Keith Null and the Seductive Danger of the Spread

The obvious problem facing the Rams’ offense? 8- and 9-man fronts. Teams are so unafraid of our passing game that they’re throwing defensive playbooks out the window and just sending every able-bodied man straight up our gut. The natural reaction would be to start moving into more shotgun sets, get your quarterback away from the impact zone, and give him more time to scan the field, read blitzes, and find the open man. And this brings up the elephant in the room that everyone’s talking about. Everyone but the coaches, that is:

“What have the Rams got to lose? Play Keith Null already!”

I admit it, watching last week’s crushing vacuum of suck from the quarterback position, I was tweeting the call for Null too. But for every argument there’s a counter argument.

And it’s not just “he’s not ready,” but that playing to Null’s strengths — i.e. running a primarily shotgun or spread offense, like New England did with Matt Cassel (and still does with Brady) — takes the ball away from our best player, #39. Witness Alex Smith and the offensive identity struggles of the San Francisco 49ers in the past month as an instructive case study.

The Niners, like the Rams, were supposed to run a conservative, run-first offense that relied on precise, low-risk passes and the physical stylings of Frank Gore to get into advantageous third downs, and move the chains steadily down the field. Chew up clock, punish the other team, and let your defense get their rest so they can play all-out. Jimmy Raye threw out quotes about running the ball “60 percent of the time.”

But the offensive line was so suspect, that immediately the Niners had to live or die with the passing game, though with Shaun Hill they did so primarily with the QB under center, so the threat of the run still seemed imminent. Then a series of events changed the team completely: Gore got hurt (surprise), Michael Crabtree gave up his ridiculous contract demands (surprise surprise), and Alex Smith was judged to be the more effective instrument as the Niners adopted a pass-first mentality.

And with the change to Alex Smith came the natural migration to the only offense he can truly handle — the spread. And thus you have a team now philosophically unable to get the ball to its most dangerous weapon, as Frank Gore got only 9 carries, while Smith aired out 45 passes against Seattle. The same Seattle team that Gore torched for 207 yards in Week 2.

“It’s a load off when they take care of one of our problems for us,” said Seattle linebacker Aaron Curry of Gore’s nine carries for 25 yards. “It was … beautiful.”

If the Rams were to turn the reins over to Null, and say “here kid, let’s see what you have,” there’s no guarantee that they would immediately shift into shotgun sets 60-80% of the time. They might just throw him into the same play-calling rock-tumbler that all our QBs have suffered through. But if they were to tailor the team’s offense to Null’s strengths at quarterback, giving the Rams our “best chance to win”? It could easily result in a significantly reduced role for SJ the rest of the way.