Great article today in the Freep by Mark Snyder that touches upon the question of whether or not defenses have "caught up" to the read spread option offense or not. I agree with Rodriguez's response to this question:
"This whole thing about catching up to this, it's all about execution," he said at the Big Ten media days in Chicago last week. "They said the same thing about West Coast offenses, pro-style offenses. If you've got better players, you execute better, you'll win 100% of the time, no matter what system you run.
"Because of the so-called spread, there's so many variations of the spread that's different, it's going to be an easy mark -- 'They're not winning because of the spread.' It ain't the spread, it's the execution of it."
Chris over at the Smart Football blog has also written some excellent articles on this same question.
Have defensive coordinators at the college level "caught up" to all of the ins and outs of the spread offense?
There Is Such A Thing As A Dumb Question
I don't even know what people actually mean when they ask or even suggest that defenses have "caught up" to this or that. Look, I could be wrong here, but from what I've observed so far watching college football in recent years, the spread offense is a spectrum of different sets. There's a lot of different plays that can be called out of the spread formation.
Anyway, the words "spread offense" tends to get people riled up one way or the other. Some love it to death. Others hate it with a passion.
So why not shelve the read spread option offense of Rich Rodriguez for one moment and consider, oh I don't know, the wishbone offense.
In the 1970s and the early 1980s, the wishbone was a widely used offensive set in the Big 8, Southwest and Southeast conferences. Several Big Ten teams ran it as well from time to time, including Michigan State (Charlie Baggett) and even Michigan (Rick Leach). By the mid 1980s usage of this all-popular wishbone offense was starting to wane to the point where only Oklahoma, Arkansas and the military academies (Army, Navy and Air Force) found any value left in it. Defenses were said to be getting faster and getting better line penetration, which started to disrupt the predicable post snap reads and progressions along the line of scrimmage.
OK, so what about the I-formation? Today I-formation sets are very popular in college football, with isolation off-guard or off-tackle run plays, sweeps and trap running plays. Rather unsophisticated, basic, run-it-up-the-gut-type stuff. The I-formation is very easy to employ and extremely versatile as one can do a lot of play action, downfield and screen pass plays, not to mention make frustratingly awesome use of 1 or even 2 tight ends.
So how is it that this notion arises from bloggers, fans and the sports media that defenses have now "caught up to the spread offense", while the I-formation and pro-set offenses somehow remain a complete and utter enigma to all defensive coordinators both professional and collegiate?
This claim doesn't make any sense when placed up against observation, unless you are Gary Danielson and/or you hate Rich Rodriguez.
The truth is, at least at this snapshot in time, that the spectrum of sets called the "spread offense":
1.) Takes many shapes and forms from more run-centric read spread option (Oregon, Michigan, West Virginia) to heavily pass-centric varieties (Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Boise State).
2.) Spread offenses remain a favorite among coaches at almost every level from high school to division II and I college football. We all know that NFL teams have of course employed pass-centric spread sets.
3.) It makes more sense that defensive coordinators first "master" the secret circuitry of Mark Dantonio's I and single-back formations, and Paul Johnson's Flexbone* offense, as both offenses have been around for decades longer than the spread offenses have been.
Guilty by Association
I think it's also important that people not be confused by associating things incorrectly. For example, Oklahoma and Alabama both won national championships in the 1970s running the wishbone offense. They were among dozens of teams employing this tactic to win their football games, but it wasn't the sole reason for their national titles.
Earlier that same decade Nebraska rattled off back to back national titles under Bob Devaney. Well, they must have run the wishbone then!!!!! Not exactly. Devaney ran a multitude of sets including some standard I, some three back Power I (with option plays) and pro set passing formations and was very successful with the players he had.
Florida won national titles under Spurrier with a pass-centric offense and years later again with Urban Meyer operating a read spread option attack.
Texas (spread offense) barely defeated USC (pro set and I-formation) in the national championship game in 2006.
The common denominators among these great, championship teams was the application and use of talented players on the roster, not the offensive system itself.
Oklahoma won the national title in 1976 because of QB Steve Davis, TB Joe Washington, WR Billy Brooks, WR Tinker Owens and DT Lee Roy Selmon. The fact that OU ran the wishbone that year was coincidental.
Defensive Failure in College Football
In my view, I don't think defensive coordinators have caught up to anything in college football. If anything, defenses at the college level have a lot to answer for since about 1999. If someone is making the claim the defenses have evolved and caught up, then they need to explain why teams like Tulsa, Ball State and Western Michigan are racking up 400 yards plus per game in total offense. They then need to explain why Paul Johnson has been so successful implementing an archaic offensive set (the wishbone and derivative Flexbone) at Georgia Tech, even though this set almost went the way of the Dodo bird in 1987.
If you ever get a chance, watch some college football game films from the 1940s and 1950s. It's surprising to see the "option pitches" which they called "lateral passes" and all of the spread passing formations they used at the time. It puts all of this "caught up to" talk into perspective.
Love it or hate it, the spread offense is going to be with us for a long time in college football. And even if it's use starts to wane someday in the future, as the wishbone certainly did in the late 1980s, some coach with ingenuity may pick it back up, dust it off, and make it new for kids to play again.