The spread offense is an offensive scheme in American and Canadian football that is used at every level of the game including professional (NFL, CFL), college (NCAA, NAIA, CIS), and high school programs across the US and Canada. Spread offenses typically place the quarterback in the shotgun formation, and "spread" the defense horizontally using three-, four-, and even five-receiver sets. Many spread offenses also employ a no-huddle approach. Some implementations of the spread also feature wide splits between the offensive linemen. Many spread offenses use the read option running play to put pressure on both sides of the defense. Spread offenses also leverage vertical (down field) passing routes to spread the defense vertically, to open up multiple vertical seams for both the running and passing game.
The father of the spread offense is Rusty Russell, a graduate of Howard Payne University, in Brownwood, Texas, and coach of Fort Worth's 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. Russell's team is the subject of a book by author Jim Dent entitled, Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.
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. 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. Under Fletcher's newly created offense, quarterback George Bork led the nation in total offense and passing in 1962 and 1963. Bork became the first man in college football history to pass for 3,000 yards in a season in 1963 while guiding the Huskies to a National Championship.
The "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 QBs, 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.
While early versions of the spread were sometimes quite limited, modern coaches like Joe Tiller (Purdue), Jerry Moore (Appalachian State), Mike Leach (Washington State), and Mark Helfrich (Oregon) and most recently Urban Meyer (Ohio State) have taken this run and shoot variant to a new level. High school coaches across the nation have adapted some version of this scheme with great success, notably Todd Dodge at Southlake Carroll High School in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (now at Marble Falls High School in Marble Falls, TX), Art Briles at Stephenville High School in Central Texas and the Houston Cougars (now at Baylor), Gus Malzahn at Springdale High School in Arkansas (later the offensive coordinator for the Arkansas Razorbacks and Auburn Tigers. He is now the head coach of Auburn Tigers ). Rush Propst using it won 5 state titles at Hoover High School in Alabama. Due to Propst's success many teams in Alabama run the spread. However, Propst's offense was created by consultant (now offensive coordinator at Cal-Berkeley) Tony Franklin. Legendary coach Dale Mueller, Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, has pioneered new aspects of the spread offense since 1995. In his 16 seasons as head coach, he has led Highlands to a record of 214 wins and 30 losses, and won 10 of their record 21 State Championships.
The spread offense is specifically designed to open up seams and holes for the offense, and does not specifically focus on the passing or running game, however, like all types of offenses, there can be sub types which can specifically focus on the passing or running game, or even option, fakes or trick plays.
The basic pre-snap appearance of the spread offense is constant—multiple receivers on the field and a shotgun snap. However, the actual execution from those formations varies, depending on the preferences of the coaching staff. While most of these are balanced offenses, such as the one utilized by Larry Fedora's North Carolina Tar Heels, several sub-forms also exist.
One of the extreme versions is the pass-oriented Air Raid typified by Hal Mumme in the late 1990s at the University of Kentucky. Coaches that employ this version of the spread are Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State Cowboys, Dana Holgorsen's West Virginia Mountaineers, Mark Stoops's Kentucky Wildcats, Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars, Kliff Kingsbury's Texas Tech Red Raiders and Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M Aggies. 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. California Golden Bears head coach Sonny Dykes, who coached under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, uses a variant of the Air Raid that makes more use of the running game and tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The Run & Shoot associated with June Jones is a well-known variant.
The spread option is a shotgun-based variant of the classic triple option attack that dominated football well into the 1990s. Notable users of this offense include Rich Rodriguez's Arizona Wildcats, Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes, Mark Helfrich's Oregon Ducks, Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels, and Dan Mullen's Mississippi State Bulldogs. 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. Because it operates from the shotgun, its triple option usually consists of a slot receiver, a tailback, and a dual-threat quarterback. One of the primary plays in the spread option is the zone read, invented and made popular by Rich Rodriguez. The quarterback must be able to read the defensive end and determine whether he is collapsing down the line or playing up-field containment in order to determine the proper play to make with the ball. A key component of the spread option is that the running threat posed by the quarterback forces a defensive lineman or linebacker to "freeze" in order to plug the running lane; this has the effect of blocking the target player without needing to put a body on him.
A third version of the spread offense is the Pistol offense used by Brian Polian's Nevada Wolf Pack and some high schools across the nation. Developed by Chris Ault, the Pistol focuses on using the run with many offensive players, and it calls for the quarterback to line up about three yards behind the center and take a short shotgun snap at the start of each play. Instead of lining up next to the quarterback like in the normal shotgun, the tailback lines up behind the quarterback at normal depth. This enables him to take a handoff while running toward the line of scrimmage, rather than parallel to it as is the case from the standard shotgun. Since Ault installed the Pistol in 2004, his Wolf Pack has been among of the NCAA's most productive offenses. In 2009, they led the country in rushing and total offense, and were also the first team in college football history to have three players rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
Recently, use of the spread has led to new defenses, most noticeably the 3-3-5. Traditional defenses use 4 or 5 down linemen sets to stop an offense, but with the growing number of spread offenses, teams are looking to smaller, faster defensive players to cover more of the field. The strategy and philosophy behind this thinking has been widely debated and many coaches have found success using a 30 front, or using a 40 front against the spread. Gary Patterson at TCU has consistently produced one of college football's best defenses in the first part of the 21st century by using a nickel with a 40 front, or 4-2-5, as a base defense. Combined with his program's emphasis on defensive speed, TCU has proven capable of defending against many spread offenses.
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 some 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. NFL defenses are usually faster than college defenses, which allows the vertical seams created by the formation to 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. Since the level of talent between the starting quarterback and the backup is generally much greater than with a typical college team, 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 to the Buffalo Bills. The Green Bay Packers have also been running a lot of the spread offense with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
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In recent years, the spread offense has become a very popular term used in context of the high school game with the offense's innovative ways to make the game faster and higher scoring. While it has changed the game, and teams that successfully run it are scoring more points, there is debate whether the offensive system is as effective as it seems.
Some coaches have taken to packaging their offensive system and marketing them to programs around the country, such as Tony Franklin, who served as an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky under Hal Mumme where he developed his offense based on Mumme's "Air Raid" system. Manny Matsakis being another example as he is the inventor of the Triple Shoot Offense, which is a spread set with forms in the Shotgun, Pistol and under center. Matsakis was an assistant coach under both Mike Leach at Texas tech and Bill Snyder at Kansas State. He is currently the head coach of Enka High School in Asheville, North Carolina.
As a reaction to the success of the spread offense in high profile colleges, such as The University of Florida, innovative high school coaches began retooling the system to work on high school teams. Now the system has become quite widespread, with numerous schools achieving success. Defenses are left with the challenge of defending more of the field than ever before, and the offense was given the advantage of having numerous running and passing lanes created by the defense being so spread out.
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- "The System"