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Column - Jonathan Rand

A copycat game

Dec 02, 2008, 8:50:09 AM by Jonathan Rand - FAQ

pistolIt wasn’t long ago that you’d watch a high-scoring, pass-happy NFL game and feel like you were watching a college matchup, or maybe something out of the AFL’s early days.

Now you can watch a Big 12 game like Kansas’ 40-37 victory over Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium, and almost feel like you’re watching an NFL game. A league that not long ago looked down its nose at college football’s high-scoring offenses now borrows freely from them.

Chiefs offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, fresh off a six-year stint as Georgia Tech’s head coach, is using as many college wrinkles as any NFL coach. Season-ending injuries to his starting and backup quarterbacks prompted Gailey to switch to a spread offense after six games, and it finally helped produce a 20-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders.

The Chiefs and Raiders are among the NFL teams that use direct snaps to a running back out of a shotgun formation, which is yet another college wrinkle. It wasn’t long ago that few self-respecting NFL coaches would be caught dead running such plays.

But coaches would have players stand on their heads were they convinced that would help them win. And the increasing popularity of spread formations has helped put NFL scoring this season on a record pace.

The Chiefs’ 54-31 loss to the Bills two Sundays ago contributed to 837 points league wide, the most ever for one NFL weekend. That deluge of scoring increased this season’s average to 45 points per game.

For the past two decades, NFL offensive coaches have wrestled with the disruptions caused by huge, quick and powerful pass rushers. Asked to wake up a moribund passing offense, Detroit Lions assistant Mouse Davis introduced the run and shoot offense to the NFL in 1988.

The Houston Oilers followed suit in 1990 and Warren Moon and his four wide receivers torched the Chiefs for 527 yards passing that year. The offense didn’t have staying power in the NFL, though, because coaches worried that diminished pass protection would get quarterbacks injured and that a reduced time of possession would stress out the defense of a run-and-shoot team. They also noted the Oilers’ inability to run the ball late in the game to hold a lead.

Many coaches today view the spread formation more favorably, however. It’s a relative of the long-popular West Coast offense, which 49ers coach Bill Walsh used to win three Super Bowls. That system’s high-percentage passes that stretch defenses horizontally and allow receivers to pick up key yardage after the catch have been used with notable success by Walsh disciples all over the league.

High-percentage passes make as much sense today as ever. With coaches such as the Chiefs’ Herm Edwards favoring zone defenses that try to take away the deep ball and force offenses to execute sustained and mistake-free drives, offensive coaches often are encouraged to throw five- and seven-yard passes that can be turned into long gainers.

Spread offenses are especially suitable for young quarterbacks, who can benefit from the familiarity of a college-style offense instead of trying to learn traditional NFL offenses that require deeper drops, slower-to-develop routes and more patience in the pocket.

The Chiefs’ attack is not exactly a juggernaut, yet has improved significantly since Gailey installed a spread offense. Tyler Thigpen, a raw quarterback with impressive athletic skills, was pressed into a starting role after injuries to Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard.

Thigpen, a successful spread formation passer in college but who’d thrown erratically with the Chiefs, suddenly became poised and effective running the spread. His passer rating has climbed from 44.3 to 76.9 during the last six games.

The Chiefs scored more than 10 points just twice in their first six games. They’ve scored more offensive points than that in every game since, and twice have topped 25.

And in this 2-10 season, the Chiefs will gladly grab any improvement they can get.

The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.

A former sportswriter and columnist in Kansas City and Miami, Rand has covered the NFL for three decades and seen 23 Super Bowl games. His column appears twice weekly in-season.