Earlier this week, John Elway made the unsurprising announcement that Tim Tebow would be the starting QB for the Denver Broncos as they head into training camp this year. While that’s certainly to be expected since the Broncos depth chart beyond Tebow consists of Brady Quinn and only Brady Quinn, I’m not sure that Denver will continue to pursue and utilize some of the spread offense concepts that helped them win the AFC West this season. That’s the area I’d like to explore. After the jump, the case for Denver fully embracing (and actually utilizing correctly) the spread concepts they toyed with this year.
I suppose the best place to start is with a discussion of what the term “spread” actually means. If you’re Chris Brown of Smart Football (or read his work), it’s a term that covers a vast array of offenses, from Hal Mumme’s Airraid (and all its derivatives like Mike Leach’s and Dana Holgorsen’s), to Gus Malzahn’s offense, to Chip Kelly’s spread to run, to Urban Meyer’s system. If you’re a talking head that’s paid to pontificate about the NFL, the term spread pretty much describes the offense Denver’s been running since Tim Tebow was named starter. Pay no attention to the fact that the Lions, Saints, Packers, and Patriots all fit the definition of spread offense. We’re talking college gimmicks here. At least according to the likes of Tom Jackson.
Now that we’ve established that any analysis of “spread offenses” that you hear on Sunday (or Monday, or really any day that ends in Y) NFL shows is going to be both narrow in focus and likely full of flaws, let’s look at Denver’s offense in particular. I couldn’t find the exact data, but I heard Mike Lombardi on Bill Simmons’ podcast say that Denver ran the “read option” at most 25% of the time. I heard somewhere else (possibly in the same podcast) that the figure was about 10%. Here’s where an additional layer of understanding and analysis has to take place. The “read option” (I’ll just call it that, since it has a different name in different offenses, and I don’t know Denver’s nomenclature) is but one play in an offense like Urban Meyer’s, which I assume is the model for what Denver tried to do this year. In Meyer’s offense, the read option may indeed only be used 10-25% of the time. However, there are other plays built off of that concept that are designed to look similar, and to counter the defense’s response to the read option. This was NOT the case in Denver. If Denver wasn’t running the read option, often times the formation would let you know before the snap. Instead of a philosophy or a package, the read option was merely a play for the Broncos. As the disappearance of the Wildcat in the NFL has shown, if it’s just a play, and not a package with multiple plays (much less a philosophy which your offense is built around), an out of the ordinary play or formation is not long for the NFL world. Given the success that Denver had with the ridiculously ineffective installation of these concepts, I think that they should take a serious look at you know, actually installing some of this stuff, and run it as their base set.
Before I get to my justifications for the previous paragraph, allow me an aside about playcalling. Normally, I don’t complain about playcalling. I abhor those who do. It makes me furious. Yes, you there in section 312 that’s tailgated for 6 hours and had 37 beers or you there on the couch with a shirt full of nacho debris know what this coach should call in this situation. No, you don’t. You have no idea what goes into a game plan each week, how teams look at film, how they diagnose the other team, or any other facet of preparation that goes into making a playcall. However, there are certain circumstances that make it abundantly clear that a coach either misunderstands his advantages, his weaknesses, or just gets brainlock. In these select few cases (I can recall TWO  such occurrences this season, that’s how rare they are), some criticism is warranted. What I want to focus on here is the Denver possession that started at 12:49 of the 4th quarter of the Divisional playoff game against New England. Denver drove to the 3 yard line of New England, and proceeded to do the following (all 4 snaps run from shotgun, which I’m actually ok with):
1st down: Incomplete pass to TE Dante Rosario
2nd down: Incomplete pass to WR Eddie Royal
3rd down: Incomplete pass to WR Demaryius Thomas
4th down: Incomplete pass to WR Eddie Royal (after a mad scramble to avoid getting sacked)
If your QB is Tim Tebow, you have to know his strengths (running the ball, being physical), and his weaknesses (throwing into tight windows, making the right reads). Presuming that the man calling the plays for Denver has a handle on this stuff, why in the blue hell would he do what he did? This is an example of terrible, awful, no good, very bad playcalling. If I’m the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, and we’re sitting first and goal from the 3 yard line, here’s what I’d do: QB power on first down (the play that Denver ran for the 2 point conversion against Miami), play action off of QB power on second down, and on third and fourth down, I’d run the Bill Walsh staple sprint left option. Don’t let the term option confuse you in that last play. Sprint left option (or right option, if your QB is right-handed), is a two read pass play that does leave the option for the QB to pull the ball down and run, although it rarely gets to that. When you think sprint left (or right) option, think Montana to Clark, aka “The Catch”. That’s the sprint option play. Denver ran it earlier in the game, so I know it’s in their playbook. The failure of Denver’s playcalling inside the 5 yard line on that drive is indicative of how far this offense has to go if someone like Tebow is to remain the starting QB.
Ok, so we’ve dispensed with my nitpicking that goal to go sequence, so let’s get to why Denver should fully embrace the spread option concepts, and jump in feet first. To begin with, this stuff works. Yes, even in the NFL. The most common canard you’ll hear tossed out when it comes to why the spread option concept won’t work in the NFL is that it’s too difficult to get to the edge at this level. And that sounds really good. Guys on defense are faster, defensive coordinators are smarter, and every team spends countless hours on trying to prevent their opponent from getting outside. But is it really true? Let’s go to the video.
First of all, let’s look at the formation. We’ve got a pretty traditional spread look, with trips right. Oakland is still in a base defense though, with four down linemen, three linebackers, and man coverage with a single high safety. Weakside defensive end Jarvis Moss is left unblocked, and he’s the man Tebow is reading (stop the video at 7 seconds, and look at Tebow’s head. He’s looking directly at Moss). Moss crashes down on the running back, and Tebow is out the back door. The left tackle reaches up to the linebacker level, and seals the Will, or weakside linebacker, inside. 32 yards later, first down Denver. They got to the edge fairly easily. But maybe that’s a one time thing. Surely, the Raiders would adjust to that. After all, that was in the first quarter of the game, and Kyle Orton started the last game for Denver against Oakland. Right? Well let’s see.
Again, look at the formation. Same look from Denver, trips, this time to the left. Oakland, however, has shifted a little, and instead of a traditional 4-3 look with a safety in man coverage on the slot receiver, they’ve moved Kamerion Wimbley to the weak side, and having him standing up on the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher (the coverage may be the same, but it looks different, and the LBs are in different places. That’s the important part.). So what does Tebow do? He reads Wimbley. Pause the video at 19 seconds. Who is Tebow looking at? Number 96, Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley takes just a half step too much toward Willis McGahee, and Tebow’s out the back door again (I should point out that the blocking scheme differed a little. This time, the RG reached to seal the inside linebacker instead of the RT reaching. That’s a good adjustment by Denver. Also worth noting, Denver could build in the “smoke” or “look” concept [scroll to number 1], which is a quick pass to the receiver that is given a ton of cushion by the DB.). They got to the edge again.
In the weeks following this game, as Denver ripped off five more wins, the talk from the analysts became very redundant. As Tom Jackson said as he sat across the desk from Chris Berman, “well, teams will just put 8 or 9 guys in the box, and that will be that”. Yes indeed, Tom, that did happen. And that was that. Here’s video proof.
Let’s now talk about how the season ended for Denver. After losing to New England on December 18, the Broncos were blown out again less than a month later. That’s bad. There’s no sugar coating any of it. The offense in particular sputtered, which left the defense on the field for too long, and left them vulnerable to Tom Brady’s surgical brilliance. At the same time, there were some positives I saw in this game. The Broncos were a little more adventurous on offense. They experimented with reading different defensive linemen (and it worked). They toyed with a pistol look, and some triple option concepts. I think there was even a hint of rocket motion a few times, albeit crude in nature (for the record, if I was running the show in Denver, I’d install a rocket package tomorrow). Ultimately, though, there are some plays that stick out, and for different reasons to different people. When Tebow ran the option with Eddie Royal, he pitched Royal the ball, and Royal was tackled for a loss. For many, that was the “see, told you that won’t work here” moment (which for me, was reminiscent of LSU’s futile attempts to run the option against Alabama in the BCS championship game. Lots of comments of “can’t run that against Alabama, they’re too good”. As it turns out, yeah, you can run the option against them). However, the reason that play didn’t work wasn’t because of the defense, but because of Tebow. Tebow missed his read. He should’ve held onto the ball, and he would’ve easily gained a first down (I have searched the internet up and down for a clip of this, and can’t find it anywhere. I remember it distinctly though because as soon as it happened, I turned to my dad and said “he pitched off of nobody”, which means he pitched it for no reason. Chris Brown of Smart Football and the Spread Offense twitter account said exactly the same thing. Massive, massive misread by Tebow.). Also, we saw Denver’s attempt to read the defensive tackle (in this case, Gerard Warren) as opposed to the defensive end. The result of the play was a loss of six yards, but again, that’s not due to the playcall or the design. Had Tebow made the correct read, Willis McGahee probably could’ve scored. See the below video (the original video I was going to use here is unavailable, so I had to dig to find this one. Skip to the 5:17 mark for the play I’m talking about. Also note here the pistol formation from Denver. This is a true triple option play, with the counter to McGahee being the first read, and then the option with Tebow and Ball from there, although it never got that far.).
So what have we learned? In my opinion, we’ve learned a few things, and they’re all pretty valuable. First of all, we’ve learned that these spread option concepts can work in the NFL. It’s one thing to catch the Oakland Raiders napping, but if you’re playing a Bill Belichick team for the second time in a month, and he’s got a week to prepare, and the concepts still work, you’re onto something, brother. Second, I think we’ve seen additional limitations of one Tim Tebow. At Florida, he compiled all sorts of records, won national titles, won a Heisman, and pretty much did everything except walk on water. However, it’s becoming clear that perhaps his decision making hasn’t always been top notch. It’s easy to cover those things up when you and your team are more physically gifted than the opponent, but in the NFL, that’s rarely the case. If there’s one thing that makes a QB in the NFL successful, it’s decision making. As much as Tebow lacks in the throwing motion department, he lacks double that in the decision making department. The reads he missed are fairly elementary, and should be made correctly by anyone who has played in the system for more than a year. In the final analysis, Tim Tebow has several flaws that will prohibit him from ever being an elite QB in the NFL, regardless of system. Does that mean Denver should rid themselves of him right now, and jettison this unique (in NFL terms) offensive concept? Absolutely not. In any given year, there are scores of QBs from the college ranks that either don’t ever play in the NFL, or switch to another position (this is sort of off topic, but why are the options for position changes always TE, FB, or Safety?). There are more of these players than there are so called “pro style” QBs, and the ratio is only going to get more lopsided. If Denver (or really, any struggling team) wants to really get a jump on everyone else, they’d stockpile a few of these guys, and refine the spread option system for the NFL. It’s not like it would cost them any high draft picks. A guy like Darron Thomas from Oregon won’t likely be drafted until at least the third round (likely much later), and the team that does draft him will no doubt move him from QB to another position (not that Thomas is the guy I’d pick for my team, he’s just an example). Additionally, traditional NFL concepts are fairly easy to integrate into the spread option system. In November 2010, I sat in Kinnick Stadium and watched Terrelle Pryor run “levels” off of read option play action all afternoon. Levels is a concept every NFL team uses, and if you can build that into your spread option system, it’s just another benefit.
To put a cap on all of this, let me sum up. Denver should absolutely stay the course, and pursue the spread option concepts that they tinkered with this season. They work. They’re fundamentally sound. Always have been, always will be. At the same time, if they embrace that philosophy, they should be continually on the lookout for players that can thrive in that system, and seek them out as undervalued assets. Finally, and most importantly, they should rid themselves of the notion that the only reason to embrace this philosophy is the presence of Tim Tebow. There are many other QBs in college and even in the NFL (Cam Newton was born to run this stuff. Not that Denver will ever get their hands on him, but you get my point) that are and will be more capable of excelling in this type of offense than Tim Tebow. Tebow is but the gateway. Embrace it, learn about it, talk with other coaches (Belichick is known for this. He meets with Urban Meyer all the time). Stay the course.