The Elways and the spread, Part 3

Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series on the history of the spread offense. Part 1 appeared Wednesday, and Part 2 came yesterday. Special thanks to TJ for providing the play diagrams that appear throughout this series.

Jack Neumeier had always been a smashmouth kind of coach. When there was a fight at practice, he made the combatants remove their jerseys and pads and duke it out without protection (that suddenly cut down on the fighting). He believed in the ‘3 yards and a cloud of dust’ kind of offense, one that just dominated the individual matchups and made your opponent fear you. He was the head coach of Granada Hills HS in the San Fernando Valley, and he had a bone-deep belief that ‘tough’ was the only way to win at football. It was a belief that he drummed into every player who came through his program.

Just as happened with Tiger Ellison, though, who came from the same generation, Neumeier’s irresistible philosophy ran into the immovable wall of football’s development. His team lost two key regular season games and missed the LA city playoffs in 1969. Neumeier was tough, determined and vehement, but he was also a realist whose only goal was winning. Losing two key games wasn’t in his DNA - winning was ultimately more important than sticking to his guns.

He recognized that he needed to find a new way to accomplish that, and read a book on offensive strategy by ‘some coach in Ohio’ - almost certainly Glenn Ellison’s text. In 1970, he took aside his returning quarterback and told him that they’d be throwing 35 passes a game. The young QB was dubious at first, but soon grew to love the wide open system that started every game in a two-minute drill. Other teams had no idea what was happening, and even less ideas on how to stop it. The quarterback was a young man named Dana Potter, who noted, “...after a while, we didn’t even look at film of the other team.” It didn’t matter - no matter what they thought they were going to do to stop Neumeier and his players, they were wrong. Granada Hills won the city championship easily that year.

It was six years later that a tall, skinny coach’s son showed up on Neumeier’s roster, looking to play running back. Neumeier took young John Elway aside and told him that he was going to switch positions. He also started explaining exactly why. Elway much later told the Denver Post, “He was the guy who made me fall in love with football.” When Jack Elway came by to find out what his son was so excited about, he saw players running all over the field and touchdowns coming nearly constantly. He loved it, and began to plan to implement it himself. Dennis Erickson, who would later coach both the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, as well as two national championships at Miami, also came by with Jack Elway and was similarly impressed.

Neumeier’s system was different from Mouse’s Run and Shoot. For one thing, he used a tight end, whereas Davis did not. There were several others. However - both believed in spreading out the field, developing good matchups (fastest WR on a LB, for example) and using this to open large running lanes.

Erickson was an assistant under Jack Elway at San Jose State at the time, and they had great success with the system. Erickson added his own twists to the approach, as every good coach tends to do. His became known as the ‘one back spread:

113 or 104 Single-Back Spread

It was employed when he went as head coach to Idaho for a few years and then to Wyoming. It utilizes either a 113 (1 RB,1 TE, 3 WR) or 104 (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR) personnel grouping.  Wyoming had been running the wishbone offense previously, which looked like this:

320 WishBone

The Wishbone is obviously a much different creature, with 3 running backs and 2 tight ends in a very tight formation.  Erickson’s players loved the one back spread. The aforementioned Coach Joe came down to work under Erickson as an assistant, and learned (and loved) the new changes that Erickson had made. He became the head coach of Wyoming in 1991. When people later asked him where he learned his version of the offense, he answered truthfully, “Dennis left his playbook behind when he went to Miami.” 

In 1997, Joe - who was, of course, Joe Tiller - was hired by Purdue to bring the one back spread offense there. He enjoyed considerable success there using it, teaching it first to Drew Brees, and then to Kyle Orton. That year, Tiller and his OC, Greg Olson, added a twist that came to be known as the ‘bubble screen’. Denver fans have seen a fair amount of it, although it should be emphasized that all screens that the Broncos run are NOT bubble screens - it’s a pretty specific term. Three receivers are out to one side (usually weakside) and two go deep, taking their coverage with them, or block to wall them off. The third receiver steps out forward and then comes back a little to the QB to receive a forward pass and runs with it. That little move, the forward step, turn and comeback forms a small circle, and the name ‘bubble’ was used to describe it:

Tiller Bubble Screen Left

It was used in Tiller’s second game as head coach for Purdue, playing national powerhouse Notre Dame. With a small lead, and on a third-and-one near midfield, late in the game, ND was expecting Purdue RB Mike Alstott to come up the middle and they converged on the A gap, expecting to meet him there. He was - but he didn’t have the ball.  WR Vinnie Sutherland caught the screen and ran for nearly 30 yards: Purdue went on to win. The play has become a staple in the NFL. So have Tiller’s QBs.

Drew Brees was still watching and learning from the sidelines, and Kyle Orton was still in high school. Both of them have gone on to successful careers in the NFL. Both still throw the bubble screen.

At this time, Orton leads the NFL with 3,370 passing yards, and he’s currently on pace for the third-most yards (4,902) in NFL history behind Dan Marino and Brees. He's completed 61.8% of his pass attempts and has 20 TDs against just 6 INTs. He ranks second in the league (to Philip Rivers) in 20+ and 40+ yard completions (by 1 in each category). Yet Michael Lombardi, one of the most respected football writers of this generation, still feels that Orton is underachieving. A year ago, Orton was still known as a noodle-armed ‘game manager' (and it was meant as an insult) quarterback who would never be more than average. Every pundit knew it, too, much as everyone once ‘knew’ that the earth was flat. Time will tell, but the combination of Josh McDaniels’ use of the spread and one back spread offenses and Orton’s work under Joe Tiller may have opened a new era for Broncos football.

How tightly is Orton now linked to Broncos football? In addition to setting club and league records, Orton has some skills that many QBs never develop. His favorite receiver - and the top receiver in the league right now, Brandon Lloyd said,

"Kyle's always so prepared," receiver Brandon Lloyd said. "He and (coach) Josh (McDaniels) do such a great job of setting up practice, that what we see in practice is the same thing we see on the field, so we're not surprised.”

When your starting QB is helping the head coach set up practices, he’s not just a place marker, waiting for the next QB to mature. He’s settled in as the starter and leader of the team. The Broncos are becoming a very different team, and Orton, after a 4-year hiatus of paying off his karmas in Chicago, has blossomed under McDaniels' tutelage into the QB that he always was capable of becoming. With plays like the 50-yard throw to Jabar Gaffney in the endzone for a touchdown against Kansas City in Week 10, teams can no longer stack the box or blitz at will (having a real OL for the first time in front of Orton doesn’t hurt). They have to respect the speed and elusiveness of Brandon Lloyd, the steady veteran’s guile of Gaffney and the quickness and drive of Eddie Royal. Demaryius Thomas is developing, while Eric Decker plays special teams and waits in the wings. One of the fastest Broncos, Matt Willis, is recovering from an injury on IR, but with that kind of crew, the OL coming together and Knowshon Moreno finding his legs, Denver’s offensive future looks very bright. 

By the way, Tim Tebow also has his own role in this. Urban Meyer combined the spread offense with the ancient single wing:

Single Wing

Florida's Veer Option Right

While media types were extolling the incredible ‘new’ system that they were using, coaches around the nation chuckled and went about their business. That which was once old is now new - and at some point, the new will be old again, and the league will move on to other options. Like the world we inhabit, it never truly ends, but it often starts over again. 

All because of a revolution that started, as every revolution inevitably does, in the minds of men who find that they have reached the limits of what they once knew, and who have the drive to accept that and to change. It took a Tiger and a Mouse, along with a lot of courage and a lot of other folks, to bring the spread into the modern football lexicon. 

Here’s looking at a brighter future for the Broncos. They, too, have taken the old and made it new, and Coach McDaniels is putting his own stamp on the way that they are doing it. Let’s hope that they also take a few division titles and other championships along the way. And, as always,

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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