When Michael Vick signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009, Andy Reid had an idea.
“Part of the rationale was that he wanted to essentially bring a new offense into the NFL,” Joe Banner, who was the Eagles’ president at the time, told me. “Take the spread offense that was in college, merge it with the traditional West Coast offense, and create an offense that was very tough to stop.”
The process for Reid started with the famously mobile QB. Although Vick ran the ball exceptionally for the Eagles, he also didn’t start a spread revolution around the league. But now, almost 10 years later, Reid’s pursuit of a new offense has finally paid off: It is the defining tactical feature of this NFL season. The Chiefs offense combines the countless options of spread plays with the quick-passing game of the West Coast offense that Reid is a disciple of, and the result has been, well, awesome. It’s not just the Chiefs, either. In November, when Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said that the Philadelphia Eagles were a “college offense” that had borrowed liberally from Kansas City, he wasn’t talking trash. He’d pinpointed the trend of the season.
The first game of this year — a 42–27 Chiefs win over the New England Patriots — has reverberated across the league ever since. The Chiefs unveiled a package of plays that looked lifted from the college — or high school — game. The team they beat acknowledged borrowing their plays the next week. And in the weeks since, the rest of the league has had similar thoughts.
This development is not an accident. As Banner said, Reid has long sought to bring the college game more closely in line with the pro game. In 2013, Reid told me that college was typically “five years ahead” of the pros and that we should expect more college influence to come into the pros. No NFL coach has invested more in investigating the idea of the spread. When he hired Brad Childress in Kansas City, the former Vikings head coach was given the title of “spread game analyst.” Last summer, I had a long discussion about the future of the spread with Childress. He told me that many of his ideas about what types of spread plays could work in the NFL came from an FCS quarterback he watched who could change quickly from spread to pro concepts with ease. The quarterback was Carson Wentz.
“Spread” can mean just about anything — but the easiest definition is that it spreads out the offense, often with multiple receivers, different options in the running game, and a quarterback in shotgun formation. Traditional NFL offenses are more bunched together and have the quarterback under center. Let’s start with a simple play that’s sweeping the NFL: the jet action. Long a staple of the college and high school games, it has been used in the NFL in the past but never with the creativity and variety with which it has been used leaguewide this season. The Los Angeles Rams, Eagles, and Chiefs — three of the league’s top eight offenses by DVOA — have all used the play to perfection, and then innovated off of it.
“All of the college stuff — the jet sweep package, [the NFL] never had that, and Andy never had that until recently. It’s one of the things he’s doodling with,” said friend of Reid and former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, now an analyst at the NFL Network. “And it’s really fun.”
Andy Reid and the #Chiefs bring the college game to the NFL better than anyone else! Always creative.— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) December 27, 2017
Here we have Speed Option off Jet action, with both Defensive Ends unblocked.
Alex Smith pitches to @Kareemhunt7 for a 24 yd gain.@ArrowheadPride #chiefskingdom pic.twitter.com/4Jq5JK8Vfk
Mark Colyer, who runs Spreadoffense.com, a resource for coaches, said the play is most effective at the high school level because the hash marks are set farther apart. This means that the ball can be snapped far on one side of the field and a player in motion will have tons of open field on which to run. In the NFL, there’s no such open field — with the hash marks closer together than at any level of football, the jet action cannot work as classically designed. So how do you make it function in the NFL?
“Even though you have the narrowest hash marks, the NFL teams still understand the value of the jet action, which is that it stretches a defense horizontally,” Colyer said. “So you stretch the defense, then you find the vertical alleys in the passing game.” For the Rams, this means sending Todd Gurley straight down the field to take advantage of that stretched defense. It looks like this:
“You’ve got this evolution of running backs who can play receiver — it started with Marshall Faulk, but now it’s everywhere,” Mariucci said. “Christian McCaffrey, Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara. Todd Gurley has more yards than most receivers on the Rams.”
Finding creative designs that best utilize these hybrid backs in the passing game is a must — and the spread helps with that like no other, since it allows these players, who thrive in space, to get a lot of space. And even when they’re not getting the ball, they can be deadly as decoys:
“The jet action is a high school play we’ve been using for 25 years. It is literally a high school play,” said Colyer. “This year, the spread has really bubbled up to the NFL.”
The spread offense is not an entirely new part of the NFL. Chip Kelly brought a playbook’s worth of spread plays to Philadelphia that were quickly ripped off by the rest of the league. Colyer credits Cam Newton with helping to prove that the spread could work in Carolina. The 2007 Patriots borrowed plenty from the college game. Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III all ran the read-option to perfection earlier this decade.
But few surprised people with a run-and-pass package quite like the Chiefs this year. That Reid would lead a minor offensive revolution in his 19th year as a head coach may seem unlikely, but those who know him say it’s perfectly predictable. Reid, 59, has won more than 60 percent of his games in his career, won 11 playoff games, and made five conference championships. He’s made the playoffs in four of his five seasons with the Chiefs.
“Andy is a much more progressive, open-minded coach, in whatever area, than people give him credit for. He’s always curious, always interested,” Banner said. “He’s been talking about making the defense defend the length and width of the field for a very long time.”
With a laugh, Banner said that early in Reid’s Eagles tenure, he was so intrigued with the idea of stretching offenses to their breaking point that he would always call a deep bomb to receiver Todd Pinkston early in the first game of the season to see how defenses would react.
“His open-mindedness stems from the fact that he wants to win — it doesn’t have to be his old way,” Mariucci said. “It doesn’t have to be what he learned in Green Bay [when both were assistants together in the early 1990s]. He knows things evolve more than anyone.”
If there’s one reason these offenses can thrive now, as opposed to when Reid was with the Eagles, it’s because of the players and their athleticism.
“Hunt and Tyreek Hill, those are as fun as any guys to coach in the league,” Mariucci said. “And Andy knows he’s got a smart quarterback in Alex Smith. He got a 40 on the Wonderlic, and he can do a whole lot of things with him in the option game.”
The option game is important to the Chiefs — but not the option play you are thinking of. Colyer talks about the “modern-day triple-option,” a riff on the old Oklahoma plays of the 1970s but a very cool reboot. Instead of having three options — the running back, the quarterback keeper, and a third back — the 2018 version includes a lateral pass.
Colyer said these plays are similar to the ever-popular run-pass option, which is exactly what it sounds like: plays in which a quarterback has the option to call a run or pass after the snap. But these options come — well, they come with more options. He said that he thinks pure RPOs feature more downfield passing, as evidenced by this Eagles Alshon Jeffery touchdown earlier this year.
Nearly everyone in the NFL is using some spread concepts by now, but the remaining playoff teams are using more of it than most. Given that success, it seems certain that we’ll see even more of these plays in NFL playbooks next year. Or maybe not.
“We’ve got a bunch of dinosaurs in most of the coaching positions in the league,” Banner said. He remembers former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in the early 2000s wondering why every team wasn’t using more of the zone blitz —something that’s now become widespread. At the time, it was used by only a handful of innovative teams. “Of course, it sounds silly now” that other teams weren’t doing it, Banner said. “People learn that these plays work.”