My old colleague Bill Connelly has a piece up on ESPN.com today about how the spread has “won” in college football. That’s the thing now, spread offense. I’ve been writing, arguing, and explaining as much for the last several years. LSU’s dominant 2019 run obviously established this pretty firmly.
Before the LSU title run and Pat Mahomes’ first Super Bowl, I told the story of his this all evolved in the Big 12 in a book that I obviously recommend:
Within Connelly’s article is a point made by Manny Diaz, current head coach of the Miami Hurricanes.
“There’s such a thing as a ‘college football offense’: 90% of America runs 60% of the same plays.”–Manny Diaz to Bill Connelly
This point, clearly true when you study some playbooks, leads to a follow up question. What differentiates teams anymore? Does this turn the college football world that was once a tapestry of disparate tactics and styles into a monochromatic product? How in the world can the less-advantaged teams compete if everyone is doing the same thing?
The spread pick’n’roll NBA
You get similar comments and questions about the NBA now that it’s thoroughly dominated by the spread pick’n’roll. Every team is desperate to find as many guys as they can that have the ability to shoot from beyond the perimeter because it’s become clear that the best way to maximize star players is to allow them to work off high screens or isolations while surrounded by accurate shooters that can punish teams for sending help.
The concern, exemplified in a book by Kirk Goldberry titled “SprawlBall” seems to be (I haven’t read it) that you’ll get a monochromatic league.
However, there’s a fair amount of evidence that suggests the opposite, at least in a certain sense. If you check out the top teams in the currently stalled out 2019-20 NBA season, you’ll see some interesting facets to the top players.
The Lakers are powered by a 6-11 power forward/center in Anthony Davis and GOAT? 6-8/270 pound point forward/power guard LeBron James who both grew up in America’s AAU game. The Dallas Mavericks have a 6-7/230 pound Slovenian point forward in Luka Doncic that runs their offense in space that’s often created by a 7-3 Latvian center/guard named Kristaps Porzingis.
The Houston Rockets regularly play iso ball with a 6-5 point guard in James Harden and a 6-3 de-facto power forward in Russell Westbrook. The Denver Nuggets offense is controlled by 7-0, Serbian point-center Nikola Jokic. The Milwaukee Bucks’ entire team is powered by 6-11, Nigerian-Greek Giannis Antetokounmpo. The defending champion Toronto Raptors won the last title with a 6-7, 230 pound small forward named Kawhi Leonard who excels in the midrange.
There’s tremendous diversity of skill sets, body sizes, and even origins for the league’s various stars. The game is all about matchups in space, so while the team strategies are all oriented around creating spacing, on the individual level you get wildly contrasting styles and players. The NBA is no longer dictated by which team has the most monstrous low post scorer and defensive anchor, it’s about which team is able to best create space and exploit it either with high level passing or by winning 1-on-1 matchups in space.
The spread passing college game
This is all true in the game of football as well. If these spread teams can all excel at creating matchups in space with the passing game, then while the playbooks may start to look similar the emphasis and feature matchup problem players will diverge wildly.
This is easy enough to see in the evolution that took place for the Tom Herman Texas offense from 2018 to 2019.
Herman’s offense puts a big emphasis on the slot receiver position because it’s so easy to create matchups for that spot to run “isolation” routes against linebackers who lack both the athleticism to match quick routes and the undivided attention to do so because of their run-stopping responsibilities.
In 2018 Texas’ offense was built to feature the 6-4, 220 pound Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who went to the combine at 210 and ran a 4.75 40, a 4.29 shuttle, and posted a 33.5″ vertical. For Texas he had 86 catches for 1176 yards and nine touchdowns.
The following year Texas moved Devin Duvernay to that position, continuing to throw him weakside option routes like they’d done with Humphrey but also adding a lot more RPO slants and screens. Duvernay caught 106 balls for 1386 yards and nine touchdowns. Then he went to the combine where he measured at 5-10, 200 pounds and ran a 4.39 40 with a 4.2 shuttle and 35.5″ vertical.
Pretty different players and their utilization changed some within the Texas offense, but at the end of the day it was about taking great athletes with unique advantages and putting them into position to exploit matchups in space.
The NFL and Saints/LSU strategy
I recently spent some time on here detailing how flex tight ends are like “space force dreadnoughts” for the way that they can create big matchup problems for defenses. If you don’t have a great flex tight end in todays’ NFL, you’re really at a disadvantage for having good ways to stress and attack defenses.
Sean Payton certainly likes having guys like that, but he’ll also take frequent advantage of the fact that the running back is the last guy that defenses account for in their coverage schemes. He’s the last resort, the checkdown, and the guy that tends to draw a stiff inside-backer in the coverage matchups.
Well, if that’s Darren Sproles or Alvin Kamara that can cause problems. Payton evolved the typical check-release route into a weakside option route with spread formations and often flexes the running backs there to wreak havoc OR he flexes them into normal receiver positions so that he can move deadly receivers into the running back slot to abuse linebackers. This is a strategy for Herman’s Texas offense as well and it’s a very effective ball control passing game tactic that’s awfully hard to stop. LSU went full-bore with the same method in their breakthrough 2019 offense.
This is all still somewhat elementary though. Skill players that can line up in a variety of places and abuse matchups in space are still something of a novelty in the game of football and we haven’t fully explored what could be possible here. Teams still build their formations, schemes, and rosters with a nod towards traditional roles and sets. Hybrids break those normal roles, but we could still see some teams take more steps to overthrow the normal structure and take advantage of wildly different body types and skill sets in order to throw the ball around.
Flex tight ends and flex running backs are the frontier here that is still unexplored and undeveloped but it doesn’t have to be the end point. What you want is to have a legitimate receiver at all five skill positions who can flex out and run routes. Then it doesn’t matter if the best one is a squatty back who’s quick and powerful over short distances, a deep ball threat, or a big possession receiver. You can move him up and down the formation to hunt matchups and allow him to do what he does best against someone ill-equipped to stop him.
That’s the football-equivalent of surrounding your best player with guys that can shoot three pointers.