What the Hell’s Going on Out There?!!

Posted: September 8, 2011 in All Things Power Spread
Tags: , , , , , ,

With all the brilliant schemes now seen on the field, especially in College Football,  one can only imagine that Vince Lombardi would still use this famous line in a different context to describe what he was seeing in today’s game.   I was wondering myself for a while in 2007 and 2008 what exactly was happening on the field during the first decade of the new millennium. I always felt that Talent was everything in football – the most talented team always wins, right??   I was a huge lover of the NFL – all about the players (sometimes just the STARS) – without much awareness of anything else.  And back in the day when teams would stay together and not fling around the league year after year with only HUGE Salary QBs and a couple of other players remaining situated in he middle of this revolving door of new players every year. Back when I watched the NFL one felt like part of the team because all these great players were so familiar – they felt like a family amongst themselves and the fans felt like part of it.  There was no Fantasy Football as a sad substitute to feel a part of something greater than ordinary life.  At least I had the slight awareness to know it wasn’t ONLY about the QB and the STAR PLAYERS.   I knew that it took a lot of different players to build a winning team – lineman, dbs, etc and not just the QB that “WINS” Super Bowls. After moving to Pittsburgh I was amazed out how Terry Bradshaw was the “WINNER” of 4 Super Bowls, when he was surrounded by a Hall of Fame lineup on both sides of the ball.  In fact, many a pass was thrown up blindly by this Southern boy with the big arm, knowing he had the most athletic pair of receivers in the game who would bail him out every time.  To this day I still love talent first – as so many do who still watch the NFL and refuse to accept the development of any new schematics entering the game — but thanks to rampant free agency and a lack of loyalty I moved away from the NFL and studied the GAME itself more, having a better understanding of what I am actually seeing — not just a bunch of talented jocks running around and hitting each other –  there were other factors involved in wins and losses besides TALENT  – coaching, the program or organization and of course, team chemistry just to name a few. I actually started having an inkling of these “other” factors as far back as the 1980s with the help of my favorite NFL team, the Cincinnati Bengals, and their inability to win a Super Bowl despite their great TALENT.  My slight “jump” in awareness that there is something more to a team than just a great offense or defense was in the realization that Special Teams played a bigger part than most fans realized. The Bengals had such fun and dynamic offenses with great QBs, but their Special Teams and, many times, their Defense always held them back.  Then I saw the same thing with my favorite College Football team, Ohio State, who, in the 90s,  had some of the best talent in the Country and great Defenses to go with great Offenses, but break downs on Special Teams that cost them.  Of course, I was overjoyed at the detail and attention given to this part of the game of football when Coach Tressel came a long and led us to a National Championship.  Sure enough, we won many a close game during that  Championship run in 2002, due in many ways to the best Special Teams I ever witnessed from my favorite teams. Still, even after looking at the Coaching, Special Teams, Chemistry, etc, I was missing something and as I got further away from the NFL in the 00’s and started watching more and more College Football – not just Ohio State games. Then came the ignominious season of 2008 – the year we were supposed to have one of our greatest teams ever, rivaling the great 1998 team.

It was early in that year that I ran across possibly the hardest game I ever had to watch – and I watched it over and over and over again, until I finished analyzing and recording every single play of the game.  This is the September debacle where my beloved Buckeyes were blasted by my most hated team on the planet (possibly more than Michigan) – USC…..ugh!   I knew the talent on both teams – I had already studied these players as HS recruits – there was no clear edge.  In some spots USC had the talent edge, but in others it went to the Buckeyes.  Experience was actually on the side of the Buckeyes that year as most their top players surprisingly came back from the great team of 2007.  The Coaching could be called a tie or arguably in the Buckeyes favor and the our Special Teams was annually better than USC’s Special Teams, which were not always a main focus of Pete Carroll teams.  Lastly, the chemistry. The camaraderie that existed on our team was second to none as they fought thru a rough year of failed expectations, never quitting and always keeping their heads up with class.

So based on the final score I was completely in error with most or all of the above observations OR there was still a missing element I wasn’t seeing.   It wasn’t long into my obsessive post game analysis that I started to realize this “missing link”SCHEMES!   That was it – pure and simple .  The schemes run by USC’s Offensive Coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, were so ahead of our Defense – in terms of everything – from the use of multiple sets and  formations to all kinds of pre-snap shifts and motion – even  variations in the use of the game clock and snap counts.  We were so off balance on defense that we looked as slow as a 1980’s High School team.  And when our distraught players lost all confidence and began to hesitate on every play, we not only looked slow, but weak as well as we were blown out of holes by players of the same size, strength and speed.  Most fans concluded, as they had throughout most of USC’s reign, that their athletes were far superior. This was easy to disprove in he 2nd half as young Luke Fickell became more involved as a Defensive Coordinator in that 2nd half and made some wise adjustments in an effort to put our players in much better positions to stop this brilliant offensive scheme of USC.  Suddenly, as the playing field was leveled, our athletes looked every bit as fast  as USC, if not faster, and actually were able to keep the score from getting ridiculously out of control as USC stayed really aggressive on offense until late in the 4th quarter.   Unfortunately it was too little too late as our Offense never made a schematic adjustment to counter the much more aggressive schemes of USC’s defense. Our underrated offensive talent was left running for their lives, under constant pressure by a defense that seemed to know every play we were about to run.  It could be argued that we had the better team that year – we were massacred in schematics – and it was then that I started studying our schemes week after week and by the following year in 2009 I was studying all the schemes across the Country.

As I looked around it didn’t take long to notice some of the Read Option stuff that Sarkisian was running being used all over the place.  And, unlike the complicated brilliance of Sarkisian’s Multiple Offense, there were a lot of Spread Schemes out there that used a lot of Read Option runs over and over to great success. I started studying why these runs were so successful and so consistently maximized the talent on the team. It was pretty simple – use ALL OF THE FIELD and ALL OF THE PLAYERS including the QB in misdirection to keep the Defense off balance.  Some teams such as West Virginia or Navy didn’t pass much from their schemes, while others really mixed in both, such as Northwestern, who constantly seems to fluctuate between a Passing Spread and a Running Spread.  I finally came up with the term Power Spread and I wasn’t talking about the gimmicky offensive schemes seen throughout football history. I didn’t even use the term to mean Scheme — instead I was thinking of a concept or idea.   It incorporates all of football history from the Single Wing to the T Formation to the Pro Sets to the Run and Shoot, to the West Coast and to the Passing Spreads.

It’s schemes can be Pistol, Wildcat, Zone Read, Triple Option or just the Passing Spreads that have been used for a while: Run and Shoot, Air Raid, Fun Gun of Spurrier , Norm Chow’s BYU spread, Bubble Screen spreads of Gary Crowton or the more complicated NFL type passing spreads of Petrino, Weiss, etc.

Now when I say Power Spread I’m not talking just SPREAD – there are two words to this phrase – you can’t leave out the POWER.  IF you think about it  – it’s an oxymoron – because how can Power and Spread be used together?  To me it means – UTILIZING  THE WHOLE FIELD,  ALL THE TOOLS OF THE GAME AND PLAYERS ON THE FIELD – A   PERFECT BALANCE.  This includes misdirection and every player, except the lineman,  as an offensive threat.  Every coach knows that you can’t defend BALANCE because you cant defend EVERYTHING. I call this the Accordion effect.  Like an accordion the Power Spread “spreads” to where the defense ain’t.  Short, long, middle, wide.  Run or pass it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t have to include option or a running QB – though this is helpful because with a running QB you have utilized 11 players instead of 10 – so there’s more balance.   You don’t have to run the  option or mis-direction, but again when you do this there’s just so much balance — you utilize  more players and more field when you have mis-direction or play action and it opens holes in the defense as they try to search for the ball amongst all the players from all over the field

Now some teams use speed to open up the whole field – Auburn and Oregon. Some teams use the POWER part of the term more – Alabama with its Pistol and Wildcat formations just pound on teams!  Also, Villanova may be the absolute definition of the POWER SPREAD with every one of their lineman over 300 lbs (in the FCS!) and they just spread the field and pound the Zone Read up the gut over and over until the defense stops it. Then the do play action and quick throws to loosen the defense. Then go back up the gut!  IT’S THE GREEN BAY PACKERS OF VINCE LOMBARDI IN SPREAD RUNS!

Not only does the Power Spread incorporate all the PLAYERS and the whole FIELD, but it also incorporates the whole HISTORY of Football in the most balanced offense ever.  In fact, Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly’s schemes at times look like the 1920’s Single Wing with 4 running backs in the backfield and all kinds of mis-direction hand offs and fakes. The HUGE difference is that today we can add the passing game to that. The Single Wing eventually went away because it was easier to pass out of the T Full House Formation and then even easier out of the Pro Sets of the 60s and 70s.  Eventually we went to passing spreads starting first with the Pro Sets of the West Coast Offense, then the Run and Shoot, the No Huddle of the Buffalo Bills and finally the Pro Passing Spreads of New England and Indianapolis. But NOW,  some smart coaches in college determined that running the ball between the tackles out of these spread formations killed a defense and we have come full circle all the way back to the original single wing mis-direction plays of the 20s.  But with passing — IT INCORPORATES EVERYTHING THERE IS ABOUT OFFENSIVE FOOTBALL. IT ENGULFS THE NFL SCHEMES BECAUSE IT INCLUDES AND EXPOUNDS UPON THESE SCHEMES.

The only chance of stopping these schemes is by luck, a huge talent edge (which rarely exists anymore in college football) or by the PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE defensive schemes. Nick Saban made this popular with his Zone Blitz schemes – looks aggressive, but isn’t too aggressive. See, how do you beat the most balanced offenses in the history of football? With the most balanced defenses. Aggressive but not too aggressive.  The ILLUSION OF AGGRESSION.  You show an aggressive look,  but play zone or give the illusion of  deep zone,  but unload a surprise blitz, like when your linebackers drop into coverage, but blitz the nickel back and safety. You play man to man on the corners but deep zone in the middle. You play zone short but man to man with safeties – and on and on. The PHANTOM DEFENSE is the epitome of this – NO DOWN LINEMEN – nada! – everyone standing and there’s no way to know where the pressure will come from OR even if there will be any pressure at all?

We are going to see this cat and mouse game for the next decade not only in college but also in the NFL

And besides the whole use of the Field and the deception and involvement in all he players on the Field, there will also be more players used off the BENCH as well!  Substitution like we never have seen before is going to start happening. It’s already started on defense because of the hurry up offenses.  Defenses basically start 22 players now – no 2nd string – because they need to be fresh. Nick Aliotti’s idea of using a DE in coverage may have been a good one in the title game against Auburn (I think Urban Meyer liked it but Nick Saban didn’t), but we will never know — why??? — because the guy was totally winded. Oregon did not have the defensive depth of talent it needed to sufficiently defend the Hurry Up Offense. They had 15 players when they needed 22. Same thing applies to the offense – as the QB’s and RB’s get hit more because of more plays run, there will be a need for substitutions – yes even the QB’s!!  There is a lot of talent out there – plug them in the system – 4 good QBs over 1 great one may not work for TV ratings, but if the team is able to switch the parts, because the Scheme is so good and the team starts winning – fans will soon take affection to their multi-headed QB.  FOOTBALL IS THE ULTIMATE TEAM SPORT AND COACHES ARE STARTING TO REMEMBER THIS – ONE OR TWO GREAT PLAYERS CAN BE TAKEN DOWN BY A GREAT TEAM!

As we start using 50-70 players a game in College Football,  the NFL coaches are going to take notice – why? – simple – INJURIES.  Substitution reduces injuries and keeps the team stable for the season. Injuries don’t just take away good players – it hurts the continuity of the TEAM!  It’s better to play more players and keep continuity.  Once the NFL starts winning by using more players they will see the advantage of having extra QB’s (like the Steelers last year) then the running QB will start happening in the NFL. When the wins start piling up the NFL will embrace the change.

Now this idea embraces the TEAM and takes away from the STAR which the NFL builds its livelihood on. about. The only reason I think this type of system may happen in the NFL anyway is because of the efficiency and simple brilliance of this incredibly balanced concept. It’s so hard to stop and yet so simple. The defenses have to somehow counter with the same great balance back at the offense.  So you need the WHOLE TEAM just like you need the WHOLE FIELD and not just ONE GREAT PLAYER or ONE PART OF THE FIELD. All of the all-time greats like Lombardi,  Halas and Brown would have loved this concept of football because they KNEW that it’s about TEAM and  that “winning isn’t everything – its the ONLY THING.”


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