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The end of bell cow RBs

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The main concept behind the spread offense is pushing offensive football down a slippery slope in which the RB can no longer serve as the featured bell cow of an offense.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the Texas Longhorns were known for innovating and popularizing what seemed like the final word on option football, the wishbone offense. Then they ironically ditched it in the late 70s while rival Oklahoma leaned on it for titles through the 80s. The reason? Earl Campbell.

Take a look at Earl’s workload at Texas over four years:

Earl Campbell at Texas

Year Production
Year Production
1974 162 carries, 928 yards, 5.7 ypc, 6 TDs
1975 198 carries, 1118 yards, 5.6 ypc, 13 TDs
1976 138 carries, 653 yards, 4.7 ypc, 3 TDs
1977 267 carries, 1744 yards, 6.5 ypc, 18 TDs

One of these things is not like the other. From 1974-76 Texas was running the wishbone offense, in which Earl Campbell was a 240 pound fullback running the dive option. After 1976 Darrel K Royal retired and Fred Akers took over as HC. His first move was to tell Campbell to lose 20 pounds and get in shape because they were going to feature him the following season in a new formation, the I.

The wishbone was a devastating concept, but it made the usage of a single talent like Earl Campbell conditional on how the defense played the offense. Earl got the dive IF the QB’s read told him to handoff, otherwise the ball was going off tackle or to the perimeter. The design of the option is essentially to ask the defense to pick their poison. In the I-formation the defense didn’t get a choice, stopping Earl meant beating blocks and then tackling him...

Texas went 11-1, Campbell won the Heisman as the bell cow of their offense (his carries doubled), and the Longhorns had a shot at the national championship but lost to Joe Montana’s Notre Dame 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl. The I-formation became a favorite style during that period over the wishbone or other option systems, even with passing teams that saw the the formation’s ability to force a defense to commit numbers to the box to stop a star RB as a positive in creating leverage to throw it down the field.

Then the spread offense killed the I-formation, which has led to major and poorly understood ramifications for the RB position.

West coast —> spread —> option football

Obviously that Joe Montana fellow went on to have a pretty big influence on the game of football as the maestro in San Francisco’s “west coast offense” that utilized the I-formation but emphasized quick rhythm passing. Eventually teams realized that the passing game could be good enough that they needn’t use up their precious five skill positions on blocking FBs and TEs, leading to teams using the spread and three or four receiver sets to make the passing game deadlier with better athletes flooding the field.

The passing game can have some bell cow dimensions but it’s mostly option football built around the forward pass rather than the pitch. The QB reads key defenders or routes and then distributes the ball based on what the defense is doing. Once again the defense can always choose their poison and opt for what they feel is the option least likely to beat them. For instance, perhaps not giving the QB a clear read to throw a backside slant to Jerry Rice.

The spread offense initially didn’t take hold as fast in the college game because it didn’t play to the strengths of the major universities in an obvious fashion. The benefit of being an Alabama or an Ohio State is having a greater capacity to recruit the truly rare athletes, the 300+ pound sort that can control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. The spread and passing game necessarily move the focal point of a game, if even only situationally, out to the perimeter where really just about anyone can find good athletes in the 6-0/200 pound range.

But the spread still took hold eventually, initially because it actually made it easier to run the football, thus making it more attractive to the big schools. With the RPO, offenses could start to force defenses to keep defenders out of the box and set up their OL and RBs to dominate as they preferred.

However that has created three crucial enemies that are killing the idea of the bell cow RB.

Enemy no. 1: The outnumbered box

Because the essence of spread philosophy is essentially option football, defenses always get a choice. They can double a WR if they really don’t want him to get the ball or they can send an extra man to stop the run if they really don’t want the offense to be able to run the ball. There’s still a degree of competence and talent that has to be involved, but top defenses can typically take away even a top RB if they really want to.

For instance, until the Irish D had been broken down by big passes and been forced to worry about the Trevor Lawrence zone-read, Travis Etienne had done a whole lot of nothing in the playoff semifinal. Take away his breakaway 62-yard TD run and he had 13 carries for 47 yards at 3.6 ypc.

If Clemson was in 11 personnel (one TE, one RB, three WRs) then Notre Dame could bring hard hitting FS Alohi Gilman down to outnumber the run (seven defenders for six blockers). In 10 personnel (no TE, one RB, four WRs) Notre Dame could choose to leave both LBs in the box and outnumber the run (six defenders for five blockers).

Every answer for a spread offense that wants the RB to get the ball depends on the defense going along and not choosing the other poisons on offer.

Enemy no. 2: The RPO spread

Teams within the RPO spread sphere of offense started by adding bubble screens and quick routes to their runs. It was easier to hold the “overhang” defenders on the edge by making them defend a quick route than asking a WR to effectively block them. Then defenses started having the overhangs “cover down” on those WRs, essentially reading them for a pass key before closing to outnumber the run and sending help from a conflict-free defender like the free safety.

The end game of this chess battle has been lots of defenses that play what often amounts to man coverage on the receivers with a safety lurking near the box to be an extra man to stop the run game. Offenses have two choices against that look, they can look to run the ball and try to best a defense that’s training their defense to key the run as much as they can get away with for a few yards at a time OR they can attack man coverage with the passing game and pick up yardage in chunks.

Enemy no. 3: The efficiency of the modern passing game

These days it’s a heck of a lot easier to score points by finding 1-on-1s in the passing game and throwing fade routes on an opponent’s weakest coverage defender when they find him in that situation. The run game just can’t keep up, it’s hard to score 30 or 40 points without a modern, spread passing attack and it’s hard to win a title if you can’t score 30 or 40 points.

Defenses don’t really have many answers yet for high level spread passing attacks, especially the ones that are still built around the paradigm of “stop the run first” which is completely outdated against the style you tend to see in the college football playoffs these days.

Florida State started the shift in 2013 when they won the national championship in large part by spreading out Auburn with a pro spread set featuring Jameis Winston throwing to WRs Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene and TE Nick O’Leary. They won the game with a two minute offensive drive which concluded with a throw to Benjamin.

In 2016 Clemson took things another step by beating Alabama with a pro spread set led by DeShaun Watson with WRs Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow and TE Jordan Leggett. That game also ended with a two minute offensive drive.

Since then, Clemson has continued along that road while Alabama has embraced the spread offense and aggressive passing with Tua Tagovailoa. Oklahoma nearly crashed the party as well with Baker Mayfield and then Kyler Murray but bottom rung defenses prevented the Sooners’ explosive attack from vaulting them over SEC powers Georgia or Alabama. With Clemson and Alabama embracing the aggressive, pass to set up the run paradigm of the modern spread, opponents have to be ready to keep up on the scoreboard if they want to win the game. You’re not beating Alabama or Clemson unless you can score in the 30s and 40s and you’re not going to score at that pace unless you’re using the modern passing attack. Nothing else can be efficient enough against Alabama and Clemson’s still potent defenses.

While many coaches made the conversion to the spread in order to unleash explosive running backs in space, they were ultimately accepting a paradigm that was going to end in a conversion to emphasizing the passing game as the final answer. The spread offense is the wrong answer for the question of how to impose your will in the run game with a bell cow RB.

Travis Etienne finished this season with 1572 yards on 190 carries, good for 8.3 ypc, with a whopping 22 touchdowns. A remarkable performance, he’s a deadly constraint within the Clemson offense but ultimately he’s just that. A punishment for teams that try to shift resources to stopping Trevor Lawrence and the passing game. His lethality depends on the choices of the defense in how they adjust to Lawrence and the stress of Clemson’s option system. When push comes to shove, Clemson will look to beat Alabama in the title game by hunting for opportunities to push the ball down the field to their big receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Rogers.

Eventually spread teams may even determine to turn the RB into another tool for attacking with the pass with the downhill back becoming a situational player rather than an every down feature. The first team to effectively execute that strategy is going to cause fits for defenses, which still largely choose their personnel to stop the run where possible.

The die was cast when spread formations became the main style across college football, that was the end of the bell cow RB.