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01 Jul 2008
by Mike Tanier
The spread offense is taking over the NFL. Or is it?
We all watched the Patriots tear through the league last year, setting offensive records with what could best be described as a spread offense. Last year's Patriots executed 77 percent of their plays with three or more wide receivers, and 22 percent of their plays from four- or five-receiver sets -- and they didn't lead the league in either category. The Colts, Super Bowl champions two years ago, used the most three-plus-receiver sets last season, and they've been running a system based on multi-wideout principles for years. The Lions, coached by offensive guru Mike Martz, used the most four-wide and five-wide sets. The Packers and Cowboys spread the field with three or more receivers early and often. Even the Steelers started using more multi-receiver sets under coordinator Bruce Arians. The NFL is a copycat league (no doubt you've heard that before), and as more teams experience success with the spread, more coaches and coordinators will start adapting their systems to keep up. Or so you'd think.
Pro Football Weekly took notice of the change in their annual season preview magazine. "Spreading it Out" by PFW editor Matt Sohn highlights the rise of multi-receiver, single-back, and shotgun sets. Sohn also carefully debunks some of the misconceptions surrounding the new schemes. For example, he delineates the differences between Martz's offense, the spread-option offense popularized by Florida's Urban Meyer (the one with all the quarterback sneaks), and the old-school spread used by June Jones in Hawaii. Sohn points out that despite all the four-wide and empty backfield formations, no NFL team currently calls its offense a "spread." He also explains that the spread grew from multiple influences and isn't a natural step in the evolution of the West Coast Offense or some other scheme.
It's all good stuff. There's only one problem: There has been no sudden rise in multi-receiver sets in the past three years, or even the past ten years. In fact, spread formations have been a major part of NFL playbooks for well over a decade.
Thanks to our Game Charting Project, we know how many three- and four-receiver formations each team has used in the past three seasons. Here are the league averages:
|Year||3+ WR||4+ WR|
That slight increase in 2007 could represent the Patriots' sudden change from a running-and-tight end driven offense to the Moss and Friends show last year. Or it could be random fluctuation. I think it's the latter. For every team like the Patriots, there's a team like the Jaguars, who used three or more receivers just 36 percent of the time, or the Chargers, who used them a league-low 33 percent of the time. Yes, the two teams that faced the Patriots in the playoffs were diametrically opposed to them when it came to receiver usage. And while the Giants used three-plus-receiver sets a league-average 48 percent of the time, they used four-receiver sets a league-low three percent of the time. Those NFL copycats still have a variety of successful models to Xerox.
Our three-year window of information doesn't tell us much about changes over time. Luckily, I found some older data about multi-receiver sets. The old Pro Football Revealed annuals by STATS Inc. contained team-by-team breakdowns of three- and four-receiver sets. Here are the breakdowns from a decade ago:
|Year||3+ WR||4+ WR|
That's right, folks. Teams were using just as many multi-receiver sets a decade ago as they were last year.
Before you ask, there were no Wayne Fontes /June Jones run 'n' shoot teams in the NFL in 1997. Fontes was no longer the Lions coach (hard-runnin' Bobby Ross replaced him), and Jones was already in Hawaii. The only team than ran a base three-wideout front was the Ravens, who listed Derrick Alexander, Michael Jackson, and Jermaine Lewis as starters in most games. Those Ted Marchibroda Ravens used three-receiver sets a whopping 85 percent of the time, though they rarely used four-receiver sets (just 10 plays).
Many of the teams that used multi-receiver sets in 1997 did so out of necessity. The Colts, who were awful that year, used four-receiver sets 29 percent of the time, which would rank second to the Lions if they played in 2007. Lindy Infante's 1997 Colts spent a lot of time passing to play catch-up. Still, there were plenty of good teams, like Bill Parcells' 9-7 Jets, that chose to spread the field with four wideouts more than 20 percent of the time. And teams knew that it was beneficial to run from a spread formation: Teams ran from three-receiver formations 26 percent of the time in 1997.
So if teams have been spreading the field for a decade or more, why does it suddenly look new? One thing that has changed in recent years is the number of shotgun sets. Check out the rise in passes from the shotgun in the past four seasons:
|Year||Pct of passes
This is radical change in just a few seasons, and it's probably due to the success Peyton Manning had using shotgun sets on non-passing downs four or five years ago. You can go team-by-team, quarterback-by-quarterback, and see philosophies change. Donovan McNabb threw 77 passes from the shotgun in 2006 but 245 in 2007. Broncos quarterbacks threw 70 shotgun passes in 2005, 109 in 2006, and 255 in 2007.
The rise in shotgun sets explains why teams are classifying the new trend as a rise in "spread" offenses, not as a return to the run 'n' shoot, which didn't use the shotgun much. Meyer's spread-option, which is taking college football by storm, is built almost exclusively around shotgun formations, though Meyer-inspired teams will often use two running backs and a tight end in shotgun sets. NFL teams like the Jaguars take a similar approach, keeping the backs and tight end on the field and running delays and draws from the shotgun. The real trend in the NFL may be that teams are finding new ways to run the ball from shotgun sets, allowing them to use the shotgun on first-and-10, adding much more variety to already complex offenses.
But while teams may be adopting some Meyer principles, nobody is running a spread-option in the NFL. And technically, teams aren't "spreading the field" any more than they have been for the last decade. Shotgun offenses are on the rise, not spread offenses. A semantic point, but it's important to get our terminology as precise as possible.
Reader Dan Skourup writes:
I have one question about the double-TE offense. I always thought it was the way to go, until I saw the Steelers kill the Colts in the playoffs a couple years ago. The Steelers kept blitzing their safeties and it seemed like they would get right to Manning almost every time. I'm curious if they've come up with a way to combat this problem short of putting a fullback on the field to keep in to pass block.
Let's unpack a few concepts before we hit the chalkboard. First, when the Colts use two-tight end sets, they usually have one of the tight ends (Dallas Clark) flexed out or in the slot. Second, you can probably guess that Manning and Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore have all kinds of plans to counteract the safety blitz, and none of them involve a fullback. Finally, I don't have game footage to work with, so the following diagrams are built from general principles, plus my notes about the Colts offense and Steelers defense. As I recall, the Steelers did use a lot of safety blitzes against the Colts in the playoffs three years ago, and they did get to Manning a lot. But the safety blitz was just part of the Colts' problem in that game, as I hope to touch upon in these diagrams.
Figure 1 shows a typical Steelers-type zone blitz, though the play itself comes from an old coaching guide. The Steelers are in a base 3-4 personnel grouping against the Colts' two-tight end package. The Steelers rush six defenders on this play. Notice that all three defensive linemen stunt hard to their right, each crossing a blocker's face to attack a gap different than the one they are aligned in. Two linebackers twist behind the flow of the defensive line to the left. The free safety cheats toward the line presnap, then shoots hard into the weakside B-gap.
Think about the problems that this blitz poses for the offensive line. The left tackle must worry about the outside linebacker presnap. When that defender drops into coverage, he must reset and (typically) block the slanting defensive end. There's a good chance that the left tackle and guard will miscommunicate and leave either the safety or slanting end unblocked. There's also a chance the guard will simply whiff when trying to block a fast safety like Troy Polamalu. There are similar concerns on the right side of the line, where two defenders are attacking the strongside B gap. The player most likely to get to Manning on this play isn't the safety; it's the linebacker marked "M" in the diagram (for the 2005 Steelers, M might have been James Farrior, who had 2.5 sacks against the Colts). With the right guard blocking a slanting end and the right tackle going wide to stop another linebacker, Mister M should have an open lane to the quarterback.
How do you stop a blitz like this? If you are Moore and Manning, you start with a well-designed blocking system in which several players read the defensive front and anticipate the blitz. Ideally, both Manning and center Jeff Saturday see the free safety creep into the box, and if Saturday can't adjust the blocking assignments to allow for extra protection, then Manning calls an audible or hot route. In this example, the "blocking" tight end runs a hot route: a quick slant where he anticipates the ball as soon as he makes his break at three steps. The tight end will be inside the dropping coverage linebacker and in front of the strong safety, in good position to gain seven or eight yards and possibly break a tackle.
The halfback is shown making two possible blocks in Figure 1. Typically, he would set and block the free safety. But depending on the offensive line adjustments, the halfback could cross the formation and take on the first defender to come through, probably M. In that scenario, Manning would shuffle left and try to throw a deeper pass to that side of the field. This is a difficult block for the halfback, so he may have to motion over to the right side of the formation pre-snap. Of course, it is then imperative that the left guard blocks the safety, because there is no second tier of protection behind him.
All the Moore schemes, Saturday calls, and Manning hot routes won't help at all if the Colts linemen cannot block the Steelers one-on-one. That's really the problem the Colts had in the playoffs three seasons ago. While the Steelers surely served up their share of rum raisin blitzes against Manning, they had plenty of success with vanilla. Figure 2 shows a straightforward five-man rush featuring the free safety and the Joey Porter-style blitz linebacker. There's nothing funky about the blitz package: the Steelers just want to create a safety-on-halfback or fast linebacker-on-slow left tackle mismatch. That worked often enough against the Colts three years ago. Joey Porter and other linebackers beat left tackle Tarik Glenn off the line, and Glenn made it worse by chasing shadows in that game, turning to block defenders who were dropping into coverage or slanting into a different gap.
So how do the Colts stop good blitzing teams from collapsing the pocket and making Manning sandwiches? Stopping creative 3-4 blitzing teams isn't their strongest suit, as last year's playoff loss to the Chargers once again demonstrated. (Special teams aren't their strongest suit either, as the regular season loss to the Chargers showed.) Moore will often move his blocking tight end around the formation, shifting him to the left side in some situations and using Dallas Clark as a blocker in others. While I don't have numbers to back it up, the Colts seem to run more delays and draws with Joseph Addai than they did with Edgerrin James, and a few successful runs can slow down even the most ferocious blitz. It's important to remember that the best way to stop the blitz is to stay out of blitz situations, and the Colts use their running and short passing games to limit the number of third-and-longs the team faces.
But no fullback. Moore's system is designed to beat the blitz with quick thinking and quick passing, not extra bulk. The system has produced a Super Bowl ring and scads of playoff appearances, so it must have some merit.
Daunte Culpepper set a somewhat dubious record last week: He earned the highest score ever in the Two Minute Drill minigame of the 2002 edition of Madden. Culpepper set the record during a gala premiere party for Madden 2009, scoring 14,500 points and earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records: Gamer's Edition, assuming some hyperactive 12-year-old doesn't break his mark in the next six months.
There's something depressingly Sunset Boulevard about Culpepper playing the minigames of a seven-years out-of-date video game just so he can relive his past gridiron glories. But Culpepper wasn't just waxing nostalgic when he broke out his last generation game system and re-loaded the classic Mike Tice playbook. No, Culpepper still plans to play in the NFL, and the Madden record is part of a clever plan to get back into the graces of his last employer:
Culpepper: Mr. Davis? It's me, boss, Daunte Culpepper.
Al Davis: Culpepper? I already told you, kid. You're through.
Culpepper: Before you throw me out, I want you to watch this footage. I have been working out with some of my old friends from the Vikings. I think you'll be impressed.
(Culpepper cunningly replaces the DVD player in Davis' office with a PlayStation2 and selects Replay mode.)
Davis: I'll say, that is impressive. You hook up with Randy Moss over and over again. I'm also impressed that you got 22 guys to show up for these drills. And what a bunch of guys! There's D'Wayne Bates and Mo Williams and Byron Chamberlain. I haven't seen them suit up in years. You even got John Madden to provide play-by-play and ... hey, isn't that Pat Summerall?
Culpepper: Uh, yeah boss. He didn't have anything better to do so he came and helped out.
Davis: That's great. I can see that you called a lot of audibles. Heck, the word "Audible" even appears on the screen when you do it. This is some of the best practice footage I have ever seen!
Culpepper: (fiddling with game system) Is it as impressive as this old footage I found of Raiders great Bo Jackson?
Davis: Say, this is old footage. Kind of blurry. Oh, no, we only returned the kickoff to the one yard line! What was Tim Brown thinking, running backward like that? I hope we called a bomb. No, a handoff to Bo Jackson. Look at that: None of those Patriots guys can catch him. They keep diving at his legs. But why does he keep running in circles? Marcus Allen used to run in circles sometimes. That's why I hired a private investigator to tail him. Anyway, this footage is almost as good as your practice footage, Culpepper. But what is this Super Tecmo Bowl on the screen?
Culpepper: Oh, you know how stadium naming rights have gotten.
Davis: Oh sure. Well, in light of this practice tape, maybe I will re-sign you. But I have to go across town and talk to my advisors before making a move.
Culpepper: (fiddling) I wouldn't go out in the streets, Mr. Davis. Just watch this news footage. It's not safe anymore in Oakland. Or, as the city fathers have renamed it: Liberty City.
Davis: Oh my God, that guy just got carjacked in broad daylight! He got beat down with a baseball bat, and nobody did anything! Oh good, here's the police. That dude is going to rot in jail. Wait a minute? He's back on the street? All they did was take away his weapons and a percentage of his money? Oh my God he's driving on the sidewalks and running over prostitutes. What is this world coming to?
Culpepper: You see? It isn't safe. Just write me up a two-year contract right now.
Davis: I dunno, kid. The practice tape is good, but I spent a lot of money on a rookie quarterback last year, and he deserves a chance.
Culpepper: Maybe. But didn't that rookie have a reputation for getting really soft, round, and flabby?
Davis: Yeah, he did get a little soft and flabby. What was the kid's name again?
Culpepper: (fiddling) Kirby. His name was Kirby.
(Next week: Shaun Suisham signs a $20 million contact with the Raiders.)
Football history often hinges on tiny events: dropped passes, questionable calls, goal-line lunges that come up one yard short. On December 28th, 1958, the placement of a line judge's foot helped turn NFL football into a national obsession.
Mark Bowden recounts the scene in his first foray into sports history, The Best Game Ever, which tells the story of the legendary 1958 Championship Game between the Colts and Giants. The Giants faced third-and-4 at their own 40-yard line with just over two minutes to play in the fourth quarter and a 17-14 lead. A first down would allow them to run out the clock and preserve their second championship in three years. Frank Gifford took a handoff, gained a few yards, then disappeared into a pile-up. Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti broke his leg in the pileup, and the line judge was distracted by Marchetti's cries of pain as he tried to spot the ball. Giants players claimed that he spotted Gifford's forward progress with his right foot, then got mixed up and placed the ball with at his left foot, a yard short of the first down. The Giants punted. The rest, as they say, is history.
Had Gifford made that first down, the Colts may never have emerged as a league powerhouse, and the careers of legends like John Unitas, Raymond Berry, Marchetti and Lenny Moore might have turned out differently. More importantly, the championship game would not have gone into overtime. The Gifford stop, the Colts comeback, and the overtime period were broadcast nationally on primetime television. The game introduced many fans to professional football, a spectacle that Bowen describes as "mortal combat from some dark underworld" when contrasted with the sunny Saturday pastime of college football. The 1958 game was a compelling drama that attracted thousands of new fans and vindicated Commissioner Bert Bell's efforts to allow small-market clubs like the Colts to compete with economic powerhouses like the Giants.
Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Guests of the Ayatollah, imbues the 1958 title game with cultural significance. He notes that television and football were growing up together, and that each helped the other become a dominating force in American social life in that fateful game:
The nation was experiencing what was still a new kind of human experience, a truly communal live event, something made possible by the new medium. In future years the phenomenon would become familiar, but no less powerful, as the nation gathered to watch rocket launches, the aftermath of assassinations, a magnificent civil rights speech, an astronaut stepping on the moon, a presidential resignation ... In this moment, football itself was about to step fully into the age of television.
The Best Game Ever covers the big picture, but it's a football book with historical implications, not a history book with football pasted in. Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry emerges as the major character in the story. Berry, a perfectionist who spent hours watching game film, taking notes and running practice routes, was considered an eccentric in the rough-and-tumble world of 1950s football, but his preparation and focus paved the way for a more modern, sophisticated approach to conditioning and strategy. In The Best Game Ever, Berry finds a soulmate in lanky quarterback John (not Johnny) Unitas and meets his intellectual match in Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry.The chess match between Berry, Unitas, and Landry provides many of the book's most dramatic moments.
Bowden's profiles of Berry, Unitas, and Landry are illuminating, even to readers who are familiar with the NFL legends. Supporting characters also get their time to shine. There's Sam Huff, the young defender who nearly quit football before Landry created the middle linebacker position that Huff would come to define. There's the young Frank Gifford, a breathtaking talent who sometimes exasperated coaches by keeping one eye on his film career. Bowden captures these individuals and others in the days before they became infallible sports legends or busts in Canton: no-nonsense offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi, smart-alecky Colts heavyweight Art Donovan, embattled veteran Giants quarterback Charley Connerly. It also captures the pro football milieu of the era: radio broadcasts, cloudy black-and-white televisions in smoky taprooms, gridiron greats with summer jobs, and teenage photographers sneaking onto the sidelines by wheeling disabled veterans into the game.
It's great history and great fun. You can argue that the 1958 championship game wasn't the Best Game Ever (there's the Ice Bowl, Super Bowl III, the Chargers-Dolphins playoff in 1982, Rams-Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV), but you can't argue with the quality of Bowden's book, a great summer read for the history-obsessed football fan or the football-obsessed history buff.
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