Friday, September 21, 2007

SF Chronicle: There's quite a wide gap among spread offenses

Jake Curtis

Saying a team runs a spread offense doesn't tell you much anymore. The two teams coming to the Bay Area this weekend - Oregon and Arizona - are both classic spread-offense teams, yet their philosophies are almost polar opposites.

The Ducks have run the ball 75 percent of the time and are third nationally in rushing offense. The Wildcats have passed on about two-thirds of their plays and lead the Pac-10 in passing. The "spread" has become a rather generic label, and coaches sometimes have trouble identifying its defining characteristics. Most say a spread offense merely means having four or five wide receivers as part of the base offense, although these days it usually includes a shotgun formation and a no-huddle attack.  Arizona, which plays at Cal on Saturday, and Oregon, which travels to Stanford, have all those elements but are products of different versions. Oregon runs what might be called the Urban Meyer spread, which is a balanced offense that uses a lot of option and requires its quarterback to be a good runner and passer. Meyer used it successfully at Utah with Alex Smith and now has it going at Florida with Tim Tebow. At Oregon, the quarterback is Dennis Dixon, an ideal person for this offense, which is one reason he is the Ducks quarterback instead of Brady Leaf. Dixon leads the Pac-10 in passing efficiency and is sixth in rushing.

Arizona operates out of the spread authored by Mike Leach, who made a name for himself by implementing it at Oklahoma in 1999 and now coaches at pass-crazy Texas Tech. This is a pass offense. Period. The quarterback almost never runs, except to scramble, and running plays are called only if the defense is completely ignoring the ground game. It is also characterized by unusually large gaps between offensive linemen, a way to spread the defensive linemen and slow the pass rush.  Cal is well acquainted with the Leach version it will face Saturday, because Texas Tech blitzed the favored Bears 45-31 in the 2004 Holiday Bowl. Cal has played two teams that used that offense since - New Mexico State and Brigham Young, both in 2005 - and acquitted itself well, although handling a New Mexico State team that finished 0-12 is not much of an accomplishment.  Some teams still have trouble with the spread. Michigan's early-season disaster resulted when two spread teams - Appalachian State and Oregon - ran through the Wolverines' defense. Michigan did much better against Notre Dame, which does not rely on the spread. For a while, the spread was seen as an equalizer, a way for less talented teams to compete. That seemed to be true a decade ago with the rise of Northwestern, Kentucky and Purdue, and the resurgence of Oklahoma when the spread passing game was added. Now, so many teams use it, it has lost much of its advantage.

These days the spread is fraught with variations. Minnesota calls its offense the spread-coast offense, a hybrid of the spread and West Coast offense that Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar apparently developed in concert with Cal coach Jeff Tedford last year when Dunbar was the Bears' offensive coordinator. Tedford has since dropped most of the spread elements added last season, although he has kept the shotgun.  With the notable exception of Drew Brees, few quarterbacks from spread offenses make it in the NFL. Andre Ware, David Klingler and Tim Couch are examples of early first-round draft picks who put up big numbers as spread quarterbacks in college but were disappointing as pros. Smith? We'll see. No NFL team runs a spread as its base offense, probably because it puts the quarterback too much at risk. However, the Patriots went right down the field several times with a no-huddle spread offense against the Chargers on Sunday. Having Tom Brady and Randy Moss helped a little too.

Best Pac-10 game: The top Pac-10 game of the week - Washington at UCLA - will be televised in the Bay Area. Sort of. It's on Fox Sports Net Bay Area, but will be joined in progress after the Giants-Reds game. We should get most of the second half - as long as the Giants don't make too many pitching changes.


No comments: