Spread Offense

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The spread offense is an offensive scheme in American and Canadian football that is used at every level of the game including professional, college, and high school. The spread offense begins with a no-huddle approach with the quarterback in the shotgun formation (5 – 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage) much of the time. 3-5 receivers are spread along the line of scrimmage, creating multiple vertical seams for both the running and passing game to exploit, as the defense is forced to spread itself thin across the field to cover everyone.

The father of the spread offense is Rusty Russell, coach of Fort Worth, Texas’ Masonic Home and School for orphaned boys. Russell began coaching Masonic Home in 1927, and due to the fact that his teams were often over matched physically by other schools, they were called the ‘Mighty Mites.’ While there, he deployed the earliest form of a spread offense to great success.

In 1952 TCU coaching legend Leo ‘Dutch’ Meyer wrote a book entitled ‘Spread Formation Football,’ detailing his ideas about football formations, in which the first sentence was, ‘Spread formations are not new to football.’ Former Middletown, Ohio High School football coach Glenn ‘Tiger’ Ellison is hailed by some as the real father of the scheme. His version is known as the ‘Run & Shoot offense’; however, the scheme (which was originally started as a run-first offense in 1958) has evolved over the past 45 years into a much more complex scheme.

Its first evolution came about in 1962 when former NIU Huskies head coach Howard Fletcher adapted Meyer’s spread with the shotgun formation to create what he termed the ‘Shotgun Spread’ a more pass-oriented version. The modern ‘Spread Offense’ emerged in the US in the mid to late 80s with coaches trying to get the benefits of the ‘Run & Shoot’ (spreading out defenses and dictating defensive personnel with a 4 receiver set) without having to rely as much on quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs making the correct reads on every play. The Spread allows coaches to be more involved in each play rather than the ‘Run & Shoot’ which helps protect teams from bad decision making.

There are many forms of the spread system. One of the extreme versions is the pass-oriented ‘Air Raid’ typified by Sonny Dykes’s California Golden Bears. This version employs multiple spread sets and is heavily reliant on the quarterback and coaches being able to call the appropriate play at the line of scrimmage based on how the defense sets up. The other extreme is the ‘spread option,’ consisting of a slot receiver, a tailback, and a dual-threat quarterback, used by Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers. Despite the multi-receiver sets, the spread option is a run-first scheme that requires a quarterback that is comfortable carrying the ball, a mobile offensive line that can effectively pull and trap, and receivers that can hold their blocks. Its essence is misdirection, making it effectively the old triple option (using three eligible rushers), except that it utilizes spread sets.

Versions of this scheme have also been used by professional teams, beginning with the former Houston Oilers, the Atlanta Falcons, and Detroit Lions. The 2007 New England Patriots utilized the spread with quarterback Tom Brady and wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and Jabar Gaffney. In addition, the San Diego Chargers (1980s) and the various West Coast schemes developed by Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers (1980s) built their offenses, in many ways, on Ellison’s and Davis’ designs. The 2008 Miami Dolphins also implemented a form of the spread offense in their offensive schemes. Lining up in the ‘wildcat’ formation, the Miami Dolphins, borrowing from Gus Malzahn’s college spread offense, ‘direct snap’ the ball to their running back, Ronnie Brown, who was then able to read the defense, and either pass or keep the ball himself.

The spread offense is generally not used as a team’s primary offense in the NFL; defenses are usually faster than college defenses and vertical seams created by the formation close up much quicker. In addition, the quarterback is more vulnerable to injury since he is the ball carrier more often than in a typical pro-style offense (thus, getting tackled more) and the amount of protection is decreased with the backs and receivers being used to spread the defense instead of providing pass protection.

Additionally, the level of talent between the starting quarterback and the backup is generally much greater than with a typical college team, and consequently NFL teams are more protective of their quarterback. With that said, this has been changing in recent years with Chan Gailey in 2008 with the Kansas City Chiefs utilizing Tyler Thigpen at quarterback and now he has taken the offense to the Buffalo Bills and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Green Bay Packers have also used spread offense with quarterback Aaron Rodgers situationally.

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