- Tom Luginbill, ESPN Staff Writer
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Take a look at this year's premier NFL quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning. They all share two things in common. Each has a significant history of working under center -- and for each, his arm separates him, not his legs.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, with smart signal-callers who win by throwing the ball accurately and on time. But at the college and high school levels, there's more of a willingness to accept a less-than-ideal passer who is an extraordinary athlete.
Prior to the explosion of the spread offense in the past 10-15 years, the core foundation of the quarterback position was learning to play under center. You dropped back from under center, read coverages from under center, made pre-snap assessments from under center. Everything you learned was about footwork, timing and reading defenses on the move.
Now, almost all you see in high school and college is the spread formation, so quarterbacks lack repetitions under center, which has led to a lack of fundamentals at the position. Every year I go out to camps and combines and see kids with multiple BCS offers who struggle to take a five-step drop, hit their fifth step and get the ball out. It can be staggering how many can't do it.
The reason for this is that from a coach's perspective, your mindset is to force defenses to have to defend your quarterback's ability to run. You implement some option principles into that mentality and it really puts a lot of strain on the defense. In high school, coaches take their best player and put him in the Wildcat formation, and if he has any promise as a passer he is going to get a long look from college coaches.
Pro-style quarterbacks who thrive in college -- like Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck -- are few and far between. There are 120 FBS teams, and it's hard to name more than five that have a base offense that includes two running backs and a tight end (the classic pro-style formation). That formation has a heavy emphasis on a power running game, and the quarterback's purpose is to win with his arm and his mind, which is essentially how the game is played at the NFL level. In these types of schemes, you will find the quarterback asked to throw less frequently but to make more challenging throws when he does drop back. Rather than throwing bubble screens or quick routes, the pro-style QB attacks the short, intermediate and deep areas of the field.
One of the reasons we've seen such a huge spike in completion percentages in college football is because of the short, controlled passing game that features numerous throws near the line of scrimmage. Think Oregon. So a pro-style QB like Andrew Luck completing 70 percent of his passes is much more impressive to NFL evaluators than a spread QB with a similar completion percentage.
However, you are starting to see guys like Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, who came from the spread in college, begin to enjoy success in the NFL. Their pro teams were willing to break the mold of conventional quarterback play to allow their more athletic quarterbacks to make plays with their legs. Newton and Tebow are the freakiest of freak athletes, however, so it's unlikely other teams will be able to duplicate their success in a league where linebackers and defensive ends are running 4.5-second 40s.
The key for NFL coaches and scouts when evaluating spread quarterbacks is to figure out how intricate their spread offense was. How complex were the protections and blitz-pickup principles? What were they asked to do at the line of scrimmage? Could they hit their intermediate and deep passes when those plays were called? That is why Baylor QB Robert Griffin III has become such a hot commodity. While he plays in a variation of the spread, he can also make all the intermediate throws and is the best deep-ball thrower in college football.
Behind closed doors, there are probably a lot of offensive coaches in the NFL who would love to have the dynamic threat of a player like Cam Newton at quarterback. There are some creative things you can do with players like that. But in a league where elite quarterback play is at a premium, most coaches are going to be fearful of jeopardizing the health of the most important player on their roster. The risk of injury is high for quarterbacks to begin with, never mind when you ask him to take even more direct shots as a runner.
The bottom line is this: While NFL quarterbacks are becoming more and more athletic, we are a long way from seeing a college-style spread offense dominate at the pro level.
Tom Luginbill is ESPN's national director of football recruiting, played quarterback at Georgia Tech and Eastern Kentucky, and spent 11 years in professional football as a coach and scout prior to joining ESPN in 2005.
Great State Debate: The spread offense is prevalent in high school and college, but pro-style passers thrive in the NFL.