Mike Leach was a revolutionary when he first came to the Big 12. Ten years later, the spread offense is everywhere. What direction do offenses go from here?
Hard to say, exactly. I think for the near future you'll see more no-huddle but combined with a wider variety of offensive attacks -- spread, option, pro-style, multiple stuff. You'll probably see lots of "packaged concepts," which combine plays of entirely different categories into the same play and are best used from the no-huddle. But it's always hard to predict overall styles.
Right now offense has the advantage, at basically every level of football. It's extremely hard to defend these up-tempo offenses that put athletes in space, force defenses to play assignment football against reads and zone reads, can throw it downfield to one of any number of receivers, and do it all from varying tempos. But history tells us defenses eventually will catch up, and when they do they will hit these offenses -- just like the unstoppable of days past, be they single-wing, wing-t, wishbone, or pro-set -- like a ton of bricks. I'm not sure what that adjustment will be, but that's part of what makes football so fun.
Being a contrarian -- zigging when everyone else is zagging -- was one of the tenet's of Leach's philosophy. If the spread is now the norm, wouldn't the triple option be a more contrarian offense in 2012?
One difficulty with predicting where the game is going is that while people like to say the game goes in cycles it's not actually try. Stylystically -- offense dominated, run dominated, pass dominated, etc -- that is sort of true, but when you actually look at the schemes the game only evolves because, once a counterattack has been devised, defenses and offenses do not forget.
So while it might be glib to say that if everyone is spreading and throwing now you can win by going power, it's not like defenses have forgotten how to get into the particular eight-man fronts used to stop those power-I attacks, or the Miami 4-3 used to defuse the wishbone. Those elements might come back, but it will be in some new, unique way that can both be cyclical but also new enough so that opponents can't so easily revert to the old counterattacks.
That said, if I played in a division or conference where every team ran the spread, I'd probably rather do something else so that my opponents had to prepare for something different when they faced me. But what the right answer remains a vexing question.
The other reason is it's confusing is that talent remains, as it should be, more important than schemes, but it can also cloud the analysis of the best schemes. The best team is usually the most talented one, and usually the most talented team could win no matter what it's schemes were. So there's a constant back and forth as the game inches along.
The explosion of passing-based attacks and 7-on-7 football has changed the game at the high-school level, especially in Texas. Do you think this will increase the number of high-level QB's in college and the pros?
I think so, as I wrote earlier this year for Grantland. There are so many seasoned quarterbacks coming up through the ranks, and it's no surprise that three rookie starters this year -- Andrew Luck, RG3 and Ryan Tannehill -- all played their high school ball in Texas.
Hopefully improvement. I think the jury is still out on Texas's offense, though they should be able to run the ball and Texas's defense should be the real deal -- they have some solid players there and Manny Diaz is one of the brightest young coordinators around. I expect Texas's offense to be better but I am hesitant to venture a guess beyond that.
Going forward, how do you think the growing knowledge about concussions will change the medium and long-term nature of the sport?
The concussion issue is deeply troubling. I was recently reading an old interview with Hall of Fame Packers lineman Jerry Kramer, where he said that early in training camp every year he'd have terrible headaches after practice but that they'd go away by the end of the year. He said this casually, noting a theory that maybe he develops "brain toughness" over the course of a season. Obviously we are a bit more sophisticated now, and I found the anecdote deeply sad.
In the short term I think there will be further restrictions on the amount of contact in practice and hopefully better helmets. But something has to change dramatically, especially since we know that small, routine head impacts can be as devastating as the "big hits" the NFL and college have tried to regulate. What the answer will be -- I've long been skeptical of the utility of the hard plastic helmet that serves as a weapon -- I'm not sure.