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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spread quarterbacks in the NFL

From Fox Sports:

[W]ith a pile of passing yards and a bucket of collegiate touchdowns in tow, Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel believes the wide-open, receivers-all-over-the-field offense now dominating leagues like the Big 12 would work just fine in the NFL. "I've been telling some coaches I think that's the way the game's going,'' Daniel said. " ... And that I'm already there."

Trouble is not many folks calling the shots in the NFL are ready to agree because "there" is deep in the backfield, lined up in the shotgun, several yards behind the center, taking the snap and slinging the ball around. Not once in a while. Not in just certain situations. No, all the time, every time and Daniel has done it in the same type of offense since he was in eighth grade. . . .

[Spread quarterbacks] finish college, try to move on to professional football and ...

"They find a little trouble in our league," said Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn, a former quarterback. "They find, I think, they've got a portion of their game down and they're pretty good at it, very talented at it. They know how to get the ball out quick, they know how to avoid, they learn how to make decisions with the ball, pulling it back, and make lots of plays.

"But they also find the whole game is not played that way at this level. It's just not, maybe once a year and there's the rub." . . . .

"The biggest challenge for guys who have spent pretty much their whole college careers — and even nowadays, their whole high school careers — lined up in the shotgun and now they've got to learn to get up underneath center, they've got to learn to take a snap, learn to take a full drop,'' said Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, a former NFL quarterbacks coach. "I think that's, fundamentally, one of those simple skills that just got skipped over to go play college football.

"And then they find it's tough to take that full drop behind center, a five- or seven-step drop, because at that level, in the NFL, the ball has to be released immediately without taking a gather or a hitch step. Guys just aren't able to get the ball out when it has to be released."

It's that timing, timing with receivers, timing in offenses built around getting the ball to a certain spot in a given amount of time that is the biggest issue.

NFL quarterbacks are asked to do that in a traditional behind-center posture where they take the snap, drop back three, five or seven steps, survey the defense and deliver the ball. In the shotgun, quarterbacks stand deep in the backfield, often taking the snap and simply throwing from that spot. And it's the pocket passers, like Georgia's Matthew Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez who are at the top of most teams quarterback ratings in this year's draft.

"And the difference is the other guys, the guys who played in the spread, just played the game different back there with so much space, they play deeper in the pocket,'' said Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, a long-time NFL quarterback. "Quarterbacks in this league don't play that deep (in the backfield) so it's an adjustment and one that can take some time. They have to see it more quickly and they have to do while having the footwork to get back from center, set up and throw.''

"If he's never played under center and never taken snaps, that's different ... it's a different skill to do all the things you do from the gun from under center,'' said Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who coached the Patriots quarterbacks and was the team's offensive coordinator before taking the Broncos job. "Your footwork in the running game is awkward, your takeaway from center, your drops are shorter than you're used to. Now the line is right in your face, or that's your perception because you've played back for so long, now your reads are cloudier. Instead of looking downfield, you're looking at the guys right in front of you."

There's a lot going on here so far, but obviously Mike Leach disagrees with this. Leach is exaggerating, but it does seem to blink reality that you can dismiss a guy based on dropbacks. Especially considering that the consensus among most is that, with a few exceptions like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, quarterback footwork in the NFL is pretty bad.

"I was in the gun about 90 percent of the time when I was at Purdue,'' said former Bears and current Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton. "And I went into a power running game, two-back, seven-step drop system in Chicago when I got to the NFL and it took a while to get accustomed to that. It's not an excuse, but you're going from what was your comfort zone to something else while trying to do the right thing with the ball. There's an adjustment there and probably bigger than you think as a player.''

Then again, if Orton said it, I tend to believe him since he has had to do it.

"But you want to see how a guy gets back there and how he makes the throws he needs to make," Kubiak said. "If he's got a good enough arm and is a good enough athlete to make the changes he has to with his feet, then he's got a chance. It may take more time and a lot of work, and maybe he doesn't play as quickly as people expect, but that's why they call us coach, to figure out a way to get them to do it. If he has the tools, if he can do it, we have to figure out a way to get it done."

I think this is right. College coaches' jobs are to win football games and succeed in college, not to run an offense the pro guys like. And, while some scouts might chafe at having to evaluate a guy who stands in the gun all the time with four or five wide, Kubiak at least recognizes that it is their job to succeed with whatever colleges are being produced. But all this -- and the whole article -- assumes an answer to Chase Daniel's question:

"I've been telling some coaches I think that's the way the game's going," Daniel said.

Is Daniel right? Or are these pro guys right? The best you get is Jim Zorn saying, "But they also find the whole game is not played that way at this level. It's just not." "It's just not," of course, is not an argument (it's just not). But let's assume that he is right that the all-spread (and this article is about the pass-first spread, not just the spread-to-run) is inappropriate for the pros: why? Is it the speed? The specialization of talent?

One of the complaints about spread QBs is their lack of footwork, and one of the reasons for that -- which is also a reason that college and high schools go to it -- is that there is simply less footwork in the gun. That isn't necessarily a bad thing: maybe it'd be good for pro offenses? (Think about pick-up football: nobody lines up and takes a seven-step drop in their back yard.) So that's ambiguous.

And then is there just so much more benefit by being extra multiple? In college practice time is quite limited, often more than high school. So that could be a factor too. Or, maybe, the pro guys are just whiffing, just missing the boat. I don't have an answer.

I end with this: I just watched a special about Joe Montana, who at Notre Dame had been running the triple-option; Bill Walsh, who knows a thing or two about coaching quarterbacks, wasn't scared away.

Comments are welcome.


huskyskins said...

Why pick a guy that you are going to have to teach how to take a drop; not knowing if he'll be able to, or if it will lower his effectiveness? Especially with alternatives out there that don't need to be taught.

Right now, the skills needed to be an NFL QB include under center, drop-back passing. College systems that do not include these skills aren't doing any favors for those looking to move onto the NFL. Now, I agree, that's not their job - but that is the reality.

Anonymous said...

It can't be that hard to learn how to drop back and throw during a QBs time in the NFL. I understand if a spread QB is too short b/c now he will be looking into the d-line, but if they have the size and skill, the should be drafted higher because they can definately learn it. Daniel is right.

JMD said...

Different question and maybe you've addressed it elsewhere, but why don't pros run the college spread? It seems so dynamic.

Great blog, btw.

Anonymous said...

Pro's don't run the college spread because in the NFL "nobody ever got fired for punting on 4th down" -- i.e. it's a conservative, copy-cat league by nature and no one is going to try it until someone in successful with it.

That being said, what they've been doing in New England might not be called a spread -- but if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck . . .

Perry said...

There's his guy Drew Brees. You may of heard of him? He's one of the best QB's in the league and led a high powered shotgun offense in college.

QB's who have he mental and physical toughness to shine through usually do, no matter what offense they played in college.

Rob Weir said...

It's just insane that Josh Freeman got drafted over Chase Daniel. One guy has done nothing but win; the other has done nothing but lose. But one is 6'5 and stocky. Never mind that Freeman can't hit the broad side of a barn; he's a No. 17 pick. Anyone who's watched Big 12 football over the last 4 years can tell you that's insane.

Double B said...

My two cents:

Pros don't run the college spread, not because of the passing aspect, but the running aspect. With the speed of the pro game, I just don't think you can have a run game that's based on making initial steps laterally (backs offset from a gun QB). Much of the gun run game is based on an option or read premise as well which isn't something that I believe would work in the pros. The pro game really does require a back to go "downhill" in a power-oriented type of scheme.

Now, all of that being said, is Nevada's pistol a potential answer to those problems? A traditional shotgun passing game with a downhill run game (one or two backs).

wheaton4prez said...

Excellent post. The common theme among the pro guys quoted is that they are long-time students of a different offensive philosophy and they assume that all pro teams will always conform to that.

Of course they are going to rationalize reasons for why QBs from the spread (using the term loosely here for convenience) are a problem. The spread is not their trade. The spread could conceivably put some of those guys out of business if it proves successful.

While there have been some old variations with similarities, the fact is, the spread-to-run, on the level that it is run in modern college football, has not been tried in earnest at the pro level. Any arguments about the reasons for why it "doesn't work" are based on speculation rather than demonstration.

The actual on-the-field evidence that we have is that, with the right players and execution, it does work. Frankly, I think the bias against it came from bullcrap lines crafted by coaches recruiting for pro-set schools, in order to scare kids from rival recruiters running the spread.

The spread-to-run offense is going to be somebodies windfall in the NFL. Watch.

Anonymous said...

I don't get it, this isn't exactly new territory anyone remember the K-Gun? Pretty successful and seems to have much in common with the pas first spread of today.

wheaton4prez said...

Agreed. The K-Gun was an example of similar concepts working.

I think the difference is that the K-Gun, at the time, wasn't widely adopted by other teams as an offensive philosophy. The use of the spread and the quality of "spread players" has increased at the college level while the NFL has remained relatively resistant to that trend.

Anonymous said...

great post by the way.. but aside from the NFL being a copycat league, there are also a bevy of health and safety issues to go along with running this type of spread or wildcat offense. the NFL is not appalachian state or delaware where the qb is often times the fastest man on the field d-linemen and backers are drafted to prevent another michael vick from happening to defensive football teams in the league keep that in mind.

Brad said...

Two points.

1) There are a lot of great QB's in the league now that ran mainly gun passing systems in college.

Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger were all in the gun for most of their passes in college.

2) Both the Pats and the Colts are mainly gun teams except for when they run the ball or throw play action. When they run 5-step passes they are almost allways in the gun.

To me I think the gun is underused in the pros. Football Otsiders did an analysis of passing efficiency (by their measure)in one of their prospectuses and found that passing was much more efficient from the gun. To me the optimal mix is probably to have a shot gun series made up of 3/5 step passes, draws, screens, and a base run and an undercenter series made up of several base runs, play action passes and maybe 3 step passes. This looks a lot like the Pats and Colts to me.

I am not sure why a spread guy would have trouble moving to this. Maybe undercenter handoffs and play actions would take some learning but I can't imagine it is that tough. And guys from Tex Tech allready get undercenter to run the ball and run playaction and boots.

Anonymous said...

I also would guess that the issue with the shotgun isn't so much passing, but the running game.

After all the pros have longed used the shotgun in pure passing situations.

My inclination is that that the handoffs out of the gun, draws, and play action aren't as effective out of the gun against pro defenses as opposed to college defenses.