Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Spread Revolution

When Mike Leach came to Texas Tech in 2000, no one knew what to expect. Tech had never been a huge football power in the state and they had struggled mightily since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996. They seemed condemned to mediocrity, stuck in the same division with two of the most storied programs in the history of college football and Texas A&M (boom, roasted) and without the resources to compete with the Joneses. The biggest problem for Tech was their location in the dusty oil town of Lubbock, located literally in the middle of nowhere and far away from the main recruiting areas in the state - Houston, Dallas and the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. A coach at Texas Tech had an uphill battle get the same type of players as his competitors.

If there's a bright spot at the center of the universe, we're at the place that's farthest from it.

Leach came with a palpable buzz - he was the OC at Kentucky where Tim Couch broke a bunch of records to become the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft (more on him later) and he was the OC at OU who helped Bob Stoops put the program back on the program. They won a national title the year after he left with Josh Heupel at QB, another decorated NCAA player who never lived up to expectations at the next level. Leach was known as an offensive guru, a guy who would spread out other teams and pick them apart with passing. They played "basketball on grass".

Me and my college roommates used to have epic Madden marathons where we would be in 4 WR shotgun the whole game, chucking the ball around. For the most part, if it was even close, you were going for it on every 4rth down. Mike Leach had turned football into a video game and the craziest part of all was that it worked. All of a sudden, Texas Tech became the one team none of the big boys in the conference wanted to face. They played such a unique style of football that it forced you to adapt to them and gave them a chance regardless of the disparities in talent.

Kliff Kingsbury, whom you might know now as the most handsome coach in college football, was the only one of his QB's to be drafted. It didn't take long for NFL teams to figure out that it really didn't matter who Leach had behind center. In a sport where finding good QB play sometimes seemed like a borderline miracle, Leach was churning out passing machines on an almost annual basis. Were it not for their names, it would be hard to tell most of them apart:

Everyone wants to act like football coaches are secret geniuses, but what Leach was doing was fairly simple. If you look at the highlights from his games, not many of his WR's were getting double covered. Leach had four guys running routes who were attacking vertically and horizontally, so he was putting the defense in a tremendous of space. From there, once one of his guys won their 1-on-1 match-up, the QB was supposed to get the ball out very quickly.

This had three important advantages for Texas Tech, a team that was usually punching up when it comes to future NFL talent.

1) They didn't need QB's with big arms (i.e big recruits)
2) They didn't need OL who could dominate 1-on-1 match-ups
3) They didn't need WR's who could dominate against the elite CB's on the outside. Leach's teams would kill you from the slot and force you to field 4 competent DB's all game long. Since most of the best athletes want to play WR, Leach had a pretty good chance of winning those match-ups against second and third string DB's, even without the best recruits.

Most importantly of all, the decision making process of the QB was simplified. He didn't have to take the ball from under center, drop back 5-7 steps and read a very complex route down the field before stepping into a throw with a 300 pound defensive lineman running at his face. Instead, the QB stayed 5-7 feet behind the line of scrimmage, surveyed the field rapidly and got rid of the ball as soon as he saw an open man in front of him.

Another benefit of making a lot of quick passes was the pace Tech could play at. Since there weren't a ton of collisions to untangle at the line of scrimmage, they could snap the ball quickly and get back in play. As a result, they always kept the opposing defense on their heels and forced them to simplify their defensive calls. You couldn't have Rob Ryan diagramming some exotic zone blitz for a bunch of 19-20 year olds who barely knew what was going on and were struggling to catch their breathe as Texas Tech relentlessly pressed the ball at them.

They never were able to win the Big 12, but they got awfully close a few times, waging some Titanic battles with OU and UT in the process. The Big 12 South when Stoops and Mack Brown were in their primes was a lot like the SEC West today - the best teams in that division were competing for a national title pretty much every season. In his last five years at Texas Tech, Leach had as good a run as any in school history - 9-3, 8-5, 9-4, 11-2, 8-4. The problem for them, and the recurring knock on his program, was their defense.

Was Leach's style of play and overall aggressiveness conducive to playing great defense? Most defensive-minded coaches preferred to play more conservatively, holding the ball and limiting the number of possessions for the other team. Leach didn't care how many possessions you got because he was pretty sure he was going to score when he had the ball. The reality is that Leach never had the athletes at Texas Tech to play high level defense in the Big 12 - that would require fielding a defacto NFL farm team on that side of the ball like Texas and OU. Leach was having to make do with two, three and occasional four star recruits and there was only so much they were going to do to stop guys like Vince Young and Adrian Peterson.

Nevertheless, the charge of him not caring about defense hung around him. What didn't help matters was his brash and fairly imperious attitude. Leach was the kind of guy who always had to be the smartest guy in the room and he made more than his few share of enemies in Lubbock. Being the head football coach at a big state school in Texas is a lot like being the head of one of the great houses in Game of Thrones - there is constant politicking going on at every level of the program and being a politician who knew when to bite his tongue was never Leach's strong suit.

It's still not entirely clear exactly why Leach ended up getting ousted in 2009. There was a guy in a locked room, a candidate for the Texas Senate and a series of contentious lawsuits over money. SI has all the gory details - even for the world of college football, it was pretty crazy stuff.

After a few years in purgatory, Leach wound up at Washington State, where he's trying to pull an equally difficult rebuilding project than the one in Lubbock, if not more so. The big difference this time around is that everyone is using his principles. He's no longer running a contrarian offense. Oregon, the big player in that part of the world, has taken the spread offense to a whole different level in terms of tempo and the caliber of athletes they are using. They are using Leach's principles with big-tine athletes and they are winning at a level he never could.

It's the same story across the country. From Ohio State to Oregon, TCU, Baylor, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Texas A&M, most of the top teams in the country are running offenses based on uptempo spread principles. There are still plenty of teams running pro-style offenses, from Florida State to Alabama, but they are starting to be the new contrarians at the highest levels of the game. To be sure, this is a fairly simplistic dichotomy and all offenses exist on a continuum, but the broader point remains. Mike Leach may never won a championship, but the revolution is over. The principles he represents have already won.


When Mike D'Antoni took over as the interim coach in Phoenix in 2003, few knew much about him. After making the playoffs with a promising young core of Stephon Marbury, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion the year before, injuries had knocked the Suns out of the playoff race and it cost Frank Johnson his job. MDA pretty much played out the string for the rest of the season, not getting to install his system until the following season. The Suns signed Steve Nash that summer and you probably know what happened from there.

Like Texas Tech, the Suns were never quite able to get over the hump against their two main rivals - losing to Tim Duncan's Spurs and Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs in the WCF. Like Leach, MDA was endlessly criticized for his offensive-minded approach even though he never had the players to form a great defense. Just like Leach, MDA has to sit there and listen to people act like he's a gimmick coach while his offensive schemes take over the sport. The Kobe/Pau Lakers were the last NBA champions to not crib liberally from what the D'Antoni did with the Suns.

The spread pick-and-roll, like Leach's Air Raid offense, was based on a few fairly simple concepts.

1) Instead of trying to pound the ball into the paint where the other team's biggest defenders are, MDA's teams elected to open up the floor and force the defense to move in space. The inside run is the post-up, the 8-year slant is the pick-and-roll.

2) MDA's system didn't require the hardest player in basketball to find - the elite low post center who could command a double team in the paint. There's no better offense than the Triangle to take advantage of a guy like Shaq. The problem is there aren't many guys like Shaq out there. Similarly, if you are Alabama and you can line up a five-star prospect at all five offensive line positions, there's no need to over-complicate what you are doing. If you are Auburn or Mississippi State, you need to figure out some way to level the playing field.

3) The key with both offenses is that it simplifies the decision-making process of the guy with the ball in his hands. When you are running a pick-and-roll against a spread floor, the decision-making process is pretty easy. If the defense switches, attack. If the defense goes under, shoot the jumper. If the defense extends out, hit the roll man. If the defense sends help, get the ball to one of the shooters and they rotate it for an open shot. No matter what the defense does, they have to give up something.

4) The converse of that is guys running conventional offenses have to make plays in tighter windows. You hear that all the time about NCAA QB's - do they know the difference between NCAA open and NFL open? In the NBA, all you have to do is look at the amount of space that Mike Conley plays in with the Grit N Grind Grizzlies verses the amount of space that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have in Golden State. Conley is being asked to cut through rush hour traffic. Curry and Klay are cruising down open lanes on the highway.

5) Here's the most important point of all. If it's easier to be QB/PG in the spread offense that means that the talent pool of guys who could play QB/PG is much wider than we had previously imagined. The spread isn't making guys look better than they actually are - the spread is changing the way we have to evaluate the position entirely.

This concept is pretty easy to grasp when Leach is turning 2 and 3 star recruits into 5,000+ yard passers at Texas Tech. However, when a coach like Urban Meyer does it with big-time recruits at Florida and Ohio State, we still have a tendency to pin everything on the QB even though Meyer's offenses have a long record of churning out record-setting numbers pretty much regardless of whose behind center.

Let's consider Tim Tebow aka the greatest QB in the history of college football. After watching him in the NFL, are we really so sure it was his indomitable will that was leading Florida to those national titles? Not running behind Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, who are now two of the best interior linemen in the NFL? Not throwing the ball to Aaron Hernandez and Percy Harvin? Chris Leak, not Tebow, was the starting QB for Florida when they won their first national title in 2006. I'll submit to you that you would have to be a pretty garbage QB to not win 10+ games a year in Meyer's system with that type of personnel.

 Can't wait for the 30 for 30 on that team.

Remember when Ohio State was doomed when they lost Braxton Miller for the season? Remember when they had no chance without JT Barrett? Cardale Jones was their third string QB - surely no one could have three QB's that good on their roster! Look at their passing numbers at OSU and try to tell me they weren't all replaceable cogs in the Urban Meyer Machine:

Braxton Miller (2013) - 2,094 yards, 24 TD's and 6 INT's on 63.5% completion percentage
JT Barrett (2014) - 2,834 yards, 34 TD's and 7 INT's on 64.6% completion percentage
Cardale Jones (2014) - 860 yards, 7 TD's and 2 INT's on 60.9 completion percentage

Teams running a pro-style offense are devastated by the loss of their QB. For a team running the spread, it's kind of like losing an OG. Plug the next guy in and keep it moving. My first thought when I saw Cardale Jones getting NFL talk was how many high school QB's could play in the NFL if only they got the chance to play for Urban Meyer, run his system and put up a whole bunch of stats on national TV? Remember Tim Couch, No. 1 overall pick in 1998? He probably doesn't get drafted in the first day if he's not playing for Mike Leach. Here's Chris Brown at Grantland going over this idea in more detail when he talks about "the democratization of the QB position".

What's funny is that everyone in Texas was freaking out about how Urban could have 3 good QB's and we don't have any. Maybe instead of focusing on the personality quirks of 18-19 years olds we could look at the offensive structure they have been put it? Maybe the system they are being put into is dysfunctional? Here's my guess - Cardale Jones would have really struggled behind the garbage offensive line that UT had this season and then everyone would have been like, wow Mack Brown really didn't know anything about evaluating QB's, how come he didn't recruit Hot QB Prospect A who wound up at Ohio State?

At TCU, they kept the QB (Trevone Boykin) and changed the system, bringing in Sonny Cumbie, one of Leach's old QB's at Texas Tech, to install an Air Raid inspired offense. Take a wild guess as to what happened:

Boykin (2013) - 1,198 passing yards, 7 TD's and 7 INT's on 59.7% completion percentage
Boykin (2014) - 3,091 passing yards, 33 TD's and 10 INT's on 61.2% completion percentage

I wonder if there have been any dramatic turn-arounds like that in the NBA recently? Let's take a look at what Brandon Jennings and DJ Augustin were doing in Detroit before and after they got rid of Josh Smith and began running the spread pick-and-roll:

In the Pistons first game without Jennings, DJ Augustin went for 35 points, 4 rebounds and 8 assists against a Toronto team that cut him the year before. I'm a big Kyle Lowry fan but it's pretty obvious that he got outplayed in that game by a guy who was an NBA journeyman a few years ago. It's not because DJ is better than Lowry - it's because the game is a lot easier for him. How many points and assists would Lowry have running the P/R with Drummond? More importantly, how many PG's are out there could run that play with him at a high level? The Pistons got 2 points and 2 assists from Spencer Dinwiddie (a rookie 2nd round pick from Colorado coming off an ACL injury) in 11 minutes against Toronto.

Maybe the reason there are so many good PG's in the NBA is because it has never been easier to put up big offensive statistics at the position than ever before? Maybe Jeremy Lin succeeded with MDA in New York for the same reason that all those QB's succeeded with Mike Leach at Texas Tech - because it would have been almost impossible not too. I like Jeremy Lin and I think he's an NBA player, but you can't tell me there aren't a number of guys in the D-League who could put up numbers like he does if given the same opportunity.

It don't take genius-level PG play to throw alley oops to Tyson Chandler just like it doesn't take a high-level NFL QB to hit Michael Crabtree on a 7-yard slant. The key with the spread offense is that it isn't about the guy throwing the ball, it's about the guy catching it. He's the one who has to make the 1-on-1 play and get open or force the defense to send an extra man and leave someone else open. All the decision-maker has to do is read his receiver and make the right play.

In case you have forgotten (and Texas fans never will), here's the biggest play in Leach's tenure at Texas Tech:

Everyone looks at the success of the New England Patriots with Tom Brady and a bunch of different WR's and says oh Brady can make anyone WR look good. Well the reverse is just as true. There are a lot of guys like Graham Harrell out there. There aren't many Michael Crabtrees. There are many guys who could be Brandon Jennings, but there's only one Andre Drummond.

In the 21rst century, QB's and PG's are becoming increasingly replaceable. That's the end point of the spread revolution.

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