Both college football and the NFL has seen their share of gimmick offensive and defensive schemes. From the Run and Shoot to the Wishbone, from the option to the 4-6, but now we encounter a new gimmick- the Spread/Spread Option. The Spread Option has grown to dominate the current landscape in college football, being run in some variation by many big time programs such as Florida, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oregon and Washington, but also programs in lesser conferences like Hawaii. What route can we expect the NFL to take concerning such schemes?
Only a few years ago, the Falcons experimented with a variation on the Spread Option while being coached by Jim Mora and quarterbacked by Mike Vick. It saw great success for a few games before defenses finally figured it out, but a more traditional passing offense using spread formations has been in use for a couple of years now by the New England Patriots. It was also temporarily adopted by the Kansas City Chiefs. Is this something we can expect to see in the future? The key may lie with the manner at which NFL caliber talent chooses to matriculate in the future.
There are essentially 3 things that cause an elite level college recruit to choose a school-
1. The quality of the program (a.k.a. win/loss records and Bowl appearances)- Of course football players want to win, so they’re going to choose programs that are winners wherever possible.
2. The draft history of the program- Do players from this school get drafted? How high? What are MY chances of going pro after attending this school.
3. Academics- How good is this school in the major I’d like to pursue? Unfortunately for American society, this is often their last thought.
So what happens when two comparable schools, in terms of the quality of program and academics, go head to head for the same recruits, yet one school runs a spread and the other runs a more traditional pro style offense? It will likely depend on their position- to a defensive player, it may come down to location, which isn’t always a major factor for all recruits, but is for some. If you’re talking about an offensive player, it will again come down to position. Quarterbacks that believe they have a chance in the NFL want experience in an NFL style system based simply on the fact that it is better when placed on your draft resume. This will lead the QB towards the pro style offense. With offensive lineman, I’ve never met one that liked to pass block more than they liked to run block. Spread offenses are often very pass heavy, so the pro style offense may have the edge there as well. Quality wide outs and tight ends tend to follow the quality signal callers.
What does this mean? 1st tier programs that run NFL offenses will see more offensive talent start to enter their programs, due to the fact that players from more traditional pro style systems will garner more interest from NFL franchises on draft day, rather than entering spread college programs and seeing their draft stock drop due to lack of experience in such systems.
Why wouldn’t pro teams just make the switch to the spread you ask? It’s simple- to run such a speed based system at the NFL level you MUST have the more talented group on the field, especially along the OL and at QB. Protecting your QB in the NFL with only 5 blockers consistently is darn near impossible. The success experienced by less talented offenses that have dabbled in the Spread has been less than stellar (see Kansas City and Atlanta), but the success of offenses that are stacked with talent has been immense (see New England or even to a lesser extent- the Greatest Show on Turf). The problem in that lies with the fact that if you’re that much more talented than those you face, won’t you put up points anyway? Couldn’t you do it with lower risk schemes? It’s a problem that has seen Mike Martz nearly run out of the league.
Another problem with the Spread at the NFL level is the danger at which it puts the QB in. Fewer blockers are used and more passing is common. Even if you’re running the Spread Option and not the Spread, your QB is in danger because he carries the ball much more frequently. Back to the fewer blockers, more WR means less TE and RB and forces the line to be able to hold up. One leaky lineman can equal one multi-million dollar QB on the IR (see Tom Brady). So you have to have the more talented group AND the key player to said group is going to take more hits? No thank you.
It is unlikely that NFL teams will make this sort of transitions due to these reasons, among others, such as the defenses in the NFL defending it easier because they’re faster than college defenses and possess better play recognition skills, so it is unlikely that experience in the Spread will ever be seen as a plus- especially at the QB position. Quality recruits will follow quality QB and wins will follow better offensive talent. Once the wins follow, the defensive players will too. The use of the Spread or Spread Option on a wide scale seems to be on a pace to disappear in the next 6-8 years as recruits figure this out. In all honesty, as a football purist, I think we will all be better off that way anyway.