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Trouble with the spread - is it making the transition to the NFL more difficult?

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Both John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are in agreement that the spread offense hinders the development of offensive players entering the NFL

While Trent Baalke was the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, many people, myself included, thought that he was a much better judge of defensive talent then offensive talent. It turns out that it might not only be Baalke that has a difficult time evaluating offensive draft prospects. The prevalence of the spread offense at the college level, most importantly at the quarterback position, has led to difficulties across the board.

If you’ve always done something the same way, it’s very challenging to change your habits. Transitioning from taking the ball from under center with a five step drop back instead of from the shot gun is a huge change. The same goes for calling plays in the huddle versus each player reading the cards being held up or hand signals coming from the sidelines. While the idea is effective in college, hasn’t been as such in the NFL.

The spread offense’s advantage is speed. Decisions are made on the sidelines or in the coach’s booth above the field. Along with stunting the growth of the QB, it also changes what the rest of the offense might do each play. Formations take precedence over routes and the pressure is on the defense to quickly try to figure out how to stop them.

On the positive side, defensive players that have played against the spread offense a good deal, are developing faster. They are forced to make quick decisions and adjust rapidly.

While at the NFL annual meetings in Phoenix, I had the opportunity to ask both head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch about the effect of the spread offense. Here’s what each of them said:

Kyle Shanahan

What are biggest challenges in transitioning college quarterbacks especially when they’re not in the huddle calling plays?

That’s one of the biggest when guys aren’t used to being in the huddle, they’re not used to saying the terminology. That does take time. I think guys pick it up as long as they put the work in and you give them the reps through OTAs and everything and then into training camp. It’s a lot harder on some of the school systems when guys can’t go through the OTA process and then just show up for training camp. They’ve got to do a lot on their own, which I think is tough on them. Any time you’ve played football a certain way your entire life and you’ve got to do it a different way, it’s not just the quarterbacks but it’s everybody. You try to help them, you try to incorporate things that they are used to and comfortable with and you also have to give them a chance to be successful and sometimes in order to do that you have to have them do different things than they have been doing. Anytime something is new, it takes time and it takes reps and it takes experience. That’s why it takes a special guy because the reps and experience are usually in NFL games at a very competitive level and it’s a lot to put on a guy and that’s why it’s as tough a position as anything in sports.

Does the spread offense slow down the development of the offense and accelerate the development of the defense in the NFL?

Yeah, I would agree with that. When you just watch the college game and it’s been very effective. There’s so much speed out there and they go so fast and I think it’s a little bit different with the hashes too how you can balance the field out. It’s such an up tempo deal it’s almost like watching basketball sometimes. The detail of just the routes and everything isn't as important as going fast and just getting the ball to speed and space. They can do so many things with their formations and some of the rules are different and some of the formations they can be in, it puts a lot of stress on the defense. The defenses have to be very sound and be able to handle all of these different formations. They have to be able to handle the up tempo and they're put in a lot more tough situations where I think the offenses, they just go so fast that they don’t have to look at it as much as the defense does. I’ve noticed that just over the years, through the draft, talking to some of the guys, I think the defensive guys are getting a lot smarter for that reason.

GM John Lynch

Does the spread offense in college make it more difficult to evaluate the talent?

It does. I think offensive talent in general. It’s one thing I’m seeing for the first time, but I think this whole league is getting accustomed to dealing with it because you really are projecting because most of the time they aren’t doing things that they will be doing offensively in our league. It’s really an interesting paradigm. You have defensive players that I think are sharper than ever because that offense, the pace, all the options that it has, run pass options, it really forces defensive players to think on their own and think quickly and that shows up in the interview process where defensive players are extremely...corners, I think in the past, cat coverage, I got that cat, you got that cat. Now these guys can break it down, on this coverage we’re doing that, and so I think it’s something that as you talk to other evaluators around the league they’re feeling it too. Whereas with offense it’s all about how fast can you play, how much pressure, but very simple. Maybe they can’t explain things as well as they once could because they aren’t asked to do a whole lot. It’s fairly simple. So it’s an interesting reality of the players we are getting in and it is tough on the offensive side because you truly are projecting.