Spread offense comes from vintage approach
By MAURICE PATTON
Published: Friday, 10/19/07
Football is sort of like fashion: if you stick around long enough, everything comes back around.
Take the newfangled spread offense. The idea of moving most of your skill people away from the ball, leaving the quarterback in a shotgun formation and affording him the opportunity to exploit defenses by running or passing, wasn't so much dreamt up as dusted off.
"You take the most talented player you have and put him at quarterback; 60 years ago, he was a tailback," said Joe Gilliam Sr., a legendary former Tennessee State defensive coordinator who authored a pair of books on offensive theories, including one titled Coaching The Empty Backfield Offense.
During the 1940s, tailbacks like Charley Trippi of Georgia and Doak Walker of SMU starred in the single-wing formation which Gilliam called a forerunner to today's spread.
"The quarterback in the spread, like (Florida's Tim) Tebow now, was the tailback in the single wing. The only difference is that Florida puts a split end out, puts a flanker out, and calls it a spread. The blocking, the double-teaming, was all the same 60 years ago."
The "newness" of the spread has helped the concept to get out ahead of opposing defenses in a game where the objective is to create and exploit mismatches to tilt the balance of power on the playing field in favor of the offense. Similarly, the wing-T has been used on many competitive levels to even the playing field, often allowing less talented teams to match up with more physically gifted squads by relying more on technique, discipline and misdirection than strength, speed and bulk.
An even chance
"You've had great equalizers over the years," Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson said. "You've had the wing-T, you've had the wishbone, all those things. It'll take a while to catch up with (the spread), just like all those other offenses."
Sometimes, as Gilliam pointed out, the 'spread' is a misnomer. Moving skill people away from the ball laterally creates the stretching — or spreading — of the defense.
"When you do get people spread out and put people in space, ... It keeps people from getting ganged up on," Johnson said. "You can't gang up on one area and shut people down anymore."
In terms of the Southeastern Conference, third-year Florida Coach Urban Meyer is hailed by many as the spread's pied piper, having previously run the same offense at Utah.
"I don't know if we brought it in," Meyer said. "When we first came into the league, Vanderbilt ran somewhat of a spread. But everyone else was running two-back (offenses). I was a little surprised by that. Now, there's a variety of teams running the spread.
"What we try to do is force the defense to defend the entire field. There are different ways to do that. Option football has always been an equalizer; throwing the football has always been an equalizer."
A numbers game
Some teams utilize a little of both in their spread attacks — either lining up with four receivers and one back and running the option, or going with five receivers and the empty backfield. Both approaches are built on the idea that the defense won't have enough run-stoppers or enough pass defenders.
"It does challenge a defense," Louisiana State Coach Les Miles said. "It's an opportunity for another formation to have an option responsibility. That option responsibility has to be taken into account (by the defense) and handled."
With rare exception, it's tough for a defense to match up well against both the option threat and the passing threat.
"Our philosophy is to match up personnel," Meyer said. "I think defensive coaches need to have an abundance of personnel. If you want to play (man-to-man coverage), you have to play 'man' on four receivers, as opposed to the fact that usually teams have one or two excellent cornerbacks.
"You find that mismatch somewhere."
Published: Friday, 10/19/07