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The spread is spreading


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By Chris Harry | Sentinel staff writer

June 25, 2009


GAINESVILLE - Urban Meyer took a steno pad from the reporter sitting on his office couch and began scribbling away. With two diagrams, the University of Florida coach explained the concepts behind his base offensive formations: the spread and the single wing.


"I'm kind of giving you everything we do here," he said.


Hardly everything, but a brief lesson cracked open a window into Meyer's fascinating world of X's and O's. It's a place that's become a sought-after destination among his peers these days, but that's no revelation given Meyer's astonishing run of championships since arriving in Gainesville.


Some of the folks requesting offseason audiences, however, might come as a surprise.


"Right now, we've been contacted by a minimum of three NFL teams who want to implement a spread element," Meyer said last month. "They're going to do it."


Meyer, of course, wouldn't say which teams, but the general interest in the Gators' playbook has an ironic rub.


In April, one of the hot story lines heading into the NFL draft was how difficult it's become for pro scouts and personnel types to project players from a college spread scheme — with its wider linemen splits, flanked tight ends, bubble-screens and near-exclusive shotgun alignment — to more conventional NFL sets.


Apparently, one of the ways to make that transition smoother is to spread the spread to the NFL.


"It's already here," said Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, head coach at Boston College the last two seasons. "A lot of teams have it."


Not that many have used it.


Maybe more need to, given what the New England Patriots — be it with maestro Tom Brady or super-sub Matt Cassel — have done with the spread passing game since Bill Belichick began making annual offseason treks to Gainesville (and Meyer to Foxboro, Mass.) the last three years.


And it's probably safe to say more will use it, considering all the Sunday cameos of the so-called "WildDawg" formation — with the same base power off-tackle play Tim Tebow runs so magnificently — made around the league last season, especially with the Miami Dolphins.


"Everyone knows how I feel about Bill Belichick," Meyer said. "How is it that Tom Brady and this guy [Cassel] who never even started a game in college can make it work? Because Bill Belichick adapts. ... And the Miami Dolphins were 0-and-whatever [in '07] and they adapted to what they had. All of a sudden, the running back was taking snaps and they were winning games."


White puts Miami ahead of game


Look for the Dolphins to expand that facet of their offense this season after drafting West Virginia quarterback Pat White, a holy terror in the spread option for the Mountaineers. Tailback Ronnie Brown may have taken the bulk of WildDawg snaps at OTAs and minicamp, while White has struggled. But it's early.


"I think as we get on with this, he'll have some good days," Dolphins Coach Tony Sparano said.


Better than good. Don't be surprised if the WildDawg becomes the "Wild-Pat" once White, who unlike Brown or Ricky Williams brings a legitimate threat to throw the football, gets comfortable back there.


"Now you'd have real double jeopardy," Buccaneers defensive coordinator Jim Bates said.


The Bucs play the Dolphins in 2009. The Patriots, too. It's no coincidence that Bates has several days blocked off in the coming weeks to hole up with his staff and break down the league's latest trend.


Bates is no different than any other defensive coordinator in the NFL. It's no secret that rookies Percy Harvin in Minnesota and Knowshon Moreno in Denver, plus second-year man Felix Jones in Dallas and veteran pro bowler Larry Johnson, have made like Brown during offseason workouts.


Better be ready.


Last year's seminal spread moment came in Week 3 when Brown accounted for five touchdowns (four rushing, one passing) working from the shotgun in the Dolphins' 38-13 blowout road victory against New England — the very team that shattered NFL passing and scoring records operating from a base spread the year before.


That was just the beginning.


"The NFL has always been ahead of the college game, but what's happened now is that so many [college] teams are running some version of the spread, and doing it so well, that it's catching the NFL's attention," ESPN college football analyst Todd Blackledge said. "And these talented players the NFL is getting are so accustomed to it, you now have NFL people thinking that one of the ways to get the most out of them is doing what they're most comfortable with."


Meyer estimated that three-quarters of the high school tape he sees shows offenses lining up in the spread. Last season, nearly half the teams in the Bowl Championship Series conferences (31 of 65) worked from spread-based offenses.


Next up: the next level.


Getting down to the basics


The spread's basic passing theory has been in the NFL a long time. Five receivers out in pass routes have to be accounted for by five defenders. That sixth defender (either a linebacker or defensive back) either goes after the quarterback or acts as a safety valve. Assuming the latter, the quarterback is looking at five one-on-one matchups. Basic stuff.


"People have always said — way before Urban Meyer — that one of the ways to protect your quarterback is to run spread offense as much as you can," said former Fox color analyst Brian Baldinger, now with the NFL Network. "That goes back to Bill Walsh."


The principles of the spread running game go back a lot further than that, a hundred years or so. When the quarterback is a constant threat to run, the defense loses its numbers advantage.


UF's offense would not be anywhere as effective without the power running game rooted in the single-wing, a formation that dates to Pop Warner and the early 1900s. The cyclical nature of football has brought the single-wing back into coaches' collective consciences, but in combination with a spread element that creates space and tries to force matchup nightmares for a defense.


"You load up one side of the field and see how the defense reacts," CBS color analyst and pro football Hall of Famer Dan Fouts said. "You're looking for mismatches."


The spread formation, by mere definition, gives offenses a head start by horizontally stretching the defense across the field. That creates more space for defenders to cover. That principle — whether the master's name was Brown, Gillman, Walsh, Coryell or Gibbs — has been used to open up the passing game for decades.


The spread wave set to break over the NFL will feature a read running game (yes, option football) using a tailback, like the Atlanta Falcons ran on occasion with Michael Vick, combined with the power that an extra lead blocker (the Aaron Hernandez role for the Gators) provides the quarterback, who is alone in the backfield and taking the snap from the single-wing formation.


That's where the Pat Whites come in.


Or, one day, the Tim Tebows.


Rethinking the quarterback


Front offices, for years, have invested high draft picks for kick returners because of their ability to impact a game with a sudden change in field position. What then would be the value of a player like White, who may only take a half-dozen snaps in a game, but whose skills can keep a defense so off-balance and get 4 or 5 yards per run? Not to mention the additional threat as a passer.


Think Devin Hester Lite on offense.


"It'd be difficult to ask a guy like that to play every down," Blackledge said. "But here and there, in certain situations — red zone, goal line, short yardage — yeah, you're talking about something defenses better be prepared for."


That's why Meyer thinks White could be a game-changer in the pros; not only a different sort of weapon at quarterback, but one in a very different place relative to quarterbacks and the salary cap.


"Everybody's concern is the guy is making $27.8 million," Meyer said, referring to a typical franchise NFL quarterback. "Are you really willing to get him hit like that?"


Meyer hopped off his couch and stood in the middle of his office, assuming the bent throwing position a quarterback works from in the pocket. It's in that position, he reminded, that quarterbacks like Brady and Carson Palmer have suffered devastating, season-ending injuries the last few years, as defenders rolled into a lead leg that was planted to throw the ball.


"It's the only time he's ever locked," Meyer said.


Meyer's teams throw from the pocket, too, but the versatility of the spread's option makes for double trouble.


Former Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden has wondered who'd win a collision between the 240-pound he-man Tebow and the Bucs 240-pound middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, but few have dared — and may ever — put a franchise quarterback in that sort of harm's way every snap.


But what about a designated spread-option quarterback?


"That's where I think a guy like Pat White could change the [NFL] game a little bit," Meyer said.


Even a guy like Vick, as elusive as any player in league history, got knocked around enough that the Falcons, who led the league in rushing, pulled back on their use of spread. And the Tennessee Titans' Vince Young, a spread star and national champion at Texas, not only has failed to improve on his 2006 Rookie of the Year season, he's regressed, especially with his passing.


"I don't think you can serve two gods in this game," Baldinger said of the NFL. "I don't think you can be a great running quarterback and a great throwing quarterback."


But don't be surprised if some NFL team, starting with the Dolphins, tries to have one of each. If league rosters are expanded with the next collective-bargaining agreement (as expected), a designated spread quarterback could be as common as a long-snapper.


"We draft guys into this league that play in the spread offense," Bucs Coach Raheem Morris said. "I don't know why the offense can't get drafted, too."


Neither does Meyer. That's why his office phone is ringing.


"If you know me, you know I think any offense can work if you put the right personnel back there," Meyer said. "Offenses are overrated. People are not."


The word is spreading.


Chris Harry can be reached at charry@orlandosentinel.com.


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Are you suggesting we run some spread? A few WildDawg formations every once in a while with Cribbs might be nice.


No...at least for now.


Just pointing out the trend taking place. It will be interesting to see who uses it and how often.


If it works as well as I think it could, it will be even more interesting to see teams running to get it in place.


Tebow comes out next year. If he doesn't get hurt, and he becomes a top 10 pick, you just found the team who is going to use it as their base offense.


Actually, as it was said in the article, I could one day see teams going with 2 qbs based on what they want to do.


First, it would create a major headache for defensive coordinators when setting their gameplan each week, and in the long run, it would drive down the price teams pay for a qb as splitting time would lessen the leverage qbs currently have over teams.


Thanks for the reply.


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i disagreed then, and disagree now. QB's are too rare to waste on this system.

We'll see how Tom Brady does again this year. He destroyed defenses in 2007.


There is a good article inside SI.COM about the demise of the Middle LB because of these systems. Kind of goes hand in hand with the above article.

Last of a Dying Breed - Middle LB's


Here is part of the article:


The position is going the way of the dinosaur for the same reason real dinosaurs disappeared. The landscape and climate have changed. The beginning of the end of the do-everything, Ray Lewis-type middle linebackers probably began with the advent of run-and-shoot and no-huddle offenses in the mid-1980s.


In a sense, football mad scientists Darrel "Mouse" Davis and Sam Wyche helped change the position.


When Jack Pardee hired Davis to implement the run-and-shoot for the Houston Gamblers in the upstart USFL in 1984, the numbers quarterback Jim Kelly put up were astounding. It was impossible for the NFL not to notice -- and copy. Offensive coordinators around the league began tinkering with run-and-shoot sets and by the late-1980s, the Houston Oilers went full run-and-shoot in the NFL with much success.


Meanwhile, Wyche was changing things in Cincinnati, implementing a no-huddle attack that fatigued opposing players, put a premium on smaller, faster defensive personnel and changed the way defensive coordinators game-planned. Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason excelled under the attacking style, and the Buffalo Bills followed suit with a similarly fast-paced K-Gun that led to four Super Bowl appearances.


Defenses have been trying to adjust to variations of the run-and-shoot and no-huddle ever since


Offenses have spread the field with four- and five-wide sets. There have been one-back and no-back sets. There have been spreads, wider line-splits and now more teams turning to the WildDawg formation that extends the defense even more

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First, it would create a major headache for defensive coordinators when setting their gameplan each week, and in the long run, it would drive down the price teams pay for a qb as splitting time would lessen the leverage qbs currently have over teams.

I agree. But what a major headache that would be for a GM signing these guys. Agents would argue who is more important to the team based on who their client QB is, and then if one doesn't sign they need to find another fit to the scheme, ect...


Trends come and go, some stick around longer than others. Defense changes and offense changes. Been a long while since someone like Lawrence Taylor came into the NFL and made offenses adapt. Lately seems that offenses have made the defense adapt their schemes and players, i.e., standing up DE's coming out of college since the LB's are getting getting smaller and faster out of college and require more coverage skills.


We'll see, said the Zen Master.

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peen likes this line of thinking and brings it up now and again. ;)


I'm not buying it just yet. Spread offenses aren't designed to deal with the type of elite athleticism found at all 11 positions on an NFL caliber defense. You'd already see it as a mainstay. There's nothing I'm seeing "trend wise" that makes me think a college phenomena will become an NFL standard. And for every "spread" QB that comes out there's a Joe Flacco that is ready to sling it in the NFL.


We'll see but I'm betting a ton on the "under" with this one.

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i disagreed then, and disagree now. QB's are too rare to waste on this system.



I agree if you use the current model of a NFL QB.


The fact is there aren't enough to go around as it is.


Go to a spread, you open up a whole new world of QBs, thus the demand will be lowered a bit, and presumably the dollars you have to pay them.....something the NFL will like.


You can't think in terms of 15 year qb's...you have to think in terms of 7-8 year qbs.


Ten years from now drop back qbs are going to be even rarer because nobody is teaching them to play that way anymore.


Where is the NFL going to find a drop back QB??


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Ten years from now drop back qbs are going to be even rarer because nobody is teaching them to play that way anymore.

Baloney. Utter baloney.


Where were the NFL getting forward passing QB's in the 60's and 70's when everything in college was a wishbone?


I already mentioned Flacco as an example of a pure pocket passer. This kid came from DELAWARE. You don't think young kids going into college didn't notice?


If you are a big, strong kid with a good arm that you rely on more than your feet..... you know your going to play in the NFL before the spread QB. They'll find their way onto the field at the collegiate level and the NFL will, in turn, draft them. Nothing's changed.

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Great article. I think the transition will be slower than the author predicted, but we'll see bits & pieces piggy-backed onto the WCO more and more a la Pats '07.


Bill Walsh. Holy sahhmokes. How smart was that guy?*



*Hopefully we all remember where Billy boy came from.

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Grey.....not that many teams were running the bone in that era...not as many who are now running the spread.


The SEC ran it and the old SW conference ran it....maybe some in the Big 8.


It was also doomed to be a short live offense because it was a run based O with little ability to pass.


The spread is allows big passing lanes and allows a full assortment of runs even if your runners aren't always lined up directly behind the qb.


Face it....it allows a lot of the athletes who measure just a bit short by current NFL cookie cutters to become viable players.


It is really just a throwback by having a QB who can run and a morphing of the WCO.


I just see it as the natural progression of football.


I don't know when and where you start breaking down era's in football, but I guess I have seen 4 in my lifetime...each lasts maybe 15-20 years.


I saw the end of the 40's and 50's era, the 60's-70's. the 80's and 90's were pretty similar ...and now possibly a new transition.


Trust me....the game changes

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