Commentary

The truth about spread offenses

Many believe popular college scheme hinders QBs; statistics paint a different picture

Originally Published: April 20, 2011
By Sharon Katz | ESPN Stats & Information

Cam Newton led the country in pass efficiency rating, accounted for 4,327 yards of total offense and scored more touchdowns in 2010 (51) than 82 entire teams in the FBS. Oh yeah, he also won the Heisman Trophy and led the Auburn Tigers to a rather unexpected national title.

Yet, when asked if Newton will excel at the next level, many experts and players believe, despite Newton's success in college, he will not be able to translate his success onto the NFL field

"Would I take him No. 1? Absolutely not," New York Giants DE Justin Tuck said of Newton, while appearing as a panelist at the MIT Sports Analytics conference in early March. "If he comes into the league doing what he did in college, he won't be in this league for very long."

In college, Newton ran a version of the spread offense that is becoming more and more popular among college coaches. According to a study by ESPN.com, 48 teams (40 percent of the FBS) ran a version of the spread as their primary offense in 2009. That is a drastic increase from a decade prior. There are many versions of the spread in today's college game (Missouri, Florida and Nevada all run a different version of the spread), but these offenses share many similarities.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCam Newton has his critics, but he might be more prepared for the NFL than many think.

When asked what characteristics define a spread offense, ESPN college football analyst Urban Meyer noted that no two teams run exactly the same offense but every spread offense uses all 50 yards across the field. He added that spread offenses usually line up with three, sometimes four, wide receivers and the quarterbacks take snaps from shotgun at least 75 percent of the time. Spread offenses are also usually run by an athletic quarterback who provides a running threat.

Yet, it is these characteristics that worry NFL GMs and scouts nationwide. "As many strengths as the spread offense has, and it has many, it has hindered the development of quarterbacks," said Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director for ESPN's Scouts Inc. in 2009. "The essential principles of productive quarterback play [footwork, balance, transfer of weight and timing] are often compromised in the spread."

That means once spread quarterbacks enter the NFL they must relearn fundamentals to fit into NFL offenses. They have to master taking snaps from under center and learn three-, five- and seven-step drops while maintaining their accuracy and timing against faster defenses. Without multiple-receiver sets to spread the defense, they must learn to exploit defenses with fewer holes and defensive backs on the field. They also must adjust to different NFL schemes and routes run by wide receivers, while learning to become pass-first quarterbacks.

Those challenges -- and the recent NFL struggles of notable college spread quarterbacks such as Alex Smith and Vince Young -- have led to a commonly held belief that running a spread offense in college is an inhibitor to the development of future productive NFL quarterbacks.

But that may not be the case …

Of the 24 quarterbacks taken in the first or second round of the draft since 2005, 11 ran a variation of the spread offense in college. Despite starting fewer games in the NFL than their non-spread counterparts, their career statistics are almost identical.

The 11 spread quarterbacks had a slightly higher passer rating in the NFL than the non-spread quarterbacks. They also had a higher completion percentage and winning percentage.

It is reasonable to believe the players who ran the spread in college would struggle in their first year in the league. Again, that is not the case. Of the quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds since 2005, 11 of them took 150 or more snaps in their rookie seasons. Of those players, the spread quarterbacks started fewer games but had a higher completion percentage and TD-to-INT ratio. However, the spread quarterbacks were sacked at a higher rate, which could point to an inability to read defenses and make decisions as efficiently.

Looking at the quarterback prospects of the 2011 draft, there is no reason to believe they will fare differently. Four of the top eight ran a version of the spread in college, including the top two prospects, Newton and Blaine Gabbert.

Newton and Gabbert attempted more than 95 percent of their passes this season after lining up in shotgun and had three or more wide receivers on the field on more than 91 percent of their pass attempts. The average NFL QB took 38.2 percent of his snaps from shotgun and had three or more wide receivers on the field on 47 percent of his snaps in 2010.

Although that is a significant adjustment, there are many quarterbacks who have excelled in the NFL after running similar systems in college. Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco and most recently Sam Bradford have made the transition to NFL quarterback rather seamlessly after running the spread in college. More NFL offenses are adopting pieces of the spread every year. The Indianapolis Colts led the league by lining up three or more wide receivers on 76.1 percent of their snaps last year, a 15.7 percentage point increase from just two years prior. Quarterbacks are also lining up in shotgun more often (about eight more snaps per game) in 2010 as opposed to in 2008.

As more NFL and college teams adopt the spread offense, NFL GMs will have to adjust their evaluation process. As Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland said at the combine, "There are so many spread offenses out there and so many variables of the spread offense in college, you really have to do your homework at that position."

The teams that did their homework over the past five years have found that good quarterbacks, no matter what system they ran in college, can succeed in the NFL.