Read-option offense lacks complete backing in NFL
The 2012 NFL Draft produced the likes of instant mega-stars Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Throw in the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to the Super Bowl, and the dynamic play of Carolina's Cam Newton from the prior draft, and the NFL is in the midst of an offensive renaissance it hasn't witnessed since ... well, since a couple years back when the wildcat was in vogue.
Even though the college-born read-option offense has sent defensive coordinators scrambling to campuses across the country to learn the intricacies of how to combat this unfamiliar style, the popularity of it isn't going to send organizations scrambling during next week's draft to either enhance or defeat the scheme.
“I don't think teams are going to draft any differently than they did,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said.
That goes for both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel might move up a round or two because of his ability to run the read-option better than any other quarterback in the draft. Same goes for Arizona's Matt Scott. Georgia hybrid defensive end/linebacker Jarvis Jones might get pushed up the draft board a little higher than he should, but read-option-friendly players won't be a priority — at least not within the first two days of the draft.
“I don't think it will change anybody's drafting philosophy,” former New York Giants and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. “Once NFL coaches have an offseason to work on defending things, they usually find a way to slow things down.”
It took an offseason to send the wildcat into extinction.
‘Flavor of the month'
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't mince words during last month's owners meetings when asked about his thoughts on the read-option.
“We look forward to stopping it,” Tomlin said. “We look forward to eliminating it.”
Tomlin also called it the “flavor of the month” and didn't quite sound so sure of the longevity of the offense.
“I always take a skeptical approach,” Tomlin said. “We'll see. We'll see if guys are committed to getting their (quarterbacks) hit, because when you run the read-option, obviously they're runners. There's something associated with that.”
There are inherent risks with asking your quarterback to be a ball carrier, but there also can be hefty rewards.
Wilson was a dynamic playmaker for the Seahawks during his rookie year. Kaepernick helped the 49ers to the brink of their sixth Lombardi Trophy, and, in the process, put up 579 yards of total offense against Green Bay — including an NFL quarterback record 181 on the ground.
But there is always that chance of injury to the read-option quarterback that has front office personnel and coaches skeptical.
“Your quarterbacks are getting beat up like RGIII, but I think Kaepernick saved his body,” Kiper said. “But you can get caught up in the moment and take a hit, and your season can be over.”
For the most part, however, all of the read-option quarterbacks stayed healthy last year.
Wilson, Newton, Kaepernick and Griffin weren't seriously injured on designed run plays this past season. Griffin had his knee bent backward after failing to slide in time on a scramble against the Baltimore Ravens during the regular season then limped into the postseason, where he had multiple knee ligaments torn in the loss to the Seahawks.
Teams sustaining the health of their quarterback is the biggest argument as to why the read option is more of a fad than anything else.
“What I've seen in this league through my years is that most times successful offenses or defenses are caught up to by successful offenses or defenses,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “That's what provokes new things and new ideas. So, whether or not a particular offense can sustain, I don't think anybody knows until it's been around for a while. It's been big in the college ranks, and it's been successful in the college ranks. Whether or not it can sustain in our league, I don't think anybody knows.”
Looking for answers
The Atlanta Falcons coaching staff, led by Mike Smith, took a trip to Clemson to learn from coach Dabo Swinney how the Tigers went about stopping the read option.
Mike McCarthy and the Packers traveled to Texas A&M for a day to do the same with the Aggies' coaching staff.
More and more coaching staffs are asking for a helping hand from the collegiate ranks.
According to Alabama coach Nick Saban, a host of NFL coaching staffs have stopped by Tuscaloosa looking for a tip or two on how to defend the offense.
“Several NFL coaches have come to visit this year to say, ‘How do you stop these guys?' Because they're not accustomed to seeing that,” Saban recently told ESPN.
NFL defenses are built on the concept of putting pressure on the quarterback. But what makes the offense potent is when the quarterback also can take off for big yards based solely on a read.
“People getting up the field to pass rush is what it's all about because of the type of quarterbacks — the Tom Bradys of the world, Drew Brees, that's what you've got to stop,” Saban said, “You've got to put pressure on the quarterback. Well, that's just what you don't want to do against (read-option quarterbacks). You have to play on the line of scrimmage just like old option football.”
‘Don't need to run it 20 times a game'
Wilson ran the ball 19 times on read-option plays during his rookie season. Kaepernick had 12 read-option rushes in his half season, yet both were still highly successful in confusing defenses.
That's because both quarterbacks were able to throw the ball effectively and, therefore, able to supplement the read-option.
“The read option to me is more of an enhancement and something that defenses better be prepared for especially against a quarterback who can really run it,” NFL Network and college football analyst Charles Davis said. “Seriously, the read option should've been here many years ago if the NFL did the right thing and not have that stigma about mobile quarterbacks. Don't you think Roger Staubach would've been great running the read option? Or even Fran Tarkenton?”
Many believers, including NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, think that the read-option is best used when it is not used a lot.
It can supplement an offense but not be the base offense.
“To me, the whole key to the read-option, to make it really simple, is you don't need to run read-option 20 times a game; as a matter of fact, your quarterback probably gets hurt, and that's what all defensive coordinators talk about,” Mayock said. “But just the threat of it — you run it four, five, six times a game — changes the way a defensive coordinator calls his game, and there is an advantage to the offense for that.”
The key to the offense is to have a quarterback who is able to throw the ball successfully. Griffin, Kaepernick and Wilson were among the NFL leaders in passer rating last year.
The wildcat's Achilles' heel was having a running back line up as the main ball handler thus allowing teams to sell out on the run.
“The bottom line is that you have to have a quarterback who can run and throw,” Casserly said. “If he can't throw, defenses will stop it in a minute. You can't draft a quarterback who can't win throwing the ball.”
That's why NFL teams will try to solve the read option in the film room before the war room.