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Monday, July 20, 2009

Now, on Rodriguez and the spread

Several readers (including by email) have told me they thought I was not unfair to Rich Rodriguez in my recent post about Randy Walker's effect on the rise of the spread. First, I didn't write this intending to dig Rodriguez or take anything away from him. I've written continuously about what an innovator he was (and is), and as I wrote in my piece for Michigan's Maple Street preview guide, I think Rodriguez ought to be able to turn the Wolverines around. In other words, I think he's a very good coach.

My point was simply that Walker made an important contribution. And keep in mind that the spread of the spread, so to speak, has in many ways been an interesting two-way dialogue between high schools and college -- and only now is the NFL listening too. True, when Rodriguez came out with the zone-read people came from all over to study it from, but Walker and Kevin Wilson really put their stamp on it and showed the way for coaches less inclined to be "spread guys" how to adapt their traditional offense to the new-fangled sets. And I do think it true that, until teams like Northwestern got going, Rodriguez hadn't quite focused on developing the shotgun run game into a robust "system."

At Tulane, the offense had the zone-read elements but Rodriguez and Tommy Bowden still considered themselves kind of pass-first guys; Shaun King threw for 3,495 yards and 38 touchdowns. His big innovation at the time was in throwing the 3-step quick game from the shotgun. It sounds quaint and kind of weird now, but at the time people really didn't think you could do it because of timing issues until they saw Rodriguez do it (along with Joe Tiller at Purdue). Indeed, no less a passing guru than Norm Chow, while he was still at BYU, visited Rodriguez to learn this funky technique, and for the first time in his career taught his quarterbacks to throw the three-step game from the shotgun. (And the BYU offense, which had slowly begin to wilt in the late '90s, saw a brief resurgence before Chow left for NC State and used the same techniques there with Philip Rivers.) These were heady days.

Moreover, in Bowden and Rodriguez's their first year at Clemson Woody Dantzler split time with Brandon Streeter, an incumbent fifth-year senior who was not mobile (he averaged 0.9 yards rushing on a meager 42 attempts). See the highlights below.

And in any event I wasn't saying that Clemson was some kind of disorganized mess when Rodriguez was there, just that, understandably, these were the early days of the spread, so a few big ideas were most of what you needed. As teams caught on Rodriguez stayed a step ahead, again, with the aid of Rick Trickett at West Virginia, an excellent offensive line coach. (Note that with Trickett the focus of the zone read changed from the inside zone to the outside zone, a subtle switch for the average fan that derived from the ideas and philosophy Trickett learned from Alex Gibbs, the Denver Broncos' famed line coach.)

All I was saying is that Walker played a very important role in this development. As Urban Meyer has said, back in those days the spread coaches were a small fraternity and they liked to swap notes. Rodriguez hit everybody over the head with his ideas, and then later, once guys like Meyer and Walker had put in full seasons running the stuff, they got back together and talked about what worked and what could be better. (And to one of the commenters who said that they never heard of anyone visiting Walker, that is just wrong: Meyer has said repeatedly that he visited Walker to learn what they were doing at Northwestern.)

So anyway, I don't think giving credit to one guy should be interpreted as taking anything away from another. These were some dramatic years for the spread, those years from 1997-2002 or so. A lot happened, a lot was learned, a lot was tried, and there were a handful of guys there at this birthing of a new style of offense. Rodriguez might be the father, but Walker helped pour the baptismal water.


Chris S. said...

ESPN has an article about the growth of the "spread offense" on the front page of their Web site. Thought you might be interested in reading it and breaking it down. It seems as if it suffers from a critique you've leveled before, in that it discusses the "spread" as if it is an offensive system, rather than a formation. Continue to love the site, and definitely ready for your eventual breakdown of the trendiness of the 3/4 defense in the pros.

Indivision said...

I think this article is a major slight to the contributions of Chip Kelly in bringing the spread to a new level.

Just kidding. :)

However, I would be curious to hear what your take is on the particulars of Kelly's system. A nice article on him here, if you haven't already seen it: