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Friday, April 17, 2009

Rick Neuheisel talks about the "Spread Offense"

Rick Neuheisel on "What do you think of the spread offense?" Neuheisel:

[T]here are times when I look at spread offenses and I see value. The key to the spread offense, and the reason why its successful, is that it adds an extra player. It diminishes the need for great offensive linemen, because you’ve got a little longer because you are always in the gun, and the quarterback’s a runner. So, in essence, he becomes a blocker, and can account for an extra defender. All great thoughts . . . . The problem at UCLA is that you have to beat the Trojans. And it's also the benefit at UCLA, because when you beat them, you’re going to be among the nation’s elite. So you have to be a physical offense. I know that two years ago SC got beat by Oregon up in Eugene, but his last year, SC with their physical defense was able to beat the heck out of a very, very good spread offense Oregon team.

You’ve also seen when you lose a quarterback in the spread offense, things can go awry, as happened with Oregon two years ago. They lost Dennis Dixon and then I think they lost their last three games to Arizona, to UCLA and then to Oregon State. It’s a difficult offense to have a lot players at the quarterback position because it’s so [much] decision making, which requires all the repetitions and, yet, you’re exposing them.

I was the benefactor of a type of spread offense, even though it was an option offense, it’s the same math in terms of the quarterback’s [being] a runner in Marcus Tuiasosopo at Washington which we took to the Rose Bowl. So, I understand the benefits and the virtues of having the extra guy. I just think you have to be careful about how often you expose that quarterback. [Jeremiah] Masoli at Oregon was maybe the player of the year had he burst onto the scene maybe a couple weeks earlier last year. But, if he’s gone, what happens to the offense?

That being said, the other thing that kids are interested in today is the chance to go to play on Sundays. You are not seeing spread offenses played on Sundays. Vince Young would have been the perfect guy to go and do it, but even Vince Young didn’t want to do it. And I have it on authority, because Norm was there, because he doesn’t want to get hit anymore. He doesn’t want to get beat up on an every-Sunday basis and shorten his career length. So, quarterbacks that are interested in going to the NFL would like to be in pro-style offenses. So, you can go and attract guys. [Likewise,] offensive linemen, frankly, would like to be in offenses that are going to be like the NFL because they’d like to have a chance to play in more of that scheme. It goes on down the line; the more you play like an NFL offense, the more the NFL can look and see your skill level and adapt it to that. That argument gets more watered down the further out you go because obviously receivers can still play receiver, and running backs can still play running back.

But it’s an interesting question, and I think you can never, ever stop investigating it, and researching it, and having some components of it. There were some components of the spread offense in what we did last year. We got into the old wildcat stuff, and it isn’t as though we’ve got our heads in the sand. I just think, to start with, we’ve got to be a physical running team that can handle the line of scrimmage with the likes of a very talented defensive team like USC.

(H/t: TeamSpeedKills and Bruins Nation.)

There's a lot going on there, to say nothing of the Norm Chow/Neuheisel sandbagging of Vince Young as "not wanting to get hit anymore." Team Speed Kills rightfully takes Pretty Ricky to task for conflating the "spread" -- which best describes certain formations with multiple receivers -- with an entire offensive philosophy: "Basically what he described is the Rich Rodriguez/Urban Meyer style offense (except for the part about the spread not being physical). However, that's not necessarily what a spread offense is."

That's true. And Neuheisel is all over the place in this answer. Yet, assuming that Neuheisel, when he says "spread" means that particular type of running QB spread, still identified some points worth addressing. He says the spread is great, but (a) it's not physical enough to be used to beat Southern Cal consistently, (b) it's too quarterback dependent and prone to injuries, (c) the pros don't use it so recruits might not want to, and (d) that said, it does have certain arithmetic advantages in terms of getting extra blockers or numbers.

This is a broad topic, about which I have previously had much to say already. And, though I agree that Neuheisel oversimplifies in equating the "spread" with the Urban Meyer/Rich Rodriguez/Oregon spread-to-run-the-QB offenses, it's not entirely fair to say that he's way off base. I take Neuheisel as understanding that, in its most general sense, "spread" is just a formation with some extra receivers. But it's also true that "spread offenses" -- often self-described -- have claimed an identity, and as lame, vague, and non-descriptive as the term is, what is the alternative? (Note my term above was "Urban Meyer/Rich Rodriguez/Oregon spread-to-run-use-the-QB offenses" -- hardly a model of clarity or brevity.)

So when someone asks Neuheisel, who for years has run a west coast or three-wide type pro-style pass attack, "What do you think of the spread?" naturally he's going to think of it as opposed to what he and Norm Chow do, which, at least at one time, people would have described as "spread" in the sense that the New England Patriots or Arizona Cardinals are spread. (Imagine if someone dropped Neuheisel and Chow's offense into 1983 -- they would undoubtedly be "spread.") Indeed, the core of Chow's offense is used by Mike Leach in his four-wide all the time Airraid; if Leach is "spread" and Chow is not, then that means we put a great deal of weight in the cosmetics of being in the shotgun, and it begs the question of at what point does your use of a tight-end make you "not spread"?)

In any event, this Wittgensteinian debate about defining "spread" versus "pro-style" versus "spread option" (Wait, is Florida "spread option" or is Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech?) obscures some of the actual points Neuheisel makes, which are worth addressing. For now, everyone should just understand that we have no good terms anymore, as "spread" and "pro-style" and even "option" (now co-opted from true triple option teams to anyone who pitches it after their zone-read, and sometimes announcers even refer to the zone-read as "option" which it is not -- it's just an amped up bootleg pass; more on this later) have bled their descriptive lives away. So let's get to the underlying issues, assuming we are all talking about this running QB spread -- which includes a wide swath of teams still -- as opposed to just multiple receiver formations.

Neuheisel's points

Here's Neuheisel's points, paraphrased, and my brief responses.

(a) The spread isn't physical enough to be used to beat Southern Cal consistently. False. USC is just a damn good team, so you can get by with this little fallacy since everyone loses to USC a lot anyway. It's really not worth wading into the spread being a physical or finesse offense argument right now, suffice to say that it is fairly silly. Now, Texas Tech is no smashmouth team, but Neuheisel was discussing the spread to run teams: who can say Florida was not physical enough? And he admits that Oregon beat USC, yet his reason that they lost later was not that they were less physical but that their quarterbacks were injured. I think some teams are more physical than others, but in this case the spread aspect doesn't change anything. Adding a tight-end for a wide receiver can't change your whole team dynamic, and neither does it define it.

(b) The spread is too quarterback dependent and prone to injuries. Well, there's an irony about this coming from Neuheisel whose first season was marred by a multitude of quarterback injuries, and then the subsequent horrendous play of the guy they were stuck with. So yes, I completely agree that the spread -- just ask Michigan -- requires excellent quarterback play. But that's the trend with all offenses now. The difference between the spread and some other offenses is that you look for a wider variety of skills in the quarterback, and a good team can play to them. The guy does need the ability to run a little bit (again, just ask Michigan), but neither does the guy have to be one of USC's 5-Star statuesque passers to succeed. In other words, the spread is a double-edged sword in this respect. Yes, you absolutely need a good quarterback to succeed with because it is so focused on him, you can have success with a wider variety of quarterbacks. Indeed, Oregon is exhibit A last year: they had great success despite losing several quarterbacks throughout the year.

(c) The pros don't use it so recruits might not want to either. I'm no recruiting guru, so I can't tell you what they want, but it's true that the Pros are never going to be truly spread in the sense of the zone-read or triple or all that. Now, with the wildcat maybe they see some arithmetic advantages (see below) while still keeping the ability to throw the ball a bit more. We'll see, in any event. But however true this argument is, it's not an argument about why you should or should not use the offense in college, other than the recruiting aspect. And again, in the last several years the National Champion has been quarterbacked by guys like Vince Young and Tim Tebow, so I'm not convinced that recruiting is really as bad as they say.

(d) That said, the spread does have certain arithmetic advantages in terms of getting extra blockers or numbers. This is of course the truest thing Neuheisel said. It was well summed up by one of Rick's mentors, Homer Smith, quoted in a recent post of mine:

The spread offense today features the running QB. Defensive problems come from not having a tackler ready for the QB at the line of scrimmage. . . . As long as running QBs keep winning the jobs, the spread will be the formation of choice. Someone has to tackle the QB. If that someone is looking for a post pass, the QB is going to have running room.

With this quote it's no surprise that Neuheisel equates "spread" with running QB. But Coach Smith's point is exactly right: if your quarterback is a threat to run, you can dramatically alter the defense's structure.

All this flows from the simple fact that there are eleven players on one side and eleven players on the other. Every ballcarrier necessarily has an unblocked counterpart: if you bunched up and tried to block everybody one guy is still unblocked. Maybe you can dictate who that is so he is too far away, but the defense will always have one guy.

In the NFL, the quarterback hands the ball off on a run play and stands there. The quarterback's counterpart is usually the deep safety -- he stays back in case there's a play action pass. The runningback's counterpart is still free to come up and make the tackle.

With the shotgun run game and great faking and reading, the quarterback can alter the assignments. He can occupy two defenders: the backside defensive end, who must watch him for a run, and the deep safety, who has to guard the post-pass. This opens up blocking in the run game. Note the two circled defenders.

Alternatively, you could also just look at it as a transfer of who is assigned to whom. Instead of the defensive end being unblocked and able to chase down the runningback, he must account for the quarterback. So even if the safety is responsible for the runningback (a tendency you can exploit with play-action), your runner is still through the hole before he gets tackled.

Thus, there are plenty more issues with the "spread" to work out, and in the process that term has quickly lost almost all use as a meaningful and descriptive term. I agree that it should probably be relegated to describing only a formation, but it's not easy to transfer everyone's lexicon, and it's not like I have a ready subsitute term in place. And Neuheisel raises some interesting -- and common -- points about the offense, but I can't say I agree with him up and down. It sounds more like he's trying to justify why they do what they do rather than what seems to be popular, and he shouldn't have to. That's his choice, and he will succeed or not on that basis.


squirrelyearl said...

Good stuff. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It is worth noting that Vince Young's Texas team beat 'physical, pro-style' USC running a spread-type offense.

In fact, as pointed out, USC is a very good team and hard to beat with any system.

But two of their last six losses were to spread-type offenses (and two others were to West-Coast type offenses -- another system that has been described as 'soft' in the past) . . . so it's not like you can't use that offense to defeat them.

Mr.Murder said...

Read the back end, or front side force man since the safety has to replace him?

The progression is a run key on force, to the person that safety replaces. If he doesn't replace him in the box go on the keeper, if he does, throw glance(skinny post).

Darren McFadden's wild hog read for pass situations or the red zone.

They could use different motions to try and bait someone on that as well, shifts or counts to get an idea who jumps into the force gap or alley.

Now, they still ran the cutback read and usually did that outside of the red zone and to make the D sit back into read mode. There the faster option plays to the front side could control stuff to even greater degrees.

It has to be frustrating as hell to go unblocked so mouch and never be in position for a tackle to your side of the ball. If they had trouble it with it they ran away from you and the plus one QB running let them get numbers back. Do that until the backside got impatient and overran things to get into the game again, and then you run at their abandoned assignment.

Richard said...

Chris: Somewhere in all the Neuheisal discussion he left out speed. Finesse may be the description of blocking schemes that require timed openings, and Neuheisal may mean that even the spread requires some beef to make those openings against SoCal by mid-third to fourth quarter - unless the *speed* of the running attack wears down the beef enough. That means the offense has to stay on the field enough, and get back out there again, and again, too.

And that means tenacious, opportunistic (dare I say it) defense! Florida killed tOSU with both speed and "D". LSU did too and so did Utah to Alabama. And Okies did the same to the Red Raiders.

So for Bruins to beat SoCal "consistently", they have to play something other than typical Pac-Ten "D". That's fine for co-RUTSing with Stanford, Oregon, et al, and then flipping for the win at the end. But SoCal will nearly always win that duel 'cause they have tougher, bigger, faster "D". ("Nearly" because they seem, at least once a year, to be run off the field by a herd of gazelles. Not consistently, but often enough that we never get to find out what they'd do against the likes of UF, LSU, UGA, 'Bama, or even Auburn.)

My humble advice to Neuheisel would be to stop 'SC first, then use whatever offense he has the tools to run. I think Bobba the Beatified of FSU said "Them rascules cain't play with us when we keep the ball...Dadgummmit!"

Brian Manning said...

I think "(b) The spread is too quarterback dependent and prone to injuries" is a great point. On the other hand, that can happen with a lot of schemes and a lot of teams.

That's an argument against having a star player - if he gets hurt, you're out. While true, that doesn't mean you can't try to take advantage of having that star player.

It's easy to say that you want to build a well-rounded team with many strengths and few weaknesses, the truth is that you have to play with the players you have and you need to optimize your scheme for them now or over the next couple of seasons.

Or you just need to recruit better, and then schemes are sort of a different situation altogether.

Anonymous said...


Let me remind you that two of your SEC teams also go run off the field "by a herd of gazelles". In the last 4 years by a spread-option-whatever team in WVU. Georgia had zero answer for that offense in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, and Auburn last season were beaten soundly.

Its clearly an offense that with Rodriguez and Meyer has garnered a ton of success all told. Is it the answer for everyone, no. Is it viable for teams that essentially line up a 4x100 relay team, absolutely.

wheaton4prez said...

I think Rick's comments are useful to spark a discussion. But, they seemed like common recruiting fodder to me. I doubt he even believes many of those points himself.

Oregon won a very physical game against Oklahoma State last year. They put up over 450 yards on the ground in one game the year before.

As Chris notes, QB's are injured in every scheme. It would be interesting to see an actual study of injury rates between various categories of offenses to see if there is any truth at all to running QBs being hurt more often. QBs do take hits when they run the ball. They also take hits when they are standing there, looking down field.

While it's true that the offense he refers to isn't run in the same form in the NFL at this time, I disagree that it won't happen. Even considering the economic argument against running a franchise QB, at some point, the economics of having a team that wins trumps the down-side of risking injury to a franchise player. At this point, the types of QBs with the skill-sets to lead that type of offense are usually available at a relative bargain compared to the cookie-cutter pro-style guys. For one $50-million dollar Peyton Manning, an ambitious team could sign 3 Troy Smiths and have the depth to survive injury issues (if there are any).

I think the economics involved argue FOR a team adopting such an offense in the NFL. With the increased number of elite level dual-threats like Tebow, Dixon, Smith, etc. it's too much of a waste of athletic ability, potential team success and (most importantly to decision-makers) mass market appeal for someone to not eventually make a serious go of it. Michael Vick sold a lot of jerseys on a losing team. Think about how many a running QB on a winning team would sell. At the end of the day, to fans, football is entertainment. And, imo, an offense with a running QB is far-and-away more entertaining to watch than the traditional pro-style.

Hobnail_Boot said...

Anon @ 1:33-

Watch the 2nd half of that UGA-WVU game again. Georgia figured it out, just too late to overcome the huge gap.