In football, we have become accustomed to seeing different types of offenses take over the game and become copied and tweaked by teams searching for success. Just think; since the beginning of the game being played, we've evolved from the Wing T offense, to the Option, to the Pro Set, to the West Coast, and the Run and Shoot.
Of course the offense du jour that you can see in nearly every single football game is the spread. From what has evolved from going to four-wide sets, to five-wide sets to the spread-run option set, it is an offense that gives teams that lack elite talent an opportunity to compete and attack deficiencies in most defenses. It has allowed programs like Texas Tech, Hawaii, Houston and every school in the MAC to stay relevant in the evolution of college football.
What's interesting is that in the Big 12 conference's de facto conference championship, the two teams who run the pure spread offense run it better than anyone in college football. One team has needed the spread to take their program to the brink of being a national contender. The other team has no business really running the spread, but has done so to extreme levels of success, but their ultimate prize has eluded them time-and-time again.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys need the spread to become the program they've always dreamed they could be, and the Oklahoma Sooners have become so dependent on the spread that they've lost their identity as a football program, which is why the spread offense, utlimately, is the devil.
For years, Oklahoma State has tried to become the program that also serves as their rival right down I-35 south. They've done jersey upgrades, spent gobs of money on the program and thrown holy water on the players. They've officially hit the same peak that Texas Tech and Missouri hit years prior and, ultimately they came crashing back down, because they had no idea how to get better. Is Oklahoma State really capable of overcoming the same fate that befell those other programs?
Ever since Oklahoma rose as a football power in the early days of the Bud Wilkinson dynasty to the powerhouse that was rebuilt in the Barry Switzer era, those teams and players have been known for a significant brand of football. Yes, both were option-based, power run offenses. It was their identity, it was what those teams did best, and they embodied it. They were brash and cocky, because they knew not only who they were but how good they were. It's what gives all great teams that final edge.
Of course, this discussion isn't about Wilkinson and Switzer. This is a discussion about Bob Stoops.
When Oklahoma won the 2001 national championship over Florida State, the thought of the new era of powerhouse football from the boys in Norman began dancing in my head. An elite defense teamed with a strong blend of a running game and an aerial attack, Oklahoma seemed poised and ready to win championships.
Then the offense began to change.
During the days of Quentin Griffin and Renaldo Works, the Sooners always found a way to be smash-mouth with the running game, when the time called for it. Even with the evolving passing attack under Stoops, the likes of the great Adrian Peterson couldn't resist the temptation of joining the fraternity of great tailbacks that had passed through Norman. Initially, Stoops would give Peterson the ability to be the elite back everyone dreamed he'd be. Running out of the I-formation, lumbering down the line and ultimately breaking big run after big run. Then, Stoops would bring him into shotgun, and have him offset the quarterback. Peterson's success was still grand, but seemed like those big plays didn't come was frequently as before.
Then Demarco Murray signed at Oklahoma, and early on we knew that we had another great back. His run against Texas as a freshman made Sooners fans for a split-second forget who Adrian Peterson was. Yet, with the shift in the offense, more receivers on the field, more passing than running and more points going on the board...things had changed with the Oklahoma offense. By the time Demarco left Norman, he was nothing more than a glorified third-down back.
What was once a balance of smash-mouth running and precision passing has turned into an aerial assault on steroids. With Stoops esteemed program status and the abilities to get the elite players in America, instead of plugging two and three-star guys and getting the most out of them, Oklahoma had four and five-star guys doing things with ease. Scoring 40...50....60 points a game was nothing, as Jason White, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones began carving up offenses like turkeys on the fourth Thursday in November. Heisman's were won, high draft picks were secured and expectations continued to be through the roof...
...and not a single national title was won.
Something had changed at Oklahoma, outside of the offense. The mentality of the team was different; a finesse feel. As a team running an offense that came easy to them (hell, most of the players were already running a spread offense in high school), it seemed that when an opposing team would stand tall against them, they didn't have any real retort. If someone tried to bully Oklahoma and took away what worked well in the spread offense, there was no other option. In short, Oklahoma had become what Missouri, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State can only dream is their next step of their evolution: being a ten-win team who wins consistently, but always falls short in the biggest games when teams figure out ways to slow their finesse offense down. The inability to consistently run the ball (terrible), the inability to score in the red-zone (egregious), and the effect the spread has on the defense (the defense gets less rest, they don't practice against a hard-nosed offense, and the lapses in the defense are atrocious) are all major factors in the spread's negative effect on a team.
Lets be clear here: it's not that the spread offense hasn't proven to be successful. Moreso, the way that folks run the spread, and the mentality that must be instilled in keeping the physical nature of a team is difficult and must be embodied by your best players on the team.
Vince Young, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton immediately come to mind.
Three guys who could get tough yards, still have a tough and physical presence and make enough throws to help their team succeed in both phases of the ball is what pushed those teams over the edge. Hell, they were downright scary. A shotgun-read option with Vince long-striding off-tackle, or Tebow doing play-action jump passes to Hernandez time-and-time again, or Cam just leaping four yards from the line of scrimmage and bullying his way into the endzone. They made defenses think, they made defenses respect both phases of the game, and they empowered their team to be as brash and confident as the leaders that pushed them.
Of course, not everyone is so blessed to have superstar dual-threat quarterbacks like the ones just mentioned. You could just be an LSU or Alabama and become so strong in your belief that you can run the ball on anybody, play defense against anybody and manage the passing game like you would a 20-year old driving a Ferrari (hint) that you are smart and aggressive, while being keen to preach not making mistakes. You have the talent pool of the football Gods and you do things to keep things simple: making sure players stay out of their own way, and put players in the ultimate position to succeed. It's a formula that's worked quite well.
However, even if you don't have the elite talent in your backyard, you still can be elite. Do you ever notice that TCU and Boise State both run a pro-style offense? That they play supremely sound defense, and they embody their coaches' belief in the system and personality? On any given day, TCU and Boise State can beat anyone in the country. They play the same brand of ball that LSU and Alabama does, yet they must be more savvy in recruiting and become more fearless in empowering their players. Now, through consistent winning and a brand of football that's appealing to young athletes and apparel companies, their resources are aplenty and both are now as elite as any top team in the country.
The spread passing offense was meant to give teams that lacked resources a chance to be competitive. When teams like Oklahoma and Oregon run the spread, its an embarrassment of riches. Against 95% of the country, they're able to defeat almost every foe. Yet, when they face teams that are so accustomed to seeing the spread offense week-in-and-week-out (Oklahoma) or you face a team that's as physical, as fast and is able to slow down what you do best (Oregon), then leaping that final hurdle can be mightily difficult.
I've become the spoiled sports fan that I hated in years past; the fan of a powerhouse team that cries that my team "only" wins 10-11 games, but because we don't win the title, I'm complaining and whining. The spread did this to me, and for the last ten years, the spread has spread like the plague on my favorite program. I didn't notice it, because I was infected with the plague, too. It's beautiful to see your team slang the pill all around the field, running up the score and looking good in the process. Yet, it's clear that it's not conducive to winning titles. It's what we claim to "do" in Oklahoma and until things change, we won't be doing anything resembling a championship anytime soon.
Death to the spread offense....a therapy session.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”