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Against Nfl Triumphalism

In the middle of a really interesting article that's mostly about education, Malcom Gladwell offers this aside:

N.F.L. teams don’t run the spread. They can’t. The defenders in the pros are so much faster than their college counterparts that they would shoot through those big gaps in the offensive line and flatten the quarterback.

Some version of this explanation has actually been floating around for as long as I've been a football fan.Anything that happens in the college game but not the pro game is because the NFL is too fast. Thirty years ago, the West Coast offense was a college offense that wouldn't work in the NFL because the defenders were too fast. Same with the 3-4 defense, the one-back offense, and pretty much every other major football innovation.

The reality is that college football is a much more innovative game than pro football. Why? Two main reasons spring to mind. First, NFL coaches are more likely to get fired, and thus more afraid to do something that defies the conventional wisdom. Coaches who employ innovative strategies that don't succeed right away are not liekly to keep their jobs long enough to see the long-run payoff. Second, unlike the NFL, where the draft tends to even out the talent pool, college programs have enormous long-run disparities in talent. There's a huge incentive for underdog programs to experiment with innovative strategies.

The upshot is that college football always has a far more diverse set of offensive and defensive styles, and NFL fans who observe the difference will always assert that this is because NFL players are too fast for any other strategy to work. The logic seldom makes much sense. Gladwell, for instance, says that wide splits between offensive linemen can't work in the pro game because NFL defenders are faster. This is true, though he doesn't consider the fact that NFL linemen are faster as well. You could easily tell a story about how the spread offense works in the NFL but not college because all NFL linemen are quick athletes who can cover a lot of ground, while colege linemen are just fat, unathletic tubs of goo.

Last month, Matthew Yglesias linked to a video of three trick plays Boise State pulled off in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, before tempering his enthusiasm thusly:

I much prefer the pro game to the college version, but if you’re going to watch college football it’s much more entertaining to see teams that really college it up with options, trick plays, and generally goofy stunts that you couldn’t get away with against the too-fast, too-athletic NFL defenses.

Go watch the video, and tell me how any of those plays depended upon defenses not being fast enough. If anything, they all employed the defenders' speed against them -- faster playes would have just run further in the wrong direction before they figured out what was happening. On the first play, a hook-and-ladder, the reciever does beat and out-of-position defender to the sideline, and it's possible that a super-fast defender might have caught him, but in the NFL the receiver would be faster, too. The speed explanation becomes particularly strained when you realize that the defense, Oklahoma, was stacked with NFL-calibre athletes while the Boise State offense was dramatically less athletic. Boise's lack of athletic talent is exactly why it's devised such innovative offensive strategies.

--Jonathan Chait