Someone asked Bill Connelly a really good question on Twitter yesterday in response to his article about how the spread has “won” in college football and is now the strategy.
I have a lot of thoughts on this, indeed I wrote an entire book before the season on the topic of what’s been driving offensive evolution and why the Big 12 has been at the forefront of it all.
Obviously the most talented and resourceful teams tend to win a lot more regardless of the era or popular tactics. The less resourceful teams also tend to serve as the entrepreneurial branch of the college football world, testing out new tactics and coaches before the venture capitalists at the bigger schools pick off the ones that stick.
But the question is a very good one.
The reason the spread was an early equalizer…
The reason is that there’s a much larger pool of talented athletes in this world that are 5-10 to 6-3 and 180-230 pounds than of guys that are talented athletes and 6-3+, 250+ pounds.
Spread offenses moved the focal point of the action away from the trenches, where things come down to athleticism and execution by big people, and out to the perimeter where the advantages for the bigger schools have been much less. In a battle of who has the best smaller skill talents, the smaller school’s disadvantages are much less.
You see this in the NCAA tournament every year. The smaller schools often don’t have the NBA-bound 6-7 wing, much less the 6-10 big man, but they do often have multiple 6-3 senior guards that know how to control the game flow, create shots, and can hit from beyond the arc. They pull off big upsets until they meet a team that has good guard play in addition to the ultra athletic 6-7 wing or 6-10 big man.
The bigger programs have done what they can to move the focal point back to the trenches. Shotgun, option run game was embraced by the bigger schools because it allowed them to try to control and win games up front. The famous 2005 Texas Longhorns had one of the most absurdly talented backfields of all time when they paired Vince Young with Jamaal Charles, but they also had former blue-chip left tackle Jonathan Scott who’d bounce around in the NFL for a spell and former 5-star and multi-year NFL starter Justin Blalock at right tackle. It was hard to out execute that team in the trenches and the stakes were really high when you didn’t.
RPOs and spread formations took hold for similar reasons. The bigger schools didn’t want to start throwing the football around, they realized that spread spacing and perimeter pass options made it easier to clear out space in the box so they could run the football.
But the passing game was so much more efficient that it just took over. Nowadays though bigger schools are figuring out that they are still advantaged and are consequently becoming more comfortable with a spread passing world.
I broke it down with my “space force enlistment” article, but there’s a few advantages to being a big school when it comes to assembling the most talented passing squad.
-Left tackles VERY much fall into the rare resource category. Guys with NBA reach, 300+ pounds, and the athleticism to stay in front of pass-rushers on the edge are hard to find.
-There’s good skill talent and then there’s elite skill talent. Particularly at defensive back. There are still advantages to be found in having the truly elite athletes, particularly in having them regularly and not just every once in a while. This was key for LSU, who’s always had absurdly athletic receivers and cornerbacks but needed years and years to realize they should embrace a strategy that made that the focal point of a game.
-Transfer portal! If offenses are simpler and it comes down to having highly skilled quarterbacks and receivers who’ve had just an offseason or two to nail down their chemistry and timing, then bigger schools are at an advantage in getting transfer quarterbacks and receivers that want playing time. See Fields, Justin or Murray, Kyler. Come to Oklahoma or Ohio State and throw to NFL receivers behind NFL OL!
Bigger schools also have a better chance at recruiting really good grad transfers. Particularly the quarterback or tackle who was missed out of high school and blossomed at a smaller school.
This is it now. If you’re not embracing a spread offense strategy then you’re not going to hold onto the best skill athletes that win games and you’re not going to be a popular destination for the ones that are looking for playing time.
So what’s next? First, more spread
First we have to note that we are still pretty early into the spread era. There’s a lot of different directions things can still go in, we haven’t even gotten into the first season after LSU dominated with their brand of pro-spread offense.
Consider that Christian McCaffrey had 45 and 37 catches in his sophomore and junior seasons at Stanford, or that OJ Howard had 38 and 45 catches in his junior and senior seasons at Alabama. College offenses have emphasized run-first approaches and even the pass-first spread systems have tended to be built around RPOs and play-action that still come back to powering the football on undermanned boxes with those running backs and tight ends.
Baylor’s offense under Art Briles put new emphasis on the vertical passing game but turned the tight position into a 6th OL that served the run game and the running back was often a glorified wishbone fullback.
All that to say, the art of using the “space force dreadnought” flex tight end is still very underemphasized in the college game and the idea of a receiver-first running back is very uncommon.
We’re also still pretty early in the era of throwing regular vertical bombs down the field. To maintain my nautical/space-force metaphor, the best quarterbacks today are often either guys that excel at making quick decisions in the spread passing game OR guys that can serve as “super-carriers” like Pat Mahomes or Kyler Murray. Dudes that are impossible to “sink” in the backfield because of their mobility who then add the ability to launch the ball deep down the field. Check out LSU’s newest recruit throwing bombs against Nimitz high school (how fitting is that?)
Yes, he’s the son of the offensive coach who coordinated pro-style offenses at Florida and Michigan and is now the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback coach.
To revisit my NBA spread pick’n’roll metaphor, Mahomes has the chance to change the game in a manner similar to how Steph Curry has changed the NBA game. It’s not just that the Warriors have good shooters on their team who can hit open threes, this cat can shoot a three off the bounce from 40 feet out. So what happens? You have to cover him once he crosses midcourt or he might pull up and take a shot with an expected value well over 1.0 points per possession.
Not everyone can be Curry or Mahomes, but more guys can play like this than we’ve seen thus far. Now that high schools develop their best and strongest athletes at quarterback the normal expectations for what’s possible from these athletes needs to change.
So Curry-esque point guard quarterbacks who change the geometry of the game surrounded by five skill positions chosen primarily for their receiving skill is still a step we haven’t fully taken yet.
Ground and pound?
Everyone keeps arguing that things will cycle back “because they always do” (spoiler, they don’t) and eventually teams will start lining up with tons of big bodies to run people over.
There’s a lot of problems with this potential adjustment. Let’s hit our basketball analogy again.
What if your response to teams playing small and spreading you out in order to shoot open threes and clear floor space for a highly athletic finishing guard was to play three big forwards? Your plan? Slow the game down, feed whichever one has the best matchup with post-ups, and then abuse them on the boards. Teams have tried to do things like this in the NBA, but obviously it hasn’t worked.
The problem with that approach is the same, albeit for different reasons, you can’t outscore a team shooting 3s and lay-ups by taking lots of post-ups. It’s a lower percentage play, it will not light up the scoreboard the same way. Yes, a power team can occasionally catch a defense that isn’t used to fitting the run or doesn’t have the bodies to beat blocks, but it’s not a good bet for beating higher level teams that will just load the box and let you try to outscore them with “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
You have to be able to stop the spread offense. Controlling the ball and shortening the game makes that easier, but you still need a defensive strategy or it just ain’t gonna work. For the NBA team trying to put multiple big forwards on the floor, they’re going to get killed when those big guys have to chase guards shooting threes. It’ll never add up in their favor, the open threes the opponent gets will inevitably lead to more points than the post-ups they can create. In football, if you’re a smaller school trying to get ahead by this method, you also need a strategy for stopping these teams with lower level talent on your defense.
I thought Texas had found the answer to this issue after the 2017 season, but it turned out that they did not conceptualize the issue the same way that I did. In 2017 Texas was abominable on offense, but they stole Iowa State’s inverted Tampa 2 defense and used it in conjunction with eventual pro-bowl punter Michael Dickson to shut down a few really good smashmouth spread offenses.
Basically they made it impossible for opponents to score quickly with deep passing or big gains by playing the three-deep safety coverage and getting defenders that could run the 40 in 4.6 or faster at all eight backfield positions.
So they forced opponents to beat them by methodically moving the ball down the field with “three yards and a cloud of dust” or whatever you want to call the pass game equivalent. IF you can achieve that on defense, then you make the game a contest of which offense is most efficient at moving the ball methodically. At that point, you might be at a major advantage if you’re really good at doing so with the run game.
My favorite analogy here is from “the Dark Knight returns,” when a 55-year old Batman comes out of retirement and finds himself battling a younger, stronger, faster fighter called “the mutant.” After getting whipped in their first encounter, for the second battle the Batman lures the mutant into a literal mud fight where Bruce Waynes’ superior skill in hand to hand combat is the deciding factor because the mud eliminates the athletic advantages.
On twitter people also questioned whether you can effectively “ground and pound” an opponent like an SEC team with future NFL D-linemen and linebackers. I think you can and there’s a few ways to get there.
For starters, it’s actually not essential to have future NFL players in order to run the ball effectively in college. The Nebraska I-option machines weren’t plugging in elite NFL linemen while they absolutely ran everyone over. In fact, because everyone is putting increasing emphasis on pass protection it’s becoming even easier to stock up on 6-2, 290 pound maulers that may not be able to protect very well but who can get low and either reach block on wide zone or double team defensive tackles into oblivion. Boise State was a power run/play-action team in their best days and they were able to work that formula against bigger schools.
Additionally, if you really want to lean all-in on controlling the ball on the ground then there are lots of effective strategies for doing so. You can go the Shanahan route with wide zone and bootleg I supposed or you could lean in like Bill Snyder did with Jesse Ertz.
If your quarterback can handle getting 200 carries in a season, then don’t waste your time playing with a real running back. Use 11 personnel that includes a tight end, a fullback, and three receivers. Now you can create ultra-spread stress by being able to run I-formation plays in the box combined with screens, RPOs, or play-action with three receiver sets. The defense runs out of people to get into the box and you can plug along with consistent gains.
There’s also still the triple-option, which is very effective if you want to be a team that picks up endless 3rd-and-2 conversions. A major problem with all of this though is that throwing weakside option routes or check downs to running backs is a more efficient way to pick up steady gains than handing him the ball at a fixed point in the backfield. It’s more likely that teams will embrace playing with big personnel so that they can use tactics like the Patriots did to beat the Rams and get into spread passing formations against bigger, slower defenders that are out there to help stop the run.
As I note in the book, if you want to flip the script and change the narrative about the spread offense being the new go-to strategy in football then first you have to stop it. Otherwise, “if you can’t beat em, join em” will be the right play.