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By Jonathan Bales

The Spread Offense: Six (Very Bold) Predictions and Their Effect on the Dallas Cowboys

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NFL teams will continue to transition toward the spread offense, forcing a ton of personnel changes.

Variations of the spread offense, such as the pass-happy version the Patriots run or the Wildcat in Miami, are taking over the NFL. In this article, we will explain how the transition of NFL offenses to the spread will affect the game, providing six fairly bold predictions and detailing how these changes will alter the Dallas Cowboys’ personnel philosophy moving forward.

1. Within ten years, all NFL teams will be running some form of the spread as their base offense.

We’ve already seen this prediction become a reality for some teams, such as the Patriots and Saints. Not coincidentally, these teams also generally score the most points. Even teams that have traditionally been known as running squads, such as the Steelers and Ravens, have transitioned to a more spread-like attack in recent years.

A conversion to a spread offense, however, does not necessarily mean more passing. The Dolphins version of the offense is extremely run-heavy, proving that the spread can allow for a diverse array of play calls.

A quick peak at college football can also yield great insights as to what the pro game will become in the near future. There are spread offenses that throw nearly every play (Texas Tech, Hawaii), and spread offenses that run the ball a ton (Florida).

But why would college football get it right before the NFL? First, there is no “right” offense to run. The NFL goes through cycles where offenses adapt and defenses counter, creating periods where sometimes big, strong players are in vogue and other times small, fast players are the norm.

Second, NFL coaches are on such a short leash that a complete shift in offensive philosophy would just take too much time to manifest itself in a winning team. A coach that leads a 5-11 team with a traditional offense is much more likely to stick around for another year than one who led the same team with an unconventional offense. NFL owners, GM’s, and fans just have not seen enough results from a spread attack to know it will work, and thus are hesitant to embrace change. Eventually, however, NFL offenses will slowly become more aggressive and spread offenses will become prevalent.

Impact On Cowboys: The Cowboys are still running a “traditional” offense, implementing two tight ends more than any team in the NFL in 2009. Still, Jason Garrett is no stranger to spreading the field. The team ran Shotgun an incredible 460 plays this season, or 46.3 percent of their meaningful plays (discounting spikes, quarterback kneels, etc).

This transition to a spread attack will continue to grow in 2010. The Cowboys have been fairly predictable in their playcalling out of certain formations recently (see our study on Double Tight Right Strong Right). Expect that to change in the coming years, with more and more running plays called out of Shotgun formation.

The versatility of hybrid players such as Dexter McCluster will become very valuable in the coming years.

This means that the number of two tight end sets will eventually decline. In 2009, the team implemented two or more tight ends on 556 plays (55.9 percent), making it their base offense. Despite the presence of three excellent tight ends, that number could dip to around 50 percent by next season. Also expect the Cowboys to move their tight ends around the field even more when they are in the game, creating natural pre-snap running lanes.

2. Much like the OLB/DE 3-4 hybrid position, NFL offenses will see more and more RB/WR hybrid players.

Running backs with great receiving skills have been around for awhile (Marshall Faulk comes to mind as the ultimate RB/WR), but the game is seeing a shift from running backs who can catch the ball to true hybrid players. Reggie Bush and Percy Harvin are two current players whose games are predictive of what we will see in the near future. College stars such as Ole Miss’s Dexter McCluster and Florida’s Jeffrey Demps are blurring the line between running back and wide receiver more than ever before.

The nature of most spread offenses is the reason for these sorts of players. Ironically, the various personnel packages and subsequent specialization that the spread has created has led to the importance of these do-it-all-players.

The reason a great pass-catching tight end is so valuable, for example, is because of his versatility. Tight ends that can block make defenses stay in their base personnel grouping, meaning the pass-catching ability of these players will be on display with a slower linebacker in coverage. Should the defense bring in nickel personnel and put an extra cornerback in the game, the tight end’s blocking ability then becomes an extremely lucrative asset.

Much like the tight end position, these RB/WR hybrid players create matchup nightmares for defenses. A personnel package that contains a player or two whose running ability is as indefensible as his receiving ability gives the defense no hint as to a possible play call, thus creating the inability to make the proper personnel substitutions.

Impact on Cowboys: This shift in the fundamental nature of offensive positions will force the Cowboys to eventually shift their personnel as well. This could happen sooner rather than later. While we believe the addition of Reggie Bush could create nightmare matchups for a defense and provide the Cowboys with the sort of offensive threat to which they are not accustomed, there are also a variety of players in this year’s draft who have similar traits.

The Cowboys figure to use Choice more in 2010, particularly in the Wildcat formation, which they ran 16 times in 2009.

RB/WR/Returner Dexter McCluster out of Ole Miss comes to mind first. We love his skill set so much that we labeled him as the Cowboys’ second round pick this year. Even players such as Cincinnati’s Mardy Gilyard who do not possess the versatility of McCluster are altering what a “prototypical” wide receiver looks like. It is no secret the Cowboys value big, strong pass-catchers, but expect the team to add at least one smaller play-making hybrid player before the start of the 2010 season.

3. The “Wildcat,” as one version of the spread, will flourish with better passers taking the snap.

In some ways, the Wildcat offense was already around when Michael Vick was in Atlanta. In that version of the offense, however, the snap-taker could throw the ball incredibly well. Before Ronnie Brown went down for the Dolphins, they had been running the Wildcat very effectively with a running back who has limited passing skills. Imagine the efficiency of that offense with a player who could throw the ball like Michael Vick.

The reason that the Wildcat can be so effective is because the offense can use an extra blocker with the snap-taker running the football. No quarterback is needed to hand the ball off. Offenses can also stay in base personnel if their regular passer is versatile enough to run. This will keep defenses off balance in both their personnel groupings and their play-calling. It is much less risky to blitz both cornerbacks with Ronnie Brown at “quarterback” than it would be to bring pressure with Vick taking the snap.

Pat White was the first player truly taken to be a Wildcat “QB,” and there are more of them coming. Of course, Tim Tebow is the ultimate spread offense, Wildcat-type college quarterback, and, consequently, the ultimate question mark for NFL general managers. The range of opinions regarding Tebow’s skills varies greatly, but any team that selects him will have to implement a Florida-like spread attack to be successful.

Michael Vick was truly the originator of the Wildcat. Dual-threat quarterbacks like him will become the norm in the future.

Only time will tell if these running quarterbacks and the Wildcat offense are just fads, but we believe that, once the NFL embraces all variations of the spread, both will have their place in the league.

Impact on Cowboys: The Cowboys tried their hand at the Wildcat a bit more in 2009, running a play out of the formation 16 times. All 16 plays were runs by Tashard Choice, five of them being inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Jason Garrett was smart to implement the Wildcat in goal line situations because, with little room to throw the ball and defenses expecting run anyway, the Wildcat allows the offense an extra blocker.

Despite running the ball in many short-yardage situations with limited upside, the Cowboys were fairly successful with the formation, averaging 5.7 yards-per-carry. Expect both the number of Wildcat attempts and the average yards-per-attempt to increase next season with additional practice.

With such a talented quarterback at the helm, though, the Cowboys do not have as much need for the Wildcat as a team like the Dolphins. Still, if the teams continues to find success with it, there is no reason to stop.

4. In much the same way that teams have utilized two or three running backs, the majority of NFL teams will regularly use two quarterbacks.

There is no doubt that one of the main reasons against using a running quarterback in the NFL is economical. The majority of signal-callers get paid so much money that franchises are just too invested in one player to let him get injured.

To overcome this conundrum, NFL teams will begin to use two quarterbacks. One may be more of a passer than a runner, and the other vice versa, but both will be versatile enough so that the defense cannot predict the play call simply from the personnel. By having two, or even three, viable running quarterbacks, offenses can make any play call without hesitation, knowing that an injury to one player would not set the team back incredibly far, either economically or from a personnel standpoint. Traditionally, an injured quarterback basically means the end of all Super Bowl hopes for a team, but with the implementation of a two-quarterback system that the spread will invoke, this is not the case.

Furthermore, we will see teams use both quarterbacks on the field at the same time. This will allow teams to become more aggressive in their play-calling, using more throwbacks, reverses, and so on where these hybrid players can throw downfield.

Imagine the Dolphins Wildcat system, for example, with Tim Tebow taking the snap (instead of Ronnie Brown) and Michael Vick running across on the read (instead of Ricky Williams). There is no doubt that Brown and Williams are incredibly talented runners, but neither holds the passing ability to truly keep defenses honest. With two QB/RB players running that scheme, the options for an offense become seemingly endless just from one play. Tebow could keep it and run, keep it and pass, give it and have Vick run, give it and have Vick pass, give it and have Vick throwback, and so on.

Impact on Cowboys: This scenario is much further down the road than the other predictions. Still, just as Dallas transitioned from a one-running back offense to a three-headed rushing attack, the same sort of alteration will take place at quarterback. Instead of being worried about the season being flushed down the toilet with an injury to the star quarterback, the Cowboys will be able to let these playmakers run free without hesitation.

Jason Witten's ability to block is the primary reason for his pass-catching success.

Further, the money that will be saved by not dishing out tens of millions of dollars to a franchise quarterback can be used to stockpile talent at the other positions. Eventually, however, the value of these hybrid players will decrease and, like all NFL trends, the cycle will repeat itself.

5. The pure pass-catching tight end will die out and be replaced by a more versatile hybrid player.

As I explained before, tight ends are so valuable to an offense because of their versatility. Defenses must stay in base personnel to account for the tight end’s ability to block, creating mismatches on the tight end when he goes out in a route.

More and more, however, NFL teams are drafting tight ends who simply cannot block well. This allows defenses to substitute nickel personnel when the tight end is in the game, knowing that he will not be able to block well enough for his offense to sustain a viable rushing attack. The extra cornerback who is in the game can usually match up well with the tight end, who, although he has good receiving skills, is not as quick or talented as a pure wide receiver. Thus, the entire reason for using a tight end– to create a mismatch– is ruined.

Impact on Cowboys: In many ways, the Cowboys have already made this prediction a reality. All three of their tight ends, in addition to being viable receiving threats, are superb blockers. This ability to block is actually what leads to their success in the passing game. Does anyone truly believe Witten is a more talented receiver than, say, Sam Hurd? In terms of athleticism and quickness, it is not even close. Witten is much more effective than Hurd and almost all NFL pass-catchers, though, because his blocking ability allows him to attain matchups with linebackers who simply have no shot at covering him.

Although superb in man coverage, Terence Newman has the strength and versatility to convert to any defensive scheme.

6. True man coverage will all but disappear and more teams will run a 3-4 defense.

The reason for the disappearance of man coverage is two-fold. First, the NFL’s illegal contact rule has made man-to-man coverage nearly impossible. Even when teams appear to be in man coverage, the cornerback generally has safety help over the top.

Second, with the offenses transitioning to running quarterbacks, the risk of playing man coverage, or even 2-man under (man coverage underneath with two safeties deep), is just too great. With defenders’ backs turned to the quarterback, it will just become too easy for the quarterback to scramble. This man coverage-less defensive scheme was used against Michael Vick when he was quarterbacking Atlanta.

This will lead team’s to use a zone blitz for the majority of their pressures. More and more teams will convert to a 3-4 to allow more athleticism on the field for these zone schemes to work. Having a 350-pound defensive tackle drop into zone coverage may work once or twice a game because it can confuse a quarterback, but with the majority of blitzes becoming of the zone variety, defenses will need smaller, quicker players to combat how offenses will attack.

Impact on Cowboys: The transition to the 3-4 to combat spread attacks is obviously something Dallas has already completed. Eventually, this could even morph into a 3-3-5 (five defensive backs and three linebackers, as compared to four of each in a 3-4).

The Cowboys are one of the few teams left that plays a lot of man coverage, but they get away with it because of the talent they have in Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins. Further, Wade Phillips rarely dials up all-out blitzes, so the corners often have a safety or two back deep to help.

Eventually, if opposing teams acquire running quarterbacks, the Cowboys will have to ditch some of their man-to-man schemes. Right now, though, the abilities of Newman and Jenkins allow the Cowboys’ current system to flourish.

Conclusions

The Cowboys implementation of a 3-4 defense and Wildcat formation could be seen as changes caused by the popularity of the spread offense. As we stated, further alterations are inescapable. Some of these could include:

  • More Shotgun and less two tight end sets
  • Acquisition of a Reggie Bush/Dexter McCluster type hybrid player
  • More Wildcat, including the possible acquisition of a true quarterback to run the system
  • Utilization of more dime packages on defense (four cornerbacks, two linebackers)

These predictions are certainly very bold and definitely not immune to criticism. Feel free to leave feedback regarding anything with which you may agree, and anywhere you think we may have gone wrong.

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6 Responses to The Spread Offense: Six (Very Bold) Predictions and Their Effect on the Dallas Cowboys

  1. john coleman says:

    Based on the above the traditional tightend would still cause problems, right? Defensively why not go with a Taylor Mays, Kam Chancellor, Daryl Washington type at ILB. Slightly undersize hitters with more speed. Use them as a rover or spy, covering running QBs and TEs. It might be a good idea now against the Hybrid guys.

  2. jongb35 says:

    When I saw the name Taylor Mays I immediately cringed, but your idea of putting him right at ILB is intriguing. He would still have to gain weight, because at 225 he just wouldn’t be able to hold up in a 3-4.

    If he could get to, say, 240 pounds, that would be a fine weight to be an incredible nickel LB.

    If offenses do unfold as I predict, though, eventually 225 pound LBs will be a reality. I like Mays’ physical tools, his effort, and his character, I just don’t currently like him as a good fit in D.

  3. john coleman says:

    I don’t like him either at safety. The ILB thing was based on the spread article. He will go way too high to draft as an ILB project.

  4. jongb35 says:

    Definitely. I knew what you meant about the spread and I think you are right. If the Cowboys do draft a safety though, I pray Earl Thomas falls to 27.

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