An offense spread thin in NFL

Updated: December 11, 2012, 1:57 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Chip KellyScott Olmos/US PresswireChip Kelly has distanced himself from all discussions regarding the NFL.

Chip Kelly will not talk about the NFL. He said that after the Ducks' practice on Sunday. He relayed the message Monday when he received an interview request about how a collegiate spread offense might fare in the NFL.

It is bowl season. It is recruiting season, and he is adamant. Kelly doesn't want to fuel the speculation about him and whatever NFL team is going to fire its coach.

But if you talk about collegiate spread offenses, you have to start at Oregon, where Kelly has used space and a fast tempo to befuddle, strain and ultimately exhaust opposing defenses. He came to Eugene six years ago as an unheralded offensive coordinator. In his four seasons as head coach, the Ducks have gone 45-7 (.865) and finished every season in a BCS bowl. This is the first year under Kelly that Oregon didn't win the Pacific-12 Conference championship.

Oregon tied for first in the Pac-12 North with Stanford, which beat the Ducks 17-14 in overtime and held them to 198 rushing yards, 127 fewer than their average.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireDavid Shaw believes the spread can work in the NFL with the right support.

"The offense is always taking advantage of space," Cardinal head coach David Shaw said. "That's the thing. You've got to match up personnel-wise. But at the same time, it's still space. Our guys did extremely well. You have to game-plan for it. You've got to be ready for it. I thought we've had good game plans the last four times we've played them, but we're 2-2. And those two that we lost were not close."

The college game is a lot better at sending players to the NFL than it is at sending schemes. The wishbone dominated college football for two decades, but the offense washed out on Sundays. Chuck Fairbanks installed it in New England in the mid-1970s. Quarterback Jim Plunkett disliked the physical punishment he received so much that he requested a trade.

"There are a lot of young running quarterbacks," Plunkett once said. "But there aren't a lot of old ones."

Plunkett eventually made his way to Oakland, where he came off the bench at midseason in 1980 to lead the Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XV. Oakland didn't run the wishbone.

The spread is this generation's wishbone. More and more schools are incorporating at least some spread concepts into their offenses. The spread forces the defense to cover more space with the same 11 players. All that room makes it ideal for a running quarterback, which increases the pressure on a defense that must account for him.

Four of the last five quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy -- Tim Tebow of Florida (2007), Cam Newton of Auburn (2010), Robert Griffin III of Baylor (2011) and now, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M -- proved to be as dangerous with their feet as with their arm.

None of the three in the NFL are in offenses that take advantage of their talents the way a spread offense did. In college, the better athlete makes the play. In the NFL, everyone is a better athlete.

"The quarterback is the highest-paid guy on the team," Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien said. "These guys are making between $12 and $20 million a year. I don't think the owners really want them getting hit that much."

O'Brien has known Kelly for nearly 20 years, dating to their days as young I-AA assistants -- O'Brien at Brown, Kelly at New Hampshire.

"Chip's one of the brightest coaches I've ever spoken to, and that says a lot, because I've been around a lot of smart coaches," O'Brien said. "If he ends up in the NFL, he'll adapt his system to the type of people he has."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Bruce SchwartzmanMarcus Mariota will run, but he's rarely in danger in Oregon's system.

Shaw believes that Kelly already has begun to make that adjustment. It's not that freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota didn't run a lot. He finished the regular season with 98 rushes, second on the team. Shaw said it's how Mariota ran.

"If you really watch what Oregon does, the last couple of years, the quarterback doesn't really get hit a lot, because he only runs the ball when he's free to run it," Shaw said. "It's not take-a-snap-and-run. There's not a lot of guys getting banged around. We hit the quarterback a couple of times. I've become a bit of a believer that it could work at that next level."

But the hitting is different on Sundays, said ESPN college football analyst Matt Millen, the former general manager of the Detroit Lions. Millen worked five Oregon games this season and sees some spread concepts in what Washington has done with Griffin.

"Can they work? Yes," Millen said. "Are they going to last? No. A rookie, a power hitter, comes up. He hits 10 home runs the first time through the league. The second time around, it's a completely different ballgame. Cam Newton took the league by storm last year. This year, welcome to the National Football League. They make you play to your weaknesses."

Newton set several NFL rookie records in 2011, throwing for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushing for 706 yards and 14 scores. This season, he began slowly, and only in the second half of the season has he resembled the player of a year ago.

Several iterations of the spread offense have used a quick tempo to gain an advantage on the defense. The tempo prevents defenses from substituting based on down and distance and puts a premium on conditioning. Texas A&M's fast pace added to the efficacy of Manziel, who gained an SEC record of 4,600 yards of total offense.

The defense pays a price for that pace. So does the Oregon defense. Kelly calls time of possession an overrated statistic, but the Ducks' defense stayed on the field more than 32 minutes per game this season. An NFL team plays a game with a 45-man roster. Subtract two kickers, and the defense has 21 players.

In the college game, Millen said: "If you start to manipulate the pace, you have to roll guys through. In the NFL, you can't do it. Defensively, it kills you. Where it kills you is, how do you practice? There's more wear. Chip's philosophy is we're going to run as many plays as we can. We'll correct it later on. A lot of times, you end up practicing mistakes. At the next level, mistakes are called death."

O'Brien said that in his five seasons with the New England Patriots, they practiced at a fast pace. They just did so in measured doses. Still, the wear and tear of four preseason games, plus a 16-game season, take their toll on an NFL roster before a team ratchets up the pace.

"When you get to this point in the [NFL] season," Shaw said, "everybody's got the pads off. Everybody's in conservation mode, trying not to wear their guys out. Late season, it's all about survival. It's all about getting to game day healthy. It's hard to practice at that tempo for 18, 19, 20 weeks, preseason, regular season, playoffs. That's a tough deal."

Shaw, who spent nine seasons as an NFL assistant, believes that a spread offense could work in the pro game.

"It would take an organizational commitment," Shaw said. "Everybody from top to bottom, the GM, the owner, the personnel people, need to be on a mission to give that offense what it needs. You can't waver from it. Everybody needs to be on the same page. It can't be, 'Well, let's bring this receiver in.' If he doesn't fit their offense, they can't bring him in. It's so different than [what] most people are used to."

If the spread survives in the NFL, it will take the right owner believing in the right coach who is able to find the right players and keep them healthy. That's no different than the formula for winning on Sundays now.

But until Kelly or some other coach proves that his quarterback can not only survive but thrive in the spread in the NFL -- and until an owner is ready to commit to the spread -- it will remain a collegiate novelty, like stopping the clock after a first down.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com