As both a Denver Broncos and – sorry everyone – New England Patriots fan, the game last Sunday provided a particular intrigue. I was surprised, however, to see something that resembled the college game. When Peyton stepped up under center at the goal line, he looked out of place (maybe just as much as Tom Brady rushing the football, or Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota stepping under center). Indeed, both the Patriots and the Broncos were running a hurry up offense almost strictly out of the shotgun.
I watched the highlights from the rest of the games. Cam Newton ran the option; Robert Griffin III ran a zone read; Colin Kaepernick ran the ball out of the pistol formation (where the quarterback stands five yards behind the center and the running back at ten). I felt like I was watching all of these players back at college. Pete Carroll has even mentioned that the only time he saw an offense as fast-paced as the Patriots was in the PAC-10 against Oregon.
So what is the world coming to?
The common thought was that players would have to transition their college game of shotgun, pistol, and spread offenses to playing under center. But now, everything is backwards. Coaches are adapting their offenses to use their younger players’ strength, or in the case of the Broncos and Patriots, their veteran’s knowledge.
The innovative thinkers in college have begun to remold those coaches that get stuck inside the box in the pro league. When offenses have three viable running backs that all do different things for their offense (and a quarterback that runs as well as a running back), match up problems for a defense become very real. Imagine if Cam Newton, New Orleans’ running back Darren Sproles, and Green Bay’s fullback Jim Kuhn were all put in the same backfield. I know I would consider running the triple option at least ten times a game.
The truth is that the change of pace requires defenses to always be on their toes. It keeps them honest in the pass rush when RG3 operates the zone read to perfection with running back Alfred Morris. It makes defenses study 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh’s play-calling tendencies when he has Kaepernick in at quarterback. So while these players transition into the NFL game, there is no sense in leaving behind their strength. Even if every unconventional play or formation isn’t successful, it keeps the defense wondering: when will Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart run the option? Who is my assignment during that play? Then Newton bombs it to his wide receiver Steve Smith.
But that doesn’t answer the question as to why a bunch of old farts with back and shoulder problems are running something called the hurry up. The hurry up in the college game, among many other reasons, prevents the defense from making substitutions and shortens time for play calls. In the NFL, with many teams operating in a 3-4 the often also use sub-packages, defenses that are tapered to particular looks that the offenses give. If New England and Denver run their hurry up, teams don’t have time to hustle their sub-packages on and off the field. As a result, the brilliant football minds of Brady and Manning get to pick apart very similar defensive looks for most of the drive. They maintain their calm and cool decision-making, despite the game speed increasing wildly. The hurry up with Brady and Manning is more of a “hurry-up and wait.” They hustle to the line, forcing the defense to get set, then they make their adjustments, as they are already a step ahead of the defense.
While the hurry up will likely live on, I wonder how much longer RG3 will continue to run the zone read, considering the concussion he suffered last week. I expect that concussion will incite hesitancy in other quarterback run-oriented offenses. We must not forget that quarterbacks are quite valuable, in terms of money and importance.