NFL PS – It isnt the first time

Posted: January 9, 2012 in All Things Power Spread

Ironically, the Steelers, who were the first playoff victim of the PS in the NFL, arguably ran the first NFL PS back when they had a player they called Slash. The offense was an accident, but credit must be given to the open mindedness of Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt. Just like Bill Snyder a couple of years later at Kansas State, Cowher found a way to use his best athlete  and created a spread offense to give his athlete the roam to rome. Also like Snyder, Cowher’s PS consisted mainly of QB draws and some option plays out of the spread, but the idea to use the whole field for power and finesse was there from the start. In a way, Cowher and Erhardt’s creation was even more innovative as it brought back memories of the old Single Wing when the TB passed, ran, caught and punted – sort of like Kordell Stewart, who also did all of that in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl year of ’95.

Even more ironic is all the coaches involved with the Steelers during the time of the switch from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. On Noll’s last staff, there was a little known defensive assistant named John Fox who will now be known as the Head Coach who brought the PS to the NFL. On Cowher’s early staffs he had DC Dom Capers, DB coach Dick LaBeau and LB coach Marvin Lewis. Yeah, quite a staff – not surprising all the great defenses under the Cowher era. By 1995 Capers was gone, LaBeau was the DC and Lewis still the LB coach. Also Chan Gailey was the WRs coach on offense with Erhardt.

Amazingly, after the success of the Slash experiement and spread passing game with O’Donnell in 1995, the Steelers went away from these concepts and ended up taking another 10 years to get to the Super Bowl. Even with great drafts, coaching and schemes, nothing compared to the PS/Passing Spread the Steelers ran in 1995, which made O’Donnell look better than he was and fully optimized the abilities of Stewart.

More fascinating still is the fact that none of these coaches saw the potential in this type of offense and developed it further. Cowher wanted to make Stewart his fulltime QB (which had mixed results later in the decade) and Ernhardt wanted to keep the Slash idea with the Passing Spread under O’Donnell. Ernhardt was let go, Gailey promoted and that was the end of any PS in Pittsburgh. From Gailey to Sherman to Gilbride to Bratkowski to Mularkey to Whisenhunt and finally to Arians, the Steelers always had good offensive minds around, but never the full implementation of what they did in ’95 and what beat them yesterday.

Erhardt went to the Jets, took O’Donnell with him and retired after 2 years. Erhardt was a long time coach at North Dakota St and then with the Pats and the Giants. He usually ran conventional Pro Offenses, though he could mix it up and was very adaptable – willing to run whatever his boss wanted – sort of like Kevin Gilbride – one of Erhardt’s successors under Cowher. 1995 was Erhardt’s chance to shine as the smarts, but lack of arm strength of O’Donnell and the athleticism of Stewart forced the Steelers into cutting edge schemes that resembled a return to past football schemes to the uninformed viewer. But whatever you want to call it – it was fun – and it was powerful – and its now the present and future of the NFL.

Even the great defensive minds on the Cowher staffs didnt pick up on this PS idea – from Capers to Lewis – and they still dont as proven yesterday! Dick Labeau came back to the Steelers in 2004 and was one of the early developers of the Zone Blitz when he was DC for the Bengals and Steelers during the 80s/90s.

Aggression can shut down the Two back Pro sets and Zone Blitz can slow down all but the very best passing spread attacks, but its trickier than that for the PS. The best solution Ive seen so far is a Passive Aggressive concept, where Aggression is masked with Passivity (Zones, Cushion and Reads) and vice versa. The Zone Blitz is predicated on masking pressure and coverages, so the transition to actually creating “phantom” pressure, but having players in their right zones and reads covering the whole field, shouldnt be a rough transition. But the concept of what PS means needs to be understood – ITS NOT AN OPTION OFFENSE! That’s one scheme that can be used for it. Another way I’ve seen the PS attacked is “phantom” reads where the whole defense is in a standard read and react set before the snap and designated LBs or DBs blitz at the snap – full bore – while the others read and react off the chaos. Run blitzing or “FIRING”  the LBs is a great way to stop the Read Option.

This is what LaBeau was doing – but  you have to be aware of the SPREAD – its called Power Spread – not just Power Football. This isnt the 1960s, even though the NFL sometimes seems in a time warp. LaBeau’s main idea of this offense as a pure option scheme had his Defense in trouble from the start. Had Denver had the added advantage of a college Coordinator who actually understood what the PS is, then the score would have been ugly – believe me.So, the Irony is Thick, and the greatest NFL organization since 1970, that accidentally was the first NFL team to run the PS in ’95, was the first victim to it in ’11. The greatest NFL organization of the last decade – New England – indirectly brought the PS back when genius Bellichick visited with genius Meyer in Florida in ’04-’05 and may have taken future(?) genius, McDaniel, with him. McDaniel brought Meyer’s QB, Tebow, to Denver last year and thanks to the open-minded brilliance of former Steeler coach, John Fox, and his assistant Mike McCoy (a buddy of McDaniel) the PS is alive and well in the NFL.

Ill leave you with the unknowing originators of Power Spread Football in the NFL and some of the fun articles from the days of “SLASH” football in Pittsburgh:

‘Slash’ Stewart burns Steelers’ foes WR/QB/back/punter has done it all

Stewart The X Factor As Steelers Face Colts He Is A Threat At Qb, Running Back Or Receiver. “i Get A Headache Myself Trying To Figure Out How To Defend Me,” He Says.

Slash Enjoys Role(s)

Slash & Flash

That Xxx-tra Dimension


  1. […] Defense there was very little mix of blitz packages and pretty much zero Passive Aggressive concept that Fickell was getting so good at in his prior years as a DC.  In other words – […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.