I love watching the classic games on NFL Network. The other day, "The Catch" game was on featuring the Cowboys and the 49ers. Watching, I was amazed at how much each team stayed in basic formations, simple run sets, and ran basic offenses. For 1981, however, the schemes for both teams were actually considered complex. But by today's standards, they were extremely basic. It is always fun to see how much the league has changed in such a short period of time.
The NFL is constantly changing, from the coaches to the players to the schemes. It should be called the National Evolution League. The Tim Tebow offense in Denver is garnering a ton of attention, but Cam Newton and the Panthers are running a similar offense, with even more versatility in the passing game -- as well as more production. Are we seeing a new style of offense coming to the NFL? I believe so.
Some might say the spread offense is not new to the NFL. And all the teams do run a version of the four-receiver spread attack. But in reality, few run the spread with the quarterback being a major ball carrier like they do in Denver, Carolina and to some extent Philadelphia. That added dimension is something I could see becoming a new trend in the league.
When a team prepares to play Denver or Carolina, they have no player on their team who can simulate the speed of the game in practice in order to get their defense adequately prepared. Who runs the option like Newton plus has the ability to throw the ball down the field? Not many. So when the game starts, Newton is much faster than anyone expects and all those plays that looked easy to defend on Wednesday and Thursday are much harder. I hate hearing the rhetoric that defenses will catch up to Newton or Tebow. They won't, because their speed makes the plays effective. Defenses have caught up to the Packers' schemes, but they can't stop them because of Green Bay's talent level.
Teams have been reluctant to run a spread option attack because of the QB injury factor, which clearly affects Philadelphia. But Newton is a big man (6-foot-5, 248 pounds), and he dishes out more contact then he absorbs. Michael Vick is not a big man (6-0, 215), so despite being incredibly fast and explosive, he is not able to absorb the hits like Newton can or, for that matter, Tebow (6-3, 236).
The NFL always will be a drop-back passing league and there always will be a huge value in having Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. But adding a franchise quarterback is never easy. Is Josh Freeman one? Matt Ryan? Mark Sanchez? For me, all three have weaknesses in their game, just like Tebow and Newton. What becomes critical when having a quarterback who might not be able to carry the team to victory is developing a scheme that highlights his strengths and hides his weaknesses. Isn't that what the Broncos and Panthers are doing? For clarity purposes, it is easier to examine the changes in the scheme to benefit Newton or Tebow than to see what Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has to do to protect Sanchez. Those take a trained eye to see. Schottenheimer knows Sanchez does not read the progression well, so with each call, Schottenheimer makes the decision for Sanchez. Sometimes Schottenheimer is right, sometimes wrong, which explains the inconsistency of the Jets passing game.
Back to the spread. The start of this revolution to showcase movement quarterbacks was not Vick. It was Ben Roethlisberger. The Pittsburgh QB's ability to move, create big plays with his feet, avoid tacklers and still make the throws down the field creates huge problems for the defense. His ability to run is great, but what makes him hard to defend is when the play breaks down and Roethlisberger is on the move sideways, looking up the field. Think of the two plays that killed the Jets in the AFC title game -- Roethlisberger moving to his right to make clutch third-down throws. Those plays are impossible to prepare for, impossible to defend.
The Colts tried to run the Manning offense with a new quarterback and it has failed. The Broncos tried running a conventional offense with Kyle Orton and it failed. The Panthers knew they had to play Newton, so they tailor-made an offense, adapting to Newton rather than vice versa. Being unconventional is working and will continue to work. That is the essence of coaching and the Panthers' staff deserves praise, particularly offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
The spread is here to stay. GMs and coaches must embrace it. In fact, both Denver and Carolina need to acquire backup quarterbacks who can play a similar style to Newton and Tebow so they don't have to change their offense should either QB miss a play or a game. Teams like Cleveland or Miami must not find the player who can fit their schemes, but rather create a scheme that fits the player. This is not revolutionary, but it is the reality of today.
Bill Walsh always would say to me, "The search for the perfect player never ends." That saying applies to every position. The scheme must fit the player, and if the scheme is the spread option, then go for it. It is working.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi