I am tired of the term "spread offense." It's become the term du jour in college football, but I'm not sure that anyone can really define it in a useful way. Most generally, it describes teams that use the shotgun and three-, four-, or five-wide sets on a regular basis. Thus, the term covers every offense from Texas Tech, which averaged 470 yards passing and 59 yards rushing per game, to West Virginia, which averaged 297 yards rushing and 159 yards passing last year. Any term that purports to lump those two offenses together, like the name Anakin Skywalker, no longer has any meaning for me. If you tell me that there's a feline in my backyard, I'd prefer to know if it's Garfield or a Siberian Tiger. So, I'm going to make a small suggestion for the college football blogosphere going forward. Let's all be precise when describing offenses. I don't profess to be an expert in x's and o's. I'm just a fan who likes to watch a lot of college football and, like a stopped clock, make the occasional clever observation. So, these are more suggestions than firm statements. Here are the categories that I'd propose:
1. The Run 'n' Shoot
As the term "spread" is used these days, the Run 'n' Shoot isn't really a spread offense because the quarterback doesn't present a running threat. Take this solid article from Bob Davie. Even though he defines the spread as including Texas Tech and Kentucky, the way he describes the offense is by illustrating the fundamental principle of the "spread" offense as it is currently employed: use the quarterback (especially with the zone read play) as a runner to outnumber the defense. I'm proposing that the term "spread" no longer be employed to describe teams that don't use this principle that Davie illustrates. Instead, Run 'n' Shoot can describe offenses like those found at Texas Tech, SMU, and Purdue. If you prefer, pass-based spread can also be an acceptable term.
2. The Fast Break
There's an off-shoot of offense that requires its own category: superpower programs that throw from the shotgun, four-wide look a lot to take advantage of a talented quarterback, a deep receiving corps, and a capable pass-blocking offensive line that doesn't require help from tight ends and fullbacks to protect the passer. Florida State's offense under Mark Richt with Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke under center comes to mind as the most obvious example. That offense got the name "Fast Break" because the Noles went without a huddle, so the term might be of limited value when applied to other teams. Other examples in this category would be Ohio State 2005-6, Michigan in the Citrus Bowl against Florida, Oklahoma in 2000, and Auburn with Dameyune Craig. (I'm probably violating a cardinal Southern blogger rule by saying something nice about Tater Tot, but Terry Bowden did run this offense very well without having a talent advantage over Auburn's major competitors.) The New England Patriots' offense from last year comes to mind. Alabama arguably tried this approach last year and figured out that they don't have a talent advantage over their opponents, especially with John Parker Wilson under center. Again, while its technically true that these teams all spread their opponents out with multiple receiver sets, none of them used the concepts that have now come to define the "spread" offense.
3. The Pure Run-based Spread
This is the category of offense that most closely resembles the option-heavy offenses that dominated college football in the 70s (at least in the SEC, Big Ten, and Big Eight). As Davie illustrated, this offense is based off of the zone read play and also uses option plays from the shotgun. Instead of using multiple running backs like the wishbone or the Nebraska I-formation, this offense works the slot receivers into the running game. Unlike the first two categories of offenses, this offense requires a running quarterback, but it can compensate for an average-throwing player under center. West Virginia with Pat White is the best example of this offense. Illinois with Juice Williams under center is another good example. Texas with Vince Young would be a third example, although Vince turned out to be a better thrower than either Juice Williams or Pat White. Maybe South Florida is a fourth example?
One incidental note on Rich Rodriguez: I would not put either his Tulane offense or his Clemson offense into this category. Rather, the pure run-based spread appears to have evolved in the past several years. Rodriguez started out with a balanced offense and slowly mutated into the modern-day version of the wishbone, capable of putting up 400 yards rushing on any given day.
4. The New Hampshire Offense / the Urban Meyer Special
I'm thinking of two particular offenses here: the Urban Meyer offense and the Chip Kelly offense that Oregon ran last year with Dennis Dixon. This is arguably the hardest offense to staff because it requires a quarterback who can throw better than Juice Williams and run better than Chris Leak. On the other hand, the offense tends to produce easy reads for the quarterback and wide open receivers, so the passer doesn't have to be that proficient. The Meyer/Kelly offense seems to be more balanced than the Rodriguez West Virginia offense, although I'm willing to consider whether that's simply a function of the talent available at quarterback for those coaches. The Randy Walker Northwestern offense deserves a shout here, as it always balanced the run and pass nicely out of the shotgun, but didn't use too much option, if I recall correctly. The John L. Smith Michigan State offense also falls into this category.
Some follow-up questions for the world:
1. Where does Missouri fall? Category four? And Kansas? Category one?
2. There is a follow-up post percolating in my head right now. Warren Buffett has a saying that with every trend, there are three categories of people: innovators, imitators, and idiots. Divide the minds behind various incarnations of the "spread" into those categories. Right now, that post would simply be a chance for me to mock Charlie Weis's 30-minute attempt to run the run-based spread all over again.
3. I'm very open to additional categories and subdivisions. In other words, someone with a better grasp of x's and o's (as opposed to my "that quarterback can't throw; put the offense in category three" level of analysis) might want to take this ball and run with it.