NFL Spread Offenses Have Been The In-Thing


The spread offense has been the most demonstrable change to football  since the “West Coast” offense successfully invaded the NFL with Bill Walsh in the early 1980’s.  Precision and timing were the hallmarks that helped Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers become the team of the decade.

Jon Gruden’s reputation grew through the 90’s as the young head coach of the Oakland Raiders and newest guru of the West Coast’s slant-dominated passing game.  He ended up winning the Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, albeit without calling a single snap from the shotgun position in 2003.  He didn’t believe in the shotgun until his mobile quarterback Jeff Garcia finally convinced him to try it.

The spread offense has had different maturations and evolutions over the decades with things like Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” piloted by Dan Fouts and company, and the “Run and Shoot” from Mouse Davis.

The newest form of the spread is likely to have more staying power than the aforementioned, as teams have discovered more than ever that there aren’t as many players to worry about outside of the tackle box and getting it outside quickly isn’t too dangerous, but could be deadly for the defense if done well.  It has taken longer than I thought for the movement to dominate though and QB’s have gotten much more efficient at getting rid of the ball quickly from the shotgun to distribute the ball to the outside weapons as well.

One of the biggest effects of the spread offense on the NFL is the end of the “era of the running back”, or at the very least, devalued the position immensely.  The majority of teams now operate their backfield by committee and can “plug and play” multiple backs into their system when they are playing out of 4 and 5 receiver sets the majority of the time.

Running backs—especially great ones—will never go away, but the NFL game has moved to the air for good.  Who runs for the Broncos?  Or the Packers?  Or the Patriots?  We know the Seattle Seahawks have a “Beast”, and with their success there just might be a couple of teams to try and revolve that model, but I wouldn’t count on it.  The Cowboys saw the value in balancing their offensive attack away from depending on Tony Romo so much and in my opinion will always be the most effective way to win championships, just ask John Elway his opinion.

Quarterback mechanics were always pressed upon the QB getting depth away from center on his dropback and transitioning from going backwards quickly to adjusting his balance back again to deliver a strong-armed throw without so much pressure in his face.  The spread from “gun” has allowed the aging and slow-footed QB’s to “catch and release” from easily achieved depth much more often.  Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have moved almost exclusively to shotgun, but after failing in the Super Bowl, the Broncos realized how the downhill running game goes away from that formation and also limits play-action passing, probably the single-most important aspect of Manning’s lone Super Bowl win when he played for the Indianapolis Colts.

Because QB’s throughout the league have gotten so good at getting rid of the ball, five wide-receiver sets will probably continue to be a big part of offenses for the foreseeable future, because defenses are also limited in what they can do when five receivers are in the pattern.  This trend will continue unless the competition committee wants to change the rules back in favor of the defense.

About Jeff Carlson

Jeff Carlson

Former NFL quarterback, training youth QB's in Tampa, Florida. Football Analyst for Bright House Sports Network and Football Insiders.