The NFL prospects of quarterbacks who play in spread offenses in college has been a hot topic this offseason.
The spread in general has been dissected more often than frogs in a fifth grade science classroom this summer, in part because it has been slowly taking over the college football universe. Some see it as a temporary phenomenon. Others think of it as the new West Coast Offense, a scheme initially derided as gimmickry but now is an accepted part of the football canon.
The debate often reaches its boiling point when comparing the pro prospects of Tim Tebow and Matthew Stafford. Tebow proponents tout his size, arm strength, and mobility as things that will impress the scouts. Stafford proponents promote his physical features as well, but mostly the fact that he runs a “pro-style offense.”
Some have reported that many NFL teams shy away from spread quarterbacks because those signal callers operate from shotgun so much. The theory is that the pro teams don’t want to be bothered with teaching a guy how to drop back after taking a snap from under center.
Dennis Dodd has gone so far as to predict a demise of the spread in big time programs in a relatively short time frame. His point is that big-time high school quarterbacks who want to go to the NFL will seek offensive schemes closer to what most professional teams run and will forsake the spread schools.
Dodd’s biggest example against spread schemes was Missouri’s struggles against Oklahoma last season. He talks about the difficulty that Chase Daniel had at being comfortable against the Sooners’ big defensive front.
What he doesn’t mention is the fact that spread teams West Virginia (48), Texas Tech (34), and yes, Missouri (31) put up the three highest point totals against OU in 2007. When it comes down to it, Oklahoma simply had a great pass rush that most quarterbacks would struggle against, and spread offenses had the most success at putting points on the board against it.
What spread detractors often don’t mention either is that two of the best NFL offenses of 2007 employed spread sets.
The New England Patriots ran the most spread in 2007, and it produced one of the best offenses the NFL has ever seen. Brett Farve experienced a renaissance last season in Green Bay, also aided in part by running some shotgun spread. He particularly liked those sets, and he’s now on the Jets whose offensive coordinator, former Gator quarterback Brian Schottenheimer, also likes the shotgun spread.
Having Randy Moss helped the Patriots’ offense a lot. However, the key to making everything go was their smallish yet speedy and dynamic slot receiver, Wes Welker. Most NFL teams do not have three great cornerbacks, and there’s no way a linebacker could cover him. Coming from Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense at Texas Tech no doubt helped him play that role, and he caught 112 balls for over 1,100 yards last season.
Recent draftees Ted Ginn, Jr. and DeShawn Jackson could easily be molded to fit that position. Plenty of receivers who are in spread offenses in college right now could be that dynamic slot guy for an offense that desires one as well.
Much has been made of Alex Smith’s struggles in San Francisco and Vince Young’s difficulties in cobbling together a decent passer rating in Tennessee despite winning rookie of the year. The people who point that out though usually don’t mention pro-style poster boy Matt Leinart’s inability, now confirmed for a third straight year, to beat out an over-the-hill Kurt Warner in Arizona. Or, for that matter, the success of the spread-bred Drew Brees.
The fact of the matter is, most quarterbacks don’t make it in the NFL. If it was easy to do so, the top-end guys wouldn’t make so much money. The sample size of quarterbacks who have run this decade’s style of spread offense in college and have had a chance in the pros is far too small to make a lasting conclusion about their viability on the next level right now.
Some folks have even advanced the idea that the spread will trickle up to the NFL, much as it trickled up to college from high school. As more colleges run the spread, more spread players will be entering the draft.
Most offensive coordinators say they will tailor their scheme to the players they have, and if that is the case they will have no choice but to install some elements of the spread. The NFL will be a talent-poor place if it chooses to ignore the majority of the offensive players from Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Michigan, most of the Big 12, half of the Big Ten, a few Pac-10 schools, and whoever else in major college football converts to a spread scheme.
A true zone read spread option offense almost certainly will never be run in the NFL. Too much money is invested in quarterbacks to have them take that many hits. However, spreading the field has proven to be profitable to teams that have the receivers to do it. Plus, Florida has shown at times over the past two years how to run a spread offense with a tight end and fullback, two things that every pro team has.
I don’t think the spread is going to die out any time soon, especially in college. There simply aren’t enough collegiate DBs who can make one-on-one tackles to ever see it die. I would also expect to see teams experiment more with it in the NFL just in case it is viable. As I said before, the West Coast offense was laughed at initially, and we’ve seen the Run and Shoot, itself a spread variant, go through the league.
Should the spread catch on some more in the NFL, it will certainly mean good things for spread quarterbacks. Whether it will in time for the class of 2009 or 2010 is unclear, but if spread-wielding teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Jets put up some big numbers, that offense could be the next target of the copycat league.
Until and unless that happens, we’ll have to take the spread quarterbacks on a case-by-case basis. It’s just as unfair to doubt Tebow on the basis of Alex Smith’s NFL play just as it would be to doubt Stafford based on the NFL play of David Greene, Chris Weinke, Danny Kanell, and other quarterbacks groomed by Mark Richt.