of that time, went the Mouse Davis philosophy, there's no way a defense has enough good CBs to contend with 4 good WRs.

Now, what is a spread offense?  Well, a lot of offensive schemes are called spread offenses, but there is wild variability between the characteristics of them.  Generally speaking, what is called a spread offense is really just a new take on the philosophies of the Walsh West Coast scheme or the Mouse Davis Run & Shoot.  The idea is still to make defenses cover the whole field, from sideline-to-sideline.  The term "spread" typically comes from a few common personnel groupings and formations.

If you watched the Florida Gators at all this year, you'd have an idea what I am talking about.  Their version of the "spread" is a combination of a zone-blocked West Coast passing and running scheme, with a triple option package as a bonus, and it's all run almost entirely out of the shotgun.  It looks new and fresh, but it's actually a combination of two time-tested and venerable schemes.  West Virginia's version is similar also, and even more run-heavy.  Both seek to run the ball creatively, more than anything.

If you look at Missouri's or Texas Tech's offense, they're more pass-happy.  They're not doing nearly as much option stuff, and they're really running a mix of West Coast and Run & Shoot concepts when you get down to it, with 3 and 4 WR personnel.

The New England Patriots have run a lot of shotgun/multi-WR stuff the past couple years, but it's still the same West Coast ideas that 2/3 of the NFL runs.  They just get their most threatening personnel on the field to accomplish it. 

With Jeremy Bates this year, it was the same story.  Toward the end of the season, with no healthy RBs, Marshall-Royal-Stokley-Scheffler-Graham was really just the 5 most threatening guys he had to work with.  That is not a spread offense.  There was no seismic shift in philosophy, just a decision made on personnel groupings and formations.  If Torain or Hillis were healthy, I'm certain that there would have been less of it, though particularly with Hillis, he looked his best when he was running out of spread-out formations.

A personnel grouping alone doesn't make something a form of offense.  That's the overarching point here, that the wheel doesn't get reinvented too frequently, it only seems that way if you listen to people  who don't really know what they're talking about.  If you ask any supposed innovator, like Mike Shanahan or Urban Meyer or Josh McDaniels, I'm sure they'd tell you that what they're doing isn't really anything new, just a subtle change and an attempt at improvement from things which have worked in the past.

I hope for coaches who will work to think of ways to best attack defenses, and threaten their weak spots.  I like what I have seen from Jeremy Bates in that respect, and Josh McDaniels certainly displays a good track record in that way also.  Let's not take good and creative coaching, though, and give it some name which means nothing in particular, but which has people's value judgments attached to it.  Let's be more intelligent than that, because there aren't enough TV jobs for all of us.