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The Read Option: Just another Trend? Or here to stay?

  • Posted in the NFL community
  • Kyle Lindemann Lvl 5

    If you guys and gals have already discussed this topic, oh well, grab a kleenex. I am relatively new to Sidelines and one thing I’ve been pondering a lot lately is: The Read Option. Is it here to stay? Or will it be just another flash in the pan like the Wildcat?

    This article is a little longer than most Sidelines posts, so just bear with me for about 5 minutes, but I promise you will at least find this debate enjoyable and well worth the read. You see, I like writing about trends and how the game changes. Some people post articles on Sidelines like “Who are the 5 best QB’s in the NFL” or “What Running Back would you love to have on your team the most?” Stuff like that is fine and good, but it really doesn’t interest me. As someone who is seeking a part-time career or career in writing (hopefully sports-related), I am more interested in trends and the knitty gritty of the game itself. Save your Top 5 QB Discussions for 1 am at the bar. I'm more interested in thinking outside the box.

    Although the NFL has changed some of its rules in the past 50+ years, the game has mostly remained the same. But what has constantly changed is how it is played. Offensives and Defenses are constantly adapting to one another, like Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexander the Great staring each other down across the table of some imaginary Risk board trying to out-maneuver one another. While it is evident that the NFL has become more of a passing league, if there were 20 Adrian Peterson’s in the NFL, teams in the league would run the ball a lot more. So is it that running the ball no longer breeds success? Or that there is really only 1 dominant back in the league right now? It’s time to put your thinking caps on, folks.

    I wrote this column about 5 months ago while watching the NFL Playoffs in January. I called it "The Read Option and the Changing Dynamics of the NFL Quarterback." So here we go!

    Judging from Colin Kaepernick’s electrifying performance against the Green Bay Packers last Saturday night, you don’t need to be drilled in the face with a boomerang to know that a new wave of quarterbacks has hit the NFL. With a handful of offenses now incorporating the famous College play better known as the “Read Option” into their offenses, some new devilry is at work in the National Football League.

    With the game knotted at 24 in the third quarter, Kaepernick lined up in the pistol formation, took the snap, faked a handoff to LaMichael James and sprinted around the right side untouched for a 56 yard touchdown. The fake froze the defense and before the Packers realized what had hit them, Kaepernick vanished into the night and the 49ers never looked back. Kaepernick set the NFL playoff and single-game rushing record by a quarterback in his first playoff start with 163 yards on 12 carries, on top of 263 yards passing. No big deal or anything.

    Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton (and even more so as he matures) and Kaepernick have all seemingly hit the ground running. Four of them made the playoffs in their first season as a starter. All five appear to be Franchise Quarterbacks.

    What stands out the most is the tremendous running of these young men. Andrew Luck doesn’t have blazing 4.3 speed, but he uses his mobility brilliantly: if defenses rush only three or four guys and leave the middle open, he takes off for a first down. Every time. He can also move around to avoid pressure, but Luck isn’t going to beat any NFL cornerbacks in a foot-race anytime soon. Luck did run a slow 4.5, quick 4.6 at the combine but he doesn’t seem to have a passion for scrambling like the rest of his peers do, nor is he in any way involved in an offense that features designed quarterback runs.

    Which brings us to RGIII, Wilson, Newton, and Kaepernick: all of whom when they leave the pocket can result in your television short circuiting. Each of them has the capability of beating some NFL secondaries in a foot race and judging from this past weekend, most definitely Denver’s.

    The NFL has seen plenty of running quarterbacks come and go, but the majority of those players were not the kind passer that the new breed of these playmakers are, not to mention the Read Option has never been utilized by NFL offenses in the past.
    Michael Vick brought these same abilities when he first arrived to the NFL in 2001, rushing for 3,859 yards in his first six seasons and becoming the first NFL QB to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season in 2006. Vick has obviously had his legal troubles but in all fairness he’s never been that great of a passer. His arm only knows one speed, which his career 56% completion percentage attests to. Vick was never utilized in an offense that used the Read-Option, he’d drop back to pass, make one read and if it wasn’t there he’d take off. That’s not a knock on Vick. He’s had a good career, but these new guys will be even better. RGIII, Wilson, Newton and Kaepernick can all make consistent and accurate throws, something Vick has never been able to do.

    Vince Young was another flash in the pan. Much like Vick he would run around and make plays, but defenses eventually found a way to stop him because he couldn’t make enough good reads to be an NFL quarterback. When Young dropped back to pass it was apparent to anyone with a Football IQ that he was better suited for the Shot-put.

    Kordell Stewart came into the NFL in 1995 on a Super Bowl Steelers team and quickly earned the nickname “Slash.” Playing wide receiver, running back, and occasionally getting under center, Kordell added a new back of tricks to the NFL. From 1995 to 96, defenses never knew where he was going to line up. Following Neil O’Donnell’s departure after the 96 season, Stewart became the starting quarterback. However, his time as “Slash” may have been a little too premature for the NFL in the late 90’s. Asking the Pittsburgh Steelers to get cute or complicated on offense is like a photographer succeeding in getting Victoria Beckham to smile. Slash wasn’t that great of a passer either (55.8% for his career), lasting only five seasons (1997-01) before the Black-and-Gold Nation ran him out of town, his last straw being a three-interception performance in a home loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game to end a 13-3 season.

    Which brings me to my main point: Robert Griffin III is essentially Warren Moon in young Mike Vick’s body. If you aren’t sure, look at Griffin’s completion percentage in his rookie season. It’s a staggering 66%, unheard of for a rookie. Wilson’s was 64% in his rookie season. Newton came down from 60% in his rookie season to 57% in 2012. Kaepernick completed 62% of his passes in only half of a season... Evolution has indeed gone mad.

    The only quarterback with this amount of pure speed and passing ability previously seen in the NFL was from Randall Cunningham, who single-handedly put the Eagles offense on his back before injuries slowed him down. Unfortunately for Cunningham, the NFC East was the best division in football during his time in Philly. From the 1985-95 seasons, fellow opponents in Cunningham’s NFC East won 7 of 11 Super Bowls with NFC foe San Francisco taking 3 of those other 4. The man had hardly a prayer.

    Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair early in their careers ran quite a bit, but by the time they had developed into solid passers their athleticism had worn down. The same goes for Steve Young. Outside of an occasional quarterback draw and a sneak in short yardage, the only running that these quarterbacks did was when they took off on a passing play.

    The Read Option isn’t just a flash in the pan like the Wildcat was. Why? It’s much more multi-dimensional. NFL defenses never had to stay honest when a team lined up in the Wildcat because there was hardly the risk of a pass. If there was a pass it most likely wasn't from a quarterback. Say Tebow and I will slap you.

    The scary thing about the Read Option is that when San Francisco runs it out of the Pistol formation, they can just as easily call a passing play while showing the defense the same exact look. If a defense lines up thinking that it’s going to be a running play, Kaepernick will have man-to-man coverage on the outside, a nightmare for any Defensive Coordinator. With San Francisco running the Read Option out of the Pistol formation as it stands today, defenses can’t creep up and put nine or ten men in the box when a passing play can just as easily be called.

    Not every Read Option is ran from a passing formation, but you get my point. Even when Washington runs the Read Option strictly with the intent of a rush it can be unstoppable. Washington often runs the Read Option from an unbalanced formation, leaving the defensive end on the left side completely unblocked. Upon taking the snap, Griffin reads the same defensive end. If he stays home, Griffin hands off to Alfred Morris who has an extra blocker on the right side. If the defensive end rushes forward, Griffin keeps the ball and the defensive end has to play against RGIII in space, a race to the sideline Griffin will win every time.

    Since most NFL front offices and coaching staffs follow more trends than the 32 million teeny boppers on Justin Bieber’s Twitter Account, what we have seen this year is only the tip of the iceberg. NFL front offices are lost sheep that will blindly follow each other over the side of a cliff. I can already imagine that teams are scouring the 2013 NFL Draft as we speak for another diamond in the rough.

    The only way the Read Option is slowing down in the NFL is if injuries take their toll. Robert Griffin III took his share of hits this year, but he just needs to slide more. Considering that Griffin has the same knee doctor as Adrian Peterson’s, he’ll probably be climbing Mount Everest by summertime.

    Newton has had over 700 yards rushing in each of his two seasons, on top of averaging 3,960 yards passing and an average of 31 total touchdowns. That’s only heard of in Madden. Griffin III had 815 yards rushing on top of 3,200 yards passing in his rookie season. Wilson had 3,100 yards passing and 489 yards rushing. Kaepernick put up 1,800 yards passing and 415 yards rushing in only half a season!

    It’s not just about the stats. Watch each of these young men on a Sunday and you know there is something special about each of them. Cam certainly has a bit of growing up to do, but one has to wonder if Ron Rivera is using him the right way.

    Combined with their unique blend of pocket moxie, strong arms and quick feet, it’s safe to say that we are seeing the next generation of quarterbacks in the NFL. In a few years Brady, Manning, and Brees will be missed, but the next generation shouldn’t have any problem carrying the torch.

  • Andrew Hu Lvl 5

    It's really hard to say whether or not this "trend" will come or go; like any living trend, what will determine whether or not it stays is dependent on the population using the trend. In other words, we won't know until we see the next generation of quarterbacks; if these new quarterbacks continue with the read-option, then it most likely will stay until new defensive plays to stop it on point get developed. It really does depend on the quarterbacks, how the team puts it into play, and how the defensive team will react.

  • Scott Whittum Lvl 7

    @Kyle Lindemann,I think with the evolution of mobile quarterbacks coming up through the ranks there will varying degrees of read option type of plays and formations in the National Football League. Defenses will make adjustments but for teams like the Seahawks for example the read option is only a small percentage of their offense so they will still be pretty diverse. Whether long-time NFL people want to or not they are going to have to understand that the game is going to evolve and adjust accordingly. The days of only drop back football quarterbacks are done and diversity will be the name of the game as the athletes on defense are way too big and fast. You have to keep defenses thinking to slow them down.

  • Andy Lvl 2

    I don't think the era of the drop-back quarterback will die, until significant rule changes are made; which I never see happening. Because the current rules are set up to make defenses less aggressive(protect QBs/ receivers), the increase of pass interference penalties, DBs unable to have contact after 5 yds, it makes no sense not to throw the ball the vast majority of the time. I understand the read-option QB presents vast matchup problems and makes it harder to game plan, but I'll take a Brady, Manning, Rodgers, drop back QB any day of the week.

    The main thing to remember that the NFL is in the business of making a product and you have to sell that product to consumers. Consumers/fans do not want to see 10-7 games. Scoring sells, bottom line. I'm not saying that you can't score with the read option because you can. What I'm saying is, its all about the passing game in the NFL. If you have the read-option offense and you aren't throwing 70% of the time, you will lose in the long-term. My problem with the read-option is in its truest form you take what the defense gives you. What appears to be a hole one second, no longer exists the next second. And you now have a 3 yd run gain, but you've given up the potential for a 15 yd pass play.

    If the rules of the NFL were balanced, I would love the read-option, but they are not balanced. The rules favor the offense passing game so greatly that I'd rather commit to it pre-snap with my 6'5", slow-footed, cannon-armed, future hall of famer.

  • Michael Walker Lvl 6

    @Andy , I fundamentally agree with you that the read option and the NFL are not an optimal combination. The drop back QB is going t to be the staple offense. But I do see the read option as an alternative in certain situations where the QB has speed to burn. A prevent defense comes to mind.

    But these pass and run QBs will absolutely have to learn not to take a hit or they won't last long. But when the defense is backing off, There is nothing wrong with RGIII running 30 yards and stepping out of bounds or sliding. He can't run like a running back though or his career will be short.

  • Andy Lvl 2

    @michael, I agree that there is nothing wrong with RGIII taking a long run when the opportunity presents itself. He is a rare breed. Anytime you have a mobile athletic QB, it presents more options.

    I would just play the odds and statistics if I were an nfl coach.

  • Kyle Lindemann Lvl 5

    I'm curious as to @Michael Clark's, @Josh Mahoney's, @RJ Gardner's, and @Ben Bagamery's thoughts on all of this. While I do agree, @Michael Walker, it's better for the league in the long run to have a pocket passer, teams with mobile QB's have an extra advantage over teams that don't. And while Aaron Rodgers is a pocket passer, @Andy , he is an excellent scrambler and have the quick feet and mobility to get away from pressure and make throws on the run, something you don't see too much of from Peyton and Brady..... I don't expect the NFL to stop it's passing ways, but keeping offenses honest with an occasional "Read Option" will just make them all the more dangerous.

  • Erryn Finck Lvl 6

    I think the guy who runs the read option most is Cam Newton. The reason he's been the number 3 QB in fantasy points in 2011 and number 4 in 2012 is his ability to make plays on the ground. He didn't have the greatest 2012 season, but he was still up there in points because of that. I think guys like Kaepernick, Wilson, and RG3 will be more successful because they have the strength and accuracy to add on top of their ability to run the read option. The risk here comes in player safety. There's a lot more risk of injury to the quarterback when running in the open field. I think being able to run the read option gives the quarterback a slight edge, but should be used sparingly. To sum it up, the read option is around to stay but the pocket passer will still be the dominant form for quarterbacks in the NFL

  • Philip Jones Lvl 2

    As long as there are mobile QBs that can also be pocket passers, the read option will be around. Quarterbacks with this skillset benefit so much from the read option

  • Femi Zaccheus Lvl 4

    I think as long as there are speedy QB's who can survive a tackle the read option will continue to exist. I know it wasn't as extreme, but in Vick's Atlanta days I'm pretty sure the Falcons had a few read option plays set up for him as well. Basically, if the personell suits it, you'll see the read option.

  • Femi Zaccheus Lvl 4

    I think as long as there are speedy QB's who can survive a tackle the read option will continue to exist. I know it wasn't as extreme, but in Vick's Atlanta days I'm pretty sure the Falcons had a few read option plays set up for him as well. Basically, if the personell suits it, you'll see the read option.

  • Robert Gardner Lvl 7

    @Kyle Lindemann With the influx of TRUE dual threat QBs, guys who can run and pass effectively, I see the Read-Option Offense being more than just a flash in the pan. If you have a guy like RGIII or Russell Wilson it is a deadly offense. On the flip side, the Read Option does open your QB up to taking more punishment and that could be a disaster. Defenses will begin to scheme better next year against the offense but the offense will continue to become more sophisticated.

    If I were starting a team I would stick to the more traditional pocket passer but in the mold of Luck or Rodgers, guys who are throw first but are athletic enough to get loose when they need to.

  • Philip Beadle Lvl 3

    The read option is actually a really well designed play for any quarterback. It's hard to defend in that you choose one of two ways to play against it, and the offense almost always has a way to grab some yards. A defender is designated the 'read defender' and left unblocked. If that defender, usually the player at the end of the line, plays the running back, then the quarterback can slip by. If that defender plays the quarterback, then he hands the ball off and the runner has one less defender to worry about.

    This isn't to say that there isn't a way to defend the play. It just usually takes an extra defender in the box.

  • Robert Gardner Lvl 7

    @Philip Beadle That is an overly simplistic view of how to defend the read option. The athletes in the NFL are more than capable of stopping it cold. Closing speed in the NFL is unlike anything you could imagine and that makes the read option a difficult system to run. With the right personnel you can but at the NFL level DC's and players will shut it down if they keep it as simple as it was run last season.

  • Chris Samela Lvl 3

    @Andy Those pocket passers you mentioned are all first ballot future Hall of Famers (Brady, Manning, Rodgers). What makes those three so special apart from their physical skills is the fact that they can read defenses and adjust the play accordingly on the fly in a matter of seconds when the game is on the line.

    As for the read option plays, while the mobile QB's are not only fast but also accurate when they pass the ball, it doesn't work if the RB isn't capable of handling the constant punishment week in and week out. RG III has rising star Alfred Morris who had a spectacular rookie season under Coach Shanahan, who is known for taking little known RB's and transforming them into superstars (ie - Terrell Davis). Russell Wilson has a bruising, violent RB in Marshawn Lynch who has shown he can handle the workload. Kaepernick is blessed to have a potential future Hall of Famer in Frank Gore who consistently puts up solid numbers every year. Cam Newton has not one but two RB's - DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart who are both quick, shifty guys.

    This generation of QB's who are mobile enough to run the read-option plays are also more than capable of passing the ball accurately without turning the ball over like Mark Sanchez does. Also, the QB's who run the read-option plays are the cerebal type, meaning they are smart enough to read defenses and execute the plays. The pistol formation is causing the opposing defenses all kinds of fits since the formation looks identical but they have multiple options - hand the ball off to the RB, fake the handoff and QB runs, or they fake the handoff and pass it while the defense is still trying to figure out what's going on.

  • Michael Walker Lvl 6

    @Philip Jones, I agree with you and @Femi Zaccheus that a QB with speed and moves in addition to being an excellent passer can drive a defense crazy with it part time. But to last in the NFL they have to lose that college mentality of getting the extra yard. You know there are too many linebackers and safeties willing and able to teach him not to do that. As long as he heads out of bounds or slides ahead of the hit he can make it work. Part time.

  • Chris Samela Lvl 3

    @Michael Walker, You are spot on with the "college" mentality of fighting tooth and nail for that extra yard. It may work in college since there are far more inferior athletes, but in the NFL, everyone is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. Thus the risk vs reward for gaining that extra yard by lowering your shoulder and attempting to truck the opposing defender is just plain crazy and quite frankly, that's just asking for a stretcher or a concussion. The other factor here is age, which inevitably happens - as the mobile players aren't as fast or quick once they start creeping in their 30's past their prime, then they have to rely more on their accurate and strong arms rather than their feet.

  • Andrew Mack Lvl 5

    I think it's just another trend. The option can be stopped with the right defense and has never been successful in winning a championship. You need a pocket passer to win championships, plain and simple.

  • Kyle Lindemann Lvl 5

    @Andrew Mack, I dunno if that's true. I think it's just because 85% or greater of NFL Starting Quarterbacks are pocket passers, thus increasing the odds that a Pocket Passer will be on a Super Bowl-winning team, not to mention that most Quarterbacks begin slowing down once they get past 30 years of age and are stuck being pocket passers. While Ben Roethlisberger isn't going to rush for 500 yards a season, he moves around a lot in the pocket and makes a lot of plays while throwing on the run. He definitely isn't a traditional Pocket Passer. Aaron Rodgers isn't either. He scrambles a lot back there.

  • Josh Mahoney Lvl 6

    @Kyle Lindemann first off, I really enjoyed the column and it is certainly an interesting topic. As for how I feel on the topic I'm going to take a little bit from everyone. I do think the read option is here to stay at least for the foreseeable future, but it won't take over as the dominant form of offense as your traditional pocket passers will still be the standard (especially until a read option type QB wins a SB).

    The reasons I believe this is because as several people say, the risk of injury. Slide or no slide, the QBs who run the read are going to get hit more often and most times harder than a QB set up in the pocket. @Chris Samela also brings up the valid point of age. These read QB's are going to get older and slower and then that form of offense isn't going to be as effective which means either a shorter lifespan for QBs, which will be a hassle for franchises especially if these are franchise players, or the system itself will have to fizzle out over time.

    Mobile QBs are certainly the future and the only natural evolution as players are becoming stronger and more athletic but as for your question about the read option, it won't be a flash in the pan like the Wildcat, but it certainly won't be around for the long haul. Oh and just for good measure to stick up for Manning and Brady, the reason they don't have to move around is because their clocks go off and they know to get rid of the ball.

  • Ray Jimenez Lvl 2

    I believe it maybe more than a trend because it is just another option for the QB. He can either run, handoff or throw the ball. Eventually defenses will find a way to contain it and it may slow down but it is another version of the play action pass and we still use that today.

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