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Running a college offense: Why the NFL has accepted the spread

The college and pro styles of offense aren’t nearly as far apart as you think

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Arizona Cardinals v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

This is a story about the ever-narrowing divide between college and NFL football. This is a story about Chris Harris Jr., Kyle Juszczyk, and Urban Meyer. This is a story about Philadelphia fans reacting proportionally and reasonably.

That last one’s a lie.

But can you blame us? Our Birds had just smacked the Broncos around, laying 31 points on an esteemed Denver defense in the first half. That last happened in 2012, at the hands of the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Having passed every proverbial test set before them—4-1 Carolina on the road Thursday Night; Washington in an early season revenge game; Denver’s top-flight defense without Jason Peters—the Eagles were rolling into the bye on a seven-game win streak. The MVP front-runner was sitting at the helm of the undisputed best team in the NFL, and Philly fans were feelin’ it.

As such, when a resentful opponent, licking the wounds of his sound drubbing, lashed out at Philadelphia in the media, Bleeding Green Nation rose up.

They run this college offense,” said Chris Harris Jr., All-Pro corner for the Denver Broncos. There’s more to the quote—but this sound bite alone stirred up Philly’s anger.

Folks read it as an insult. Collegiate offenses are anecdotally considered more basic, more gimmicky—facsimiles of real offense, contrived to account for the drop-off in talent. The “spread” system is a bunch of track stars running four verts, slants, and bubble screens; “Air Raid” teams either complete a 30-yard pass or take a sack; the “triple option” is that annoying offense you had to face in high school a couple of times. Running a college offense in the NFL is the equivalent of button mashing: artificially generating production without real nuance or skill.

But Chris Harris Jr. then went on to say: “They had a great game plan. Carson Wentz is a great quarterback. It seemed like the Chiefs' offense. They just executed a lot better. We played a great offense. It's the best offense we've seen."

And here we are: The same player called Philadelphia’s offense “college” and “the best we’ve seen.” If our pre-assumed notions of college and NFL offenses are true, then there’s a divide to reconcile here.

This example, however, reveals a larger issue: one both schematic and systemic, and it’s currently plaguing NFL decision-makers as they look to acquire talent for their rosters. On the chalkboard, what separates a college scheme from a pro-style scheme? And which scheme will be used in the NFL for the years to come?

I can’t claim to know the answers—not for certain, at least. But here’s what I do know:

“Back in my day,” your belligerent father grumbles from his armchair, brandishing his beer bottle at the flat screen. “You ran the ball on first down. Second down too! Straight up the gut! Give ‘em the ol’ one-two! Rock ‘em, sock ‘em! Hoo-ah!”

Okay, the end got a little dicey there.

That for which your father pines, however, is more so the pro-style ideology than it is the pro-style scheme. Pro-style teams were known, distinct from college teams, for their intricate offenses and ability to impose their will on defenses. The pro-style coach looked to run an offense that, when executed properly with the necessary personnel, simply could not be stopped, no matter the defense it faced.

That mindset will find itself at odds with the college mindset—but first, we have to understand what those systems look like on the field.

Seeking insight, we’ll take a trip down to Santa Clara (I hear it’s lovely there in the winter). Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers give us a good look at both pro-style and spread offensive concepts.

This is a quintessential pro-style formation: the “I.” This formation lends itself to a downhill running style, as the quarterback (under center) is directly in front of the running back. All handoffs will occur with the RB moving, at the worst, at a 45° angle in either direction. He will, invariably, get north quickly.

Also in the backfield is football’s black rhinoceros: the fullback. Kyle Juszczyk (6-1, 240 lbs) operates from this position as an extra blocker, to pave the way for the running back. A pro-style system invariably employs a fullback.

However, only 19 NFL teams still roster a fullback, and of those 19, Tommy Bohanon of the Jacksonville Jaguars saw the greatest percentage of his team’s offensive snaps last week: at 23%. Only two (Andy Janovich of Denver and Jay Prosch of Houston) received “starter” designations.

The fullback—the hallmark of the pro-style offense—is a dying breed. Kyle Juszczyk is obsolete, and he’s being replaced...

...with Kyle Juszczyk.

This a “spread” formation, despite the fact that the personnel on the field is exactly the same. What have we changed?

  1. The quarterback is now in shotgun
  2. The tight end is off of the line of scrimmage
  3. There’s a third “wide receiver” (it’s really RB Carlos Hyde) on the field

That’s all.

Despite the fact that these formations really aren’t that different, they radically change what the offense can execute. From the shotgun, most runs will begin moving horizontally, as that is the relationship of the QB and RB. Furthermore, the potential for the zone read—we’ll get to that crucial play later—appears.

In the passing game, the quarterback can throw the ball far earlier in the play, as he needn’t drop back in the pocket. Because that third wide receiver is so far to the outside, passing plays that attack the boundaries of the field—away from the thick middle of the defense—are often utilized with success.

This is crucial to understand: delineating between spread and pro-style offenses isn’t about the personnel on the field. It’s about how the personnel is deployed, and what that deployment allows the offense to do.

Juszczyk is made noteworthy by his transcendence above the fullback position. He isn’t just a slightly smaller, slightly quicker offensive lineman. His agility and pass-catching ability make him a valuable piece for San Francisco (and earned him the largest FB contract ever). With Juszczyk on the field, the Niners can line up in a pro-style formation and ask him to lead block, but they can also...

Line him up as a doggone wide receiver in a 4-WR set and have him run routes down the field!

If the calling card of the pro-style offense is the fullback, then the calling card of the spread offense is a fullback as a wide receiver. Spread offenses align their pieces to stretch the defense horizontally, even if they aren’t as effective in those places; pro-style offenses leave the pieces where they belong, even if it makes the job easier on the defense.

San Francisco’s deployment of both spread and pro-style formations leaves us with an undeniable truth: the formations, personnel deployed, and even plays you run don’t necessarily make you a spread or pro-style team. It goes deeper than that.

From this moment forward, your football fan card is provisionally revoked. Read Chris B. Brown’s The Essential Smart Football, and you can have it back.

Brown opens this work, which covers some of football’s watershed moments, Hall of Fame players, and greatest innovations, with the evolution of Urban Meyer’s spread option offense. Meyer, currently the esteemed head coach at THE Ohio State University, changed the game of college football by popularizing the wide-open, high-octane offenses we see today. These are the despicable “college” offenses up at which many NFL fans turn their noses.

But Brown’s chapter on Meyer’s offense reveals the inner mechanics of this seemingly simplistic scheme, and those cogs are what interest us.

“In his book, Meyer recalled a moment when, after a loss to Nebraska in 2001, he found one of his best players, David Givens, crying at his locker because he felt he had been unable to help his team win: he hadn’t touched the ball the entire game. Meyer then swore to run an offense that delivered the ball to his playmakers.”

While this sentiment may seem self-evident, it represents a paradigm shift from the pro-style ideology. At the NFL level, the talent on all sides is sublime—wide receivers, punters, centers, everyone. As such, when one team emerges the victor, their win is typically attributed to better execution of the game plan, of the scheme. Essentially, winners at the pro level could say: “Our eleven players did their jobs better than your eleven players did, so we won.”

Wherever he is in the world, Bill Belichick is smiling. (Can he smile?)

But in college, with less practice time and inferior talent, every team has gaps somewhere across their roster. The delta of talent between Givens and the next guy was likely far larger than the one between two NFL players. Meyer couldn’t run a system that ran on eleven guys—he didn’t have eleven good ones. He needed a system that could say “Two/three of our players did their jobs better than two/three of yours, so we won.”

In developing that system, Meyer helped forefather today’s college system; today’s spread offense.

The staple of Meyer’s offense: the zone read run.

Because the QB can choose to hand the ball off if the “read key” defends the edge (shown above), or keep the ball if the “read key” closes in on the RB, the offense generates a numerical advantage in the running game. With this play, you can:

  1. Run the football with your quarterback (who is likely a good athlete). That serves the maxims Meyer outlined above: get your playmakers the football, and win with your most talented players.
  2. Hide inferior offensive line talent. That serves the same purpose: keep the fate of the game with your best pieces.
  3. Neutralize one of the EDGE defenders of the defense. That serves to prevent the other team from fulfilling the same maxims, by eliminating one of their most impactful defenders.

Now, tag that zone run with a pass option, and you have yourself an RPO that can expose defensive alignment/numbers in the secondary as well. If you get 10-yard cushion on the boundary, for example:

Quick curl to the WR picks up a first down.

If that wide receiver is one of your two/three guys, your two/three playmakers, he can potentially break this tackle and pick up even more yardage. If he’s not, you just eeked out a first down from an inferior player, not by attacking a match-up, not by asking him to run a complex route or outrun the corner down the field...but by attacking simple leverage.

These plays are the bare bones of the modern spread offense, and as such, they can best represent the theory behind the spread. In Brown’s words:

Meyer...wanted to be shotgun focused, to spread the field, to throw the football effectively, and to run the ball on run option or quarterback read plays. The simplicity comes in how few schemes are needed to cover all of these bases, and how almost cliché they are in practice...

The simplicity of spread systems doesn’t make them inferior; it makes them beautiful. Were the goal of an offense to be complex and impressive, then perhaps pro-style offenses would trickle down into the collegiate ranks; perhaps players like Lamar Jackson would move to wide receiver. But the goal of an offense is to score touchdowns, and spread offenses are doing that just as well—if not better—than pro-style offenses.

Ready for the plot twist?

Pro-style offenses aren’t even real.

Remember our important distinction: despite the fact that offenses still may run pro-style plays from pro-style formations, they need a pro-style mindset to be a pro-style team. That team simply no longer exists.

Over the past six years, the incidence of the aforementioned 21 personnel has decreased each season per Football Outsiders, from 20% in 2010 to 8% in 2016. Across the same time span, 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) has climbed from 40% to 60%, and in 2016, every single team used 11 personnel as their primary deployment.

The fullback has been replaced by a third wide receiver. Both the offense and defense are more spread out horizontally. Teams are throwing the football more frequently. If you’re hoping your team doesn’t succumb to this passing fad of running quarterbacks and quick throws, I have bad news for you: dawn has already passed. College offenses have arrived.

NFL teams don’t run the pure, true, spread offense—that’s not at all what I’m saying. They needn’t rely upon the “trickeration” of leverage and alignment as heavily as collegiate teams do. But NFL teams do recognize, accept, and even thrive in the spread mindset: that running a simpler offense, from fewer formations, with insanely athletic and even hybrid personnel (like Kyle Juszczyk), helps you maximize your best players.

Necessity mothered invention: it was the lack of NFL personnel and parity that birthed college offensive concepts. But it is those very same collegiate concepts that are now making NFL players all the more dangerous.

Take a look at the biggest surprises in the NFL thus far: Philadelphia at 8-1? College concepts everywhere (more RPOs than any other team in NFL), and TE Zach Ertz is enjoying a career. Did you expect the Saints at 6-2, or the Jets at 4-5? Neither did I, but both teams are running Air Raid style offenses, as New Orleans capitalizes on rookie RB Alvin Kamara, while WR Robby Anderson and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins have woken up in New York.

Other top offenses, you say? Kansas City runs the most spread-y offense in the NFL. Alex Smith played in an Urban Meyer system in Utah, and is now enjoying career numbers. The Los Angeles Rams work in a little bit of everything. Houston, under Deshaun Watson? Spread. Dallas under Dak Prescott? Read options everywhere.

Scoff when you hear NFL draft prospects criticized for operating spread systems; chortle when enemy fans ridicule your team for using college plays. As every play passes, their favorite team uses more and more spread concepts—they just don’t know it yet.

So, was Chris Harris Jr. truly lashing out, looking to undermine Philadelphia’s offense when he called it “college?” I can’t claim to know the answers—not for certain, at least. But here’s what I do know: I’m takin’ it as a compliment.

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