Kevin Wright, the head football coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., opened a video on his computer screen and chuckled. It had been recommended by a friend who coaches a youth team of kids with necks barely strong enough to bear the weight of a helmet. It was an odd place to find the roots of the NFL’s watchability problem.
The footage showed boys lined up in a spread formation, the quarterback in shotgun and wide receivers dispersed across the field. Wright was born into a coaching family. He once worked as a Division I offensive coordinator. He has coached across the country at high school football’s highest levels for more than a quarter century. This was new.
“A fourth-grade team running spread,” Wright said this week in a phone conversation. “There’s 10-year-olds out there. The defense is all spread out. Ten years ago, everybody is in tight. You’re running I-formation.”
Wright told the story to reinforce a point: Football is now played the same at every level, with one significant exception.
The NFL’s television ratings continue to dwarf college football’s, and most other shows’. But while NFL ratings have slid compared with last season, they have risen for college football. NFL ratings in Week 2 were down 15 percent from last season, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Meanwhile, year-over-year college football ratings have increased, more than 50 percent in several time slots. The NFL has trotted out many explanations for why ratings have dipped the past two years, from the election to hurricanes. Those reasons, though, are not pushing viewers from college football.
College football this year has been a better, more exciting version of the sport than the NFL, and viewers have made their relative preference clear. The most basic reason is the proficiency of the players. The stylistic and strategic chasm between college football and the NFL has never been greater, and the sport’s current developmental system creates exceptional college football players and unprepared NFL players.
The game at every rung below the college level, from high school to the youngest Pop Warner leagues, is nearly identical to college football. Quarterbacks stand in shotgun, receivers spread the field and offensive linemen stand in two-point stances. Players practice year-round, with seven-on-seven and flag football leagues prevalent.
In 2017, by the time a player reaches college, he has become more skilled at the collegiate game than most any player who came before him. When the same player reaches the NFL, he has played almost no football reminiscent of the NFL game.
“It’s the same sport, but it’s two different games,” Senior Bowl director Phil Savage said. “It’s a night-and-day difference in terms of the style of play. While most everyone focuses on the quarterback, the style of play being utilized across the board in college football, it’s a significant adjustment.”
A dozen years ago, many top high school football teams still relied on ancient tactics. In the South, Wright said, the Wing-T still dominated. The spread had seeped into college football’s fringes, but the game mostly looked like the NFL. Offenses used two backs and a tight end, with the quarterback under center.
“For a long time, the collegiate game and the NFL really mirrored each other,” Wright said. “You saw that schematically. You saw that with the type of quarterbacks going from one level to the other. You don’t see that much anymore. Try to find a true fullback on a college roster. It’s just tough to find. Now you’re hard-pressed to even find a [high school] team that goes under center.
“What you’re seeing is a reflection of the way the game has evolved. College football, with all the opportunities to watch it, kids and high school coaches get inundated with it. You see that being reflected in high school offenses, in the way high school coaches think and approach it.”
The way players learn football and play it until reaching the NFL creates a seemingly incongruous truth. College football players are better at playing college football than NFL players are at playing NFL football.
The problem is exacerbated by two effects of the recent collective bargaining agreement. Salary cap rules encourage teams to fill rosters with young, cheap players. But they are allowed fewer full-contact practices, which limits how they can develop players largely unfamiliar with the NFL style.
“As it’s structured, it’s geared toward playing young guys,” Savage said. “There is an incubation that’s needed more so more than any time before, but you’re not getting it. Kids are getting pushed out on that field with a résumé that’s wafer-thin compared to a guy that’s coming into the league 10 or 15 years ago.”
Ideas have moved from high school to college, too. Gus Malzahn, Art Briles and Todd Graham introduced some of the most influential systems in college football after starting as high school coaches. Most NFL coaches have resisted the new ideas. NFL coaches and executives have blamed college offenses for a dearth of NFL-ready quarterbacks and offensive linemen.
“It’s really sad that a bunch grown men in their 50s and 60s spend all their time blaming college football for their miseries,” said Middle Tennessee State offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who coached 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff at Cal. “The college game is better than it’s ever been, more popular than it’s ever been. We adjust. High school football changed football. High school football about eight years ago decided to start playing fast and putting great athletes at quarterback that could make plays. All of a sudden, the game became a different game.
“College coaches had a choice: Stick and do what the NFL does and be bad, or adjust. And they adjusted. We adjusted to the high school game and made the college game different. It’s the first time information probably ever has flowed upward instead of flowing downward. It used to be, it went to NFL, then to college, then to high schools. Now it’s just the opposite. It goes from high schools to colleges and then if the NFL is smart, they use some of that as well.”
Some ideas have trickled all the way up. “It used to be college copied the NFL,” Washington State Coach Mike Leach said. “Now it’s the other way around.”
The Chiefs have employed innovative run-pass options, shovel passes to tight ends and inventive runs and short passes to electrifying players Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt. The Seahawks run a handful of read-option plays with Russell Wilson. The Patriots use fast pace and often spread the field with five receivers, some of them running backs versatile enough to exploit heavy defensive personnel. “Their offense looks like ours,” said Leach, one of the progenitors of the Air Raid offense.
Even those teams borrow concepts, not entire schemes. Faster defensive linemen prohibit wide splits between offensive linemen. Narrower hash marks change spacing for wide receivers and throwing angles for quarterbacks. Most crucially, spread and read-option offenses expose quarterbacks to punishment.
“What drives it is the quarterback and the run-pass option things you can do in college that you can’t do in the NFL,” former Atlanta Falcons and current UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “Defensively, it becomes real challenging, and that’s why you see a lot of exciting plays and big runs and big passes. It’s much less predictable than the NFL, and it’s fun. In the NFL, you don’t want to run your quarterback. If you lose him, you’re dead.”
“In middle school, you take the best athlete, you give him the ball, let him pass and run, and you win,” Savage said. “And he’s not really developed. In high school, you give him the ball, they win, but he’s not really developing the characteristics and traits that are needed to play pro football. In most college teams, it’s the same. That development is put off in terms of becoming a pocket passer.
“Then it’s shoved off to the pro game. The pro game because of the amount of money invested in the quarterback position, they cannot put the quarterback in harm’s way. The pro game is never going to be able to adapt. They have too much money invested in the quarterback to expose him.”
Put the problem of quarterback hits aside, though, and conservatism permeates the NFL, where offenses aim to hog possession and limit mistakes. College offenses uniformly use tempo to tire defenses and create personnel mismatches. College coaches try to win games, and NFL coaches try not to lose them.
The Ringer’s Kevin Clark captured the timidity of NFL offenses by citing the all-time high frequency of “failed completions” — passes that gain less than 45 percent of necessary yardage for a first down on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down. Quarterbacks and coaches have become content to dink and dunk and punt, pleased not be throwing interceptions or taking sacks. It is a good way for offenses to crawl around the middle 30 yards of the field, teams trading small chunks of territory. It has the aesthetic appeal of trench warfare in shoulder pads.
“I think change is hard,” Wright said. “There’s a lot more coaches who go from college to high school or back and forth. There’s traditionally an old guard in the NFL. I think there’s some adaptation, but I don’t think there’s as much.”
Even if the NFL had the creative impulse to change, the nature of defenses and the geometry of the field may not make it possible. Does the NFL face an intractable problem in its ability to turn college football players into NFL players with positive stylistic results?
“I don’t know if there’s a real clear answer to that,” Savage said. “I just think the NFL people have an almost impossible task to figure out who’s going to project from college to the NFL, and in a short period of time. You don’t have three or four years anymore. You have about three or four months.”
In terms of viewership, college football holds some inherent advantage over the NFL. If an NFL prime-time game flops, fans determined to watch football can only endure it. When Clemson blew out Louisville on Saturday, viewers could flip to Mississippi State’s startling upset of LSU or the Texas-Southern Cal double-overtime thriller. Traditions are greater and more meaningful. Subtle defensive breakdowns that lead to big plays, rampant in college and rare in the NFL, don’t stand out as markers of poor quality, but they boost entertainment value.
But the NFL also must figure out how to improve the quality of its games and to make NFL football easier for players who grew up in a different game. Mora expects college concepts to flow into the NFL in greater number and frequency. He said the preference between college and NFL “depends if you’re a purist or if you like to watch exciting action on the field.” Right now, the difference is making the choice easy.
“I struggle to watch a whole NFL game,” Wright said. “I could watch college football from the time ‘GameDay’ starts in the morning until I fall asleep watching a West Coast game. You’re just flipping through channels watching game after game. The average fan likes action, and there is way more action right now at the college level.”
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