Harrell's Folly: Spread O in the NFL
From Andre Ware to Alex Smith, the NCAA has been throwing system quarterbacks in pass-heavy, shotgun schemes to the NFL for decades, and the NFL has been chewing them up and spitting them back out the whole time. While the college ranks can support formations in which five-receiver sets and minimal blocking allow protection problems to be overwhelmed by aerial advantages, the NFL is a faster, far more complicated, and far more physical game. When those same quarterbacks try the pros for size, they find that their inability to employ proper mechanics leave them ill-equipped for their new surroundings.
The most recent entrant in this seemingly losing competition is Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, the wunderkind who threw for 5,111 yards, 45 touchdowns and only nine interceptions in 2008 for Mike Leach's combustible offense. Harrell's numbers have been similarly ridiculous over the last three years, but there have been serious questions about his ability to produce consistently in the NFL, where the spread can only be used in fits and starts and many of the systemic training wheels are gone. When he threw several wormburners at the Senior Bowl, questions about his accuracy under pressure intensified.
Another perception Harrell will fight at the next level is the abysmal record of success for other Tech quarterbacks under Leach -- combined, B.J. Symons, Kliff Kingsbury, Sonny Cumbie, and Cody Hodges went 1 of 2 for 17 yards in the NFL, and those stats are all Kingsbury's. If you wanted to see other Tech quarterbacks throw professionally, you'd have to watch NFL Europe, which doesn't exist anymore.
Is Leach's offense a hothouse for one-trick quarterbacks? At the Scouting Combine, Harrell talked about the fact that some teams are starting to meet the spread halfway. "If you watched (Super Bowl XLIII), it seemed that the Cardinals were running the spread the whole time," Harrell said. "I talked to them yesterday [Thursday, February 19] and they said, 'We put the best players on the field. If that's a bunch of receivers, we put a bunch out there.' That made a lot of sense to me. In the NFL, more teams are trying the spread, experimenting with the spread, and if that's the case, I have as much experience as anyone in the country. I think the system prepared me for the NFL more than some people might think."
Harrell also talked about the fact that Leach would often let him call the plays and run the offense from a set of options. "[Leach] would say, 'If you're backed up on the 1, you can check to whatever you want. If you're going in from the 1, you can call whatever you want. Whenever I signal in a suggestion, if you don't like it, call something else.'
"He would signal in a formation and a check -- run the formation and call the play. So, Coach puts a lot of responsibility on the quarterback, and like I said, I had more responsibility than any quarterback in the country. They gave me an advantage and prepared me for the next level."
Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's State Farm NFL Matchup remains unconvinced that Harrell, or any other straight spread quarterback, can break through the barriers. Cosell watches more coaches' tape than just about anyone who doesn't actually work for a team, and I have talked to him before about the difficulties in transitioning players from the spread to the NFL. At the Combine, I asked Cosell specifically about Harrell and what he said about the fact that the NFL might be implementing more spread-style formations, allowing players like Harrell to have a legitimate chance.
"To incorporate elements of the spread in the NFL on a somewhat consistent basis, you need a quarterback who is incredibly quick at processing information," he said. "Particularly if you're talking about a true spread, where there are no tight ends, you have a short corner on both sides and defenses can get someone in clean to the quarterback. They can dictate where you throw the ball. See, that is ultimately the problem in the NFL with the spread, depending on when it's used. Now, if you use it somewhat proactively, I think you can be aggressive with it. But you'll see teams blitz spreads on third-and-9 and third-and-10, the ball comes out for a four-yard gain, and the team punts."
But what about Harrell, who insists that the players make the system as much as the system makes the players, no matter what that system may be? How does he fit in to this debate? It's been said before, by Cosell and others -- those college players who believe the transition is possible don't understand the speed and quality of the standard NFL defense until they have actually experienced it. From there, it's all downhill.
"The problem with spread quarterbacks is that they don't do two things which are part and parcel of NFL offenses -- three-step drops, and play action," Cosell said. "Play action, in particular, is critical in the NFL." Example: Alex Smith, the first overall draft pick in 2005, enjoyed great success with the shotgun under Urban Meyer at Utah, but struggled mightily with more traditional mechanics with the San Francisco 49ers.
Cosell hadn't studied film on Harrell yet -- he had only seen him on TV, and he wanted me to make that clear -- but the initial findings are not good. "There are two things, just from TV, that would bother me about Harrell. I think arm strength is an issue. The benefit I have when I watch tape is that I see what's required for the NFL. We've heard for years that arm strength is overrated, but it's not in the NFL. Do you have to have a cannon for an arm? No, but Harrell looks to me like he has an average arm -- maybe above-average at best. Also, in the NFL, there are times when you're going to have to make stick throws into tight windows -- 15 to 22 yards. And you're going to have to make those throws with bodies around you.
"The other thing I noticed with Harrell when I watched him on TV was that in response to pressure, he had a tendency to back up, and that's problematic. Then, you end up falling away from the rush, and falling away from the football. That is a definite negative for a quarterback. Until I watch 400 dropbacks, I don't want to paint him with that broad stroke and say, 'Okay, he's done,' but to me, that's an instinct. That won't cut it in the NFL."
One player who did find instant success in the NFL after running a lot of shotgun in college was Joe Flacco, who came from Delaware and hit his mark right away with the Baltimore Ravens, Flacco was astoundingly comfortable and proficient with play action from his first preseason, though he didn't use it much in college, and I asked Cosell how Flacco found the password.
"That's why you have to watch each player individually before you make a projection," he said. "Flacco had a couple things going for him when I watched him on film. The arm strength was obvious, and that's a big difference between Flacco and Harrell. What Flacco showed at Delaware, and I know this because I saw it on film, was the ability to throw with timing and anticipation. What that means in simple terms is the ability to throw the ball before receivers come out of breaks. If you can't do that, you can't play quarterback in the NFL. If I don't see that on film (from Harrell), it becomes a significant projection. And I'm not sure you can teach that -- I think it's an instinct. After watching game tape for 20 years, I think that if you don't have the instinct to throw with timing and anticipation, you can't learn it at the NFL level."
Quarterbacks in these specific schemes have been trying to beat the odds as long as Cosell has been watching game film, and the truth is just as stark as it has ever been. The spread offense does not teach or manufacture NFL skill sets. In fact, it could be said that it leaves its signal-callers singularly ill-equipped for professional football.
Is this the year that one quarterback finds a happy medium? Only Graham Harrell knows for sure.
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