Spread Offenses & NFL Quarterbacks
It is one of the boilerplate mantras of the last few years- college football is not sending quarterbacks that are prepared to play in the NFL because most of them run the “spread.”
There is some merit to this. There are almost 130 FBS teams, and only a few are running offenses that even resemble what is run in the NFL. Why is that? It is because in high schools and colleges, where there is a much larger span of talent and depth within a team and from team to team, it is simply logistically easier to succeed running a spread.
As fans, we get used to watching “elite” football, the primary entity being the NFL, but elite can also apply to a lot of the top programs in college. In order to put the amount of responsibility on a quarterback, and other offensive players, to run a complex, “pro” system, you need the top echelon of talent and coaching. The burden on a quarterback to run a pro-style offense is probably the largest burden placed on any position in any sport. If you are running a college or high school program, you want a “system” that can be run by a far greater range of talent – talent at the offensive positions, talent available game to game and talent available year to year. There are just a few college programs that will undertake this, and often when they miss on a particular quarterback, the year is lost.
Before we dive into what a pro-style quarterback does within a game, it is important to try to define, or at least clarify some terms regarding spread vs. pro-style offense. First, the amount of running backs or tight ends you use is not indicative of a “pro-style” offense, nor does it mean that the spread is all about passing all over the field and pro-style is more about running. You will hear this because it is a seemingly convenient way to comprehend the categorization, but it is also a passive aggressive dig at teams that run spread offenses.
And right about the time that spread offenses really started to take over in colleges, about 10-15 years ago, the opinion of many “old school” coaches wasn’t passive at all in its aggressiveness. The truth is that what is seen by many as “old school” and “real football” (read: 3 yards and a cloud of dust), is really just a blip in the whole evolution of football. If you want to pick up the original book on spread offense, for example, you can if you can find it. It was published in 1952.
The terminology of football is simply exasperating at times, and not because of its breadth, but because of its misnomers and misleads. To properly delineate what is known as a college type spread and pro-style, it would be far more accurate to state it in terms of quarterback responsibility. “College spread” type offenses are systems run and orchestrated at almost every level by the coaches… they are “controlled” offenses. The original principle was to “spread” out the defenses, but that is not the primary component of what now dictates what is called a spread offense.
Pro-style offenses put a heavy part of the onus to run the offense on the QB. All the rest of the categorizing you should simply throw out. You can find many “spread” offenses that have the same or even a higher run-pass ratio than NFL teams, and NFL teams that run “pro-style” offenses that pass far more than many “spread” teams and often line-up with an empty backfield. None of that matters. It is all about what the QB is asked to do.
Trent Dilfer talks about how you can evaluate a spread offense college quarterback by watching “goal to go” situations:
The Spread Quarterback: The Predetermined Player
The best way to describe a spread quarterback in relation to a pro-style one is that his role is predetermined. That is, the offense is designed in such a way that he is making controlled throws, often bubble screens, or within 5 yards, and also has designed runs, often with options built in. You build plays around him. If a team can find a supreme athlete that has adequate short field accuracy, and also excellent athleticism, you have something to build on. In your standard spread offense, the coach is giving rigid guidelines to the offensive players on what they are supposed to do for each play, again, with “options” built in, most often with handoffs. Perhaps the extreme of this is the old veer offense, now generally referred to as the triple option. The QB and a pair of backs are running very similar plays up and down the field with the QB making reads on when, where, and if he pitches out to the other back. There are not a lot of plays, and just a couple of reads for the QB to make, which are more instinctual than analytical. Other spread offenses generally have a predetermined target on passing plays. The key here is that it is much more like calling plays in a video game… the coach calls the plays and the players execute with limited responsibilities once the play is called.
The Pro-Style QB: The Hardest Job in Sports
Most weeks during the NFL season about 2/3rd of fans think their team needs a new QB. Even a lot of fans of teams that are winning think their team can take the next step if they only had a better QB. Yet, year after year, it seems that there is chatter about a lack of qualified quarterbacks entering the NFL draft. The reality is that it is not that there aren’t a lot of qualified quarterbacks; it is just very difficult to identify them. Quite simply, the quarterback position in the NFL is the hardest job in sports, and most college quarterbacks haven’t been asked to do what is needed in a pro-style offense. That is why there are starting to be a lot of “surprises” where highly successful college quarterbacks aren’t taken in the first round, or even the second. Teams just don’t positively know what these guys can process until they are thrown into the fire.
Let’s look at some of the responsibilities of a pro-style quarterback to illuminate why there isn’t enough data on spread offense quarterbacks coming out of college.
Huddle up: Pro-style quarterbacks huddle up and get the play in. They watch for the personnel coming into the game, and make sure everyone knows their assignments. The play comes in and they relay it to players, who only then know where they are supposed to line up. The QB looks around and makes sure any subbed in players know their assignment.
Check with Him: NFL teams use “check with me’s” to allow the quarterback to change the play at the line of scrimmage. He first needs to try to get the safeties to declare what they are going to do. Then, he can implement the “check with me” run, which can be one of two run plays, or a “check with me” pass or even a run or pass “check with me.” He has made a read on what he believes the defense is doing, trying to see through the disguises, and then he makes a play call.
Who’s Mike? The quarterback also has to identify the presumed middle linebacker on the play. Defenses are trying to disguise coverages, and the QB has to call out the central figure. The Mike is the pivot guy and must be identified so that each offensive player can count from him right to left to determine who they are assigned to block.
Three Step, Five Step, More Steps? Based on what the quarterback sees, he often has to tell the receivers on the play how many steps he intends to take. This will alter the receivers’ routes so that everyone’s timing is in synch.
Option Route Harmony: Many wide receivers run option routes based on what the defense gives them. The QB and each of his WR’s have to practically have telepathy, trusting that they are seeing the same thing from the defense. This is where you see that ugly pick six where the QB seems to have thrown it right to the defender and looks really mad at the wide receiver after.
Center to QB Snap: Pro-style offenses are using more shotgun but still use a lot of snaps under center. It is an art that most college quarterbacks haven’t mastered. The second that ball is snapped a lot of big people, narrowly focused on disrupting the offense, are put into motion. Every step by the QB, receivers, tight ends, running backs, and offensive lineman have to be moving in concert if the play has a chance of success. The QB has to stay alert to his immediate surrounds but also go through his reads and make a play in this high pressure situation.
Start the Reads: A QB is a super-processor. They start at their first read, or the primary receiver. It is all about timing. If that receiver is off his route, was disrupted, covered by extra defenders, etc., the QB has to process and move on. If defenses are fooling him, the processing goes awry. This is almost impossible to simulate during the scouting process and on the film that scouts have to watch. A spread QB is generally just executing, a pro-style QB is PROCESSING. Watch film of Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers, and you can see the head pivots, the footwork, the decision making. Instincts will get you so far, but their brains are processing quickly trying to see what the defense is doing and getting the ball to the open man.
Launch Point Discipline: With well run spread offenses, the quarterbacks are fairly active. They are generally dictating the play with run options, short and quick passes, often screens, all controlled by quick, ball control play. A quarterback in a pro-style offense has to work inside a mass of bodies that is his office. This is his launch point. The rest of the offensive blockers know where this is, and depend on the QB working from there. While they are processing the play as it develops, they use very specific footwork to shuffle within a small area. The offensive lineman and any other blockers know where this is, which can have slight changes based on the strengths of the defensive line. While it can be fun to watch highlights of spread quarterbacks in college and marvel at what great athletes they are, they better also have a lot of film showing that they can work within a pocket and stay in their launch points.
My Teams Is Looking At A Spread QB!
About a third of all NFL teams have QB on their list of needs each year for the draft. This could be a dire need, finding an eventual replacement for an aging QB, creating competition for a middle of the road or worse performing QB, or just building depth. So how can you evaluate how good a spread QB can be at the next level? To start, look for some of these things:
- How does he look working in the pocket? Don’t get distracted by athletic runs on the outside, but watch his feet and how he uses little shuffle moves like the greats do in the NFL. A QB can be great at both, but has to have great footwork in the pocket.
- Does he quickly bail out of the pocket? The guy make have excellent running stats, but if he is just bailing on plays all the time, that is a problem. NFL defenses will stop a “run-first” quarterback, at least most of the time.
- Look for “NFL Throws.” The deep outs and back shoulder fades are important to see his accuracy and ball velocity.
- Hand size. It’s important. It is a lot like turnover ratio, a fairly trustworthy stat.
- Where is his release point? You don’t have to be 6’5″ but if you aren’t, you better have a nice high release point. Watch Drew Brees, a shorter QB, but a perfect release point. The shorter the QB, the more important this becomes.
- Did his team ever have him under center? If he hasn’t done this, don’t expect him to play much in the first year. If he is a developmental guy, not a huge issue, but it must be mastered.
- Don’t get enamored by completion percentage if half of the throws are just bubble screens and short, predetermined passes. When this is the case, try to watch as many throws down the field as you can.
- Is he smart? It seems like a ridiculous thing to mention, but there have been a lot of college football stars at QB that have been drafted high because teams fell in love with highlights. You can’t be a dummy and succeed at QB in the NFL long term.