Did Rob Lytle Invent the Zone Read?

It has taken twenty years, but the NFL appears poised to finally realize the offensive revolution that my 4th grade flag football team experienced when my dad assumed the coaching whistle for our team.

Debate currently rages throughout football circles over whether spread offenses (particularly “spread option” offenses) will ever flourish in the NFL the way they have in high schools and colleges across the country. As I write this post, spread offense maverick Chip Kelly is playing hardball with several NFL teams to become their next head coach. In football circles, Kelly’s name, along with individuals such as Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, and Chris Ault, is synonymous with an offensive system that uses option principles in a spread setting to score points in bunches. If (and when) Chip Kelly is hired to run an NFL team, we might have a definitive answer to whether this type of offense can succeed at football’s highest level, or if it will only exist as one package incorporated into a more diverse offensive setting (see the Redskins, Seahawks, and Panthers).

The spread option craze ignited when Northwestern upset mighty Michigan 54 to 51 in 2000. Schools raced to replicate Northwestern’s approach and soon names such as those mentioned above rose to prominence by competing for conference and national championships using spread-based running schemes. But the success of the spread option offense doesn’t begin here. In fact, it dates back to 1992, when my dad decided to coach my flag football team.

I remember one evening, shortly before our season commenced, when Dad sat in the rolling chair behind his hulking oak desk and stared at a stack of large manila note cards scattered in front of him. His eyes, a mixture of nostalgia and excitement, beamed with the same determination I imagine he had when plowing into an enemy defender struggling for just one more yard. When I glanced at his work, I saw squares and circles, and lines both straight and squiggly, diagrammed in black marker.

RLHe was creating our playbook.

I don’t recall the exact conversation that occurred next (I was nine at the time), but when I asked him what type of offense he planned to run, I distinctly remember a few of the key words and phrases. The goal, as he said, was to have fun, so we needed to involve as many players on offense as possible. We would “space the field” with our plays and use speed to our advantage. Our offense would run from the shotgun and have many of the option rules he learned under Bo Schembechler at Michigan.*

Before I continue, there are a few things to remember. First, although neither the shotgun nor the option was a revolutionary scheme, marrying the concepts represented a unique approach to offense. Second, what in the world were we doing running this in 4th grade? As a side note, by this age I had developed a full-fledged football obsession. I spent the late 1980’s and early 1990’s attending nearly every Michigan home game, watching the option tandem of Darian Hagan and Eric Bieniemy lead Colorado to the 1990 NCAA title, and had “reviewed film” of several of my dad’s old games a dozen or so times. When Dad described the offense he intended to run, I knew exactly what he meant.

Now, we didn’t have actual option reads (other than run/pass) and our plays were simple, with easy names such as:

  • Inside RB draw / Inside QB draw
  • Sweep right / Sweep left
  • Fake sweep right,  run or pass left / Fake sweep left, run or pass right (as diagrammed below)

FSLPR

But when compared with a current spread play (albeit with a bubble screen component) the similarities are evident (imagine the bubble route is a flag route and the action is nearly identical to the flag football play. Thank you Eleven Warriors for this diagram):

Zone with Bubble

Over the next three seasons, we lost one game (a contentious topic in our home and a loss that Dad and I both blamed on Mom), routinely scored 40 or 50 points in the brisk games of youth football and managed to get touchdowns from every possible skill position.

Fast-forward eleven years to September 14, 2006, when I made a phone call to Dad while watching West Virginia score 28 first quarter points in a Thursday night game versus Maryland.

“Dad, turn on ESPN now,” I said early into the first quarter, “and call me back.” My phone rang a few minutes later.
“They stole my offense!” He said with a laugh. “All we needed were some damn bubble screens and another receiver instead of the tight ends.”

As questions linger over whether a spread offense, or a spread coach like Chip Kelly, can succeed in the NFL, I laugh at the irony of how our simplistic flag football scheme can form the basis of so much discussion in professional football. Sure, the schemes and play designs contain more reads and intricacies than our elementary approach, but the ideas remain the same: stretch the defense horizontally and vertically, rely on speed to stress the defense, give the quarterback multiple options on each play and operate predominately from the shotgun.

No, I’m not being serious that Dad possibly invented the spread option or zone read. Heck, we were only in 4th – 6th grade when our offense flourished. And no, I’m confident that his coaching philosophies never influenced anyone. But, for what its worth, I can say that our offense was way ahead of its time.

*I should note here that during the 1992 season Florida State (a team that my dad and I became enamored with the moment Terrell Buckley’s interception return ignited the scoring in their win over  Michigan in 1991) had begun moving to the shotgun as their standard offensive approach with Charlie Ward playing quarterback. This transition set the stage for Ward’s 1993 Heisman Trophy campaign and Florida State’s national championship.

**For all your football analysis needs, visit Smart Football by Chris Brown.

Trackbacks

  1. […] read most of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and piloted the nation’s first ever zone read based football offense. But I still couldn’t ride a bike. Worse, I never even tried. It took until […]

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