While the New England Patriots use a spread offense a lot of the time it doesn't really resemble anything at the college level.
I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone in this community who send me emails daily to ask questions, give me sources or talk about the Panthers. You definitely make my job easier, and those who have emailed can attest that I answer more often than I don't.
Yesterday I got an email from an avid CSR reader who was interested in clearing up just what the difference is between a spread offense and a pro-style offense when it comes to evaluating incoming quarterbacks. I'll admit, on this topic we tend to assume a lot of knowledge, but for a term as regularly used as the 'spread offense' I feel we need to define the term a little better, and in turn understand why guys like Sam Bradford are the exceptions, rather than the rule when it comes to players moving into the NFL.
After the jump we'll look at the spread in depth, and hopefully give everyone a better idea of what the main difference is.
A basic spread offense
This picture is about as basic when it gets when it comes to a spread offense. In this diagram #2 is a running back. Essentially the QB takes the snap out of the shotgun and looks to only one WR (either the Z, X, Y or W) if that WR is covered then he is to immediately throw the ball to the running back to try and pick up some positive yardage.
There are myriad reasons why the spread is oftentimes a '1-read' system, but much of it has to do with the pressure on the QB. With no tight end on the field, no FB or RB to assist in blocking there is a lot of open chances for a defender to get to the QB and often the timing is so quick that it doesn't facilitate being able to go through a full 2-3 read progression like a pro-style QB would have to.
A basic pro-style offense
In this instance we see a familiar NFL, pro-style offense. The QB is lined up under center with a FB and RB behind him, and instead of having 4 WRs there are only two and a tight end. On any given play that TE could be asked to block, run a route, or a combination of both- basically holding a block for 2-3 seconds, then releasing and running a route.
Whereas the spread QB's job was to make one read and then pass to an outlet the pro style QBs job is different. He need to take the snap, backpedal in typically a 3 or 5 step drop. Look to his #1 receiver, if he's covered then scan the field to his #2 receiver and if he's covered then look for the TE or RB coming out of the backfield. There are many more steps the pro style QB needs to go through before the ball leaves his hands and this is because the QB should get more protection. With a FB and RB as two extra potential blockers to slow linebackers, and the TE assisting also the QBs pocket will be far longer than the spread QBs necessitating the need to go through a full progression and look at every option before throwing the football.
No two spreads are created equal
There isn't just one spread offense, but the diagram at the top will serve us well to look at two current NFL QBs and two prospective players all of whom use a spread offense regularly.
Peyton Manning: Rather than making one read and then moving to an outlet, Manning will typically have three WRs and a TE on the field in his version of the spread. He takes the snap out of the shotgun and is able to process the information he sees extremely quickly. He moves from WR1 to WR2 to WR3 in a matter of 1-2 seconds and if all three are covered he finds he TE. This is something Peyton does better than anyone in the NFL as he not only goes through a full pro-style progression, but he breaks down each match up he sees. There's a reason he's the best and it's because he can take into account everything that is happening on the field.
Tom Brady: Like Manning much of the time when New England run their spread he has three WRs and a TE. However, unlike Manning's 1,2,3,TE progression they run things a little differently. Brady will immediately look to his WR1, then move to his WR3 in the slot (Wes Welker) then he looks to his TE and finally his WR2. Rather than his eyes darting around the field he basically scans left to right (or right to left) weighing all his options.
Cam Newton: Most pertinent to us are the next QBs led by Cam Newton. Unlike the above two spreads Newton was in a true 1-read spread option system. It was his job to take the snap out of the shotgun, look to his primary receiver if he was covered then he was taught to look for a running lane, if there was no running lane he would go to his RB. This worked because Newton's athletic ability coupled with the defense being spread out to cover four WRs opened up many running lanes on a regular basis.
Blaine Gabbert: Missouri used a variation of a 1-read passing system that was really like 1.5 reads. Basically Gabbert would take the snap out of the shotgun, look to his WR1 if he was covered then he would look to the WR in the slot on the same side of the field and then throw to an RB if both were covered. While he physically looked to two WRs the WR in the slot is really kind of an afterthought which is why I call it 1.5 reads. That read to the slot receiver subs into the spot Newton was looking to run.
Looking off the safety- what does it mean?
One term you hear a lot when it comes to spread offense QBs is their lack of ability to 'look off the safety'. But what does this mean? Essentially when a pro style QB takes a snap the first thing he looks at isn't his WR1, but rather the safety. This is to freeze the DB in place and not tip his hand where he wants to throw the ball. If the safety is cheating to one side of the field, the QB looks to the other. If he's staying in the middle then the QB goes through his progression. When you see a QB throw into double coverage 9/10 times it's because he didn't look off the safety well enough and telegraphed where he was going with the ball.
The spread QB takes the snap and immediately looks at his WR1, ignoring the safety. This keys the defense in immediately, but it doesn't really matter because the pass either comes out quickly or goes to an outlet. This is why a QB transitioning from a spread to a pro-style offense needs to learn to not lock in on a receiver, but look of their safety.
Backpedal and play fakes
The final area spread QBs need to work out are their backpedal and play fakes. With only one RB in the backfield most of the time a spread QB does not need to sell play action fakes on a regular basis. The play action pass is so deadly because it can cause a safety to close in and play the run, leaving the field wide open deep. It's a staple of the NFL and players need to learn how to sell it.
There's more to a backpedal than just walking backwards. There is a stride and cadence required for a drop to be perfect. Each step needs to be identical so in 3 or 5 steps the QB doesn't wind up too shallow (allowing for DTs to jump and bat a pass) or too deep (creating easier angles for pass rushers). The QB sound be able to take 3 steps and always wind up around the 5 yard mark, or 5 steps and wind up around the 8 yard mark. This takes time for a spread QB to develop who is used to standing 8 yards back and getting the snap out of the shotgun.
If the spread is so successful in the NCAA, why don't we see it more in the NFL?
Slowly but surely we're seeing more and more spread tendencies in the NFL, but it will never fully take over. The reason for this is that it doesn't give an offense many different options to change the play at the line of scrimmage. If you have an RB, FB and TE on the field it's easy to audible from a run to a pass and vice versa- a QB can react to what the defense is showing and in turn disguise what play they are running. With four WRs on the field and just one RB everyone knows the team is passing and there is almost no effective run play that can be utilized.
The spread is being used sparingly by the top QBs in the league who can take the concept of a spread and apply pro-style principals to it like Manning, Brady and Brees. When a spread offense is combined with pro-style progression it's incredibly difficult to stop, but also very difficult to execute.
I hope you found this brief look at the difference between a spread and pro-style offense helpful, and maybe have a little better understanding why if the Panthers take Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert it will take them some time to develop into NFL quarterbacks.