When Andy Reid had been fired after his fourteenth season as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he examined the landscape of football around him. At the time, Robert Griffin III had won Rookie of the Year, Colin Kaepernick been the San Francisco 49ers quarterback on a team just a 4th-and-goal conversion away from winning the Super Bowl, and Oregon head coach Chip Kelly had been named Reid’s successor.
None of those three remain in the NFL today, but that doesn’t mean the Spread offense wave they were a part of didn’t fundamentally change NFL offenses. NFL teams have never used Under Center looks and two-back sets less than they do now. Option concepts, particularly run-pass options where the quarterback makes a choice to handoff or throw based on a defender’s movement, remain a big part of game-plans for quarterbacks ranging in physiques from Tom Brady to Russell Wilson. Cam Newton remains one of the most feared dual threats in the game with the Carolina Panthers’ refined dropback passing game to enhance his potency as an interior runner. Some of the most prolific young quarterbacks are Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, and Dak Prescott, all of whom proliferated in Spread schemes in college and execute complementary option concepts now.
The Pistol formation (quarterback aligned 4 yards behind center) that Griffin and Kaepernick became renowned for remains in at least sporadic use across the league, namely because it gives the quarterback the advantages of both under center and Shotgun (quarterback 5-7 yards behind center) alignments. The closeness of the Pistol allows the quarterback to read the front seven, but with just enough distance to see the whole field. In the run game, the alignment still allows a quarterback to make a read on give-keep run option concepts, but without tipping the defense to the play-side with the running back’s alignment.
When Reid accepted the Kansas City Chiefs head coaching position, he decided these elements of the Spread offense could mesh with the West Coast scheme he spent more than two decades refining. While BYU head coach Lavell Edwards and Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Holmgren (who was Edwards’ quarterback coach when Reid was a graduate assistant) were Reid’s first scheme influences, an idiosyncratic college coach filled their shoes in guiding the Chiefs coach through his scheme evolution. The person to help Reid install the Pistol was its inventor, longtime Nevada Wolfpack head coach Chris Ault. Reid offered Ault a job as a consultant for the Chiefs, and his impact remains tangible today.
Four years after Reid arrived in Kansas City, Alex Smith remains the quarterback of this revamped system. Reid continues to pull ideas from outside his West Coast circle and has designed perhaps the most creative run game in the entire NFL. When much of the NFL remains stuck in 2012 and fixated on the zone read (or as fans more often call it, the Read Option), Reid evolved several steps ahead of them by using options in gap-blocking run plays and the passing game too. Already possessing a unique knowledge of the NFL’s passing offenses, Reid found a way to successfully go further than his peers among NFL coaches in embracing the college brand of option football. Make no mistake. Reid’s passing game consisting of stick routes, slant-flats, curl-flats, hi-lo reads, and the widest variety of screens still is the core of his offense. He just found a way to make his existing formations, motions, and concepts compatible with the newest ideas from college-level Option football. Ironically, his best display of that evolution occurred against his previous team on Sunday’s 27-20 win.
Smith’s (no. 11) adeptness at reading the defense made him well-suited to execute RPOs that involve multiple reads. In the case of the Chiefs’ final touchdown of the game, Smith first reads backup safety Corey Graham (no. 24) to determine whether he is cheating toward defending the Inside Zone or the bubble screen. When Smith determines that Graham is opting for the latter, he then makes a second read on defensive end Chris Long (no. 56). With Long staying in his gap, Smith opts to give the ball to running back Kareem Hunt (no. 27).
The key blocks in the Inside Zone scheme come from right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (no. 71) smothering middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (no. 58), right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (no. 76) washing out defensive tackle Elijah Qualls (no. 98), and backup center Zach Fulton (no. 73) getting a good angle on strong-side linebacker Nigel Bradham (no. 53). That movement leaves Hunt with room to plow ahead into the end-zone with brute force.
Reid went further by using RPOs that incorporate multiple passing options, along with a run option. The above example features a Trips Bunch formation to the right with 3 receivers drawing in 3 defenders. That tells Smith before the snap that there will be a better option elsewhere. With the Eagles using a single-high safety and a six man box, that leaves just cornerback Jaylen Watkins (no. 26) in off man coverage on beastly tight end Travis Kelce (no. 87). Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes to use off man to let his cornerbacks diagnose the route from a distance, but a downside is the cushion it gives receivers on underneath routes. When Smith sees defensive end Vinny Curry (no. 75) play the run, meaning there are six men in the box against five blockers, he knows that hitting Kelce on the quick out is the correct option. Thus, Smith hits Kelce at the numbers before Watkins even has a chance.
Though Reid constructed most of his RPOs with the Inside Zone run scheme, he showed on Sunday that he can also do so with a Power run scheme. The RPO shown above features Smith reading weak-side linebacker Mychal Kendricks (no. 95) who must choose whether to defend the box or contain the flat. Smith determines before the snap that Kendricks is part of a seven man box, leaving just defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins (no. 27) and Rasul Douglas (no. 32) in off coverage to defend the bubble screen to Kelce, aligned as a wide receiver. Kelce’s hurdle over Douglas was awesome and he wasn’t that far off from keeping his footing.
A variation of the Power Read came from an unlikely source at the college level, then-TCU quarterback Andy Dalton under Horned Frogs offensive coordinator Justin Fuente (now the Virginia Tech head coach). With a concept that Chris B. Brown termed “Inverted Veer,” Fuente and Dalton carved up Clemson in an upset victory. Brown explains how this concept came to become a weapon in the arsenals of offensive masterminds like Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino, and Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead: “I coined this concept an ‘inverted veer’ because it took the old-school ‘veer option’ philosophy of sending the runner and the QB to the same side but inverted their paths: instead of the runningback inside and the quarterback going around edge, the runningback ran a sweep and the quarterback was effectively the dive player.”
In week one against the New England Patriots, Reid took Fuente’s idea and made it even weirder. He uses a pre-snap motion that switches Smith with Kelce as the quarterback in the Pistol. The option for Kelce to toss the ball to Tyreek Hill (no. 10) makes this play resemble a Speed Option, except the blocking scheme resembles Power O with inverted paths for the “quarterback” and Hill. Defensive end Trey Flowers (no. 98) freezes which gives Kelce an opportunity to take four easy yards up the middle.
That unorthodox formation was one creative method to reduce Smith’s exposure to hits and retain the option scheme. But the plays Reid could run with Kelce at quarterback are limited, so further tactics were necessary.
Reid took notice of another collegiate innovation that resulted in a touchdown against the Eagles, a tweak to the Power Read developed by current LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada in his stint with the University of Pittsburgh. Canada ran the Inverted Veer with another player trailing as a pitch man, instead of giving the quarterback an option to keep. The idea of this Power Read Shovel concept, or Shovel Read Option, was to let fullback George Aston loose up the middle or running back James Conner alone on the perimeter, rather than expose quarterback Nate Peterman to contact.
The jet motion that Reid commonly uses before the snap stretches the defense particularly well on his version of the Power Read Shovel. Hill diverts cornerback Patrick Robinson (no. 21, in man coverage) and momentarily freezes Jenkins with the pre-snap motion in his direction, leaving just six more defenders in the box. Smith’s give-keep decision in this concept occupies another defender, defensive end Derek Barnett (no. 96).
The play-side on the offensive line consists of down-blocks: a double team by left tackle Eric Fisher (no. 72) and left guard Bryan Witzmann (no. 70) on three-technique Beau Allen (no. 94), and an effective one-on-one block on 2-i Fletcher Cox (no. 91) by Fulton. Schwartz seals Long. Duvernay-Tardif is tasked with taking out Bradham, while tight end Travis Kelce (no. 87) follows him, as if this is a Counter Trey.
When Smith sees Barnett crash down on Hunt, he knows to simply deliver the shovel pass to Kelce. The superb blocking by the Chiefs gave Hunt a huge run lane, with only Hicks (unblocked because Allen occupied his two blockers) to beat. Fortunately for him, Hicks took a bad angle. The ensuing leap into the end-zone speaks for itself.
The idea of this wave of gap-blocking option football is to let workhorse running backs operate in space, while retaining the mathematical advantage of reading a defender. Renowned for its use by the likes of Moorhead, former Baylor head coach Art Briles, and West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, the Sweep Read has the advantage of stressing a defense on both perimeters of the tackle box.
In the case of the one the Chiefs ran in the third quarter, Smith is tasked with reading defensive end Brandon Graham (no. 55). The play-side (play-side, in this case, refers to the side of the running back’s run lane, not the quarterback’s) gains a numbers advantage with Schwartz and center Mitch Morse (no. 61) pulling. Smith sees the subtleties in Graham’s movement to detect that he intends to crash down against Hunt. Meanwhile, receiver Albert Wilson (no. 12) manhandled Robinson. The execution of this play-design leaves plenty of space for Smith to hit the outside for a solid 12 yard gain.
The Chiefs play I was most amazed by was the one shown above. To be honest, I’m not sure I have seen another play-design quite like this one. The jet motion with Tyreek Hill (no. 10) sets up a shovel read option like the one Canada likes to use. However, a crucial difference with this play is the opposite path of the running back, De’Anthony Thomas (no. 13). It appears to be a play that functions like a triple option: Smith first reads Robinson who had been following Hill in motion. Then, if Robinson crashed down, Smith would make a second read on the unblocked Graham like a true Inverted Veer. Instead, Smith throws a shovel pass amidst the misdirection, and Hill’s raw speed led to a pickup of 18 yards. Somehow, Reid found a way to take an innovative wrinkle and incorporate yet another curveball that is coherent with his offense.
The most crucial part of any gap-blocking play, especially Reid’s base plays that are without give-keep options, is sound execution on the play-side. On this Power O play, Fisher and Witzmann fulfilled the task of washing out Barnett and Allen. The designed run lane here is the C-gap (between TE and LT). It forms, in part, because Kelce wedges himself in front of Bradham. It also forms because Hicks does not react to the run scheme. Then, Duvernay-Tardif takes advantage of a clear path at Jenkins. That leaves a wide open hole for Hunt to charge through and elude a poor tackle attempt from the safety, Graham.
A crucial reason why Reid’s scheme has not only thrived, but become more innovative than ever, is because the West Coast guru found a way to synthesize these college developments with tried-and-true game-plans. The run-pass options and gap-blocking reads derive from plays Reid already used for years. In contrast, many NFL teams dabbled in college trends in the past like the Wildcat package, only to have no coherent reasoning for why it had been used in the first place. It got so bad that fans now think any play with someone other than the usual starter at quarterback should be called the Wildcat (It’s a Tackle Over formation with jet motion that either results in a dive play, jet sweep, or play-action pass).
Meanwhile, the initial faces of the NFL’s Spread revolution—Griffin, Kaepernick, and Kelly’s Eagles—deteriorated over time. In Griffin’s case, he failed to develop rhythmic footwork needed to build an efficient passing game and, relatedly, took so many hits in the run game that he lost his most fearsome trait. In Kaepernick’s, he never sped up his mental clock to distribute the ball more quickly which allowed the 49ers offense to become one-dimensional. Kelly’s tendency with the Eagles when under duress was to distill his Spread concepts to fewer variations, rather than more that could accentuate them. Now coached by Reid’s former Chiefs offensive coordinator, Doug Pederson, the Eagles have a quarterback in Carson Wentz with more complete tools to execute a well-rounded offense like Reid’s. Tim Polasek already used Wentz as a designed runner in a variety of North Dakota State’s blocking schemes including Power, Draw, Sweep, and Zone. It would also behoove the Eagles coaches to watch Reid’s film this season for ideas on how to get their quarterback more involved.
Ironically, it is Reid, the coach who had been fired to make way for a vaunted no-huddle Spread guru, who now arguably has the strongest case as the pioneer of the NFL’s Spread Revolution. To be fair, there are other intriguing offenses that incorporate Spread and option elements like the Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers, for example, that use the full array of Newton and Mariota’s talents. But neither of those teams boasts such an extensive passing offense as Reid’s which also happens to mesh with option football.
The Chiefs offense is built to evolve even more in the future with the addition of their first-round draft pick, former Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes needs development with his footwork, but has a cannon arm and adequate mobility. With Donovan McNabb’s relatively seamless transition from a Spread offense at Syracuse and Michael Vick’s (briefly) resurrected career on his track record, Reid has a blueprint for how to take the Chiefs offense potentially to greater heights than it can now with Smith.
For the time being, the Chiefs’ commitment to researching the football games played on Saturdays has translated to two consecutive wins and a strong chance to pursue a Super Bowl. The notion that Spread offensive ideas are doomed to fall by the wayside is blatantly false. Reid’s evolution is proof.