Last NFL season gave me up hope. The success of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick instilled confidence in me that perhaps the professional ranks were warming to change. Offensive playbooks adhering only to a tried-and-true, strict framework featuring only incremental deviations might no longer be the standard.
As football became of growing importance to me, I gravitated more to the college game because of its diversity. The NFL is the highest level of football, played by the game’s greatest players — and as a result, the creativity some college coaches are forced to use is rendered moot.
It’s been a bad week for proponents of offensive diversity in the NFL, though. One of the most successful spread offense quarterbacks in college football history, Tim Tebow, received his walking papers from the New York Jets.
Because of his outstanding college run, and his notoriety in general, Tebow is a poster boy for quote-unquote college offenses. Other considerations are at the root of Tebow’s NFL failings, but the flame-out of any dual-threat, spread-savvy quarterback impacts the outlook for others.
The weekend’s NFL draft emphasized the still-prevalent disconnect that exists between NFL and college philosophies. This year’s draft was not particularly good for quarterbacks, but was especially disheartening for those developing in spread systems.
This year marked a return to the status quo of franchises drafting quarterbacks with ho-hum college credentials, but who came from Pro Set systems: Mike Glennon, Brad Sorenson, Zac Dysert.
Even Chip Kelly, celebrated for his version of the spread employed with the Oregon Ducks, expended a draft pick on quintessential Pro Set prospect Matt Barkley.
NFL brass still isn’t embracing spread offenses, yet a considerable portion of the NFL punditry population sees a revolution. There exists a misrepresentation of the spread option offense.
The spread offense is multifaceted and ever-evolving, as examined in this excellent feature by Steven Godfrey.
Its many variations does not lend itself to a universal definition, though the spread is painted in a very broad stroke when discussed at the professional level.
ESPN.com’s Gregg Easterbrook assessed Florida State Seminoles quarterback E.J. Manuel, the lone first rounder of this year’s quarterback class, thusly:
Going into the coming season, many teams will run the zone-read and many will brace to stop it.
The top of the draft told that story. The sole quarterback taken in Round 1, EJ Manuel, seems a long shot for the NFL, but was the well-known quarterback most familiar with zone-read tactics.
Easterbrook’s is just one opinion, but this was a prevalent misconception trotted around the blogosphere and social media. Another evaluation of Manuel cites the zone-read among his strengths.
[Manuel] also rushed for 208 yards on designed running plays, including six rushes for 45 yards on zone-read options. Comparatively, Geno Smith gained 27 yards on designed rushes in 2012.
Now, Smith came from a West Virginia Mountaineers system that called for him to pass 518 times in 13 games. Manuel passed 387 times in 14 games. They came from vastly different systems, but if Smith is the measuring stick by wish a quarterback’s option acumen is defined, Manuel exceeds it.
Of the aforementioned class of quarterbacks, sure, Manuel is a zone-read player. Jimbo Fisher integrated option elements at times. But that’s a far cry from the shift Wilson, Griffin and Kaepernick brought to the NFL last season.
Realistically, Manuel was closer to another quarterback the Buffalo Bills considered, Syracuse Orange product Ryan Nassib, than he was to any of the aforementioned trio. Nassib had just 19 fewer credited rushes in one fewer game than Manuel during 2012, and posted a comparable yard per carry average to Manuel’s 2011 output.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that Nassib’s college coach is now Manuel’s professional coach.
Perhaps most revealing of the NFL’s hesitance to more fully embrace the spread option was the draft weekend of Arizona quarterback Matt Scott. Scott was considered a fast-riser up many draft boards in the weeks leading up to the draft, and interviewed with the same Buffalo Bills organization that drafted Manuel in the first round.
That Scott, a proven two-way talent who impressed scouts leading up to the draft and product of spread offense option guru Rich Rodriguez’s system, went undrafted speaks volumes.