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2011 NFL Draft: The Curious Case of the Spread Option QB

An embarrassing confession: I love spread option football. I love what teams like Auburn and Oregon do (and part of me was fascinated by watching the Ducks run roughshod over Neyland Stadium; I'm not particularly proud of that part, but it's there) with the ball, and I love the skill set that those QBs have to develop. It's not exactly different than anything that's ever been done; option football has been around, and you can trace spread football back to a bunch of different sources, not the least of which are some of the Wing-T basics and other sources that might be worth delving into later.

The skill sets required to be a good spread option QB, on the other hand, don't translate perfectly to the NFL. This is, in essence, the Tim Tebow problem. (The Graham Harrell problem - pass-happy QBs who may have the skills at the next level but who put up discarded stats - is similar, but not quite the same thing.) QB scouting in particular is at best an inexact science; Malcolm Gladwell did a better job with this than I could ever hope to, so start there and I'll be here when you get done.

Ready? Good.

The issue with spread option QBs comes from developed skill sets. In general, spread option QBs are - and should be - better runners than typical pro-style QBs. Running isn't necessarily a skill used as a QB in the NFL, nor is the other obvious skill - being able to read and react quickly to "read" defenders. The simple argument is that these skills don't translate well to the next level, and Nick Fairley's destruction job on the Oregon DT zone read is a good example that NFL acolytes will be trotting out for ages. The argument basically goes like this: because every defender is, well, like Nick Fairley, spread option can't succeed at the next level.

I'm not sure I buy this; that statement has an inherent assumption that in the NFL, defenders are inherently more athletic than skill position players. How does that argument scale? Skill balance should be approximately equal, and if there are defenders good enough to stop typical spread option attacks, then that also shouldn't hold at the edges. Athletes are athletes, but there are guys who are just different. Freaks of nature, even. There should be incredibly skilled WRs who aren't able to be stopped, RBs who can carry 30 times a game and break the 31st, QBs who can throw for 300 and run for 100.

Why yes, I am talking about Cam Newton. It may have taken months for everyone else to figure out what anyone who watched any college football game this season already knew that Newton was a stellar athlete, unparalleled at this level. (And yes, it hurt to type that, but that's how these things go.) He was the NCAA Football No Way Guy - the QB that you can't stop because you've won 7 games in a row on Heisman difficulty and this guy just shows up and trucks your entire front seven at once, all game, and you can't do anything about it. (Aside: I had one of those games involving Knowshon Moreno, who I managed to knock out of the game. Caleb King then came in and then ripped off 2 consecutive TD runs, both of which looked like Marshawn Lynch's run against the Saints. One of those games.) Newton was the guy who made defensive coordinators throw down their controllers and hit the reset button.

How exactly is that skill not going to translate to the highest level? He's good. He's still going to be bigger than half the linebackers he sees, and he's still going to be stronger than a third of the rest. There's no reason that he still can't plow into the line for 4 yards a pop, falling forward one step past the line. There's no reason that his offensive coordinator can't design plays allowed to let him keep the ball.

He may not make it; apparently there are a lot of people out there who think he won't succeed. That's probably the right idea, just by the percentages; more draftees burn out than succeed. (JaMarcus Russell points and nods.) But giving Newton a chance to do what he does best is the only way to determine if he's going to succeed.