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Friday, November 21, 2008
Updated: August 6, 5:21 PM ET
Spread changes options for Chiefs

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

Tyler Thigpen
The Chiefs have averaged 22.5 points in four games with QB Tyler Thigpen running the spread offense.
For a 1-9 team, the Kansas City Chiefs sure have found a way to keep things interesting. First, tight end Tony Gonzalez demanded a trade in October. Then running back Larry Johnson fell into so much trouble off the field that he might not even be on the team next season. Now the Chiefs are offering us another compelling story line: They're openly talking about the spread offense possibly being the system they use in years to come.

At least that was the vibe coming from coach Herm Edwards when he recently spoke about his improved offense and the surprising play of second-year quarterback Tyler Thigpen. Edwards, who has long had a reputation for favoring more conservative, run-oriented offenses, has been seeing his team gain confidence with every game it plays in that wide-open system. He has watched Thigpen grow from an unknown, third-string quarterback into a player who could be the Chiefs' permanent starter if he continues to mature. The coach also has seen his team develop the kind of faith that it desperately needs at this point in an ugly season.

It would be easy for the Chiefs to pack it in and prepare for the offseason with their current record. Instead, the spread offense -- a system that has allowed them to nearly pull off upset wins over the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers prior to last week's 30-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints -- has convinced a young, rebuilding team that it can compete with Thigpen under center. Remember, the Chiefs have averaged 22.5 points in their past four games after averaging only 12.5 in their first six.

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Said Edwards: "If [Thigpen] can stay successful doing this, then you do start saying that maybe this is the offense we should be running."

What makes this possibility so interesting is that the Chiefs are contemplating a huge gamble. Most people in the NFL scoff at the notion that the spread offense can work consistently. They point to the brief fad that was the run-and-shoot offense and they talk about how freakish defensive ends like Carolina's Julius Peppers and savvy cornerbacks like Denver's Champ Bailey would wreak havoc on such a system. As Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said when asked about the idea of the spread offense becoming more prevalent: "Once an NFL defense gets a bead on what you're doing after about three games, that stuff won't be working so well anymore."

While there may be plenty of evidence to support that stance, the fact still remains that some teams have pondered ways to implement facets of the spread into their game plans. When the Tennessee Titans drafted Vince Young in 2006, they added some read-option, shotgun plays to their playbook to help him get comfortable. The New England Patriots also used several four- and five-receiver formations when they scored more points than any team in history last season. Finally, the Miami Dolphins have used their "Wildcat" formation -- a look that puts running back Ronnie Brown in the shotgun and quarterback Chad Pennington at receiver -- to surprise some of their opponents this year.

Now Edwards has openly talked about the possibility of turning the spread into a full-fledged offense and it doesn't sound like a bad idea. After all, more colleges are running the spread offense and it's getting harder for NFL teams to find and develop prototypical, pro-style-ready quarterbacks. So even though the spread isn't an ideal offense for this league -- an idea Edwards agreed with as recently as a month ago -- it can't be completely discounted. There are just more players coming into the NFL who've been exposed to it.

As for the Chiefs, they literally stumbled upon the offense when they had to get Thigpen ready for his second start of the season. He had played so poorly in his first outing, subbing for an injured Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard -- he threw three interceptions in a 38-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons -- that Edwards and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey had to brainstorm ways to calm him down. They realized Thigpen always played well in two-minute situations and he'd excelled in the spread as a senior at Coastal Carolina. Given the team's options, they figured it would be a good idea to put him back in that system.

But what has become quite apparent in watching Thigpen's play is that he's at his best when the defense is spread out. When he sits in the shotgun with all those multiple-receiver formations, he can see the field and recognize the blitz better. He's also able to use his mobility when plays break down and has the added confidence that comes with knowing that season-ending injuries to Croyle and Huard have made him the de facto starter.

"When they went down," Thigpen said, "I realized I had nothing to lose when I was in there."

The simplicity of the offense also has helped Thigpen. When the Chiefs first unveiled the spread in a 28-24 loss to the Jets on Oct. 26, they had four or five pass plays and two or three runs, according to Edwards. They've added a few more wrinkles with each passing week, so much so that nearly every skill player on offense now wears a wristband with plays on it to keep pace. This is what you do when you're desperate to score points.

But as entertaining as the Chiefs have now become with the spread, Edwards realizes the team has to answer some important questions as the season plays out. The first involves the legitimate upside of Thigpen, who has thrown eight touchdown passes and one interception in his past five games.

"By the end of this season, we'll know if he's a starting quarterback in this league or if he's just a really good number two," Edwards said. "But the good thing is that he knows he can control that."

The other issue involves the comfort level the Chiefs have with gambling on their future. Before Thigpen's emergence, it was a given that Kansas City would be drafting a quarterback next April, especially because Croyle's injuries and inconsistency have ruined whatever shot he had of cementing the job. It's still a certainty that the Chiefs will look for another signal-caller, but Thigpen's presence could cloud the issue as to what type of personnel they look for in the draft and free agency.

"If this is the way for us to be successful, then the next step is thinking about the kind of players we need to add to fit into this system," Edwards said.

But Edwards doesn't want to worry too much about that stuff right now. What he sees is an offense with a suddenly confident young quarterback and weapons like Gonzalez and wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Mark Bradley. That's a much better sight than the anemic unit that took the field in blowout losses to Carolina and Atlanta only a few weeks ago. As for whether the spread offense really is the future in Kansas City, the Chiefs will have a clearer answer to that question in the next few weeks.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.