Spread Offense: Bridging the Evaluation Gap

In an exclusive excerpt from Pro Football Prospectus 2008, Doug Farrar outlines the player evaluation gap between the NCAA and the NFL, and how the spread offense has blurred the lines for scouts and general managers. Which teams are adjusting and finding success with new offensive templates?

A Brief History

The spread offense and all its variations grew out of a need for programs to establish schematic advantage, especially against superior opponents. In college football, where there are any number of top-heavy games in which major and smaller schools collide, with the smaller schools generally just hoping not to get blown out, the spread offense is an equalizer that allows underdogs to determine both the game's tempo and the opposing defense's strategy.

The current spread offense has its roots in the run-and-shoot, the offense designed in the 1950's by Glen Ellison of Ohio University and popularized two decades later by Mouse Davis at Portland State. Davis became the first coach to take this offense past the collegiate ranks, first as head coach of the USFL's Denver Gold in the early 1980s and then as offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions from 1989 through 1992. The idea behind the run-and-shoot was to throw multiple-receiver sets at opposing defenses, using wide spreads to elongate and predetermine defensive formations. Against these formations, quarterbacks threw to receivers running shorter routes and gaining more yards after the catch. Single-back sets and tight ends sent outside as receivers eliminated backside protection as a concept, but the thought was that the tempo of the offense would always offset that issue. The shotgun later used in different variances of the spread was less prevalent in the run-and-shoot -- short routes and backfield options ruled the day. 

It was a sharp break from the old-school approach to the passing game. Though the offenses that Bill Walsh created in Cincinnati in the 1970s and ran in San Francisco in the 1980s with such great success featured a shorter passing game, the lower-percentage long pass had been an NFL constant from Joe Namath to Terry Bradshaw to John Elway. The run-and-shoot was also different from the Walsh offense because there was generally less time for quarterbacks to read through their progressions. But as the run-and-shoot developed in college football, and as a response to blitz-happy defenses like Buddy Ryan's 46, the league took notice and those formations made their way into the NFL.

Davis' Lions, the Houston Oilers of the late 1980s and early 1990s under Jerry Glanville and Jack Pardee, and the Atlanta Falcons under Glanville and June Jones from 1990 through 1995 all ran the run-and-shoot to greater or lesser degrees of success. Glanville,  who ran it more than any other head coach at the professional level, went 60-69 in the regular season and 3-4 in the playoffs. Eventually, those who disparaged the offense as gimmicky (Ryan famously called it the "Chuck-and-Duck"), and vulnerable to the faster, more talented defenders of the NFL, had their way as the run-and-shoot fell out of favor. Steve Spurrier tried his own "Fun-and Gun" variation with the Washington Redskins in 2002 and 2003, but it didn't take. Spurrier was replaced by Joe Gibbs after posting a 12-20 record, and this breed of offense was basically dead in the NFL.

For more of this article, exclusive previews of every NFL team, proprietary stats and analysis, and more research essays, check out Pro Football Prospectus 2008.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders and Pro Football Prospectus 2008,, and he will write football content for the Washington Post in 2008. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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