Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

24 Feb 2009

Harrell's Folly: The Spread Offense in the NFL

Here's a piece I wrote for the Washington Post's new PreDraft section about Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell and the difficulties he may face in the NFL. Thanks to Greg Cosell, who I caught up with at the Combine, for his time and insight on this one.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 24 Feb 2009

17 comments, Last at 27 Feb 2009, 9:02pm by MJK


by Joe T. (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 12:55pm

Nice article Doug.

I think that a kid with any aspirations of being a pro football quarterback needs to research his schools and find a college that can offer him a near-pro-style offense to develop in. We've known for a long time that spread and option QBs largely don't cut it in the modern NFL.

by rageon (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 3:18pm

Is it that running the spread makes players incapable of ever running anything else, or is it that the teams that run the spread are often relegated to recruiting lesser prospects? It's not like Hawaii and Tech have been considered marquee teams for stud players to go to. Lets say that instead of backing up at USC, Matt Cassell spent the last 3 years playing QB for Mike Leach? Would he be any less of a prospect than he was after sitting on the bench during that time?

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 5:55pm

I don't think its that spread schools are relegated to recruiting lesser prospects, its more that spread schools adopt their offensive scheme because they have lesser prospects than the football factories. When spread came along it was viewed as a great way for smaller, less-talented schools to remain competitive with the big boys. Now its gotten to wear everybody runs spread, so its not so advantageous.

My alma mater (Old Dominion U) is firing up its football program for 2009, and did what I thought was incredibly dumb: announce that they were going to implement a spread offense. ODU has to compete with Va Tech, UVA, Wm & Mary, et al for football recruits from a local area that is very talented, the smarter thing would have been to announce the implementation of a pro-style offense, and started luring the local talent with promises of preparation for the NFL.

by NY expat :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 2:39pm

On the flip side, I wonder if Bill Stewart's much-criticized move to have Pat White play significant time in a more conventional offense this year turned out to be the best thank you possible for what White did for WVU and Stewart. I get the impression White actually persuaded scouts at the Combine that he really might be worth considering at QB, which didn't sound like what was expected before the college season started.

by Doug Farrar :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 3:07pm

Quite possible. I will say this -- at the Combine, any coach or executive from any team that ran any sort of odd formation -- Wildcat, Dirty Bird, read-option or what have you -- got the Pat White question.

by Jimmy :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 3:46pm

Not being an expert in the spread, is part of the problem that the wide splits they use for the offensive line. In college it might force the defense to telegraph its coverages, in the NFL it might be tantamount to getting your QB killed by a super athletic DE or OLB. Also the increased (in theory) complication of defensive schemes would allow a team to overload one side of the line without leaving an open running lane away from the blitz - ie. a decent sized lineman lined up over the guard told to hold his two gaps namely B and C, then three guys could come around from the opposite guard, if a back is kept in to pick up the blitz then the advantage of the extra receivers is lost.

The Pats have (for my mind) demostrated that principles of the spread can work very effectively. The fact that the line all excell in getting out to the second level helps a lot. However the Pats offense was no powerhouse before the arrival of Moss, a player who is so good deep that the options available for combating the spread leave very few (or none that you could trust to work) to prevent Moss playing merry hell with your secondary. Also the Pats don't exclusively run the spread (I feel I should point that out before anyone else does for me).

by Doug Farrar :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 4:30pm

New England probably runs more shotgun than any other team (I think the number was over 70 percent last year), but it's still generally three-wide with a tight end and/or a running back. The blocking makes those deep routes to Moss possible. In last year's book, we ran the numbers for (if I remember correctly) four-wide, no running back, and the Lions (Mike Martz) did that the most -- on about 25 percent of their plays. Not surprisingly, their quarterbacks got killed.

The line splits have more to do with the fact that a lot of option running backs are better straight-ahead than cutback. The lack of outside blocking is what really affects the quarterbacks most of all.

by AlanSP (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 5:02pm

Couldn't it be that the Lions' quarterbacks got killed because they're, you know, the Lions?

Also, it's not like spreads in college always run no-running back sets either.

by peachy (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 5:17pm

I really wish FO writers wouldn't toss around the word 'spread' so blithely - any term that can be applied with equal facility to both Texas Tech and West Virginia probably doesn't have that much descriptive value any more.

by Jimmy :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 9:04pm

What do you mean by the spread then?

by peachy (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 11:07pm

There are almost as many different versions of the spread as schools that run it - for any meaningful discussion of how a quarterback's background affects their NFL prospects, you have to be a lot more precise in discussing that background. If Harrell and White are both disadvantaged by their experiences, it's for very different reasons, and lumping them both under the rubric 'spread QBs' is supremely unhelpful.

by AlanSP (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 4:02pm

If you want to make an argument about whether QBs from spread offenses can be successful, it's probably better to look at the quarterbacks with physical tools comparable to those of other NFL quarterbacks (or at least ones that scouts thought had said tools). That is, rather than the various recent Texas Tech QBs, better examples are QBs from shotgun-heavy offenses that went relatively early in the draft, like Andre Ware, David Klingler, Tim Couch, Alex Smith, Vince Young, or more favorably, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Joe Flacco. At least then you're comparing apples to apples.

by AlanSP (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 4:42pm

I also think that claims along the lines of "[insert scheme here] can't work in the NFL because the players are more athletic" get tossed around a bit too easily. This article makes some good arguments, even if some of the history isn't entirely accurate (e.g. the West Coast Offense wasn't really developed at the college level). Prior to this past year, nobody thought something like the wildcat could work in the pros, and the same could be said for a lot of innovations in the game.

As to the shotgun spread itself, the Patriots utilized it heavily in one of the most potent offenses in NFL history, and FO has found that offenses perform better overall out of the shotgun (though this also includes various other shotgun formations in addition to the spread).

by tuluse :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 6:33pm

The wildcat wouldn't work if it was your primary offense. Only running 5 plays a game from allows it to work because the defense can't spend enough time during the week to properly shut it down.

by MJK :: Fri, 02/27/2009 - 9:02pm

The other reason why it wouldn't work as your primary offense is that it only allows you to run about five plays out of it. Which could be why Miami only ran it about five times a game.

by Joseph :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 5:39pm

Disclaimer: I didn't read the article, just the comments here.
The difference between Harrell and other QB's like Pat White or Vince Young is the running factor. Having not seen much of White (but a good amount of Young), I would say that the defense having to account for their speed/rushing ability accounts for some of their success throwing the ball (which makes their numbers look better than they really are).
I did see a couple of Tech games this year. I don't remember Harrell having any designed runs (other than maybe a sneak/QB draw), whereas I know Young had them (and I am sure White also). I would say this gives him a better shot at the pros. He is used to sitting in the pocket, making the reads, etc. However, having M. Crabtree as a security blanket obviously helped also, not to mention the other WR he grew up playing ball with. I would say he is definitely worth a 5th round or later flyer for a team like the Colts, Saints, etc.--teams with an established vet who could be looking to develop a youngster. In at least these two teams, he could sit on the bench for a couple of years with nothing to prove, ride the bench/sit on the practice squad and learn from a top shelf QB. If he goes undrafted, his agent better be calling these teams first--there are definitely worse places to start an NFL career as a QB.

by Zippy (not verified) :: Tue, 02/24/2009 - 7:12pm

It seemed like the important things are arm strength and timing and anticipation. Cosell was able to discern those things from the film, so the college offense hubbub seems overblown.
Flacco was in a spread at a smalltime school, went in the first round and succeeded as a rookie. This makes me think it's safe to ignore a QBs college offense and evaluate the things that are actually relevant. TTech has been putting up crazy stats without NFL level talent at QB and based on the draft positions of their past QBs this isn't news to anyone who is paid to know this.