In the NFL, several teams such as the Carolina Panthers (with Cam Newton), the San Francisco 49ers (with Colin Kaepernick), the Seattle Seahawks (with Russell Wilson), and the Washington Redskins (with Robert Griffin III) to name a few are utilizing a spread offense.

When Tim Tebow was a starter for the Denver Broncos, he led his team to a division title and a playoff win utilizing the spread offense, proving the formation can be successful.

How does a typical spread offense contrast from a typical pro-style offense? What positional/role players are suggested for optimal use of such a formation?

2 Answers 2


The problem in answering this question is that there isn't just one style of "spread" offense. While Tim Tebow and Cam Newton may have both run the spread, they ran it in almost completely different ways.

With that said, there is an underlying theme to the spread offense. In a typical spread offense, the QB lines up in a shotgun formation with a 4-WR set (i.e. no TE or a TE lined up wide) and a single back on either his right or left side (NOT behind him). Because the RB is at his side, he isn't in a great blocking position. Because of the lack of protection, the QB will basically run a "1-read" system, where he makes a single read to WR and then dumps to the RB if the WR isn't open. Spread offense formation

In a pro-style offense, the QB will line up under center with 1-2 backs lined up behind him. He'll have a staggered set of 2-3 WRs and a TE. With the additional protection, the QB will usually "go through his progressions" of scanning his receivers (this is usually 2-3 seconds). The reason this is typically utilized in the NFL is because so many different plays can be from this formation, which can be difficult for most defenses.
pro-style offense

It's important to note that many "Pro-style" QBs (e.g. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady) also run their own variations of the spread. Because of their athleticism, they typically can make more than "1-read" and therefore don't necessarily suffer from the vulnerabilities of the spread. It's important to note that when they run the spread, they are typically releasing the ball within 2-3 seconds. This is important because the reason the spread isn't as successful in the NFL is largely due to the faster defenses.

The reason Tim Tebow was getting so much flak for only being able to run the spread is that he wasn't able to make more than a single read and still release the ball in 2-3 seconds (largely due to his throwing mechanics illustrated here). Also, Tebow and, to a lesser extent, Cam Newton were much more prone to running the read-option, which works a lot more in college because of the slower overall speed of defenses. Tebow was able to have some success with it in the NFL because of his speed and strength, but it's not a sustainable offense as it can become incredibly predictable.

So, in reference to the article you listed, the spread can be successful in the NFL, but it requires higher athleticism and still needs to be mixed up with other formations to confuse the defense. The younger "Spread style" QBs you mentioned are successful not only because they're running the spread, but because they can still run a pro-style offense when they need to.

  • While this answer is overall correct as it relates to the question, I just have one issue that I want to make sure gets pointed out: "This is important because the reason the spread isn't as successful in the NFL is largely due to the faster defenses". This is very anecdotal; I'd love to see a citation. The primary reason the typical spread doesn't work in the NFL is because it works best when you have a running quarterback. In the NFL this doesn't work because of the number of hits you take which is not sustainable.
    – Matt
    May 20, 2013 at 12:27
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    The second reason the typical spread doesn't work in the NFL is because over the course of the season you start to really wear down your own team with the pace of play. In college you can have 80-100 players on the roster... in the NFL you have 45. You don't have the luxury of sending our your 5th string defensive tackle to eat up some minutes for your defense so they don't let up points every possession themselves. See espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/8735671/… for details about these 2 points.
    – Matt
    May 20, 2013 at 12:32
  • @Matt to your second point, the usage of a "spread" offense does not necessarily dictate the tempo an offense uses... that just happens to be a wrinkle that some teams throw in. AFAIK, all NFL teams that use spread concepts all did so with a typical huddle tempo.
    – whaley
    Jun 17, 2013 at 15:59

This is more of a supplemental answer since this accepted anser answer did not touch on the characteristics/attributes of other positions outside of the QB position.

Offensive Lineman

It's more advantageous for linemen in this offense to be quicker, especially in lateral movement, even at the detrement of being better pass blockers or power blockers due to less of an emphasis on traditional dropback pass plays and downhill running plays.

Many spread running plays are all predicated on a stretch zone blocking scheme where the lineman all attempt to block laterally and gain outside leverage on the defender that is threatening the gap to the side they are blocking. The lineman must be athletic enough to be a threat to do this, otherwise there is very little reason for the defense to flow as hard to the side the lineman are blocking to. It's the threat of the lineman getting outside leverage that even allows the QB to option off of a backside defender when choosing what to do.

TEs and FBs

There is more emphasis on both being a good blocker and favoring more quickness... in their case it's so they are able to perform blocks such as arc blocks correctly (see http://www.coachwyatt.com/veerexplained.html).


Athletic and durable enough to be a ball carrier but must still be a threat to be a weapon throwing the ball. Must be able to quickly make reads of defenders in the box during running plays.


Nothing extra noteable.


Required to be better blockers than typical and also better at running routes against man coverage, as opposed to being great at running option routes or finding holes in zones, since the majority of coverages seen will be man coverage with a single high safety. Speed is more of a premium here.

Also, as a bit of a soapbox rant, the term "spread" is really a media invented term used to describe and communicate about a style of offense where the primary goal of the base offensive plays is creating options between a QB/RB and a single defender "in the box" in order for a QB to make a single read and determine, in the middle of the play, what he should do with the ball. This specific concept is really no different than the option offenses that have been run throughout the history of football.

The only thing that makes it interesting now is that the initial alignments in formations resemble what a passing oriented pro style passing offenses look like and that the plays are designed such that interior blockers are engaged in a lateral leverage style of (zone) blocking as opposed to straight ahead power blocking or over reliance on angle and trap blocking.

The intention being to get the defense moving in one lateral direction away from where the QB can be potentially isolated against a defender responsible for containment in the opposite direction of where the defense is moving. The Broncos of the late 90s, Falcons of the early 00s, and the present day Texans, utilized these concepts too and with great success, except they do it under a center and with pre-snap/predetermined reads with stretch zone running plays and QB bootleg action.

If you really want to see a fun evolution of this, watch these videos at http://brophyfootball.blogspot.com/2011/08/alex-gibbs-stretchgun-run-developments.html where Alex Gibbs, the run game guru from the Broncos and Falcons during the 90s and 00s, consults with the University of Florida staff on improving their running game.

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