Sunday, July 13, 2008

I'm Having a William Safire Moment

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.


Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking post. One caveat that crossed my mind; traditionally, the teams I know of that ran a "run & shoot" absolutely refused to use/incorporate a tight end. Thus, it might be slightly inaccurate to refer to teams that run "passing spreads" that incorporate tight ends as "run & shoot" teams. Another thought; traditional "r&s" teams incorporate far more "hot routes" than passing spread teams seem to. I might not be accurate on this point, though.

Ben said...

these categories make some intuitive sense, but they arent really schematically accurate at all. purdue most certainly does not run the run n shoot, for instance.

you're basically lumping a lot of different schemes into broad categories based on run/pass tendencies. i guess that's fine, but it doesnt really get you t the "precise" categories you wanted

Michael said...

Good point. I need to sub-divide the pass-based spread categories more. First, I need a better name for the "Fast Break" genre. Second, you're absolutely right that Purdue doesn't run a run 'n' shoot, nor does Missouri. I suspect that Michigan is going to look like those offenses this year because of the personnel that RR has to work with. Maybe they need their own category?

Really, I am OK with variation within some of the categories as long as we stop lumping Texas Tech and Illinois into the same "spread" pot.

Ben said...

i think it might be more useful to talk about offense less as unified schemes and more the way we talk about defenses - ie what are the base formations a team uses and then what sort of plays/concepts does it use out of them.

most elite coaches are meshing various systems together. it's not like high school where they pick up the "how to run the read option" manual and implement it whole cloth

Ben said...

for texas tech, i tend to think of that less as the "spread" (though it is a spread offense) and more as the "air raid" - based on the old hal mumme offense. kansas and arizona and a few others probably fall into that category

Ben said...

also, since you asked about mizzou. i believe they got their base offense from urban meyer. so they probably go in the that category - basically spread teams (all based on rod's offense) that are more pass oriented, dont use a ton of zone read, and prefer to pass from a trips formation

peacedog said...

Firstly, I don't like using Run & Shoot, since it was sort of the grandfather of all of these things and I don't feel like there is a true descendent (but I might be wrong about that).

Two, I agree with Ben, maybe we should talk about offenses in terms of the base set. Though I can see that not taking off because, you know, not sexy.

Also, Fun & Gun.

The run based spread either needs to be named *bone or the [something] Option, just for tradition's sake.

Anonymous said...

One small nit to pick,(RE: RRod at Clemson).
The first "spread" offenses I remember seeing alot of, was the Woody Danzler era Clemson Offense, who seemed to almost never throw, or at least not effectively. I am sure you will now find stats that contradict my memory.
I'll show myself out...

Michael said...

Clemson threw for 210 per game in 2000 and 246 per game (31st nationally) in 1999. Those Dantzler offenses were very well balanced. Also, Tulane led the nation in passing efficiency in '98 when RichRod was the OC there.

Peace, I thought about the Fun 'n' Gun, but it didn't use the shotgun, which seems to be a basic characteristic for a "spread" offense.

jrsuicide said...

i think Spread-Bone would be the best name for the West Virginia/DickRod offense. where as Oregon and Urban Meyer's versions could best be called "Scorched Earth Spread". and then Texas Tech is now and forever the Spread and Shoot. i'm hoping Auburn's new version that everyone in these here parts is having so much fun calling the "Spread Eagle" (keep it classy Alabama) falls into the Meyer/Oregon camp.

Michael said...

Spread-bone? I think we have a winner.

Should the Meyer spread be the Bi-Curious Spread? Or maybe just the Bi-Spread?

Jeff said...

Well, first I think we could probably agree on the term "spread formation" for lining up in a shotgun with 3-4 wide receivers. Then we can come up with names for different styles of offenses that use the spread formation.

Why don't we just call the WVU-style offense the "spread-option" offense? Isn't that already a fairly accepted term? This would be for teams that are primarily rushing attacks that often use the zone-read option play.

Something like New England, Texas Tech, Purdue and maybe Northwestern (although they do more quarterback runs) could be called something like "West Coast Spread." This offense utilizes a lot of quick short routes in it's passing game.

Anonymous said...

This information is all over the place. The Run and Shoot Offense is a very explosive Offense and is run by VERY few teams. Hawaii, SMU, Portland St,an a couple smaller schools use the Run and Shoot. Texas Tech uses a pure spread offense, which is different from the Run and Shoot. But, the Run and Shoot termo is still installed in some offensive schemes. But the Run and Shoot is the Run and Shoot, no mixing. And Yes, Purdue DOES NOT at all run the Run and Shoot offense, not even close. The Run and Shoot is a pure system. The pass pro, WR routes and READS,qb roll and reads are not like any system in football.