Why the Spread Offense Is Becoming the Norm in the NFL

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterJuly 10, 2012

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07:  The New Orleans Saints line up against the Detroit Lions during their 2012 NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 7, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The spread offense's popularity has been steadily climbing since the 1990s, but the origin of the offense dates back to the early 20th century. Some may argue as to who the pioneer of the offense was, but from everything I found, it was Rusty Russell.

Russell is best known for coaching Southern Methodist University in the early 1950s, but his tenure as head coach of the Masonic Home and School Orphanage left behind the longest-lasting impression.

Kids from the orphanage were often undersized and physically inept, so Russell had to devise a way to out-coach teams in Texas' Class A division. Most of the schools they played had enrollment numbers in the thousands; Masonic Home only occasionally had enrollment numbers above 150. 

Since his teams lacked physical prowess, Russell put together one of the earliest forms of the spread offense. From 1927-1942, he had an overall record of 127-30-12, and by the end of his run at the orphanage, Jim Dent, a New York Times bestselling author, had written a book titled Twelve Mighty Orphans.

Since its origination, the spread offense has branched off into a multitude of different philosophies, the most abundant of which is often seen in college football.

Here are a few of the most notable deviations:

1. Spread Option

The spread option consists of a dual-threat quarterback, a slot receiver and a tailback.

A few of college's current head coaches have been partial to the spread option. Urban Meyer, Chip Kelly and Rich Rodriguez all deploy this run-first scheme.

Considering it's a run-first offense, wide receivers are expected to hold blocks on the perimeter, and offensive linemen need to be quick enough to pull block for a majority of the game. 

2. Air Raid

Air Raid is a very extreme version of the spread, and, by the name, you can probably tell it is a pass-heavy offense. Mike Leach, Mike Gundy and Tommy Tuberville are well known for their own variations of the Air Raid offense.

In this offense, a quarterback's biggest responsibility is his ability to audible. Based on how the defense is aligned, it is the quarterback's responsibility to call the correct play at the line of scrimmage.

Short passing is used as a substitute for the running game. If a receiver can catch a short pass and head up field for six or so yards, it's looked at as a win, compared to running the ball for two or three yards.  

3. The Pistol

The pistol is another run-heavy spread formation.

Chris Ault, head coach of the University of Nevada, is believed to be one of the first coaches to develop the pistol offense. Ault has used the pistol to develop one of the most potent power-rushing attacks in all of college football.

While running the pistol in 2009, Nevada became the first team in NCAA history to have three 1,000-yard rushers on the same team.

One of the biggest advantages to the pistol is the fact the quarterback is closer to the line than in normal shotgun formations. By being closer to the line of scrimmage, the quarterback gets the ball in his hands and to the running backs faster.

The Spread in Today's NFL

With the spread offense often being looked at as an offense solely for college football, why is the spread becoming the norm in the NFL? Because it is successful and extremely hard to defend with the right personnel.

The 2007 New England Patriots administered one of the most successful spread attacks in NFL history. They broke team records for the most points in a season, most touchdowns in a season and most first downs. Additionally, Tom Brady broke the record for the most passing touchdowns in a season, and Randy Moss set the record for most receiving touchdowns in a season.

In 2011 Houston, Denver, San Francisco and Jacksonville were the only teams to run the ball more than they passed it. By comparison, in 1978, every NFL team had more rushing attempts than they did pass attempts.

The era of traditional run sets has gone to the wayside as teams are looking to exploit defenses by using an overabundance of talent at one position.

For an example, let's take a look at the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Going into the game, they knew they couldn't be stopped as long as they spread the Steelers out. The Steelers had no match for Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. 

In the second quarter, on Greg Jennings' 21-yard touchdown reception, the Packers were in a classic four-wide receiver spread set. The play called for all verticals, which created mismatches down the seam, as the Steelers still had their 3-4 base defense on the field. 

The Packers ran 58 offensive plays in Super Bowl XLV, and of those 58 plays, they had three wide receivers or more on the field for 39. 

It's in the Numbers

It's simple: When a team has talent and quality depth at the wideout position, it will be relentless in its attack. Drew BreesPeyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have become masters at exploiting this.

If you take a look at the NFL single-season pass attempts, four of the top five all-time leaders are from the past two seasons. 

The Detroit Lions are another young team that has started to deploy an Air Raid offense. That's likely because offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's experience in the system dates back to his days as Louisville's offensive coordinator, where he was Urban Meyer's mentor.

Leading the league in pass attempts usually means you like to spread it out, and spreading it out was what the Lions enjoyed doing in 2011. They threw the ball a league-high 666 times. The offense was on the field for 1,197 plays, and it deployed three wide receivers or more on 697 plays. 

Trent Dilfer of ESPN has gone on the record saying that he thinks Scott Linehan runs the purest form of the spread in the NFL.

Here is what Dilfer said while he covered one of the Lions' Monday Night Football games:

Without getting into all the nuances of the various spread offenses you see at the college level, I'll say this: In reviewing the film, I've watched every snap the Lions have taken on offense this season (more than once, in fact), and I don't remember a team running a system closer to what, say, Kevin Wilson was running for years at Oklahoma, producing a run of great quarterbacks. Even New England isn't quite like this, and Tom Brady is in the shotgun constantly. But that's what the Lions under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan are doing this season.

By looking at a few different scenarios in this article, it is easy to see that the spread offense has arrived and is here to stay.

Why would teams go away from what works so well?

The only way for this trend to slow down is to match the stockpile of receivers with a stockpile of quality cornerbacks. 

For that reason, having a superstar nickel corner is necessary in today's NFL. Look at teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles; they have recognized the league's offensive trend and have begun to employ strategies to nip the spread in the bud.