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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Read Option, the Pistol, and the Spread are Different Things, and None of Them are Gimmicks

The NFL is a very interesting league. In many ways, as Chris Brown of Smart Football once pointed out, every NFL team, despite all of the different talk about systems and the seemingly different appearance of offenses, runs basically the same offense, or did for many years. Mike Martz ran the Coryell offense and had his own philosophy, but there's no doubt that you could crack open a playbook and find the same base runs, the same quick slants, and many other concepts that you could also find in the most conservative offense. What distinguishes NFL offenses, for the most part, aren't, as the aforementioned article notes, macro-level differences between the different systems, but the minute details.  You win by game-planning how to put your players in the best spots to attack where the defense is most vulnerable, and, most often, by having better players. Mike Tice can have the exact same playbook as Sean Payton, but it doesn't matter if he's dialing up the wrong plays against the wrong coverage and has no feel for the game. That's where the great offensive minds in the NFL show their strengths: their perception of the situation at hand and their responses.

So in this NFL where the plays themselves rarely change and the philosophies/strategies of coaches and the disparity in talent are the only real differences people are used to seeing on Sundays, it makes sense that the introduction of the read option, the Pistol, and, to a lesser extent, the spread, has absolutely blown people's freaking minds. This mind-blowing has resulted in a number of utterly predictable responses:

1)All of these things are somehow catchall terms for the same thing. Some people will even throw in the Wildcat for good measure.

2)One or all of these things is a fad that won't last in the REAL MEN'S LEAGUE OF NFL FOOTBAW.

3)One or all of these things are not just a fad, but a gimmick, a cheap way to trick people .

Now, all of these are worth discussing because I believe, frankly, they'll be around in the NFL for a long time and also because Trestman has run the read-option and spread in Canada and will probably use them at various times with the Bears, probably not as base plays but certainly as constraints on the defense. With that said, let's break down the various issues:

First off, the spread refers to an entire offensive system, the pistol refers to a specific formation (but is sometimes understandably a blanket term for the system that utilizes it as it's base formation), and the read option is a single specific play. A spread offense can run a read option from a pistol formation, but that doesn't mean the three are automatically associated or inseparable.

-The spread offense, specifically, is an offense that is based almost entirely out of the shotgun, using at least 3 receivers, but usually four or five on every play. It's name comes from "spreading" out the defense to isolate teams in one on one matchups as much as possible and to open up running and passing lanes with all of the open space the formations create. It differs from the old Run'N'Shoot in that the Run'N'Shoot almost exclusively used four wide receivers, with two on each side, and a half roll by the quarterback on each play, and because spread offenses usually do not give their wide receivers the ability to adjust their routes on the fly quite like that offense did. The spread can be a running offense, as it was primarily for Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan, or it can be a primarily passing offense, like it is with Mike Leach and his disciples. Run or pass isn't important, once again, the main idea is simply that you want to stretch the defense from sideline to sideline and take advantage of open space. That's it.

The spread for years was derided as a college only offense, but starting, ironically, with the Bears under Gary Crowton in 1999 (laugh all you want, but he got over 4,000 YDs passing out of Matthews, McNown, and Miller) and then, much more successfully, the Patriots under Josh McDaniel, it's become a major part of the league. Several teams that run the West Coast offense have adjusted their passing concepts to spread formations and run hybrid "Spread-Coast" offenses, like the Packers and Saints and, presumably, given Trestman's history in Canada and his and Kromer's time in New Orleans, the Bears. Considering the spread isn't a single play, or a single formation, and relies on the oldest principle in football (isolating your players and winning one on one matchups), I'd dare you to say Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers owe their success to a gimmick or a fad.

-The pistol is a specific formation. Tom Kaczkowski and Michael Taylor, two coaches at a D-III school in Ohio, developed it in the late 1990s. It became most famous when Chris Ault adopted it at the University of Nevada. As you've probably figured out if you've seen it, the Pistol is a hybrid between the singleback formation and the shotgun where the quarterback lines up four yards behind the line of scrimmage instead of under center (as in singleback) or seven yards back (as in the shotgun). The runningback lines up directly behind him as he would in the singleback. That's really it. You can run the pistol in literally any other formation you'd like, with as many backs and receivers and tight ends as you want. You can spread the defense sideline to sideline and play a spread offense out of the pistol, or you can run Power O out of it. The two are unrelated. This kind of thinking leads to people assuming spread guru Chip Kelly is responsible for a formation he's never even used.  I mean, hell, if it looks weird and DOESN'T BELONG IN THE REAL MEN'S NFL, it's all got to be the same somehow, right?

-Finally, the read option is a specific play. The quarterback takes the ball (usually out of the shotgun or the pistol, but sometimes from under center! PRO STYLE!) and reads the backside defensive end. If that defensive end plays the outside and aims to take away the runningback who is waiting for the pitch to run off tackle, the QB keeps the ball and runs the opposite direction or up the middle. It's extremely simple and effective, because the entire play is founded on basic math. If the QB is a threat to run the ball, and the QB neutralizes one of the defenses defensive ends by "reading" him and thereby rendering him useless without even having to block him, the offense has a numerical advantage, theoretically, regardless of who ends up with the ball. Obviously the QB can make the wrong decision, or if some defensive end out there (let's call him, I don't know, Julius Peppers) is a superhuman freak of nature that can react too quickly for either option, the play can fail, but it's absolutely not a gimmick in any way shape or form.

As I've tried to spell out: not one of these things is a fad or a gimmick. People will bring up comparisons to the Wildcat, which is absolutely a limited formation that offers no passing threat and is easily countered. That description doesn't apply to any of these three things. The spread can be used to create lanes for runs and passes. You can run literally any play in your playbook out of the Pistol. The read option is a running play, but it also provides some excellent opportunities for play-action passes, as Kaepernick, Wilson, and RGIII have ably demonstrated. All of them are based on sound, fundamental principles, and belong in the NFL just as much as Power O and Counter Trey.

All of this brings me to my last point: all of these offenses are relatively new to the NFL, and many people will want them to fail because they are new and scary and the league doesn't always like that. The only way these offenses will fail, however, will be the same way other offenses fail: poor talent. Chip Kelly is going to take over an Eagles team with a turnover prone QB and a bad offensive line. They might be bad this year. People will blame the offense and ignore the fact that the Eagles were bad last year because they are, well, bad. At some point Kaepernick, RGIII, and Russell Wilson will experience the same ups and downs that confront everyone else if their left tackle goes down or their best receiver gets hurt. None of that will diminish the legitimacy of their team's offenses anymore than the Browns "exposed" the West Coast offense when they had Colt McCoy under center. Talent trumps all.