Recently on “the ringer,” Kevin Clark wrote an excellent piece entitled “the year football became basketball” that detailed how spread passing sets have come to totally dominate the NFL. Now, I think this was cemented as “the way” to do things when New England took down the Seahawks “Legion of Boom” without even pretending to want to run the ball but there’s no question that a Super Bowl pairing of Atlanta and New England has revealed the ascendancy of this approach.
Atlanta ranked 7th in rushing by Football Outsider’s DVOA this year while New England ranked 17th. They ranked 1st and 2nd respectively in passing.
Attempting to win with balance and establishing the run game simply isn’t the “pro-style” way to do things anymore. The pros are instead becoming defined by the fact that having professional football players allows teams to master highly detailed, skill-intensive tactics based around the forward pass. In a league with a salary cap, a draft that rewards losing, and rules favoring the passing game, you can’t “process” everyone by being the biggest and the baddest team in the trenches.
But this has some unexamined ramifications for college football, including discussions about which teams are really preparing their players for the NFL and what constitutes a “pro-style” offense. When defending his “anti-spread” comments about his search for a new offensive coordinator, UCLA’s head coach Jim Mora explained that being “multiple” was the key and he wanted to utilize a TE and not just have four WRs on the field all the time.
Well that’s great, but in the NFL these days “tight ends” are usually just enormous WRs who are utilized for their ability to be a size mismatch and big target in the middle of the field, many of these guys can’t block worth a lick. Clemson was closer to the new “pro-style” with how they used Jordan Leggett then many “pro-style” teams. They used him at times in the run game, but his real value was in the passing game.
So what are we to call the college teams that try to win by knocking people out of the way with tight ends and fullbacks on the field? Obviously “college-style” is not going to cut it given the lack of prominence of these tactics in the college game, so we’re going to have to find another term for the offense formerly known as “pro-style” . Here are some possibilities:
Two years ago I made a distinction between “spread” offenses and “not-spread” (which has been “pro-style” by default) based on what kinds of players an offense uses at the inside WR positions. If you’re looking to spread people out, you’re turning to skilled athletes at the inside slots in order to utilize the spacing outside of the tackle box and relying on that space to make life hard for your opponents.
If you’re packing in big bodies in-line or in the backfield, you’re looking to rely on ancient “shock” tactics where you physically blast people and create space that becomes difficult to close because so many defenders are either busy trying to win grappling battles with blockers or have already lost those battles and are on the ground.
Honestly, most of the best college offenses are blending these approaches, often with RPOs that create a “division of labor” effect that allows players to specialize either in being demons in space or box bludgeons.
We’ve often referred to offenses like Brett Bielema’s Arkansas attack, the Paul Chryst Wisconsin offense, Jim Harbaugh’s “power-coast” system at Stanford and Michigan, or Jim Chaney’s TE-friendly offense (currently at Georgia) as “manball” offenses. The reason is that they tend to put fullbacks or multiple tight ends on the field in order to knock people out of the way. That kind of direct, “I’m coming at you face to face, whaddya gonna do about it?” approach to offense does indeed have a very masculine feel about it.
What’s more, it can double as a pejorative term when these tactics don’t go well and you see these teams literally banging their heads against the wall hoping to make something positive happen, thus capturing the traditional weakness of the “masculine” approach as much as the term champions the physical imposition of will.
The problem with this term is that it’s not terribly descriptive, it’s as pejorative as it is useful, and it’s not necessarily very accurate either. For instance, Arkansas has generally made their living confusing defenses on whether to expect a run or pass with their deadly combination of play-action passing and lead draw run schemes. They may look to knock you down but there’s a fair amount of deception and skill involved as well.
These other teams are similarly diverse and feature strategies that are much further evolved than the monkey with a club in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The “multiple” offense
This would probably be the choice of practitioners of the offense formerly known as “pro-style.” The idea is that rather than simply going four-wide and trying to spread everyone out, these are the teams that can and will also pack it in and run you over.
Indeed when you watch any of the teams typically labelled as “pro-style” you’ll regularly see them employ some shotgun spread formations perhaps even as often as they get into the I-formation or double-TE sets.
My criticisms of this labelling however are numerous. One problem is that offenses that have forever been labelled as “spread,” such as the Urban Meyer school that includes Meyer, Dan Mullen, and now Tom Herman, are generally pretty multiple. They’ll use a TE or two to clear a path for their run game but they’ll also get into empty sets with four or five receivers on the field and throw the ball all over the place.
Gus Malzahn’s smashmouth spread offense at Auburn competed with “pro-style” Florida State with a formation that regularly made use of blocking from a fullback (Jay Prosch) and a tight end (C.J. Uzomah) that are both currently in the NFL performing in those same (now marginalized) roles.
Are we now going to preserve the “multiple” label for offenses that get under center with TEs and FBs on the field? Doesn’t that imply that other offenses which also make use of varying tactics and formations are not “multiple?” What’s more, it’s very common to see teams that are ostensibly aiming to be “multiple” who instead are just mediocre at everything.
The Under-center offense
Most teams don’t go under center without a TE or two or a FB on the field as well. I recall teams like Texas and USC used to do so long ago with under center empty formations but these days most everyone does all of that from the gun instead, including the teams that spend a lot of time under center.
So this is theoretically a descriptive term that could be applied accurately to these styles of offense with a good amount of consistency. The problems? We leave out pistol-oriented teams, which are otherwise often identical, and it’s simply not a very catchy term.
The idea here would be that these teams are playing classic football, with only minor evolutions and tweaks added to stay current with the game. For that to be a fair term you’d have to consider the 70’s and 80’s to be the “classic” period of football because these offenses didn’t really exist until then, instead the game was dominated by more option-heavy systems like the single-wing, Wing-T, Veer, or Wishbone or up-tempo, passing heavy offenses more akin to what’s popular now.
I’m guessing that proponents of those schemes would object to the notion that offenses built off the I-formation represent “classic” football. We have to call it something though...
If you’re slow on the take here, that’s an acronym for “the offense formerly known as pro-style.”
The homage of course is to Prince, who once changed his name to a strange symbol, leading media figures to start referring to him as “the artist formerly known as Prince” or TAFKAP. Comparing these classic yet still evolving offenses to a tiny, eccentric, and creatively brilliant artist has a certain ring to it. I’m not sure if we could make it catch on or not but TOFKAP is Twitter-friendly if nothing else.
What do y’all think? Shall we continue to pretend that blowing open holes for a RB with big, mobile blockers represents the “pro-style” approach to football, do we embrace one of these terms, or do we develop another moniker?