Smart Football has moved!

Please check out the new site, All future updates will be made there.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Run/Pass Balance and a Little Game Theory

Football is the most strategic of all sports. A big part of this is the unique feature that each game is 100-150 or so unique trials—the plays. This gives rise to the art and science of play-calling, “balance,” formations, sets, set-ups, counters, and whatever else that keeps us up at night thinking about this stuff. Stepping back for a second though, I wanted to simply look at the concept of balance and how we should best achieve it. Before that, however, I wanted to emphasize what I think are the most important offensive statistics.

Yards Per Carry and Average Yards Per Pass Attempt

I've long felt that the most important rushing stat, at least in terms of 1st and 2nd down performance, was yards per carry, and not total rushing yards or anything else. Quite simply, a running back who gets 120 yards on 15 carries plays in a better offense than a RB who gets 120 yards on 25 or 30 carries.

This same logic, however, applies to the passing game. More important to me than passing efficiency, or completion percentage (by itself), yards per completion, or any other statistic is Average Yards Per Pass play (including sacks). Bud Goode, legendary football statistician to the stars (Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells, etc) has been harping on this stat for years.

The key is that it, in effect, combines completion percentage and yards per completion. The NFL QBs who have had the highest totals ever in a season are as diverse as Joe Montana (exceptionally high completion percentage) to more long-ball throwers. It penalizes the guy who inflates his completion percentage and the guy who points to his long-balls while ignoring how inefficient he is.

These two stats converge in the most important first and second down stats, which are average yards per play. The goal is to move forward to the other guy's goal-line, continually increasing your chances of scoring a TD. Further, you really want to do this on first and second down: Third down is a defense's down. The odds are in the defense's favor, and so are the strategies. Also, the teams with the best third down conversation rates are invariably the ones who have the shortest average distance to go on third down--further emphasizing that positive first and second down yards are the key.

So the goal is to find the mix of runs and passes that maximizes your teams' average gain per play.

[Note: This is not entirely true, as passes carry more risk. Turnovers make up the most important stats of all in terms of winning, and pass plays result in more turnovers than do run plays--both more fumbles and more interceptions. The answer, however, is not to ignore passing, but instead to require a "passing premium"--your passes should average more per play than your runs to counterbalance this risk.]

Offensive Identity and a Taste of Game Theory

How good you are in "absolute terms" at running or passing is a matter of talent, scheme, and reps. My argument here is that for the sake of "balance" it doesn't matter what you're better at, but, as Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning says, you pick a target mix and go for that, while adjusting to the defense.

This adjusting to the defense is where game theory comes in. The basic idea is that your offense and their defense have certain strengths and weaknesses, and, for the most part, everyone knows each other's weaknesses.

Imagine you are fortunate enough to have a future All-American guy at RB. He runs for a ton of yards as a junior, and now, a year later, you're ready to ride him to a state title. But everyone else knows about this guy now. They begin stacking the line. You've got this All-American at running back and you're averaging less per carry than you did three years earlier when you had three Academic All-Americans--and no football All-Americans--splitting time at RB. What's going on? What do you do?

You pass of course. You run bootlegs, you fake it to him, and you throw the ball. But how odd you say. You have the best running back you've had in 15 years, and you wind up running less? The answer is simply that everyone else knows you have this stud RB, so they commit so much effort and defensive scheme and structure to push your expected yards per rushing play down to a manageable number, your passing opportunities increase, even if you have less talent there than years past.

This same goes for great passing teams. (Think about all the spread offense teams that have used the defense's natural tendency to play pass against four wides to their running advantage.)

This little cat and mouse game is really an extension of the Nash Equilibrium from Game Theory (the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash, the concept's namesake).


The idea is if you are a very good passing team you pass most of the time, then you run when it is favorable and see positive results without having had to practice it too much. Same goes vice-versa--we all know how dangerous play-action passes are from heavy run teams, especially say a veer option team.

Again, I don't think yards per rush and yards per passing attempt should be exactly equal--passes are riskier than running plays. Specifically, they more often result in lost yardage (sacks) and turn the ball over more often (both fumbles and interceptions). So you should expect your yards per pass attempt to be higher than yards per rushing attempt.

To reiterate the earlier points of how this can be counter-intuitive, look at Urban Meyer at the Florida Gators (stats below). Let's say next year, with a year in his system, the passing game stays the same but the running game improves by a full yard per play. Now, what happens? Well, first Meyer will run the ball more--less risky, same reward. But then the defense will see this and begin to step up to stop the run, and drive the average yards per run back DOWN. Yet, the defense will be weaker to the pass. The result?

Counterintuitively, the passing game yards per attempt could go up and Meyer should then actually pass more. Surprised? Just think about it: If the D had to do more to stop the run, the pass gets more attractive, so Florida starts getting maybe 6.7 or 7+ per play every time they throw it, so of course they are going to throw it, even if in absolute terms it was the run game, not the pass game, that improved. Regardless, the improvement in the run game should affect the entire offense's production, which is what is important.

The lesson? If your passing game is suddenly working better, it might not be because you are suddenly Bill Walsh. It might be because you've got a stud running back everyone wants to stop.

The point of this is that you can hang your hat on one thing, but you might be leaving production on the table by not running or passing enough.


I just pulled some basic stats off of for major college teams to give some examples. I don't mean this as a criticism of these teams since my stats include some downs like 3rd down that may inflate or skew the stats, and college football includes sacks as a running play. To counteract that I added the QB's rushing numbers to the passing stats (except for Vince Young). This may be problemmatic for Chris Leak at Florida, since Urban Meyer uses a system where the QB runs the ball, but Leak was not particularly good at this and did not run near as much as Meyer's previous quarterbacks.

I fairly randomly selected these teams, though I did want to highlight teams of interest and on different ends of the spectrum.

Texas Tech

Pass-happy Mike Leach at Texas Tech attempted 697 passes for 4857 yards, averaging 6.97 yards per pass attempt. (I also recognize how many of these are shovels and the like but I'm just being simplistic.)

They ran the ball 172 times for 1040 yards, or 6.05 per rushing attempt.

So we compare 6.97 per pass to 6.05 per rush. Putting the two together the average yards per play is 6.77. We can see you can make an argument that they should have passed MORE, since that would have raised their average yards per play, but a passing premium of about a yard seems about consistent with most other teams.

The result? Tech, for all its crazy stuff, is pretty balanced.

Florida Gators

Next I looked at the Florida Gators. They got 2801 yards on 490 passing attemts (5.72 average) and 1680 yards rushing on 350 attempts (4.71). Together, the total yards per play was 5.33. Again we see about a yard of "passing premium" indicating that Urban was pretty balanced but that his team was not as productive, on a per play and total basis, as Tech.

Minnesota Gophers

Let's look at the Gophers: They ran it 586 times for 3247 yards (5.54), and threw it 347 times for 2690 yards (7.75).

That's the biggest passing premium we've seen, over 2.25 yards. Unless Minnesota is extremely risk averse, it appears that the Gophers should have passed more than they did. This result makes sense with what we said above: Minnesota had one of the best backs in the country, Maroney, and another guy who got 1000 yards. Their QB, some guy named Cupito, I didn't even remember. But defenses and defensive coordinators know the same thing. They were all geared to stop Maroney and the Gophers zone run game.

Should they have gone pass happy? No, of course not. Yet, imagine if they had thrown 30-50 more passes instead of runs (only 2-4 more per game). With more passing, the yards per pass attempt would have gone down, but I don't imagine it would have gone down to less than 6 yards like the rushing average. Also, yards per rush would have probably gone up as well. Thus, Minnesota likely would have been more productive to the point of 3 or more points in several games. In the Big 10, that is the difference between winning and losing.

The fact is that Minnesota's strength was definitely running the ball, but everyone else knew it too: Minnesota could have seen some easy success in the passing game and helped out their offense in total by throwing a bit more.

[Note: My numbers are rough so I'm not really trying to criticize Minnesota per se, just use them as an example.]

Southern Cal

These numbers are less helpful for the truly dominant teams (and less important, being smart about things matters less when you've got all the best talent). Nevertheless, let's look at the teams in the National Title Game.

USC threw 523 passes for 4193 yards = 7.88 yards per pass attempt
and 474 rushes for 3344 yards = 7.06 per rush attempt

This indicates that USC, no surprise, was very balanced and efficient in its playcalling. Maybe they should have run a bit more since that "passing premium" was kind of low, but USC is also a very efficient passing team and they do not turn the ball over very much, so they can have a smaller passing premium and get away with it.

However, the stat that jumped at me was 1740/200 = 8.7. As in 8.7 yards per rushing attempt, as in Reggie Bush's yards per rushing attempt. As in, handing the ball off to Reggie Bush had a greater expected gain than did throwing the football, which is just unheard of. This implies that USC should have handed it to him more. Now there are other issues, like durability, and Reggie's receiving prowess, but that is such a substantial number you will not see anything like that.

Texas Longhorns

Texas's stats were interesting too.

336 passes for 3083 yards = 9.18 yards per pass attempt
605 rushes for 3574 yards = 5.9 per rush attempt

That's a huge discrepency--that dwarfs Minnesota's number earlier. Texas' numbers may be skewed because it was on the good-end of a lot of blowouts and probably ran the ball much more in the second half. Nevertheless, coupled with the fact that Vince Young was the nation's passing efficiency leader, this implies that Texas probably held Vince's hand to much and should have let him throw more (or he should have stayed in the pocket and thrown more). Especially since as a runner Young averaged nearly 7 yards a carry, better than all but one of Texas' running backs. This exceptionally high passing yards per attempt number is probably correlated with Vince's running ability--the D had to take men out of position to spy him on pass plays.


To reiterate, my stats here are a bit on the simple side but the point is not the stats, it's the thinking: Typically a fan or coach looks at numbers like 9 yards per pass and 6 yards per rush and says "well, you don't run it as well you throw it." I think the right response, though, is "you ran it too much" or "you didn't throw the ball enough." That's a very different approach. It makes perfect sense though. It's recognizing that you're coaching against a smart person on the other side who knows where your strengths are, and then exploiting that to your advantage.

I remember someone asking Hal Mumme when he was at Kentucky about how his teams' yards per carry had dropped around a yard or so from the season before. The reporter was incredulous and turned red faced at Mumme's response: Mumme told him that he saw the same thing, and that to fix it he would throw the ball more. The reporter cut him off and essentially called him an idiot, mentioning that everyone knows you run better by simply running more (wear them down!). I'm pretty sure Mumme's point was that he coached a passing team, and if his yards per carry was going down, at least one reason was that the defense was spending too much time on the run and that he, as playcaller, was not taking advantage of passing game weaknesses defenses were leaving open.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Run/Pass Balance - Response to Comments II

As I said in my last post, some excellent comments and I want to thank all contributors. Most of the critiques dealt with either how my analysis was too general and failed to account for down and distance, leads, and the many other football variables and second an interesting discussion regarding the "passing premium" and how to get an idea of how much riskier a pass really is than a run.

Situational Football

Many commentators pointed out that the numbers I used for the case-studies did not account for the wide variety of circumstances in a football game or they simply pointed out their situation by situation method for calling plays, such as hoping to get 4 yards on first down and then splitting the distance on second.

First, I apologize if I was unclear in my last post but I am a big believer in "thin-slicing" football data to get as specific as possible to as many different situations while keeping an eye on sample size. I simply used the broad year-long data to get a ball-park idea and to refer to teams most readers are familiar with. My hope is that any coach who applies the average per play analysis to his team will separate out the data into 1st and 10 between the 40s, red zone, 40 and in, while eliminating huge blowout games, etc.

Each coach will have to use judgment to decide what data is and is not relevant, but I never intended the only calculation to be based off year-long data. I simply assumed that using basic data would be easier for demonstration.

The Case for Average Gain Per Play

The more interesting issue though is why are we using this data at all rather than lower benchmarks like trying to just get 4 yards per play and then ignoring any gain over and above that. My response is two-fold: One, the data bears out that to win games offenses, at least in competitive games before getting a lead, should strive to score points, and second, that teams who get first downs score points, and some basic analysis helps show that teams that average more per play--even when riskier--get more first downs than teams who trade off average gain for risk reduction (i.e. too many running plays).

I'll come back to this again later, but here is a quote from Carolina Panthers Offensive Coordinator Dan Henning (one of the best offensive minds ever, he learned from greats like Sid Gillman and even tutoted Charlie Weis in football offense) that I pulled right from the Carolina Panthers playbook:

Football, in any classification is a percentage game. A Quarterback who goes against percentages too often will fail. He'll have to be extremely lucky. No one figures to be that lucky due to so many extenuating circumstances involved in a 22 man game.

The following rules for play calling have been established for the Panthers to reduce the margin for tactical error. Errors in play calling will kill us quicker than mistakes in any other phase of football.

60% run
40% pass

The above percentage between pass and run is the healthy approach to pro football in any tightly played football game. To run more than 60% of the time will result in low scoring unless we are definitely superior. To pass more than 40% could mean costly losses as the result of failure in pass protection with loss of ball possession and field position due to interceptions.

(Emphasis added) This is very insightful, and what he does not say is instructive. He does not say that you run the ball to be physical, to "establish the run" or we throw to be exciting, or for any reason x, y, or z. All those things might be true, but he simply says that we throw to score points, but it's risky. Running is less risky so we we would run the ball more than 60%, but if we did that we would not score enough points to win.

As we know, the main reason for this is that runs typically do not average as much per play as passes do (unless you've got Reggie Bush). Henning also notes that pass plays have more risk, which I will discuss later in passing premium section.

Thus, we see that the goal is to maximize average gain per play while keeping risk in mind. The risk/return tradeoff in playcalling is one I've thought about quite a bit, most notably regarding the Sharpe ratio here, here, and here.

I also posted an article based on a contribution from one of my readers, Brad Eccles. Brad, using a normal distribution, calculated the probability of getting a first down in three plays based on various average or expected gains and standard deviations (where standard deviation is a measure for a play's riskiness, i.e. passes will have gains/losses that can fluctuate from -10 to +20 or more with regularity, while runs tend to be bunched more tightly around their average gain with fewer losses and fewer big gains).

I know this diagram is a bit complicated, but the very steep slope on the right side means that average gain far dominates lower risk when it comes to getting first downs.

The basic gist of this is that in a world without turnovers you would simply try to maximize your average gain per play, and if you could always average more per play by rushing or passing, you would do that (though both rushing and passing have diminishing returns, and at some point you're going to be better off throwing a pass or running even if you hardly ever do it).

In the next section I'll talk about passing's risk per play over rushing, but this is an important conclusion. It implies that if you didn't have to worry about interceptions or turnover risk, then you would not care about run/pass balance at all and you really would just try to maximize your average gain per play whether by running or passing.

(Again, before anyone points out that the rules are different for third downs: I'm well aware, this kind of thinking is mostly for first down and 2nd and 5 and such, which make up the lion's share of all downs actually played. There are only a few third and shorts during a whole season. As I explain in my third Sharpe ratio article, you look at third and fourth downs as success/failure not as gains per play.)

Thus, with the insight that the goal on 1st and (most) 2nd downs should be maximizing average gain per play whether it is from running or passing, I'll turn to the passing premium and turnover risk, or trying to understand how much riskier a pass actually is and how this affects run/pass balance.

The Passing Premium and Turnover Risk

Three things can happen when you pass, and two are bad.

The conclusion that your run/pass mix should be whatever maximizes your average gain per play assumes that runs and passes are equally risky, which of course is not true, as the old adage quoted tells us. But how much riskier are passes, exactly? And what does this say for run/pass balance?

My original run/pass article argued that a football game is a series of Nash Equilibriums: Every down is a little contest and each side must figure out its best strategy using a mixture of runs and passes or different defenses (a "mixed strategy") and should pick the mixture of runs and passes that maximizes (or minimizes, if on defense) average gain per play, subject to the "passing premium," which requires that passes yield more than runs because of their greater risk.

But what is this risk, and how big should the premium be?

Using rough season-long numbers, we saw that Texas Tech and Florida were at about a yard, Southern Cal was a little less, NFL teams average about 2.5 yards, and Minnesota was around 2.25. I argued that Minnesota should have probably passed more, but that was somewhat speculative. To really know we need to better be able to figure out a value for this passing premium. The other problem is it is going to vary team by team, as some teams throw more interceptions than others, etc. Still, the better we understand the risk components the better shot we have.

Again, look at what Henning said:

To run more than 60% of the time will result in low scoring unless we are definitely superior. To pass more than 40% could mean costly losses as the result of failure in pass protection with loss of ball possession and field position due to interceptions.

Henning, at least implicitly, seems to argue that he'd be a lot more comfortable with throwing every down if he never got sacked and never threw interceptions. I think we can go a bit farther and, once we've isolated some of the factors, maybe go back and gather some numbers. I'll label this risk "turnover risk," though it maybe should be called "passing turnover risk minus running turnover risk" as it is the risk of throwing versus running, since the only riskless play has the QB just fall down, and even on that the snap can go wrong.

1. Interception Risk - Per play basis. This article and reader Brad Eccles note that 50 yards per interception could be a decent approximation; so you'd subtract 50 yards from your passing total every time you threw an interception.

2. Fumble Risk - I don't have great data on this, but QBs tend to fumble more than RBs (think about turnover machine Kurt Warner) and receivers are quite vulnerable as well so, a priori, I think there's a greater risk of fumbling on passing plays. [As a coaching point, I always stressed to my QBs to keep both hands on the ball when in the pocket. This makes a huge difference.]

3. Third Down Risk - I think this is the hardest one. As one reader noted, even poor rushing teams are rarely in third and 10, as failed runs usually net at least one or two yards. However, two failed passes in a row (which happens 10-15% of the time even with good passing teams) results in third and 10, which is hard to convert.

For example, if a team has a 65% completion percentage (assuming it stays the same on each down, which I know is somewhat unrealistic), then there is a 12.25% chance that the team will throw two incompletions in a row. If the team has a 55% completion percentage then there is a 20% chance they will wind up in 3rd and 10. This is a very real problem as it can significantly reduce the probability of converting for a first down, as this graph detailing third down efficiency shows:

[Hat tip: MGOBlog]

To properly calculate the risk of failed third downs from a pass attempt on first or second one would have to use the chance of an incompletion along with the reduction in the chance of converting for a first down, and then convert this to a yardage value. I have some ideas how to compute this but I'll save it for another day.

4. Sack Risk - Sack risk has been shown to be somewhat overblown, and its importance depends on down and distance and where the ball is on the field. Still, a sack on third down can (a) see a direct loss of points if it takes one out of field goal range or reduces the chance of converting a field goal, and (b) hurt overall field position, and using some of the analyses that have been done you can hang a point value on the difference between your opponent starting on his 35 and his own 45.

5. Injury Risk - I'm not sure how to quantify this, but in the NFL it might be the dominant reason why the passing premium seems to run higher than in college. Few NFL QBs make it through entire seasons without missing time, and more passes mean more hits which means more injuries. Even if it is not the hits, it could be the chance for injuries from someone rolling over the QB's leg, etc. I do think this of major concern in the NFL, while not as much in High School of College.

6. Uncertainty - I think this is an important one, at times overvalued and other times under valued. While doing some reading several commentators noted that the number of interceptions even NFL QBs threw varied wildly. Also, several teams with high and and seemingly inefficient passing premiums like Texas and Ohio St had QBs who entered the season with question marks about their passing ability. They ended up being more effective and less risky than originally thought (Vince Young lead the nation in pass efficiency) so this could partially explain the outsized passing premium. Compare Brett Favre, whom no one expected to throw 29 interceptions. Green Bay no doubt underestimated turnover risk per pass last season with a future Hall of Famer at QB.


I think these insights are powerful enough to where we can make most, but not all, playcalling decisions with them in mind. As we learn more we can begin approximating or building a model for turnover risk, to more accurately determine what is a sound passing premium per team. Until then, we do know that the most important factors in winning games are turnovers, third down percentage, and average gain per play (and explosive plays and red zone percentage). Taking that into account, on the majority of downs--first and most second downs--coaches should try to maximize their average output, while requiring a high enough passing premium to reward them for the increased risk from throwing the ball.

This is because the data and analysis show that it is average gain, not low standard deviations (like on run plays) that get first downs. However, turnovers and negative plays directly tie into points for the other team. Balance, then is not a matter of how many runs and how many passes, but how good you are at both and making sure you are rewarded for passing's increased risk as this is the way to more first downs, more points, and more wins.

Run/Pass Balance - Response to Comments I

Lots of very good comments, insightful and thought-provoking. Thanks to all who responded to the blog, by email, or otherwise.

Before directly responding, I'll digress for just a moment. The interesting thing to me about football is its complexity. Baseball can essentially be modeled as a two-man game between pitcher and hitter and each's job never really changes throughout the game, it's simpler to identify the key baseball statistics that increase winning--on-base percentage, walks, and others that increase runs scored and decrease runs given up over time.

Football, on the other hand, is full of "noise." Twenty-two players on every play, different strategies, down and distance, leads, and even injury concerns all muddle the analysis. Further, there are only a handful of games each season, so we don't really get a large enough sample to know what works and what doesn't. All is not hopeless though. While baseball can maybe be thought of as a maximization problem for runs with a few variables, football is more like decision theory--many variables, changing circumstances, and lots of uncertainty.

This trait--that football decision-making is overwhelmingly complicated for what is otherwise a very simple game--leads many to throw their hands up and fall back on "common wisdoms" and truisms ("the only stat that matters are wins"). I argue, however, that the correct response is to try to be as objective as possible and get smarter about how you analyze those decisions, and then to use informed judgment. As Charlie Weis says, at some point, play-calling is more art than science, but the best artists have thought it all through.

Lastly, doing the kind of analysis I did in my last article is really just another way to attack the objective/subjective problem in football. Football games are wildly odd events; every single play in a half can be a statistical anamoly, and information is flies at you faster than you can process. Good teams adjust in-game, but the best adjusting teams have already thought of all the scenarios during the week.

In a previous post, I compared Thomas Schelling's work on decision theory to Bill Walsh and his progeny's gameplanning revolution--the real hallmark of the West Coast Offense. Walsh many times has discussed how important it is to make as many decisions as possible in the cool confines of the coaches office in order to be rational and objective rather than subjective and subject to human passions and biases.

The approach I set forth to rethinking balance and average output per play is just an attempt to do the same thing--pursue objectivity--in a different way. I think this idea is best illustrated with an example from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. According to several accounts, Belichick realized several rather simple facts. First, winning teams convert their third downs at a rate higher than the NFL average. Second, some teams are consistently better than others. Turning to league data, his own director of research (the fact that the Patriots have one should be a tip-off to the rest of us) and some academic work, he realized that good teams almost exclusively run in short yardage situations. In other words, on the whole, NFL playcallers--the highest paid most experienced coaches in the world--overvalued passing and undervalued running in short yardage situations. Play-callers simply didn't take into account how frequent incompletions were compared to stuffed run plays.

This result is not a total surprise, even from conservative coaches. On 3rd and 1 a QB rolls right, tosses it to the flat to the fullback . . . who drops it. On 4th and short the QB drops back, he has a guy in his face, but the Tight-end is wide open . . . and the ball sails high. Then, on 4th and 1, with the line stacked, the coach calls a dive . . . stuffed. Which one does he receive the media flak for? Criticism from other coaches? Is hardest on himself?

In the first scenario the fullback is the goat (he should have caught it!), on the second the QB (how hard is it to hit the open guy?) or the line (if the guy hadn't gotten through the QB would have thrown it fine), while on the run, it's unimaginative playcalling.

After doing his homework, however, Belichick had no choice but to conclude that all that was subjective bias: The bottom line is that runs work better in those situations, and he's run the ball to being a league leader in those situations over the last several seasons.

This is a perfect example of rethinking the entire approach to a situation in a way supported by theory and data to achieve greater success. Is it revolutionary? Is it upending all football? No of course not. But it was not a widely held belief and despite all the best and most well paid minds in the game preparing every week, he was one of the first to simply stop and say that running the ball simply works better in short yardage than does the pass. My hope is to start down the road of something like this kind of insight regarding our concept of balance on "bread and butter" downs like 1st and 10, 2nd and 5, and the like.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Packaging Concepts - Using Route Adjustments

In the previous post I discussed how to deal with uncertainty with what your QB will face by putting different "beaters" to each side--Cover 2 and Cover 3, Man or zone. In this one I will show how some advanced passing teams convert actual patterns on the field to fight uncertainty. The simplest and likely best is the middle read, as shown in the linked article on the three-verticals route. Further, coaches want to pare down the conversions to just a few options rather than tell the QB "it could be anything." Typically, teams either rotate their safeties to run Cover 2 and Cover 3, or stick within the coverage "family"--i.e. keeping 1-safety high and running man or zone, or jumping between 2-zone and 4-zone with two safeties "high." The examples below are focused on the most troublesome version, dealing with teams that jump between Cover 2 and Cover 3.

Curl/Corner Read:

The infamous "curl/corner" read, shown above, has been around a long time. Currently, coaches like Charlie Weis, formerly with the Patriots and now with Notre Dame, Petrino at the University of Louisville, and Steve Spurrier have use this a lot. I already diagrammed some of the route's mechanics regarding Spurrier here.

Deep Choice:

An intriguing combination is the "deep choice" which combines a 3-level Cover 3 beater to one side with a Cover 2 beater by letting the slot or tight-end read MOFO/MOFC and run either a corner route or a post. The QB then adjusts his progression depending on MOFO or MOFC.

On the right is how Petrino at Louisville uses it, getting a corner/flat read against Cover 2, and on the left is how Weis likes to use it, instead getting a similar effect to the "Texas" concept used by many West Coast offense teams.

Choice Route:

If there is no deep middle safety, the "choice" receiver will plant at 10-12 and drive for the goal post, looking for the ball over his inside shoulder. If there is a deep middle safety, he will stick his inside foot at 10-12 and break for the corner at a depth of 22-25 yards. The outside receiver runs a curl at 12 yards.

Louisville Version:

The Louisville version is the simplest. If the middle of the field is closed (or there is 1-high) the QB will look for the corner first, then the curl, then to the flat to the strongside. The curl will look to slide a bit inside the first flat defender. Basically, if the cornerback retreats with the corner route, then the QB has a simple curl/flat read.

Against MOFO, the QB looks (1) to the deep post route, (2) to the corner route, and (3) to the flat (sometimes it is a hitch route). This is a basic hi/lo read, and he should be able to hit the post or the corner route for a significant gain.

The Weis version:

Against cover 3/MOFC, the route is read exactly the same (1-corner, 2-curl, 3-flat). Against MOFO it becomes like Texas, in that the QB is high/low'ing the Mike or middle linebacker rather than the outside cornerback. The QB looks for the post first: if the Mike squats or does not retreat fast enough, the QB must get it over his head and throw it to the post, splitting the safeties; if Mike drops fast (in the "Tampa 2" defense made popular by Tony Dungy, the Mike linebacker drops back so far and quickly he becomes like a deep middle safety) the QB wants to look for the RB over the middle on either a quick cross or an angle route, as shown above.

If Mike drops deep to cover the post but Sam (strongside outside linebacker) collapses on the RB, then the curl should be open late, as he slides into the QB's vision and the open space.


While "reading on the fly" appears difficult to do, the routes shown above have only a key or two and have proven to be effective at many levels, including High School. The godfather of all "reading passing games" is of course the run and shoot (see link for details of its routes against different coverages), and while no major college or pro team uses it in its full form, these routes show its lasting impact and that much can be learned from its six or seven basic plays.

Packaging Concepts - Putting "Beaters" to Each Side

No, not a reference to those ubiquitous white undershirts, I'm referring to "coverage beaters." Uncertainty is a permanent part of playcalling. Even at the Pros, where they have cameras, computers, and all the best playcallers with natural "feel," no one really knows what is coming next, becauseyou're calling plays against a person, not a computer or a fixed game with certain rules. As Norm Chow has said, a playcaller might look smart in the booth, but he really doesn't know what the other team is going to do, and very often doesn't even know "what the other team just did or is doing." Unfortunately coaches, not only don't you know exactly what is going on, but you have a kid, 16-18 years old, maybe 20-22, whose job it is to figure out what they are doing and make you look smart-- in less than two seconds--while someone tries to remove his jawbone every play.

One of the simplest and best ways to have a good passing attack under uncertainty is to "package" passes to each side of the formation and give the QB a simple "key," which tells him which progression to use. The simplest keys are:

(1) MOFO/MOFC (Middle of the field Open, or closed? I.e. is there a single deep safety down the middle?)
(2) 2-high, 1-high, or none-high (Basically the same as MOFO/MOFC, a simple way to determine coverages); or
(3) the movement/rotation of one defender (usually free safety, strong safety, or middle linebacker).

Then, the QB just goes through his progression of 1, 2, 3 after this. I'll save the mechanics of progression reads for another time, suffice to say that the QB "looks through the window," and basically looks where the receiver is supposed to be, and asks if he has a clear lane to throw him the ball. If not, he moves on to the next receiver.

Basic Concept:

The easiest way to do this is as below, as shown from a balanced 4-wide formation and simple 3-step passing routes like hitches, slants, and speed/outs. For example:

The pattern on the left is a great combination. The double slants is very good versus 2-deep 5-under zones, and the slant/shoot is effective vs. 3-deep 4-under zones. Also, typically 3-deep zones play "off" and 2-deep zones play press, so you can pick and choose what "key" to give your quarterback, but they all end up being the same: you want slant/shoot vs. Cover 3; double-slant vs. Cover 2.

Some teams say "If MOFO, work double-slants, if MOFC, work slant/shoot," while others say "Vs. 2-high, double slants; vs. 1-high work slant/shoot." Finally, some even say: "if press, then..." you get the idea. Any of these "keys" will work. It is probably best to figure out which one is the most versatile for what you're doing and do that the most, so your QB is comfortable for it.

Again, the idea is on the blackboard we want one versus "Cover 2" and another vs. "Cover 3" but first, this is a simple way to determine those coverages, since you can't see all eleven defenders, and second, these keys often simplify "cosmetic" changes, i.e. ones where guys switch assignments or do things to trick you, as they reduce a coverage to its simplest terms: how many guys are deep?

The diagram on the right combines the fade/out and double-hitch combination. Again we have options vs Cover 2 (fade/out) and Cover 3 (double-hitch) but more importantly we have a good pass vs. soft (hitches) and press man (fade/out). So now we turn to some of the mechanics for these "keys."

Mechanics of Reading Keys:
The QB checks his keys pre- and post-snap.Pre-snap, he scans left to right the defense and coverage. If his key is MOFO/MOFC, he looks down the middle of the field. Is someone standing deep in the middle? Are there two safeties on the hashes? Are the safeties moving? Is no one deeper than 7 yards? (Blitz!)

At the snap, he looks for "post-snap confirmation." Basically, did what looked like MOFO/Cover 2 turn into MOFC? Commonly, a safety deep on each hash will rotate to the same side--one safety runs to the deep middle, while the other comes up to guard the flat, an inside zone, becomes a "robber" (roving pass defender reading the QB's eyes), will cover a slot receiver man while another defender blitzes, or blitz.

One advantage to keeping your quarterback under center versus the shotgun is he can keep his eyes downfield from the snap without having to look at the ball to catch the snap as in shotgun. Thus, he is less likely to miss something. Particularly for 3-step passing. In the shotgun the quarterback must rely on his pre-snap read, as he does not have time "confirm" after getting the snap, and must begin his progression. In major college football, the best 3-step passing team has been USC, who almost exclusively throws from under center. On the other hand, the best 3-step passing team of the last 9-10 years has been Purdue, who throws 3-step from the shotgun quite a bit, so it can be done and done well.

I prefer to use MOFO/MOFC and 1-high/2-high as much as possible as my keys, rather than press/non-press or certain other ones, because of the mechanics: I like having the QB look down the middle of the field after the snap because (a) it does not give away which side the QB is looking for right away, as we always teach him to look down the middle when he begins his drop, and (2) it is easier and more obvious and often more telling--sometimes individual defenders "do their own thing" and aren't much help in determining what the other 10 guys are doing, and the difference between "press" and "soft" or sometimes even "man or zone" is often subtle and difficult to gauge in 1.5 seconds. Conversely, 2-high or MOFO is usually easier to see, and is thus preferable. Nevertheless, each key has strengths weaknesses and some fit better for different situations.

Other examples -- Man and Zone Beaters:

The 3-step game and the spread is the ideal setup for this concept. In fact, I really do not like to run too many "drop-back" passes from spread formations for protection reasons, but you can pick a defense apart if you can throw quicks vs Cover 2 or 3 to the outside and be able to run the ball inside in the spread. Below are a couple simple examples for dropback passing.

Besides Cover 2 and Cover 3 beaters, the most useful, to me, is packaging man and zone beaters together. Below are my two favorite versions: stick and double slants, and shallow/curl and a zone-beater backside. These are shown below:

On the top, if the QB sees zone (we can use motion, gameplan, or other keys to determine this) he wants to work the stick, reading flat to stick route. Against man or some kind of weak-blitz, he wants to throw the double slants.

For the patterns below, if he reads man he reads 1-shallow, 2-curl, 3-swing route. Vs. a zone he works the zone beater, such as curl/flat, smash, post/curl, or a 3-step combation. Most of the best passing teams can do this quite a bit and are very good at reading keys and going through the simple progressions. Notice how quick these passes get out--they are designed with the blitz in mind.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

How many concepts do you need in your passing game?

First, I apologize about posting infrequently. I promise to do better; I even have some good material saved up and in the planning phase. Onward.

Inspired by this thread from the Coach Huey X and O Board. Further, if you want to bone up on my specific definitions of concepts, check out this article.

Framing the Question:

"How much offense" and "How much passing" is a common question. I'll let others give their hard and fast answers. I think more interesting is how do you think about this question? Certainly over the course of many seasons one naturally may find out some equilibrium amount of offense, but most of our jobs do not have the security necessary to blindly experiment.

There are several questions you must ask when talking about "more or fewer" passing concepts.

1. How much will you put the ball in the air?
2. How many kinds of passing actions will you use?
3. How many concepts or schemes do you need under each?

How much do you want to put the ball in the air?

The first is the most important question. This is often a function of talent as much as anything else. To simplify, let's assume (I know unrealistically, but just for discussion) that you would always throw more if your talent could handle it. To me, the important question is not how good your receivers are. They are a concern, but more important by far is:

(a) how good are you at protecting your QB? (O-Line talent/technique)your ability to protect your QB (o-line), and
(b) Your QB's ability to read defenses and issues of accuracy, timing, and arm strength.

Thus, Receivers are a secondary question. Typically, if you can protect and have a good QB, receivers will take care of themselves. If you have gamebreakers on the outside but cannot handle much of the 5-step stuff, then you still can work to get the ball to them on screens, quicks, etc.

This is important because you do not want to practice and do not want to waste time installing what you won't run. So before you know "how much 5-step" or "how many concepts" you need to know how much you'll be putting the ball in the air, since the #1 rule of offense organizationis to not practice what you don't use and do practice what you do run, regardless of what you carry in your playbook.

How many kinds of passing actions will you use?

The second question is what kinds of passing actions. Are you a dropback team with draws and screens as your counters (Airraid/Texas Tech/Hal Mumme style), or more action passes, boots and sprint outs (spread teams, some run-oriented team), or maybe just a few pop passes and quicks from your veer sets. This depends on your types of talent and what will be your staple runs, etc. QB factors are key, like height, footspeed, comfortability out of the pocket, etc.

How many concepts or schemes do you need under each?

Finally, you've got some kind of rough breakdown of what will be your strengths. Week to week it will vary based on defense and opponents' weaknesses. (Since pre-season you look at your absolute abilities, but for a given opponent it is all about comparative advantages against your opponents. For example, you might be the worst running team in your district, but your opponent has an even worse rush defense and is geared for your pass, thus you beat them by running the ball. This little sidenote is too broad to explore here.) Anyway, over time this breakdown should correlate with what your strengths are. So let's say you're a 50% passing team, with about 40% of your passes being quick 3-step, 40% play action or sprint outs and bootlegs, and 20% 5-step passes. You can assume somewhere like 50 plays a game.

This means you're only going to throw 5-step passes about FIVE times a game (50% of your plays = 25, 20% of this = 5). You certainly don't need more than five 5-step concepts for a given game since you don't want to practice passes you won't run. More like you only need two or three at most.

This is important to help you frame your offense. The last few seasons I've thrown it around 25 times a game, with between 12-17 per game being 5-step straight dropback concepts (partially because my base play action are my same 5-step concepts). Since this is a big chunk of my offense and constituted an even bigger chunk of my yardage total I run more concepts than many, but these numbers still only justify six or so concepts. This still only leaves passes being run two or at most three times.

What about colleges and other passing teams?

It's helpful to think of the Airraid guys, they purportedly run about seven or eight, but really more like 12-15 concepts (often gloss over the basic concepts that they do run). Looking at Texas Tech with Mike Leach, who throws 55-60 times a game, still has a similar ratio of running each play 3-4 times. So by that math, about 3.5 pass attempts for every one pass concept, if you throw it 25 times you should only have SEVEN total passes, including boots, 3-step, and 5-step.

By that logic I run way too many concepts. So, the short answer if you're extrapolating from Texas Tech, less is probably more. The R&S guys have like five passes. Of course, each R&S package is like 4 or 5 plays; each Tech play is just one.


If you work backwards from your ability to protect and ability to throw, next to the types of throws that will work, then when you have a rough idea of how much you'll throw the ball and how many times you'll run boot and how many times you'll drop back for 5-step, you can then use a ratio of 2-3 attempts for every one pass play as a metric to give some guidance.

Note: The 2-3 times is over a season. For example if you play a Cover 2 team, you'll throw smash, 3-verticals, and double slants maybe 4 times each in a game and Curl/flat and all-hitch almost never. Then versus a Cover 1 and Cover 0 man and blitzing team, you'll run mesh 4-6 times that game, and then versus a zone team you'll only use it a few times. So it's not a hard and fast rule that you'll run each concept 2-3 times each game, just over time.

Further, this too is better suited to its own discussion, but the other concern when answering the question "How many pass concepts do I need?" is you need answers to everything you are likely to face. You typically need a Cover 3 beater, a Cover 2 beater, and a Cover 4 beater, some man beaters (2 and 1) and some anti-blitz (both screens and upfield "take-a-shot" passes).

Lastly, my two favorite pass plays are absolutely integral: draw and screen. Find any way you can to run them.


Right after posting I went to the Jerry Campbell football message board and came across this thread. Jerry Easton, Bill Mountjoy and others type out their response to the question "How much do you need in your passing game?" Since I gave the theoretical answer below, I figured I'd paste what Bill Mountjoy says he ACTUALLY does (at the High School level). Visit the thread (and contribute to the comments here or any of the two threads) if you want more.


PERSONNEL GROUPINGS = 2 TE/2 WR/1 RB, AND, 1 TE/3 WR/1 RB (both from 2x2 & 3x1 configurations):

1. 2 PASS PROTECTIONS at most (7 man pro = 3 free releases & 2 check releases; AND, 8 man pro = 2 free releases & 3 check releases) = a BASE/BOB type, & a TURNBACK type.

2. 3 THREE STEP dropback passes (I.E.: "HITCH"/"FADE"/"SLANT")


4. "TAGS" off of the above for variety (can vary greatly as needed)

5. At least 1 SCREEN, & 1 DRAW.

6. Be able to handle: BLITZ-MAN/3 DEEP/2 DEEP (I KNOW there is more - but it all boils down to THIS).

7. QUALITY (execution) of the above = more important than MORE quantity!

8. SIMPLE READ CONCEPTS FOR QB (based upon "progressions of reveivers):

----A) INSIDE/OUT HORIZONTAL STRETCH (3 vs 2 or 2 vs 1) WORK 1/2 of field horizontally.

----B) OUTSIDE/IN HORIZIONTAL STRETCH (3 vs 2 or 2 vs 1) WORK 1/2 of field horizontally.

----C) LONG TO SHORT VERTICAL STRETCH (3 vs 2 or 2 vs 1) WORK 1/3 of field vertically.

----D) OBJECT RECEIVER READ (looking for a specific receiver for a specific reason).


A) Our philosophy vs the blitz are to call plays in one of two categories that are good vs. either:









Monday, February 06, 2006

The Zone Blitz, Max Pro, and the Super Bowl's Len Pasquarelli wrote:

"Fooling opposing passers is a strong suit for [Steeler's Defensive coordinator Dick] LeBeau, of course, and there were some occasions, especially in the second half, when Hasselbeck appeared flummoxed. The surprising part is that LeBeau called only a handful of standard zone-blitz defenses against Seattle's passing game.

Pittsburgh blitzed early but, as LeBeau pointed out, the Seahawks were using "max" protection blocking schemes, and "we didn't see anything good that could come from just constantly banging our heads against a wall."

Typical of LeBeau, though, he saved one gambit, one of the most basic zone blitzes, for a critical moment. It came on Seattle's penultimate possession of the game, with Seattle scrambling to scrape back into the contest. On a third-and-8 play from the Pittsburgh 47-yard line, LeBeau called for a "corner fire," and Deshea Townsend roared through a gaping hole to dump Hasselbeck for a five-yard loss, forcing a punt.

On the zone-blitz, linebacker Joey Porter dropped into coverage rather than rushing, and that forced Hasselbeck to hold the ball a count longer than he normally might. Townsend was into the backfield like a heat-seeking missile.

"A great call, perfect timing, one of the oldest zone blitzes we've got, but still a goody," Townsend said after the game. "That's the thing about [LeBeau], he knows when to spring something we haven't used on an opponent. But he also knows he can trust us to deliver. I mean, there we were Saturday night in the hotel, walking through a new coverage that he just drops on us at our team meeting. And we work on it for four or five hours and, for something we've never played before, we get it hashed out. I guess he kind of figured 'better late than never,' and I'm glad he did, because it worked great for us tonight."

I noticed that the Steelers were very selective about their zone blitzes and that Seattle was determined not to go to the Indianapolis route and get trammeled by unblocked Joey Porters on every other play. This corroborates my theory and the Bruce Arians article I quoted saying that you have to max pro vs. the zone blitz, contrary to all the guys recently who keep saying that the Colts and others should have gone five wide. This results in simply more hits on the QB. You can just as easily--if not more easily--let 2-3 receivers find the zone voids and let the other 2-3 guys check out underneath after you've protected your QB. A perfect example was this year's bowl game between Oklahoma and Oregon. Oklahoma had a very mediocre year, Oregon a great one, but Oregon could NOT move the ball and lost because they were obsessed with going 5-wide vs. Oklahoma's man and zone blitzes where their young QBs took shot after shot and they never broke anyone free.

In the article LeBeau, who practically invented the zone blitz, flatly admitted that max (7 and 8 man) protection got them out of zone blitzing. Remember, this is how the Steelers got to the Super Bowl in the first place. It took a further great defensive effort and excellent calls by LeBeau to keep pace, and this was against a Seattle offense scared to death of the zone blitz. Earlier in the article Hasselbeck said:

"You know, it got to the point where I was taking chances, and that was just a poor decision," Hasselbeck said. "It was a chance I shouldn't have taken. I kind of got fooled by the move one guy made [in the secondary], and it was a bad play."

Fooling opposing passers is a strong suit for LeBeau, of course, and there were some occasions, especially in the second half, when Hasselbeck appeared flummoxed. The surprising part is that LeBeau called only a handful of standard zone-blitz defenses against Seattle's passing game. "

This is the strength of the zone-blitz. It is weak against max-pro because there are large zone voids and weaker defenders in pass coverage. Yet, the QB gets impatient, even an NFL guy like Hasselbeck. Instead of hitting his check-downs when they kept him protected he forced too many throws. Sometimes the strength of the scheme is not that it confuses the opponent but merely that it frustrates them. To defeat it you must be both sound and patient.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Has the spread offense reached its apex?

I will discuss a bit of facts about the rise of the spread offense including its various pass and run elements (heavily abridged, each individual chain has its own history), and argue that it has morphed from an equalizing offense, one used by less talented programs to level the playing field, to one that merely amplifies the latent talent, so talented teams can expose mismatched defenders but there are now fewer opportunities for less talented teams and the spread may not be well situated for these "up-and-coming" programs now that it is so popular. At the lower levels it will remain and can continue to thrive where it is well coached as a tool to highlight talented athletes, particularly as more and more good athletes grow up throwing the football and becoming effective passers. The Pros are likely to never catch on to "the zone read" and such plays, just as the traditional option is not widespread in the pros either. Last, the days of the spread as "the next big thing" are over. It is the classic case that when the public at large realizes what's going on and every TV commentator is discussing how innovative you are, you are no longer innovative and someone new is soon to be annointed the next "genius."


As an astute commentator pointed out, all four of the BCS bowl winners ran some version (actually a very similar version) of the spread offense. I am not sure if Texas once lined up with two backs in the backfield (not counting Vince Young!). All but Penn St rushed for significantly more than 200 yards in those spread sets, and few would argue that Penn St is not a physical team and they might have been the least spread of all the winners. Of the other teams in the BCS, Pro-Style offensive teams like USC and Notre Dame ran lots of "spread stuff," and in ND's case I think it actually hurt them since their offensive line had difficulty pass protecting.

The zone read was on full display throughout the bowl season. In the West Virginia-Georgia game the TV ran some great shots of the play and explained well who is being read and the idea behind the play. They obviously had lots of examples of great blocking and running to make a believer of nearly anyone. Of course that game featured innovator and Johnny Appleseed of the spread-run game Rich Rodriguez (Tulane, Clemson, and WVU, who spread his knowledge first hand to teams like Northwestern and others who themselves have propogated the offense), but the BCS title game was the crescendo, with a quarterback dependent offense run by maybe its best triggerman ever. Vince Young's performance is well chronicled, with 30 completions in 40 pass attempts (with virtually zero yards after the catch for Texas's receivers) and 200 yards rushing. Last year Alex Smith became the number one pick as a run-pass threat under now-Florida Coach Urban Meyer, who himself won his first bowl-game at Florida. Meyer is considered one of the "gurus" of the spread-O, yet he was a relative neophyte to the offense before going to Bowling Green in 2001, when he studyied and adapted some of the Northwestern and Rodriguez run schemes along with the Louisville Cardinals passing game when John L. Smith (now Michigan St HC), Bobby Petrino (Louisville HC) and Scott Linehan (Miami Dolphins OC) were coaching there.

The offense's rise has been meteoric. I was inundated with questions and articles on Urban Meyer's O and the spread option game were always some of the most trafficked ones on the blog. Next season the schemes will be even more prevalent, especially at the HS level. But where next?

The Pros

Eventually all offenses are tested in the NFL. The final verdict on any scheme or philosophy is eventually tested, chewed up, synthesized, and sent back under the 24 hour/365 day scrutiny that is professional football. Time, money, technology, and the best football minds always level a verdict. Other offenses can survive at lower levels (and often can be more successful than what the Pros themselves do with their more sophisticated passing games and less success of deception based offenses like the Wing-T), but the book will be written at the pro level, or at least adapted by it. The Run and shoot had its weaknesses exposed (primarily the zone blitz) but it also had its best aspects co-opted by nearly every offense. Its mark is real, if subtle.

The difference with the spread offense though is that, unlike the run and shoot or many other "philosophy" offenses, it actually came from the Pros, or at least the spread roots reach back further in the Pros than even at many colleges. The one-back attack as practiced by Dennis Erickson, Mike Price, etc goes back to the old Jack Neuimeier (sp?) offense, but the zone running game and 3 and 4 receiver sets and the shotgun goes back to the Gibbs Redskins, the Buffalo Bills K-Gun, and even the Don Coryell or Sid Gillman offenses. The reason is simple: that's where the quarterbacks were. Dan Fouts, Marino and these other guys were the best players on their teams and coaches as diverse as Coryell and Don Shula had offenses designed to be both quarterback friendly and dependent. (I'm ignoring for the moment the Bill Walsh lineage, but his concepts I think were co-opted a bit later and integrated into the "modern Pro offense" which I think is really a combination of the Walsh West Coast scouting, preparation, timing, etc and the one-back offenses, some of the concepts pre-date as well as post-date Walsh's reign.)

Further, the "spread" is not so different than what the Pros currently do. Watch Texas Tech and they will run the "mesh" six ways from Sunday. Watch the Colts, and they will run it a bunch too. The big question then becomes, what about all this spread-to-run business?

The question has two answers. One, many teams already do this, as evidenced by how many teams are one-back oriented. Watch the top running teams in the NFL: the Chiefs, Broncos, and the like, and they will spread to run a good percentage of the time. Even the Redskins, a power team, like to use lots of motion and multi-receiver sets to get the D thinking pass before using H-backs to kick out, pull, or lead into the hole.

The second question is, what about the quarterbacks? The Falcons have been one of the best rushing teams in the NFL for the past few seasons, due in no small part to Michael Vick. They run lots of bootleg with him off of the outside zone and inside zone runs, for the same reason that Texas or West Virginia run the zone read: to get double-teams on the playside and either make the backside defensive end stay home or pay with a big QB run. Yet, the Falcons haven't gone to the zone-read. Vick has been injured at times. We see big rushing days by a Donovan McNabb or even good runs by a Jake Plummer, but where are the 100 yard rushing days we have seen from Vince Young, Troy Smith, or even guys like Alex Smith or Northwestern's old QB Zak Kustok?

First, the common argument against this is the team speed of the NFL defenses. The spread works best when you have great one-on-one matchups. Texas and Ohio St. are so dangerous because they force you to "pick your poison" and leave one-on-one either the receivers, RBs, or the QB. USC played at least one and mostly two safeties deep nearly the whole game. When Pete Carroll did blitz he often brought zone blitzes--surprisingly afraid of getting beat deep by the outside receivers of Texas. Consequently Young picked them apart but also ran the ball so well. The argument is at the pros the speed of the defense can nullify some of this. The Pro safeties can defend the deep ball and stick your QB for no gain.

I think the better argument though is simply the nature of the league. The problem isn't only that those safeties can range the whole field, it is that when they hit your QB they send him to the hospital. The NFL already can't keep their signal callers healthy for a whole season: McNabb and Vick have both constantly battled injuries, but so have far less mobile QBs like Chad Pennington, Rex Grossman, Culpepper, etc. Can you imagine the Colts, with Peyton Manning--all $50 million+ of him--running a QB run of any kind with that much at risk? No first down is worth losing your franchise.

The harsh fact is that financially, Vince Young costs the school just as much as his backup: one scholarship. Even more, Peyton Manning, Brady, McNabb, these guys are your team for 10+ years. At most you get four years from a college QB. More likely you get two seasons. The "spread" may actually make Vince Young's decision to go to the Pros for him. Were he to return, could he request that the coaches not run him as much, to reduce his likelihood of injury? Keep another guy in to protect him more so he doesn't take as many shots? The spread has always given up shots to its QBs; the good ones just get the ball out first.

At the Pro level these risks are unacceptable, with fan-bases, cap room, and playoff hopes all riding on their signal caller.

Big-Time College

Certainly next year it will be everywhere. The big issue though is what do the small teams do now? It used to be that you could "get good" by being a spread team. In just the last four years Urban Meyer resuscitated two programs and cashed in at Florida, in no small part by being a "spread guy." When Ohio St and Texas are running the same offense as you and scoring 50 points, how can you sell yourself as being "different" and "wide open"?

Being spread is simply no longer enough. Some of the most inept offensive performances I've seen this year were by "spread teams." I watched Oregon get dismantled with their spread O in the bowl game, as they went 5-wides a majority of the time. This is an unwise move when the defense has five covermen who can cover your receivers man to man and when their front 4 or 5 can break a guy free vs. your OL nearly everytime. They had far more success and were less predictable when they added TEs and RBs and used more misdirection and/or power. Their OC is Gary Crowton, another spread guru from the Louisiana Tech days who had a mediocre Pro stint and an up-and-down campaign at BYU.

Purdue this year, a staple of spread offenses and hero who went from perpetual loser to Rose Bowls and Big 10 contention, continued their downward offensive spiral, as their defense, which had continued to prop them up over the past few years collapsed as well. Purdue over the past few seasons has run into the same problem Oregon had. In the beginning, when they started spreading four and five wides even Michigan or Ohio St did not have five good covermen. Now even Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the like all have 6 or 7 good ones. Result? Lots of 3 and 4 yard passes and even more plays with five receivers out and zero open.

The offense has arguably become the opposite of an equalizer, it has become an amplifier: if you are talented you can really rack up the points because no one can cover Vince Young, Ted Ginn or the like one-on-one, but if you're not, you just get sacked and no one gets open. Purdue even tried to add the spread option stuff this year but an offensive line that could not get movement and a lack of playmakers stunted the offense's production.

I think the O has reached its apex as savior. Coaches are not going to get fat contracts anymore based on being "spread." There will be holdouts and the good coaches, Rodriguez and the like, are going to continue to win games and move the ball because they are great teachers and believe in what they do, but something else is going to have to be "the rage." (If I had to predict something I would have said the jet/fly offense, but it has not caught on as much as I'd thought, and its success appears inversely proportional to team speed. I saw a youth team score 50 with it, HS teams are winning championships, College teams have already begun to drop it after LSU scored twice on it in the Nat'l championship game, and I saw two pro teams run it this year, both for loss of yardage.)

Lower Levels/HS, etc

It's harder to predict where this will go, as I can guarentee 20 years from now there are going to be some "true spread teams" and "spread run teams" lingering just as there are successful double-wing, wing-t, run and shoot, and splitback veer teams. Well coached and coordinated offenses will continue to be successful. I also think that putting your best player at the "Vince Young QB" spot is a great way to win football games. The days of having an I-back and just feeding your best guy carries and having a statue at QB who throws 5 passes a game is (mercifully!) about over.

Why is that? This is a whole other discussion, but the big reason I think is the proliferation of information on good quarterbacking. Instead of one or two kids who can throw a decent spiral and a couple guys around a city who know a few decent QB drills, now there are books, manuals, videos etc for parents, kids, coaches alike. Lots of kids, from inner-city to suburban can learn the fundamentals of quarterbacking. There is no reason that "athletes" can't throw the ball, at least well enough for HS. There might be issues that arise later in College or the Pros with complex coverages, but if I had a 4.5 guy who could throw a bit running my offense, I guarentee you I can win some games.

Further, the "spread" and the "zone read" do force the defense to account for all 11 men. The safeties must step up for the QB, as he is another threat, thus putting either your RB running against reduced fronts, or receivers one-on-one. This is logical and good football. Again though, as teams get better at defending it, can the team with 19 kids on varsity run this as an equalizer? Uncertain. It is unlikely to help as much as maybe it has in the past.


This was meant as a brief overview. The "spread" can be many different things, but it is not so new. This is probably why it is both so effective and why its rise (and predicted decline) has been so fast.

The big issues are that no longer can I be "different" from the other teams in my conference or in the state by being a spread guy. Second, teams see it more and can defend better. It still is a great way to highlight great players, and, being so QB intensive, a great player can be extremely effective, particularly at the lower levels. At the Pros, too much money and the risk of injuries appear too great to put total emphasis on the QB, as there already exists so much. Great players may come along though and prove me wrong, but Walter Peyton with a cannon running QB for a team, even if he wins a title, may or may not disprove my theory.