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Can spread quarterbacks succeed in the NFL?

4/21/2015

As Baylor's starting quarterback the last two seasons, Bryce Petty passed for 8,055 yards, accounted for 81 touchdowns and posted a Total QBR (82.5) that ranked in the top 10 in the FBS last season.

Yet, because of the offense he ran at Baylor, there are doubts as to whether Petty’s college success will translate to the NFL.

Under coach Art Briles, Baylor runs a version of a spread offense that is becoming more prevalent in the college game. There are many versions of the spread (Baylor, Oregon and Washington State each has its version, for example), but these offenses do share a few similarities.

Explaining the spread offense

Spread offenses use the entire width of the field, operate primarily out of the shotgun and mainly utilize three or four wide receivers. Certain spreads, such as Baylor’s, move at a lightning pace and try to exploit space with quick, short passes.

No two spreads are the same, but the characteristics of these offenses, particularly those that emphasize passing, make the transition to the NFL a challenge for many quarterbacks, and not necessarily because they ran the spread itself. Rather, it is the skills that they never learned as spread quarterbacks.

These players have to master taking snaps from under center, learn three-, five- and seven-step drops and maintain their accuracy. Without multiple-receiver sets, they must learn to exploit defenses with fewer holes and defensive backs on the field. Many also must learn to call plays from the huddle and audibles at the line.

For Petty, these challenges might not be easy to overcome. His lack of experience taking snaps under center was exposed at the Senior Bowl, and even with the rise of the shotgun in the NFL (60 percent of snaps in 2014), he will have to adjust to different routes, plays and terminology in an NFL offense. Coming from a spread offense makes that adjustment even bigger.

Because of the challenges that come with adjusting to those schemes, there is a widespread belief that a spread offense in college inhibits the development of productive NFL quarterbacks.

But is that the case?

Spread quarterbacks in the NFL

There have been 35 quarterbacks selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2008, including 16 who ran a version of the spread in college. On average, the pro-style quarterbacks were more likely to start, but their base-level stats were not significantly better than those of the spread quarterbacks. They had comparable winning percentages, completion percentages and Total QBRs once in the NFL.

It would make sense that it would take the spread quarterbacks longer to adjust because they have a steeper learning curve. Again, that is not the case. In their rookie seasons, the pro-style quarterbacks started on average of 0.6 of a game more than the spread quarterbacks, but their stats were nearly identical. The difference in starts could be a result of a variety of factors, including being drafted to back up a healthy, veteran quarterback.

Not all spreads are the same

Generally there are two types of spread offenses -- one that is pass-oriented and one that is run-oriented. The passing spreads include versions of the air raid made popular by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach.

NFL quarterbacks who ran this passing offense in college include Brandon Weeden, Geno Smith and Blaine Gabbert.

The spread rushing offenses include a number of versions of the zone-read option offenses such as the ones run by Oregon and Auburn. NFL quarterbacks who ran a version of this offense in college include Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.

It is important to note that even when breaking spreads down into rushing and passing, there are still many versions, so Newton’s and Kaepernick’s offenses were not the same.

Spread passing quarterbacks have struggled

Nonetheless, the players who came from a spread passing offense were by far the least successful in the NFL. Among the 12 players in the group, only Robert Griffin III had an above-average Total QBR in his rookie season. Six players who ran a pro-style or spread rushing offense had an above-average QBR in his first season (minimum eight games started).

The struggles of spread passing quarterbacks continued throughout their careers, with some of the worst career QBRs and winning percentages since 2008 belonging to players who ran that type of offense.

At Baylor, Petty ran an offense that most closely resembled a spread passing attack, but there were also pieces of the zone-read sprinkled in. He took 95 percent of his snaps out of the shotgun and lined up with at least three wide receivers on 95 percent of his plays. The Bears ran a no-huddle on 78 percent of their plays.

Petty’s adjustment to the NFL will be pronounced, but that does not mean he will not succeed. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is one example of a quarterback who worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun at Delaware and has won a Super Bowl. Petty will have a lot of work ahead of him, but as the numbers above indicate, the belief that a quarterback coming out of a spread offense cannot succeed in the NFL is an overgeneralization.