The Spread Offense and the State of Digital Media

An overextended metaphor to ponder.
Texas Tech during the Leach 'Air Raid' era (Reuters).

College football season officially ended this week, and the window is rapidly closing during which one can opine on the year that was. 

So, let me get this idea provisionally out of my head, and apologies in advance for the sports metaphor. Also, full disclaimer: If you don't watch college football, everything I'm about to say will be gibberish. I'm sorry. 

Anyway, there was a time when publishers knew exactly what an audience was. It was the number of people who bought their products, either as subscribers or on the newsstand. 

LIFE Magazine was probably the most popular U.S. magazine ever, read by 13.5 million people, or 10 percent of the country's population. The New York Times' average daily circulation was around 1.2 million in 1994, when there were just 13.5 million Internet users in the world. My own publication has had a circulation of around half a million for many, many years. 

These numbers were large, but not like radio in the '40s or broadcast TV at its peak. 

Nowadays, however, dozens and dozens of websites (including this one) claim more visitors than LIFE Magazine had readers. The site Upworthy claimed 50 million uniques in November of last year. A year ago, Business Insider was doing 23 million unique monthly visitors. The New York Times says 31 million people visit its site each month.

Audiences have grown, right? Upworthy has more than 3.5 times as many "readers" as LIFE in its heyday.

But... The measurement numbers have gotten larger, but I don't think the audiences have changed nearly as much as it might first appear. Many, many visitors come one time. Many others come two to five times. The same is true of all sites. Even among those who come multiple times, the engagement that readers had with a brand like LIFE was qualitatively different, especially in a less crowded media environment. On the web, people tend to visit sites via social media or Google — and while I think they're great at reading individual stories, it is the few who pay a lot of attention to the name at the top of the page. 

Closer to home, The Atlantic's real audience is almost certainly larger than when we had only a print magazine, but is it really 20 or 25 times larger? Perhaps more crucially: Are we 25 times more influential than in 1960? The metrics can't be proxies in the same way that they used to. 

And that brings me to my college football analogy. 

In 1997, a guy named Mike Leach arrived in college football, running the offense at the University of Kentucky. He perfected what has become known as the spread offense, though he certainly wasn't the only one who ran it. Here are some stats from a wonderful 2005 New York Times magazine article about him:

The year before he arrived, Kentucky's quarterback passed for 967 yards. In Leach's first year, his quarterback, Tim Couch, threw for 3,884 yards; the year after that, Couch, who lasted for only a few disappointing years in the N.F.L., threw for 4,275 yards. After Kentucky, Leach moved to Oklahoma for a single season, 1999. That year Oklahoma went from 101st to 8th in the country in offensive scoring. Its quarterback, Josh Heupel, passed for 3,850 yards that season, which was 1,700 more than any quarterback in Oklahoma football history had thrown for in a season.

Leach's Air Raid offense overturned some of the tenets of football offenses. It's still a bromide that you have to "establish the run" and "control the clock" by keeping possession of the ball.

Other variants of what is known at the spread offense are run-heavy, like Oregon, but they are still fundamentally different from the offenses of yore. There are often no tight-ends and only a single running back; instead, four or five receivers run routes instead. 

Because of those variations and in how the linemen spaced themselves, the "offense was, in effect, an argument for changing the geometry of the game,as the Times Magazine article astutely notes.

And the coaches of these teams emphasize tempo, or simply running a lot of plays.

And so the numbers can get truly gaudy. More than twice as many teams pass for over 400 yards a game than did 10 years ago. More than twice as many teams ran more than 80 offensive plays than a decade ago. Almost twice as many teams score 30 points a game or more (50 versus 28). 

And yet, few believe that the teams that run the spread and play super fast are better than the teams that don't run the spread and play super fast. Just look at national champion Florida State, who averaged less than 70 plays a game. Auburn runs the spread, but in a slowed-down, far from Oregon kind of way. 

The Oregon offense or the Leach offense are understood to be strategies that put up a lot of yards. That might translate into wins, but it might not, too. Leach's teams never seriously competed for a national championship. Oregon has been in national championship consideration, but has gotten beat by Stanford — and its old-school offense — three of the past five years, including the last two matchups.

Now let's return to media. The kind of Facebook optimization that sites are doing is like running the spread offense. You pump out a lot of content, tuned for the precise geometries of sharing inside Facebook and hope. Because of the physics of Facebook—it adds positive feedback to stories that are already doing well, like anti-friction—a big hit can become a HUUUGE hit. 

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