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Spread Awakening

Most NFL coaches are still predisposed to resist the spread offense. The problem? They’re increasingly drafting players used to nothing but, forcing them into an era of hybrid attacks that embrace both spread and pro-style techniques.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past three seasons, longtime NFL coach and current Kansas City co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress had one of the most unusual gigs in the league: His title was “spread game analyst,” and his job was to study the trends popping up across all levels of football and keep Chiefs coaches and talent evaluators informed. The former Minnesota Vikings head coach emerged from his stint studying the spread with two seemingly contrary thoughts.

One: The spread poses some problems at the NFL level.

Two: There are a bunch of spread tactics worth stealing.

That dissonance isn’t unique to Childress, as offensive minds across the league are warming to certain aspects of the spread even as they remain dubious about whether it can be widely implemented in the pro game. That dissonance is matched by something equally fierce: resignation. NFL decision-makers know that the wide-open offense long rooted in the college game isn’t going away, which means it’s time to adjust, creating a pro atmosphere that’s more familiar to, and more conducive to maximizing the potential of, talent that grew up in a spread world.

“Anyone who pays attention sees [its influence on lower levels of football] and you have to understand the nuances to understand the sport,” said Chiefs general manager John Dorsey. “When I used to see high school or even youth football, they were just running the ball, or running the wing-T. Now they are running the spread option, and that has an impact on the professional game.”

Few things in football are more complicated these days than the adjustment offensive players must make when they move from the college game to the pros. Accounting for that transition is also tough on teams, who, despite often lacking sufficient evidence of how prospects will fare in a pro-style scheme, have to decipher which players are best suited to make the leap.

Saying “the spread” when talking about football is like saying “comedies” when talking about movies — there’s a lot of wiggle room within the genre. Because the conundrum is complex, the solutions will be, too: That means many small fixes, not one big one.

Before you can understand why marrying spread and pro-style schemes is so challenging, you must first understand the differences.

While each iteration varies slightly depending on coach or program, the pillars of the spread offense usually stay the same: Teams operate from the shotgun formation; stretch out four or five receivers; run hurry-up plays to tire out defenders; primarily keep offensive linemen in crouching positions instead of placing their hands in the dirt; and usually feature a mobile quarterback.

In pro-style systems, things are very different. Teams typically huddle so that quarterbacks can bark out complicated play calls; bunch blockers to protect the passer instead of placing them wide; and keep the QB under center to facilitate the run game (since this formation enhances the angles for a handoff out of the backfield and positions the back to receive the handoff closer to the line of scrimmage, helping the play develop faster after the snap).

How, then, to introduce key spread elements into the pro game without also introducing new concerns? “Nobody here is going to expose their quarterbacks to that kind of mentality because the quarterback is the value of the franchise,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of a pure spread concept, where there are few blockers around the passer.

Chip Kelly at Oregon (Getty Images)
Chip Kelly at Oregon (Getty Images)

There have always been some ideas shared between the college and pro games. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, for example, picked Chip Kelly’s brain when Kelly was still at Oregon, and Belichick remains close friends with Ohio State boss Urban Meyer. That hasn’t aided the spread’s mass-scale absorption in the NFL, however, because innovative coaches like Belichick and Kelly aren’t the ones who need to be convinced that the things happening at the college level are worth adopting in the big leagues.

The first and most pressing part of the NFL’s ability to grapple with spread athletes, then, is figuring out exactly who can play in the pros. This was always tough, but it’s now even harder because the NFL demands techniques that spread athletes aren’t trained to perform.

In this regard, the Minnesota Vikings face a very modern problem: They’re trying to win now behind historically gifted running back Adrian Peterson, and they need run-blocking offensive linemen to help him. In the spread era, though, those draftees are increasingly tough to find. “When you have a running back like we do, you’re going to run block, and run blocking is basically out of a three-point stance,” said general manager Rick Spielman. “And spread offenses in general are hardly ever in a three-point stance.”

In addition to learning how to operate out of a different stance, offensive linemen emerging from spread colleges also need to learn how to cope with more complicated defensive schemes in the pros. College defensive linemen, Spielman said, rarely show exotic pass rushes, since they’re often trying to keep up with the no-huddle spread offenses. For spread O-linemen, Spielman said, “the NFL is the first time they’ll face blitzes off the edge or [have a defensive lineman] twist in front of them, because the snaps are so fast-paced in college.”

While some NFL teams are committed to finding ways to help these players adjust, others are less willing, instead dinging spread guys on their draft board. For instance, Titans general manager Jon Robinson said he targeted Michigan State’s Jack Conklin because of the pro-style system in which the offensive tackle played.

Spielman’s approach is different. Instead of favoring pro-style linemen, he said the Vikings will aim to solve a modern problem with a modern solution by increasing their reliance on analytics, specifically by focusing on developing formulas to gauge players’ pure athletic prowess. Though Minnesota uses the same general measurements as other NFL teams — three-cone drill, the vertical jump, the broad jump, etc. — the Vikings value and treat that information differently. Specifically, they use that data to search for current NFL player comps, which helps them identify what kind of player someone will be regardless of scheme. The franchise pairs that analytics work with more rigorous mental testing, since the Vikings believe that pre-draft evaluations can determine who’s “gritty,” Spielman said.

Adrian Peterson (Getty Images)
Adrian Peterson (Getty Images)

Childress, meanwhile, believes the current holy grail is the prospect who ran spread plays at the college level that can be easily imported to the pro level. He mentioned Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who at North Dakota State played in a multiple-style offense that incorporated spread concepts. Childress was impressed that Wentz played under center sometimes and in the shotgun at other times, and that regardless of the formation, he was adept at making various throws. He said some of the sweep plays Wentz ran were particularly impressive, and that he wants to incorporate what he saw into the Chiefs’ game plan.

Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman, who took Wentz second overall in the draft, called his college system “a pro-style concept that hints at where the sport is going.” Roseman, like Spielman, said that changes in the college game have forced him to alter how he evaluates passers: Because the college game is so different from the NFL game, Roseman is forced to put less emphasis on tape and more emphasis on test scores and smarts.

Childress said the quarterbacks with the steepest learning curve are those who played in no-huddle spread schemes. He believes this is the one place where there can be only so much compromise: Because NFL defenses are more complicated, information-heavy play calls in the huddle are crucial. Spread quarterbacks, meanwhile, typically communicate with hand signals or one-word calls. NFL teams have attempted to replicate their college brethren over the past five years by occasionally opting for no-huddle looks as a curveball, but it’s still a change-of-pace exception, not the norm.

“[College spread quarterbacks] never had to say ‘red switch right closed end right split z halfback flat’ — they don’t know who to talk to when and when to take a breath,” Childress said. That’s hardly the only challenge: “You don’t realize how big a problem the center-quarterback exchange is,” Childress said, “until the ball is rolling on the ground at practice and you’re saying ‘Oh my god.’”

Of course, not all quarterbacks struggle. Mike Shula, the offensive coordinator for the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers and former Alabama head coach, admits he has an advantage when it comes to incorporating spread philosophies: He has Cam Newton. “In order to run [all forms of] the spread a lot you’ll need a big guy who is durable and smart enough to get down and not get hit,” he said. Newton, a 6-foot-5 star and the reigning MVP, can throw and run and basically do anything on the field that a coach can dream up.

Newton’s rare skill has enabled the Panthers to become one of the few NFL teams that has successfully implemented a modified, NFL-ized version of the spread when needed. Carolina runs a shotgun offense similar to the formations Newton familiarized himself with at Auburn. They go no-huddle on 25.8 percent of Newton’s pass attempts, a breakneck clip for the NFL, but slow by Newton’s SEC standards. Newton posted a 110 quarterback rating with four or five receivers on the field last year, and the versatility that stems from being able to swing between pro and spread styles is part of what makes Newton one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. It’s not just that he’s gifted; it’s that he’s gifted in a rare way.

“The biggest value if you don’t have a big, durable quarterback is to spread people out and then do different things off of it — multiple runs or play-action passes,” Shula said.

Shula knows that few coaches boast similar assets, but he still sees a future for the spread in the NFL: specifically, as a means of forcing the defense to commit to covering the whole field, allowing the offense to attack up the middle again. It’s less about actual routes than about pre-snap mind games.

He’s not alone in his thinking. Lewis sees the spread as a useful way to get defenses out of disguised looks, especially exotic blitz packages near the line of scrimmage. When a unit is bunched, any disguised defender can shift into any role. When an offense spreads wide, the defense’s options for subterfuge and pressure narrow considerably.

As ever, there are trade-offs, and opting for an offense that limits the D comes at a cost: Because teams want to protect their quarterback with ample blocking, spreading out four or five receivers has to remain a change-of-pace ploy, not an every-down strategy.

Still, Lewis said he’s been impressed with the spread’s ability to get receivers alone on one side of the field, ensuring one-on-one coverage by stacking the other receivers on the opposite side. He’s not alone, as the Packers have specialized in this approach in order to get Aaron Rodgers’s receivers in one-on-one coverage and help Rodgers throw receivers open for big plays. For the rank-and-file NFL squads who lack one of the best passers in football, though, spread formations may be most useful for snuffing out defensive subterfuge.

“Spreading guys out gets you pre-snap keys and clues,” Lewis said. “A big part of what the spread offense presents is that it’s just harder to disguise your intentions [on defense].”

Childress started his spread game analyst job thinking it was about evaluating prospects, but quickly came to realize it’s about evaluating the state of the game. “It’s hard not to look at what those college offenses are doing and say ‘that’s a hell of a good thing these guys are doing.’”

“And that,” Childress said, “is when you steal those things.”