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Defending monotony

College football blogs are near universal in their praise for Smart Football, and indeed the site is very well done. As an avowed hater of "spread" style offenses, I'm certainly going to take issue with a lot of the pro-spread and gadgetry sentiment at S.F. Doesn't mean anything with regard to either side's validity; it's a simple disagreement.

When Dr. Saturday approvingly quoted Chris's latest "the NFL is boring, and here's why" screed, I couldn't help but feel compelled to respond. Admittedly, I do not know nearly as much about football strategy as Chris, and clearly concede his expertise there. However, I think that two of his points don't quite mesh all that well.

First, the opening paragraph:

I am frequently asked why I don't more often discuss NFL offenses. Haven't many of these college gurus been chewed up by the NFL? Didn't the NFL "prove" that the run & shoot can't work? Isn't the NFL football's highest level, and doesn't it therefore have the most money and resources, the best people, and shouldn't the result then be that NFL football is the most strategically interesting?

Check out his later concession of the NFL's advantage when it comes to superior athleticism.

Defenses have the same issue of 80/20 blandness, though they will sometimes give incredibly exotic looks solely due to the freakish nature of some of the players. NFL cornerbacks can constantly play "press-bail" -- meaning they can show bump and run and yet be able to "bail" and play deep if necessary -- because they are so athletic, and I've seen guys like Ravens safety Ed Reed do miraculous things like line up directly on the line of scrimmage over a tight-end and then at the snap retreat and play deep half-field safety on the opposite side of the field. Other than the kind of stuff that you can only do if you've won the DNA lottery, NFL defenses all tend to be the same as well.

I think this concession is where the argument stumbles. Like any scheme on any level, the purpose of the spread schemes is to create mismatches. The piece attributes the NFL's blandness to tunnel vision on this particular point, and I'm not quite sure why. When Mike Leach's offense lines up in a shotgun, four wide look against Kansas State; presumably the whole purpose of that exotic look is to get one of his speedy Red Raiders matched up against a slower wildcard. The mismatch will be there, and Leach's latest quarterback du jour will exploit it. With NFL talent at such a higher level than the dregs of major conference football (and Tech usually plays a weak out of conference schedule), that dog isn't going to hunt, day in and day out, at that level. When you have Tom Brady and Randy Moss? Maybe.


The speed argument is more difficult to discard, though I think for now we can ignore it. On the one hand, the idea that the defense is faster suddenly dooms all these schemes common to college seems bizarre considering that the offensive guys are (or should be?) faster too. Thus, relatively, there is no speed advantage.

The NFL certainly has its share of bad teams, but even those are composed of many individual college stars. At its worst, on a down week you'll have to face a Cleveland or Detroit. Owing to the presence of a salary cap and 53-man rosters, the difference between the best and worst professional teams is far narrower than that between a Texas Tech and an Eastern Washington or UMass. When NFL aficionados speak of "better", what they're surely intending to reference this talent disparity, in addition to the enormous distinction when it comes to physical measurables between the college and professional levels.

This thread is different from the argument that while the Shotgun can be successful in the NFL (look at the 2007 Patriots), its practitioners under center need a sufficient grounding first in taking snaps under center. Bully on Leach for getting the most out of the likes of Graham Harrell (chosen for example's sake) in college, but NFL talent evaluators universally agreed that Harrell is a mediocre talent, whose many flaws were successfully hidden in the Big XII, but would be eaten alive on the NFL gridiron.

Think of the time spent in Leach's mad scientist lair/pirate ship, drawing up those maddening attacks. His primary Big XII South competition in Mack Brown and Bob Stoops delegate the task. Leach can spend all of his time scribbling and erasing; they'll spend their time trying to recruit the best athletes. Their prowess undoubtedly owes much to the superior tradition of their respective programs. It'll be worth watching to see if the likes of Ron Zook and Dave Wannstedt, to cite two examples of coaches stereotyped as strong recruiters as mediocre with Xs and Os, have more success than the spread gurus in coming years as a fair test of this theory. As the piece alludes to, it might just be a better allocation of resources to drill and drill those bread and butter plays, focusing on superior execution over schematic advantage.

I'm loathe to defend a lack of creativity, cronyism, or groupthink, but isn't a reason alternative explanation that the NFL has, at some point (particularly earlier in history), had its fill of every Johnny-come-lately exotic wrinkle? Like invading mitochondria (or Hyksos), these all lefty tiny, but influential imprints absorbed into the DNA of the modern professional game, before quickly flaming out. I'm not claiming that desperation doesn't lead to cool stuff popping up on the margins; that's one of the most interesting aspects of the college game to me. Rather, it's whether those developments are ultimately viable, over the long term (inevitably spawning defensive adjustments and adaptations on both levels), as every down offensive schemes. What's effective in the small sample size of "throwing stuff against the wall" mode may not be as productive once the opposition has the chance to adapt, and plan for as an every down base offense.