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Smarter Stats: Covering the Spread Part One

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In the NCAA's last few seasons, the spread offense has become more and more popular. Offensive formations that set enemy defenses on their heels with motion, multiple receiver sets, and wide line splits has taken some programs traditionally impacted in their ability to recruit top personnel to a new level. However, several elements of the spread are not effective at the NFL level. Those wide line splits are caved in by better defensive linemen. The lack of backside protection leads to heaps of quarterback sacks. Shotgun quarterbacks with noodle arms and no feel for play action get drummed out of the pros before they even start.

Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, owner of the NCAA's all-time mark in passing touchdowns with 134 and the second-most passing yards in college history with 15,793, wasn't even drafted by an NFL team because those teams are so aware of the adjustment issues. Harrell washed out of Cleveland Browns minicamp and headed to the Canadian Football League while his primary target, receiver Michael Crabtree, was drafted 10th overall.

Still, the timing of those shotgun offenses is something that the NFL has learned to meet halfway. In 2007, the New England Patriots became the first NFL team to line up in the shotgun on more that 50 percent of their offensive plays. Since the Patriots put up the best offensive season in history that year, it stood to reason that other teams would apply the lessons. In 2008, three teams - the Pats again, the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals, and the downtrodden Kansas City Chiefs, went shotgun at least half the time.

The Cardinals almost beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl with a quick-strike, yards-after-catch gameplan in which almost every snap was a shotgun snap. The Chiefs helped backup quarterback Tyler Thigpen display more efficiency than anyone thought possible by using the Pistol formation, a variant of the shotgun in which a halfback lines up directly behind a quarterback taking three-yard snaps. Thigpen took so many shotgun snaps on pass plays, he may have been a victim of sample size noise on his few non-shotgun plays (see the "Worst Shotgun" table below). And after losing Tom Brady for the season early in the first regular-season game, the Patriots posted the best offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here) in the NFL in the second half of the season despite the fact that quarterback Matt Cassel had never started a pro or college game.

Over the last decade, we see that the trend up has been drastic and fairly recent:

Smarter_Stats_1_82609.jpg

But which quarterbacks are most effective in the shotgun, and which are better off sticking with the traditional setup? Using a baseline of at least 100 shotgun snaps, here are the best and worst shotgun splits:

Smarter_Stats_Best_Shotgun_.jpg

Smarter_Stats_Worst_Shotgun.jpg

Next week, we'll take a closer look at how the NFL's increased focus on the shotgun affects running games, defenses, and game plans in general.

By Doug Farrar  |  August 27, 2009; 1:48 AM ET  | Category:  Doug Farrar , Statistics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Jim Johnson: A Decade in Review | Next: Covering the Spread, Part Two

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V insightful: as redskin fan, I always thought j. campbell was better in 'gun....

Posted by: ggreene11 | September 2, 2009 4:54 PM

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