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.