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What does it mean to be “multiple” on offense?

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That’s a favorite buzzphrase for offensive coaches at new destinations but what does it really mean?

Boise State v San Diego State Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

“We’re going to be multiple on offense,” is probably the most common response you hear from offensive coaches at new stops when asked if their scheme will be “pro-style” or “spread.” When a coach hears that question he knows that it basically amounts to “will you use more than one TE or FB at a time and run at people or play three or more WRs all the time and fling it around?” In response, many want to say “well, we want to do both.”

To some degree nearly everyone wants to be “multiple” on offense. Spread teams need packages to allow them to run the football in short-yardage scenarios or to run clock at the end of the game and mauling pro-style teams need spread packages to help them get receivers open on third and nine or when they’re down with the clock expiring. Consequently, lots of spread teams will have an I-formation type package for situational use and every pro-style team these days spends good time in a spread set.

But it means something more to be truly “multiple” in the sense that an offense is as comfortable with a TE and FB on the field as they are in multiple WR sets. Here’s the best case scenario for what that kind of offensive philosophy looks like at the college level.

Flexible enough to hit weak spots

College football rosters are pretty big. With 85 scholarship players plus another few dozen walk-ons it’s possible to have big numbers at every position group, even if some are younger and less veteran than other positions.

The multiple offense is essentially a “total roster” philosophy in which the offense involves as many of those 85 guys as possible with lots of formations and packages to get everyone on the field. Of course, college football rosters are also fairly inexperienced and still undeveloped. It’s not feasible to coach every player to be great in multiple techniques or styles of play. To build an extensive I-formation package in an offense is a real commitment that makes the simultaneous assembly of an Air Raid, spread game more or less impossible.

However, it’s possible to be solid and deep enough at both with a packaged approach to offense. The 2000’s Oklahoma offenses were great at this, regularly featuring bigger running packages in addition to their base Air Raid approach.

The 2008 offense essentially had two different TEs they’d use based on situation. They had Jermaine Gresham, a future NFL target that was at his best running routes and flexing out from the formation, and then Brody Eldridge who also saw some time in the NFL for his blocking ability. The Sooners would bring in Eldridge and perhaps also FB Matt Clapp either to replace Gresham or to bump him out and away from the physical action inside. Then they’d run their standard run plays from bigger formations, perhaps with a few extra schemes or wrinkles.

FedEx BCS National Championship Game - Oklahoma v Florida Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

This was normal for 00’s Oklahoma, they'd always have a few guys on the roster at FB and TE that could block well and they’d mix them in liberally to boost the run game. The upshot of that was that they could hammer opponents based on which formations allowed them to hit weak spots in opposing personnel. If an opponent didn’t have the athletes to match up with the Sooners in the passing game that could be trouble but there was also the problem of whether opponents had the bodies to eat doubles or take on lead blocks if an extra TE or FB came on the field.

Multiple offenses also tend to keep things pretty simple by leaning on the same concepts with different accoutrements based on the package they have on the field. You can run curl-flat to your top receiver outside off play-action with a FB in the game or from the spread with a slot running a route to hold attention in the middle of the field. If the intention is always just to create a two-man game outside in the hopes of hitting the star receiver on the curl, everything else is just window dressing.

Similarly, a zone run to the star RB can be bolstered just as easily by bubble routes on the outside as by extra blocking surfaces or lead inserts along the line. For the main cogs of the team, like the QB, RB, top WR, and OL everything is more or less the same. All that changes is whether you want to hammer the extra defenders near the box or try to lure them out by going spread.

Flexible enough to keep opponents off balance

You’ll often catch a “multiple” team staying heavy or spread for an entire game if they feel like the matchups are such that this gives them the best chance to execute their approach. However, 2008 Oklahoma took their own multiple offense to a new level by embracing higher tempo and adding one more layer to the psychological warfare they waged against the rest of the league.

You have to give the defense a chance to sub if the offense is subbing out a slot for a FB, but that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park for the defense to adjust from matching a spread set to being ready to handle a lead run game the next snap. There’s a lot to think through in each instance such as “what are this offense’s tendencies from this package?” Even for a coordinator calling plays from the sideline it can be a lot to keep up with in a live setting with the offense racing to call another play.

Then there’s the application of game theory, which can really make life hard. The 2008 Sooners loved to use misdirection plays and screens from all of their sets, regularly subbing players in and out only to throw misdirection in to catch a team thinking for a big play. It’s possible that no team has ever scored more points off screens than the 2008 Sooners.

There’s also always the fun approach of calling runs from the spread and passes from big personnel. Boise State has often excelled at being multiple in this fashion, particularly as the shotgun spread took off and provided them with the means to mix in QB run options or RPOs to allow them to protect their favorite runs from the spread. Of course they’ll also regularly flex out big TEs that aren’t necessarily great receivers to run “distracto routes” and hold coverage defenders while they look to get the ball to a star WR.

Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Oregon Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

This requires a higher degree of training for the players and game planning for the offense but it takes multiple to the highest level of attainment in making defenses uncertain about what package will be coming at them and how it will attack their structure.

When keeping it multiple goes wrong

We saw it occasionally from the 00s Oklahoma offenses and regularly around the country when coaches try to install “multiple” concepts and packages at an offense and not only fail to be good at everything but end up failing to be good at anything.

If you have a dozen relatively simple and limited packages and none of them scare anyone then you can get into real trouble. If only a limited part of your offensive package is effective against an opponent then you can quickly run out of disguises and designs before the defense figures out how to take that away as well.

After all, you can get slots up to speed in a few key concepts or TEs and FBs in a few blocking techniques, but you can’t be super deep and great at anything in particular if you need to devote real practice times to both packages. A true I-formation team will have a dozen concepts designed to attack different defensive adjustments but a team that employs an I-formation package as part of a “multiple” offense? They probably don’t have that many counters, their counter is to get into another package.

Boise builds their gameplans around keeping opponents off their key players to try and avoid this problem but again, it takes a high level of development and team IQ to master a “multiple” approach to the level where you don’t run into a team that knows how to attack your “multiplicity.” What happens if you run into a team that’s too physical to be bullied at the point of attack with a big set but knows how to throw wrenches into your spread concepts? Or the team with athletes to match up against the spread and some stunts or blitzes that your big sets don’t have good counters for?

This tends to really matter when an opponent has the athletes to man up on a top receiver no matter where he’s aligned or the DL/LBs to stuff an OL and RB regardless of the package and window dressing around him. If the DTs both have to be doubled, for instance, nothing else on the field really matters. The defense doesn’t have to commit extra numbers to stop the run in that instance, just as they don’t have to play deep coverage if they have a guy tracking the top WR and shutting him down without help every play.

The 00s OU would regularly run into problems in big games when opponents either had the depth to counter their packages or could just out-execute their best players. For instance, in the 2004 and 2005 national championship games, star receiver Mark Clayton caught a combined total of eight passes for 53 yards and no touchdowns. Over the two seasons leading up to those games he had 2301 receiving yards and 23 touchdown receptions.

Being multiple often meant having multiple ways to get Mark Clayton the ball, if the opponent could deny that with man coverage then everything else was academic.

Oklahoma went to three championship games in that decade and won one, a contest that they won 13-2. In other words, being multiple went terribly wrong once they were playing elite opponents.

At the end of the day, being “multiple” on offense is like any other philosophy in that it works as well as it sets up the team’s best players to control the game.