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Spread Offenses: The Future is Here

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Thierry Henry helps us understand spread offenses.

Pep tells Titi to stay wide!
Pep tells Titi to stay wide!
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

The more I engross myself into sports strategy, the more I recognize patterns that occur throughout different sports. We live in the age of the spread offense, not just in football, and this era may have answered the philosophical question that has doomed coaches for eternity: Is there an ideal offensive scheme?

In football, I think that we've grown up with this idealistic view of offensive orientation in that we believe that a number of different styles are valid. There's this idea that there's no right way to run an offense. I'm beginning to believe that this is wrong. The spread offense has revolutionized football because teams finally decided to use the whole field. I've written, previously, about how a smart defenses goal is to constrict the time and space of their opponent. When you line up with 2 tight ends and a fullback, you're making their job a lot easier. Spreading the field makes it harder for them to squeeze you in. I don't want to make this a negative essay about LSU's shortcomings on offense. LSU can run whatever they want because they out recruit most of the teams they line up against. I will say, however, that if Leonard Fournette can dominate a game when LSU lines up in 12, 21 or 22 personnel, there is no reason to think he can't be even better with less people in the defensive box. Watch Auburn's DB's try to tackle him and tell me he wouldn't be better off in more spread formations that force the defense to put more DB's on the field.

One of the teams that utilizes the width of the field to the max is Art Briles and his Baylor teams. We can see this in how the align their twin sets.

This is Baylor running a double twins set

This is a regular twins set

Modern defenses want to be able to use their players in a hybrid, dual, manner. A lot of analysts will utilise the term, "space backer" to denote these types of players. This person is a safety, a linebacker and cornerback all in one. A great example of this is Jabrill Peppers at Michigan. He's generally around the line of scrimmage and is often lined up splitting the difference between the offensive tackle and the first receiver outside.

With a regular twins set, as shown above, this type of player can comfortably line up close to the where the running action will be but also close enough to any receiver. With Baylor's alignment, it forces teams to bring that space-backer all the way to the ends of the field. If not it's an easy 2 on 1 with 2 receivers against a cornerback. That's the easiest 5 plus yards, you'll ever pick up. It also means there are less people around the offensive line, means less people to block in the run game, and less people who can blitz from weird angles.

We can see these tactics being used in modern soccer. The fullback was once a defender stationed at the ends of the back line of defense. Now, the big clubs use this position as an advanced winger to provide width. These wide players are like the receivers in football. They spread the field so that their central midfielders can operate in space. The central mids are the running game comparable in this analogy. The great Pep Guardiola Barcelona teams provide us with more detail about keeping the field spread. Here's Thierry Henry's wonderful explanation about the system he was used in at FC Barcelona.

The width of the players without the ball, makes it easier for the central players who you want on the ball to control the tempo and flow of the match. Of course, these Barca teams had wonderful passers (Toure, Xavi, Iniesta and Bousquets) who could make a defense pay for not staying with these wide players. With that said, it's much easier for a quarterback to make a quick receiver screen to the sideline than it is for a central midfielder to float a cross field diagonal ball out to a winger when the defense clogs the midfield.

Modern basketball offense tells us the same story. Space the floor with shooters so that the driving lanes are less clogged and then kick it out to open players when a team doesn't respect that spacing.

The dominant formation for a hockey powerplay (1-3-1) tells us the same thing. One guy at the point, flanked by 2 wide wingers to spread the ice. This is how Ovechkin and Stamkos score most of their powerplay goals. The defense is put in a bind. Leave too much space for these great shooters to load up a one timer or come out on the winger and leave the front of the goal less crowded where it's easier to score goals.

All of these concepts work because it doesn't allow a defense to do to you what it wants to. Putting defenders on islands is not what defensive coaches want to have to resort to. It's too much of a stress to defend players 1 on 1. You can be great 9 times out of 10, but the nature of having to defend away from your friends means that if you're successful 1 time out 10, it's probably a big play.

The more I watch sports, the more I believe that there are platonic ideals of sports strategy that we have just begun to explore. I don't believe this is just the cyclical nature of football strategy either. People will say that eventually with the spread formations causing defenses to react and put smaller players on the field, offenses will counter this by putting bigger bodies on the field. Baylor already does this. They recruit big offensive linemen but still spread the field. I think you can have the best of both worlds without going back to tight formations.