Over the past few seasons, more and more NFL teams are running a variation of the spread offense.
"It's a unique thing," says Baltimore Ravens head coach JOHN HARBAUGH. "It's a unique twist in the NFL."
The spread offense is lined up almost exclusively in the shotgun formation with either one or no running backs and four or five receivers. Players shift and go into motion prior to the snap on almost every play. The base play is a "zone read" in which, after reading the defense, the quarterback can either hand off to the tailback on a counter or keep it himself. The unique scheme mixes spread passing -- with an emphasis on short, high-percentage throws -- and old-school option football, including a modernized "triple-option" play in which the quarterback runs along the line and either pitches to the motion receiver or tosses a forward shovel pass to the tailback or another receiver.
"We ran the spread for the longest time in St. Louis, and everybody told us we were crazy," says former Rams (1999-2008) wide receiver TORRY HOLT. "Now, everybody runs the spread offense."
Last season, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III operated mostly out of the spread and often in the pistol formation, where the quarterback is in shotgun with the running back lined up behind him. Griffin, who won the 2011 Heisman Trophy, led a Redskins offense designed to include a few similarities from his collegiate days at Baylor. "We tried to take a look at what Robert does best within our system and try to incorporate a few other variables that he enjoys and he feels confident in," says Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. "And then you just keep on growing as you grow together."
San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman orchestrated an element of the pistol offense last season by utilizing quarterback Colin Kaepernick's unique size and strength to confuse NFL defenses (above left).
"It is another way to put pressure on the defense," says Roman. "It can force a defense to play certain ways that they might not play. That is what we are trying to do. Colin obviously has some background in it and he is a unique and rare athlete. Any time you have a rare athlete you are going to want to have that athlete impact the game any way that you can."
Stanford University head coach David Shaw, who spent nine seasons as an NFL assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders and Ravens, believes that a spread offense used more frequently in college football can work in the NFL.
"Everybody from top to bottom -- the GM, the owner, the personnel people -- needs to be on a mission to give that offense what it needs," says Shaw. "You can't waver from it. Everybody needs to be on the same page. It can't be, ‘Well, let's bring this receiver in.' If he doesn't fit their offense, they can't bring him in. It's so different than what most people are used to."
Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel certainly thinks the spread offense is here to stay in the NFL.
"I think it could be the future," says Manuel. "I think teams have tried it but it's been battle-proven now. I don't think it's a fad. I think it's the kind of quarterback you're starting to see in the NFL now. I think it just puts defenses on their toes. They can't just drop seven defenders. If they drop seven and only rush four, it opens lanes and you can rush for 15 yards. So it kind of bends and breaks the back of a defense."
While the spread offense is certainly gaining popularity, NFL defenses are strategizing to limit the production in 2013.
"I think the college system has kind of taken hold in the National Football League," says New York Giants defensive coordinator PERRY FEWELL. "We have a lot of quarterbacks that have the ability to run and do that and I know that is coming into our league. I've studied a lot of college football film this offseason. It's a dynamic offense." Pittsburgh Steelers head coach MIKE TOMLIN says the answer to whether the spread offense is here to stay will be decided on the field.
"I think the read-option is the flavor of the month," says Tomlin on a version of the spread offense. "We'll see whether it's the flavor of the year. I think there are coaches in rooms preparing themselves to defend it. There are coaches in rooms also preparing to run it. I think it's going to be sorted out on the grass."