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"Spreading" the Wealth

A number of articles have appeared about the "spread" offense over the past couple of years. One of the best I've seen showed up on a San Diego Times-Union site with the title: "Football's Big Equalizer: Gotta "Spread" the Wealth."

“It's all about matchups,” said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, whose history with the spread goes back to the 1970s. “You can get some little guys who are really quick and not heavily recruited and get them on linebackers and score points. It's almost like basketball: getting certain people on certain people.

Sometimes, innovations (or re-inventions) like this merely increase the variance of outcomes without changing the average. Nonetheless, because Wins/Losses determine performance and not average score, stretching out the outcomes can bring more wins to a team with lower average scores their opponents. In other cases, an innovation increases variance but also, for a time, increases the average outcome for the innovator. Paul Westhead's frenetic 3-point barrage at Loyola Marymount serves as an example. However, opponents quickly adjust and the mean-changing element wears off.

The spread in college football appears to be changing averages and not just variance. It reshapes player advantages/disadvantages essentially by using more of the field, such that a good QB and quick receivers/backs can put up a lot of points with fairly marginal linemen. Although in use in some ways since the 1970s, teams like Northwestern and Purdue radically changed their performance levels using it in the 1990s and drew lots of imitators. They might not stop the other team any better, but they gave themselves a chance to outscore the other team. The 2007 win by Appalachian State against Michigan marked the spread's finest hour. Now, it has shown up everywhere with points at the high school and college levels reflecting the change. Texas HS playoff scores now have basketball-like outcomes, 56-49.

Will defenses catch up? Many, including Mack Brown, think so:

Some theorize that better “cover” cornerbacks will help slow the spread. That's because such cornerbacks can neutralize two of the offense's five possible receivers, enabling more defenders (five or more) to rush the passer.Another theory is that if the spread becomes too prevalent, all the bigger-name programs with better recruits will use it too, rising to the top again and forcing the have-nots to come up with a different equalizer.Asked if defenses will catch up with it, Texas' Brown said, “I'm sure it will. In my 33 years, it always has. But we're not sure how yet.”

A precursor to the "spread," the run-and-shoot lost its mojo fairly quickly. Suffering from a lack of run threat, teams just pounded the QB. In contrast, although the spread puts great importance on QB decisions, variants of it have integrated option and single-wing running principles that keep teams from defending it by merely knocking the QB on his keister. It has succeeded with QB with great mobility and those with less running ability (Chase Daniel at Mizzou, for example).

The success of the system poses real dilemmas for some of the traditional powerhouses. Is it a dominant strategy regardless of depth/breadth of talent? Does it make as much sense at Michigan as at West Virginia? Clearly, particular personnel and coaching decisions matter, but, in general, the balance of mean versus variance matters. An Oklahoma has certainly turned into an offensive juggernaut using it, but lost to arguably less talented teams in scoring shootouts against the likes of Texas Tech last year or Boise State two years back. Does using it, or using it exclusively, play into the hands of these teams? Does it under-utilize the talents of an Adrian Peterson -- someone everyone knew was good but not how good because of the OU spread?