Seeing the spread game eventually filter into the pro game didn't surprise: despite the fact they lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants, the Patriots enjoyed freefire success working out of spread sets all year long, a tweak by OC Matt Cassel Josh McDaniels that had the Patriots quick-and-gone passing game looking a lot like they were videotaping Florida and LSU practices. (It's not Tom Brady's fault that the Giants looked like they had eight defensive linemen on every play; it's just that Osi Umemyiora's scat play gave him superhuman powers, and you can't fight that...at least not without washing your hands vigorously afterwards.)
And with the mention of Osi Umenyiora's sexual proclivities...Marmite looks so much tastier now, doesn't it?
Football Outsiders, being the geek crack dealers they are, include this tidbit of tidbits in their draft prep review:
...Most interesting were his comments about what the increase of the spread offense in college football has done to player evaluation. It was McCloughan’s belief that drive-blocking has been de-emphasized, and pass protection over-emphasized. While this may mirror certain trends in the pro game, McCloughan said that it’s almost a relief to scout a more traditional offense like USC’s.
He also said that increasing numbers of three- and four-wide sets are changing the tight end position — you’ll see more guys who were previously thought to be too short at 6-foot-2 or 6-3 being evaluated as tight ends/hybrid receivers as opposed to H-backs. The obvious question was: How will new 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who has traditionally thrown less to tight ends then most, work with Vernon Davis? The answer seemed to be: Don’t be surprised to see him spread out wide more often. This is a case where the college game may be affecting the professional trend over time.
There's a chicken/egg question here: are you going to see spread sets more often in the pros because of its effectiveness (see: Pats' 07), or because that's the recipe the goods coming up the pipeline work best in? (My, that's a mixed metaphor: cuisine, petrochemical delivery systems.) The scenario itself seems odd: the spread came about as a result of trying to create mismatches and spread the field to create both running and passing lanes. Sounds nice enough, in theory.
Now one nice thing about doing that is that someone on the field in college cannot cover their space effectively. By giving them more space and more of a penalty for making an error--slip a tackle, and the ballcarrier could be clear from hell to breakfast behind you--you're maximizing your chances of advancing the ball. In theory, the advantage is the same in the pros, but a few things happen at the pro level that prove to be murderous complications for the spread.
1. Pressure. The level of athleticism on the defensive side of the ball in the pros represents a different species of human beings. Julius Peppers is on defense; this alone should get the point across. If you blitz in the pros against a spread formation, the read and delivery have to be done in nano seconds. Put a Leftwich back there, and it's wolves shredding flesh all day long. Get pressure with only four, and we're talking "Eli Manning, Super Bowl Champion."
2. Coverage. All pro DBs can tackle. All of them. They can't all cover, DeAngelo Hall hi!, but they can all tackle and beat blocks, more often than not. This means a lot of the three and five yard curls are incompletions, and the jailbreak runs after the catch are greatly limited. One effect of the West Coast offense was to turn DBs into tacklers as sure-handed as linebackers, and with the Walsh School running as the conventional wisdom of the NFL, the effect remains.
As for the return of the H-back, that's less significant, and another lead taken from the college game. Hugeass receivers: that's what tight ends become in the spread, for the most part. Look at Missouri for what TEs will be in the evolving spread: dynamic receivers, and big blockers when need be, but essentially just large moving objects in space like everyone else...albeit ones the size of moose running full-speed down the field. Have fun tackling Vernon Davis in space! It'll feel like cotton candy sparkles and ponies!