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The Spread Revolution and the NFL

How much has the college game impacted the NFL?

Kendall Wright. A former Baylor and now Titans standout
Kendall Wright. A former Baylor and now Titans standout
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Hello again, MCM! I hope everyone enjoyed my 2014 Titans' draft class scouting report series. Last year I did a post on this topic, which you can find here. This post will take a deeper look into an offense that is increasing in popularity at the college level and "spreading" its roots to the NFL. Consider this a part two in the series that will break down two of the "systems" employed by different coaches. There will be part three in this series soon (sometime in July before camp, breaking down the 2015 QB draft class). Let's start with a recap of last year's post.

The History

TCU head coach Leo Meyer is often credited with being the first coach to author a book on the spread offense in 1952. Legendary high school coach Glenn Ellison has been known in some circles as the true father of the spread by implementing its forefather, the Run and Shoot (which long time Titans fans going back to the Oilers days should be familiar with). At the NFL level, the innovator of modern offenses could be attributed to one Don "Air" Coryell, who revolutionized the art of passing and spawned many coaches' careers. Coryell's impact is felt today with the fruits of the John Madden, Joe Gibbs, and Bill Walsh coaching trees still in the league. Although Coryell ran a "West Coast" offense, there were spread elements that were littered throughout the playbook in future generations.

The Philosophies

There are many successful variations of the spread, ranging from Mike Leach (the former Texas Tech coach, now at Washington State) who throws A LOT (close to 80 times a game) to a run heavy offense in Gus Malzhan (Auburn coach) who rode on the back of RB Tre Mason and the zone blocking scheme.

- The "Texas Tech Air Raid" Academy -

History: Leach is considered to be the modern day forefather of the pass heavy TTU attack. Many of the brightest minds on the college spread scene coached under him before getting head coaching jobs elsewhere. Dana Holgerson (West Virginia HC) served under Leach before parlaying that into the successes of current Jets QB Geno Smith and the Mountaineers. The latest Leach disciple, current TTU HC Kliff Kingsbury had a rocky debut season but he made his bones coaching the Johnny Manziel show under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy also runs a similar offense to Leach (with more Pistol concepts).

Concepts: The basic premise of this type of spread is flooding the field with typically four receivers and a back or a tight end option in order to maximize the confusion on defense. Within this flood of offense, receivers are asked to run multiple routes, each with variance in options. Where Leach differs from the others in the group is how he approaches the passing game. He usually allows for his QB to check down while Sumlin/Kingsbury/Gundy go the Al Davis route and order deep passes more often than not. But what about a running game, you ask? Leach totally abandons any semblance of a running game (often calling screens in its place) while the others call draws, delays, and read options. This is the fundamental difference. Another key difference is that Leach relies on traditional pocket passers while the others are flexible with their QB demands.

You can see the differences here:

Leach at TTU

Sumlin at Houston

Kingsbury at TTU

- An "Artful" Chip off the old block -

History: The second type of spread we will look at is commonly known as the "Oregon" offense due to the popularization made by current Philadelphia Eagles HC Chip Kelly while he was at Oregon. While Kelly incorporated and revolutionized certain portions of the spread, he isn't the first guy to do it. This offense, if had to be assigned a more technical term, is called a Spread Option. Coaches who run such offenses: Urban Meyer (Ohio State), Rich Rodríguez (Arizona), Dan Mullen (Meyer's OC at UF, now Mississippi State HC), Art Briles (Baylor) and Mark Helfrich (CK's successor at Oregon),

Concepts: In its most simplest definition, the Spread Option is spreading the defense out to find more running lanes. It's a wee bit more complicated than that. Like the TTU passing academy above, the SO relies upon option routes and multiple weapons on the field. Where it differs is the running game and the type of QB that is asked to run the offense. The SO is all about matchup and how best to exploit them in space. Running plays are usually the option type (hence the SO moniker) with a lots of tricks and misdirection involved. The popular zone read play is in this offense. Whereas the offensive lineman in the TTU offense are your prototypical NFL OL, the SO OL are lighter and faster much like the Denver Broncos OL back in the Alex Gibbs zone blocking heyday. The OL have to pull and trap a lot. Quarterbacks are different as well, they are charged with not only reading the defense, but have to be good athletes themselves to properly execute the option portion.

CK and Urban Meyer

Meyer at Florida

Rich Rod

A great read (and a much better explanation than I can come up with) on Baylor's offense by SB Nation's own Ian Boyd here

Common themes

There were several similar ideologies in my research between the two systems. The first being the base simplicity of the plays but the tempo at which they were being executed. Oregon and Baylor in particular, go really fast due to a myriad of factors, including superior QBs, better conditioned athletes, and simply put, coaching. The second is that the proliferation of the spread offense at the high school level in the state of Texas also bore fruit for programs nationwide looking to get in on the craze. What's the one word in real estate that everyone knows? Location. The QBs these days are charged with making lightning quick reads in these high tempo offenses and making sure to deliver the ball to an open space. Baylor executes this at a level I have never seen before. Oregon, not so much but Marcus Mariota is changing the stigma that Auburn currently faces. Another interesting offense is the one that Gary Pinkel runs at Missouri. He's sent numerous athletes to the NFL.

NFL Impact

The proliferation of spread offenses from the college ranks has provided the league with fresh and innovative ideas. It also has made big body receivers obsolete but at the same time, more indispensable than ever. Smaller and explosive playmakers like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Kendall Wright, and Wes Welker are valuable commodities in an NFL world where quick strike short passing is the name of the game right now. As for the quarterbacks, this current crop of young and old ones (RG3, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Johnny Manziel, Matthew Stafford, and Drew Brees come to mind) have a chance to define generations to come with their abilities. Several of these guys are Texas HS alumni where all this started. We've already seen spread concepts leak through via the Patriots' and Broncos potent passing attack of recent years so the trend is there. Chip Kelly had a pretty successful debut season in the NFL with his offense so he has proven it can work.