Garner Cleveland: Sports

Mark up another win for the spread

The growth of the spread offense, which I address this week through the changes at Clayton and Smithfield-Selma, is directly in line with the failed defensive attempts to stop it. One of the first milestone games in the history of the spread came nearly three decades ago.

It was Dec. 2, 1985 and the undefeated Chicago Bears were in the Orange Bowl playing Miami. The Bears were 13-0 and their 46 defense was destroying opponent after opponent. Enter the 8-4 Dolphins who featured a young Dan Marino with an assortment of speedy receivers, tight ends and running backs.

Chicago’s defense thrived on getting an unblocked pass rusher in the face of the quarterback before said quarterback could make a throw. It worked incredibly well. The Bears held 14 of their 19 opponents to 10 or less points that season, including all three playoff opponents.

But defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan (dad of current NFL coaches Rex and Rob Ryan) stuck to his guns too long.

Marino and the Dolphins’ offense scored on their first possession and seemingly never stopped scoring, thriving on short passes to receivers, tight ends and backs in the flat as the Bears never got to Marino in time to disrupt his plans with the ball.

Receiver Nat Moore explained the Dolphins’ successful approach in a 2002 article on the game, discussing the plan to isolate safety Gary Fencik to make one-on-one tackles in space against tight ends.

"The worst-case scenario is if he makes the tackle is that it's a five-yard gain instead of a negative play where you get sacked or throw it incomplete," Moore said.

Buddy Ryan refused to switch to a five-defensive back lineup to counter the Dolphins at halftime, to the point of nearly getting in a fight with Bears head coach Mike Ditka over it at halftime and Miami won, 38-28. No other team could exploit the Bears the rest of the way and they went down as no worse than the second best team in NFL history.

The Dolphins’ franchise kept its singular status as the only Super Bowl era NFL team to go undefeated in a season.

And thus the first minor skirmish between the spread and traditional old school football went the way of the spread.

The spread keeps winning those battles, hence its growth in the college, pro and high school game.

I’ve been slow to become a fan. There’s the self-centered part of me that sees the spread equaling three-hour games and those don’t work well with Friday night publishing world deadlines. Then there’s the other part of me who still loves the simplicity of a run-based offense that thrives on throws to the tight end off of play action and long passes downfield to receivers on the outside.

The argument can be made that it’s a more evolved, sophisticated brand of football where using all of the space available on the field is just adding another offensive weapon.

But the part of me that likes the spread is growing. I can see its benefits, namely the pressure it puts on a greater number of defensive players to make split second decisions than they need to do against traditional offenses, and I can’t find an argument against it.

So I guess you can mark up another battle won on the spread’s side.