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Just What Is a “College Offense,” Really?

The term that was once used as an insult is now used to describe the schemes of some of the NFL’s most forward-looking coaches. But a college offense isn’t just RPOs and zone reads. Here is how the league’s latest offensive revolution is unfolding.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s often said that college football and the NFL are two completely different sports. But many concepts that long thrived on campus have recently taken hold in the league. We’re spending today examining the intersection of both levels of the game, and how certain schemes and tendencies are shaping the future of the modern pro offense.

The term “college offense” isn’t particularly new, but in the pro football lexicon, it has started an interesting yet subtle transformation, slowly morphing from what used to be a derogatory label to one more often linked to the league’s most forward-thinking and innovative teams.

That perception shift got a boost this February from the Eagles, whose “hybrid-type” “college offense” helped Philly drop 538 yards and 41 points on the Patriots and win the Super Bowl. The Eagles’ success is sure to trigger a throng of copycat attempts in 2018, and at least nominally, the college offense should be a central story line in the NFL this year. But despite its prominent role, the term “college offense”—along with its cousin, the spread—is still an awfully vague catchall for a variety of schemes and concepts originating from the college level. So what, exactly, is a college offense—not just a few of the most popular plays, but its identity, its essence—and its real utility in the modern pro game?

With 130 teams making up the Football Bowl Subdivision, there’s obviously no singular, officially recognized college offense, and the coaches at that level can’t even agree on how to define the spread. But while interpretations, play-calling, focus, or philosophy can all vary—and a few pro-style holdouts remain—the vast majority of teams share at least a few of these common thread concepts: option plays, up-tempo pace, spacing (with three-plus receiver sets or flexing tight ends and fullbacks out onto the wings), shotgun formations, motion, and numerical advantages in blocking up front (e.g., with the wildcat or by using your quarterback as a runner).

As then–Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz told SB Nation’s Bill Connelly back in 2015, “Most teams all meld into one. There’s such a thing as a ‘college football offense’; 90 percent of America runs 60 percent of the same plays.”

“Diaz [now at Miami] views [those overlapping plays] as the things that most teams have adapted to, and relies on that for scouting and setting up his defense,” Connelly, who writes for Football Study Hall, told me. Basically, those are the concepts to prepare for all year—and on a week to week basis, coaches can game plan for the things that each team does a little differently. “You’ll have [to coach your team up for the] crazy things—or what was once a crazy thing, like the Air Raid offense with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach,” said Connelly. “But when something reaches Alabama, whatever iteration it is, that’s probably your college offense there—because it means that everybody’s doing it.”

Based on that, option plays are king right now. “The run-pass option has infiltrated Tuscaloosa at this point,” said Connelly. “It’s become that mainstream.”

In the NFL, these are the types of plays or concepts that frequently get stamped with the college offense tag. Most of them have been utilized in the pro game for years—and in some cases, decades—but they do stand out against the backdrop of the pro-style passing schemes that have dominated the modern NFL game, many of which are the offspring of offenses designed by Sid Gillman, Bill Walsh, and Don Coryell back in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Those systems are generally characterized by drop-back passing and downhill running; quarterbacks line up under center, call audibles, make full-field reads, and go through progressions while throwing to receivers on a full route tree, and offensive linemen get down into a three-point stance and fire out into their blocks. These old-school concepts still make up the foundation of most NFL offenses.

But college concepts have gradually been woven into the fabric of pro schemes, and shotgun and “spread” looks can now be seen on the majority of NFL plays. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, teams ran out of three-plus receiver sets 63 percent of the time in 2017, up 12 percentage points since the 2010 season. Last year, teams lined up in shotgun formations 60 percent of the time, a jump of 22 percentage points in just seven seasons. This year, we could see other college staples start to make similar gains toward assimilation: Jet sweep and orbit action prior to and at the snap will likely be more common, the zone read will remain an effective constraint play to keep overzealous defensive ends honest, and, in a copycat league, the use of the run-pass option (RPO) is almost sure to make a big jump.

The invasion of these college offense staples may be more than just the latest gimmick. As Chris Brown, the editor at Smart Football, explained, option plays and sweeps provide one crucial element the league’s been short on of late: “A lot of teams over the past 10, 15 years, they’re either running the ball or just dropping back to throw. I think one thing the NFL had lost was the value of misdirection.”

“That’s the larger legacy of this,” said Brown. “They’re rediscovering the beauty of the fake.”

“When you have these great athletes on defense, who are so good at diagnosing plays, you have to be able to freeze them a little bit and give them something they’re not used to,” said Brown. “It’s the simplest thing in the world and goes all the way back to Pop Warner football: the concept of ‘Where’s the ball?’”

Utilizing play-action at a higher rate would be a nice start (Jared Goff led the way last year at 29.1 percent). But a few teams have started taking the play fake one step further. The Rams, once again, were at the forefront:

In this play last year against the Eagles, receiver Pharoh Cooper and tight end Tyler Higbee both move to their left at the snap, with Cooper in an orbit motion and Higbee slicing across the offensive line. Los Angeles runs a screen to the right instead, but all that chaos and misdirection leaves linebacker Mychal Kendricks taking on three Rams offensive linemen at the point of attack.

Now watch it slowed down:

Both linebacker Nigel Bradham (no. 53) and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (no. 93) get duped out of the play completely, and Jernigan actually turns all the way around and runs in the wrong direction. The motion is what helps running back Todd Gurley pick up extra yards at the second level.

Under new head coach and play caller Sean McVay, the Rams didn’t lean much on the read-option and rarely used RPOs last year, but where they did find success was in this kind of jet sweep and orbit motion just prior to and after the snap. This movement creates confusion and gets second-level defenders hesitating—often that’s enough to create a big play.

On this play, receiver Tavon Austin goes into a sweep motion just prior to the snap, luring cornerback Patrick Robinson and Bradham to their left a few steps. That was all L.A. needed to break Gurley free for big gain.

Watch it again below.

Bradham’s move to the left opens him up to the cut block from right guard Jamon Brown, who otherwise would’ve had a near-impossible task of reaching his second-level block. At the same time, Robinson is sucked in toward the middle of the field and turned into an easy target for left guard Rodger Saffold, who completely obliterates the much-smaller corner. Those two blocks, unlikely to happen without that sweep motion, spring Gurley.

“It’s not like the Rams were running 15 jet sweeps with actual handoffs every game,” said Brown. “But they had enough fakes [and enough different variations] in there to make the defense wonder what was going on.”

That sweep and orbit motion, whether it’s being used at the college or pro level, “makes it very, very difficult … for defenders, particularly linebackers, to be able to get a feel for what they’re looking at,” said NFL Films’ Greg Cosell on a recent episode of The Ross Tucker Football Podcast. “It makes it very difficult for college defensive coaches [to] go about teaching players what to read.”

“Think of it this way: You’re a stack linebacker in college or the NFL. You see two offensive linemen pull one way, but then you see the wide receiver run jet-sweep action the other way. What do you do? You have to be taught and coached: ‘Here’s what you read.’ Because you can’t read both—they’re going in opposite directions,” said Cosell. “You’re forcing [linebackers and safeties] to have to decipher something, and if you just can get them to pause for a beat, you know that you’ve won.”

Creating that type of conflict—putting defenders in a bind, even momentarily—is the essence of option football. RPOs and zone reads both do that, and jet sweeps can accomplish the same thing. But quarterbacks and receivers aren’t alone in their ability to confound second-level defenders. “The Eagles do what I call split-line play,” said Mark Colyer, a coach who runs, a site dedicated to teaching spread concepts. “They run outside zone to one side, and then they’ll be in a pass set on the other side.”

“A lot of the keys that coaches teach their linebackers and second-level players [come from the offensive line]: You read high-hat [typically a pass set] to low-hat [a run] on the offensive line. So with the split-line play, now you’re seeing outside run on one side, and pass on the other.”

That gives the linebackers or second-level players tasked with reading the play conflicting messages.

“In football, hesitation is the ultimate blocker,” said Colyer. “Take Marcus Mariota: He’ll block a linebacker just by staring at him. Really! Talk about the easiest block in the book. Just the threat of him pulling it and throwing on RPO is really magnifying the effectiveness of the run game, because you don’t have to send someone to block him.”

Watch the middle linebacker on this play:

The threat of an RPO pass (a quick slant over the middle of the field) holds the defender for just long enough to put him out of position to stop the run. “He’s being blocked by deception,” said Colyer, with a laugh.

Even as the hype builds around college concepts, a healthy dose of cynicism around the impending demise of the pro scheme is certainly understandable. The wildcat era lasted only one year. The read option’s prestige and prevalence has diminished over the years. And, according to some—including Ravens safety Eric Weddle—the RPO is just another fad that the NFL will soon solve and eliminate.

We’ll have to wait and see. RPOs, as a concept, should have more staying power than some of their option-based predecessors, and in fact, they’ve already been around, in one form or another, for decades. Brett Favre recently boasted about how he invented them while he was in Green Bay, and as Brown told me, Gillman was running variants of the RPO called “read-screens” back in his heyday, sending a tight end on a crossing route in conjunction with a running back to the flats; if the crosser was covered, those teams would turn and throw a screen to the running back, who’d have two linemen out there in front of him to block. As Brown said, “Some of these are just new labels for old concepts.”

Of course, with defense coaches spending most of the offseason studying and preparing to stop run-pass options, offensive coordinators must prove that they can come up with wrinkles to stay ahead. That’s no easy task. “The RPO is not going to be as successful this year as people think it’s going to be,” said Geoff Schwartz, a former offensive lineman who played six years in the league. “I promise you.”

Strangely enough, said Schwartz, in their Super Bowl loss, the Patriots provided a glimpse of how teams will combat that scheme this year. For the most part, New England forced Nick Foles to hand the ball off by taking away the middle-of-the-field slant route. In other words, the Patriots dictated the read, content to take their chances against the run. That didn’t work—Philly’s offensive line was too good and its backs too dynamic—and the Eagles ran the ball all over the yard. But not every team can reproduce that kind of ground-game magic, and in 2018, we’ll see defenses that, when confronted with an RPO play, dictate which option they want to see. Then it’s up to them to stop that option.

The reach of the RPOs could be stifled, too, by the fact that it’s a quick-passing system, which could put the quarterback in a tight spot. “If you’re a man-to-man defense ... and you’re willing to match up and play press-man on the outside, you can disrupt the timing of quick-game throws,” said Cosell on The Ross Tucker Football Podcast. If teams take away that quick throw, it forces the quarterback to hold the ball, making him susceptible to hits, especially if that team’s run-blocking scheme leaves any backside defenders unblocked.

“There are some protection problems with RPOs that I do think are going to be an issue,” said Brown. “And you’ll see more of that this year from the teams that don’t know what they’re doing—the teams that say ‘We’re going to do RPOs now!’—and then get their quarterback killed.”

Practical issues like that could slow the rate at which the college game is incorporated into the pros. And crucially, there’s still the ever-growing problem offensive linemen face in blocking increasingly athletic and powerful pass rushers across from them. To combat these players, linemen need to know how to get down into a three-point stance and fire out into the types of blocks pro teams still rely on. Few college schemes do that.

“The problem is,” said Schwartz, “if you’re a left guard, do you want to be in a two-point stance on first-and-10 against Aaron Donald? Is that what you wanna do? Really?”

“You have to have leverage, you have to have power to move [a guy], you have to be able to disguise stuff,” he said. “If you’re going to be in a two-point stance all game, you’ve got to be able to run block and pass block [equally as effectively] from that two-point stance.”

That’s why, said Schwartz, “you have to have a base [pro-style] philosophy in the NFL, whether you’re a West Coast team, you run the Coryell, or go with the New England branch [the Erhardt-Perkins system]. Then you can add in pieces—RPOs, read options—you can add all those things in as you go. Cam Newton has done this for years. They’ve incorporated a lot of these college concepts in for Newton. But they still have a power run game. They still throw the ball in a pro-style manner.”

This season could be a barometer for the speed at which the college game will continue to grow in the NFL. Deshaun Watson is set to return from an ACL tear, giving us a chance to find out just how college-based the Texans’ new-look offense can be. In addition, a handful of teams look poised to adopt heavy doses of college-style concepts of their own: The Colts brought in former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, ostensibly to install a similar hybrid scheme for Andrew Luck in Indy, and the Vikings hired former Philly quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to bring the Eagles’ hybrid ideas over to their offense. The Bears hired former Chiefs coordinator Matt Nagy in large part because of his role designing and running Kansas City’s innovative West Coast–spread mash-up, and Nagy, in turn, hired former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. The Bills hired former Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and new Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (who came over from the Rams) should draw on plenty of the jet-sweep action we saw in L.A.

These hires, combined with the success the Chiefs, Eagles, and (at least for a short while) the Texans had last year with hybrid schemes, make it clear that college offense’s foothold in the pro game has never been stronger. That feels like an upset, considering it comes about a year after Chip Kelly’s ignominious collapse as an NFL coach.

Kelly was supposed to revolutionize the NFL. That didn’t happen … at least not immediately. But his influence remains strong, and he’s got his fingerprints all over Philly’s Super Bowl win. Doug Pederson, as Connelly pointed out, “was able to basically take a lot of the things Kelly did—and then actually figure out how to make them work.”

The NFL may never reach the point where a full-blown college offense can thrive—it’s a different game with different rules and, as Cosell points out, it has different “symmetry and geometry.” The college-born spread game and the option game just don’t work the same way in the NFL, not just because the athletes are better, but literally because the hash marks are closer together.

But the bottom line is that NFL coaches are borrowing ideas like jet-sweep motion, the read-option, and the RPO—tweaking them to work in the pro ecosystem and finding success. It’s tough to argue against the true essence of those plays—misdirection, deception, and creating conflict—and it’s getting harder for anyone to use the term “college offense” as anything but a compliment.