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Death of the pro-style offense

Take a gander at the NCAA rankings for points per game. The top 10:

1. Oklahoma
2. Tulsa
3. Florida
4. Texas Tech
5. Texas
6. Missouri
7. Oregon
8. Oklahoma State
9. Rice
10. Houston

What stands out about this list is that none of these teams run "conventional" offensive schemes. There's one spread-option attack in Florida, and the rest are varying degrees of spread.

By spacing out the offensive linemen and wide receivers, the system makes it easy for the quarterback to figure out the intentions of the opposing defense before the ball is snapped: he can look up and down the line, "read" the defense, and decide where to throw the ball before anyone has moved a muscle.

Oklahoma is the most "vanilla" scheme on this list, but even the Sooners use the Shotgun formation enough that NFL scouts are concerned that Sam Bradford does not have enough experience making reads at the line of scrimmage. Think of using the Shotgun formation as akin to using a calculator when trying to learn long division. It's an extremely useful tool; but first, you need to be fundamentally grounded in the basics.

That Gladwell article from the New Yorker has a detailed rundown of the difficulties of evaluating quarterbacks in the spread. It's a bit long though, so here's a shorter summary from another article evaluating Tim Tebow.

A scout for an AFC team, who requested anonymity because he is prohibited from talking about underclassmen until they declare, said playing in a spread offense and carrying the ball hurt Tebow because scouts can't evaluate him in a pro-style offense. They don't know if he can take snaps from center, make reads while dropping back and look for his third our fourth option on the play.

That, more than anything, is the reason that there is somewhat of a stigma attached to the spread offense. Despite the gaudy statistics piled up by the likes of Graham Harrell, NFL scouts by and large prefer Matthew Stafford from the vanilla, conventional, boring Georgia Bulldogs.

Ever since Yale's Walter Camp first developed the forward pass, football has been a continual game of one-upsmanship. The Single Wing gave way to the Wishbone and the I Formation. Sid Gillman and later Don Coryell popularized a downfield, vertical passing attack in the NFL , while Bill Walsh developed a more horizontal attack. These two schools of thought formed the basis for modern offense in the NFL, and have by large permeated down to the amateur ranks. The collegiate game was always a bit more disparate. While the likes of Darrell K. Royal and Woody Hayes were relatively set in their ways; Mouse Davis, Steve Spurrier, and LaVell Edwards, among others, were creating innovative passing attacks parallel but not quite corresponding to prevailing NFL trends.

At the same time that the spread offense was propagating around college football, one major fact was overlooked in the hysteria following events such as Nebraska canning Frank Solich in favor of NFL West Coast Offense "Guru" Bill Callahan: the option never really went away. It just went underground, awaiting the day that it would reemerge on the college football scene. Arguably, the first salvo was the success of Michael Vick at Virginia Tech, who went first overall in the 2001 NFL draft despite his considerable limitations as a passer.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Greg Schiano did not wake up one day and decide that defensive tackles that weighed 260 pounds were really nifty. He had lemons, so he adapted and made lemonade. In the SI piece I linked above, Paul Zimmerman quotes Bill Walsh as saying that he originally designed his "West Coast Offense" in response to personnel limitations. Similarly, while Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez may now be considered a mad scientist/high priest of the spread option offense, its signature zone-read play was created by accident.

In a game early in 1991, Drenning missed or bobbled a handoff and then kept the ball, running for a moderate gain.

"Why did you do that?" Rodriguez asked Drenning.

"The end squeezed in, so I kept it," Drenning said.

"Oh, right," Rodriguez said, pretending not to be surprised. "Oh, we’re putting that in next week."

I think the impetus for why Rodriguez, Paul Johnson, and Urban Meyer prefer option attacks, or why anyone would use a non-traditional scheme is twofold. These offenses are still relatively unconventional. As defensive coordinators become more accustomed to the spread, you can expect offenses to add newer wrinkles in a continuing game of cat and mouse. Furthermore, unlike in the NFL, there is a wide talent disparity between teams in college football. Spread schemes can easily create the kind of mismatches that are far less common in the pros, where nearly every player was a standout in the college ranks.

That's ultimately why the NFL, by large, will not be changing its stripes any time soon. Steve Spurrier was a relative failure during his tenure with the Washington Redskins. No head coach or general manager wants to see their multi-million dollar investment at quarterback take too many hits on running plays. Still, as documented by Football Outsiders, usage of the Shotgun formation in the NFL hit an all time high in 2007, no doubt symbolized by the prolific offense of the New England Patriots.

If the spread offense and its variants are enormously successful, and becoming more popular by the year, there's still a very good reason why Rutgers and offensive coordinator John McNulty should resist any temptation to radically tinker with their current schemes and outlook. With every team that adopts the spread or spread-option, those schemes become that much more commonplace, incrementally reducing their inherent novelty factor.

More importantly, with every team that takes the plunge with the spread and/or option, that's one less competitor in the market for classic drop back passers. Rutgers is extremely fortunate this year to have a verbal commitment from Philadelphia quarterback Tom Savage. It would be naive to think that RU did not greatly benefit from the decisions by Michigan to hire Rich Rodriguez, and by Penn State to switch to a "Spread HD" scheme (don't bother asking exactly what that means).

''It's a run offense,'' Jay Paterno said. ''It's really a glorified wishbone offense.''

It is not, he added, a pass-heavy attack.

''That's the biggest misconception about the spread offense is that it's this wide open, throw it all over the place [offense],'' Paterno said.

I don't think Charlie Weis will ever be forgiven for his infamous "decided schematic advantage" quote; but with a track record of developing Tom Brady and Brady Quinn, Notre Dame is still a desirable destination for classic dropback passers. Nationally, many teams in the SEC and Pac-10 are still active in that shrinking market. In the Northeast, once Notre Dame gets its fill, Rutgers and its pro-style, vertical passing scheme are quite attractive to the top high school football players.

There's an interesting consequence to the popularity of the spread offense in the Big XII during the past few years: Texas High School football is changing, with an eye towards creating more passers equipped to step into the conference and be successful. I'd guess that similar trends will start to emerge around the country; with more top athletes playing the quarterback position, and head coaches primarily concerned with their own win-loss records. The "pro-style" offense is not dead; classic dropback passer is never going to go away completely, there will always be holdouts. However, it would not be a suprise if their numbers continued to dwindle as a result of these trends.