If there’s one thing that has become exceedingly clear as the college football world has discussed – lambasted? – the NCAA Football Rules Committee’s proposal regarding defensive substitutions, it’s that the spread offense is ubiquitous throughout the sport.
You can certainly debate whether or not the spread has replaced “pro-style” schemes (I hate that term; same way I hate the term spread) as the foundation of offensive football. However, decrying the spread as an offensive gimmick at this point would be tantamount to distinguishing Internet porn as a specialized style of smut.
In fact, while we praise strategists such as Mike Leach and Urban Meyer for their innovations, football historians – take Chris Brown of Smart Football, for instance – will take great pains to tell you that most of these supposed fads represent little more than variations on familiar themes. Even as some coaches add layers of complexity to the game, the reality is that there’s nothing new under football’s sun.
The fathers of the modern spread turned to what was then considered an unorthodox offense as a way to take back a little of the competitive edge enjoyed by football powerhouses. The contrarian play might throw conventional opponents for a loop. Bob Stoops, for example, has admitted that he hired Leach as his first offensive coordinator at Oklahoma because of the problems that Kentucky’s Air Raid caused for his D when he was a coordinator at Florida.
Of course, the Goliaths always adjust to the Davids’ tactics – and maybe even appropriate them for themselves. Eventually the underdogs are left scrambling for a new magic bullet, which is most likely an old magic bullet, and the cycle begins anew. To borrow from Rust Cohle, football strategy is a flat circle.
Ironically, Leach, who has done as much to advance the cause of the spread in modern football as any coach, appears to understand this cyclicality as well as anyone else.
Whether or not this ill-conceived rule ever takes effect ultimately doesn't matter for the fate of the spread. This proposal is really just a backdoor way of skipping a couple steps in football's natural evolutionary order. New rule or no, the death (and eventual resurrection) of the uptempo offense's popularity is really a matter of when, not if.