NFL teams favor spread offense over feature backs
By Alan Robinson
Published: Monday, July 16, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
Updated: Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel mastermind, calls it “fast food” football: NFL offenses gobbling up as much yardage as possible in the least amount of time.
Torry Holt, one of the receiving stars who helped shape the ongoing transformation in offensive strategy, refers to it as “copycat” football, as team after team adopts a spread-offense derivative.
No matter the nomenclature, what's evident is every level of football is caught up in a fast-shifting evolution in which good teams — bad ones, too — must pass. And pass and pass and pass.
From youth leagues on up, offenses are being structured around high-percentage passing games designed for ultra-precise quarterbacks, four or five receivers, hybrid running backs adept at catching passes and flex tight ends who get open downfield as quickly as wideouts.
Exit the world of Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson. Enter the world of Aaron Rodgers and Rob Gronkowski.
“We've gone from grammar school to grad school at MIT,” and in not much time, said Brandt, a SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst. “In Texas, 90 percent of the high schools have spread offenses.”
This evolution, speeded a decade ago by the St. Louis Rams' “Greatest Show on Turf” offense that highlighted Holt, is most affecting the feature back, the big-yardage runner that offenses were built around not that long ago.
The long-traditional formation with a running back and fullback is all but extinct; no fullback has been drafted in the first round since 1994. When the NFL season starts in seven weeks, nearly one in five teams is expected to start an undrafted free agent at running back.
“We ran the spread for the longest time in St. Louis, and everybody told us we were crazy,” said Holt, an NFL Network analyst and the 10th-leading receiver in NFL history. “We said, ‘So be it, it works for us.' Now, everybody runs the spread offense.”
Although offensive coordinator Todd Haley won't fully unveil the Steelers' new system until the Sept. 9 opener, they're spreading it out, too. Ben Roethlisberger averaged 3,868 yards passing the past three seasons, a figure approached only once in team history before he arrived in 2004.
Illustrating how rapidly the spread is, well, spreading, the Steelers — the NFL's most run-driven team only 10 years ago — are expected to open against the Broncos with the non-drafted Isaac Redman at running back. Redman has made only two career starts and has a scant 479 career yards, yet there seems to be little visible consternation by management, coaches and fans.
Former 1,000-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall (torn knee ligament) is expected to return at some point this season to an offense in which the feature back remains important but no longer is the focal point.
There's more evidence. Before 2000, only Dan Marino (1984) had thrown for as many as 5,000 yards in a season. Last season, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford accomplished it and Eli Manning just missed. Ten QBs, including Roethlisberger (4,077 yards), threw for 4,000 or more.
Teams averaged 244.8 yards receiving and 117.1 yards rushing last season; the averages were 143.9 yards rushing and 141.9 yards receiving in 1977, a season after the Steelers had twin 1,000-yard rushers in Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier.
“We had Franco and Rocky, the Dolphins had (Larry) Csonka and (Jim) Kiick. There was more of an emphasis on the running game and playing good defense,” said Dick Hoak, the former Steelers player and the most-tenured running backs coach in NFL history. “Now, the whole game has gone more to throwing.”
Frequent rules changes designed to lessen injuries to quarterbacks and receivers also hastened the change.
“Receivers aren't afraid of going across the middle,” said Holt, who played from 1999-2009. “They're not getting hit as much as they did when I first came into the league.”
Teams also are relying more on specialty backs with speed and pass-catching ability — like Darren Sproles or Dexter McCluster — to complement the starting back. These fastbacks aren't built to run between the tackles but rather to elude defenders with sprinter-type speed. Rookie Chris Rainey may fill such a role for the Steelers.
Every-down backs are virtually nonexistent; only one of the top 40 career rushers in NFL history (Steven Jackson of the Rams) is projected to start this season. All-time leader Emmitt Smith (18,355 yards) might be the leader decades from now; Jackson, for example, has had seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, yet isn't halfway (9,093 yards) to Smith's mark as he turns 29 next week.
“Back in the 1970s and 1980s, teams that threw for 300 yards usually lost — that's why they threw for 300, they were playing from behind,” Hoak said. “Now, they throw for 400, 500. You may occasionally come across a team that tries to pound the ball, finesse the ball, but the majority of teams spread the field, trying to outscore you. And I don't think we're going back.”
Note: Former Steelers running back Willie Parker was hired as an assistant at West Virginia Wesleyan, an NCAA Division II school in Buckhannon, W.Va. Coach Jonas Jackson said Parker will work with the offense. Parker, 31, had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons after succeeding Bettis as the starter, including 1,494 yards in 2006.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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