Is NFL's read-option craze here to stay?

Is NFL's read-option craze here to stay?
March 1, 2013, 9:00 am
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Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris combined to rush for 2,428 yards in Washington's read option offense last season. (AP)

Maybe it’s here to stay. Maybe it will quickly fade into oblivion, like the Wing T, the Wishbone and the Wildcat.

Either way, there’s no question that as 32 NFL teams prepare for the draft, free agency and the 2013 season, the read option is factoring heavily into everybody’s decision-making.

“That will be the emphasis in everyone's defensive room in the offseason and do a big study,” said new Cards coach Bruce Arians, the former Temple coach and Colts interim head coach. “One of the things we did, I hired a defensive coordinator from college (new defensive backs coach Nick Rapone) who's dealt with it. He's got some good ideas on it.

“I think everyone is going to be going to the colleges, rather than the colleges coming to the pros, as far as information on how to handle it.”

Thanks to the success last year of Robert Griffin III of the Redskins, Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and -- to a lesser extent -- Cam Newton of the Panthers, the read option has become the single hottest topic in the NFL.

With Chip Kelly taking over as head coach of the Eagles, the sustainability of the read option -- an innovative system that asks the quarterback to read the a linebacker or end as he takes the snap and almost immediately decide whether to run, throw or handoff -- will certainly become a huge issue here in Philly.

“Is it sustainable? If you have one [quarterback] and that's what he does and the other guy doesn't do that, and your first guy gets hurt, now you've got to bring in the other guy and change your offense,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, a former Andy Reid assistant with the Eagles. “That's where you get in trouble.

“If a team's going to commit to it, you're going to see teams have two or three quarterbacks that are the same. If your offense doesn't have any flexibility where it can go from a zone read back to a pro style back to a spread, you can get in trouble. So you've got to be very careful if it's a commitment you're going to make.

“We never really made that type of commitment. We have it as a mixer. We have it just enough that coordinators have to pay attention to what we do. I think off of it we can do so many different things.”

The symbolic arrival of the read option was the 49ers’ 45-31 playoff win over the Packers in the conference semifinals. Kaepernick, in only his eighth career start, threw for 263 yards and ran for 181, and the Niners piled up 579 total yards, fourth-highest in NFL postseason history.

So yeah, Packers coach Mike McCarthy is certainly making it a priority to prepare this offseason for the read option.

“Definitely, there’s a lot of conversation about the read option -- rightfully so,” McCarthy said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “Five hundred seventy nine, that’s a number that will stick in our focus as a defense throughout the offseason.”

McCarthy said he has some college coaches coming to the Packers’ facility this spring to work with his assistant coaches, and he’s also sending his defensive coaches to College Station, Texas, to study defending the read option under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.

“Kevin Sumlin is someone I have great respect for, with his ability to share from both the offensive side and the defensive side his experience in the read option,” McCarthy said. “It’s something from an education, preparation standpoint that we will grow as a staff and be better prepared for in the future.”

The read option is so unique that even Tim Tebow flourished in it.

Tebow led the Broncos to the playoffs in 2011 and a postseason win over the Steelers, a game in which he threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 50 yards and another TD.

Playing in a conventional offense with the Jets, he was a non-entity.

“There’s a lot to be said about it,” said first-year Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, Tebow’s offensive coordinator in Denver. “It creates a lot of problems for the defense. It’s not something they see every day in practice. The teams that don’t have those type of players, it causes them some issues on Sundays.

“You’ve got to play disciplined football. As we did two years ago, if you get out of place, the guy reads it the wrong way, that’s when you saw Tim make some big runs. Or they overplay Tim, you saw Willis McGahee going for 20 yards inside.

“The way guys are playing it right now it’s going to cause some headaches for a time to come.”

But for how long?

Football, as Marty Mornhinweg used to remind us on a daily basis -- if not an hourly basis -- is cyclical.

Offenses find new ways of scoring points. Defenses adjust. It’s happened throughout history. The only real constants are tackling, blocking and hitting.

“It obviously has been successful,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “Where it will go and how successful it will be, I can’t say.

“Systems come and go, and success of a system will dictate changes defensively. It may fade away, it may not, you can’t really trend where it will stick. All I know is it was successful this year.

“If we have to play a team that utilizes that system, we have to be prepared for it. But you don’t necessarily draft -- at least we won’t -- to play a particular scheme.”

As exciting as the read option can be, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman points out that most successful teams still run a conventional offense.

Joe Flacco won the Super Bowl. There’s still a place for old-school quarterback play in the NFL.

“Ten of the 12 teams in the playoffs this year had true pocket passers,” Gettleman said. “I think the read option is an option, exactly what [it’s called]. But at the end of the day, your quarterback has got to make plays from the pocket, and if he can’t you’re going to struggle.”

Cards general manager Steve Keim was one of the few NFL executives who spoke at the Combine who was less than enthusiastic about the read option.

He emphasized that a quarterback still needs to have a quality NFL arm to win football games and said the hits that quarterbacks are likely to take running the pistol or read option make the scheme very dangerous.

We saw it with Robert Griffin III in Washington this year. He put up incredible numbers, but when the playoffs came around, he wasn’t healthy and didn’t last the game.

“At the end of the day you need to be able to spin the football and spin it accurately,” Keim said. “I think that one of the concerns that comes with that is durability. Those guys are going to take shots, and durability really equals availability.

“And if a player is not going to be available, that's an obvious concern.”

RG3 got hurt, and Kaepernick started only half the season, but Newton hasn’t missed a game in his two-year career, and the Seahawks’ Wilson managed to stay healthy all year as a rookie.

“Russell … would run out of bounds, he would slide, he would do things to keep him out of harm's way,” said Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, who was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator last year, when Wilson and the read option carried the Seahawks to the playoffs.

“That's the big thing with quarterbacks -- if they're going to keep the ball and run on the perimeter, they're really opening themselves up to some hits and injuries. Franchise quarterbacks are so difficult to find, you really need to protect them.”

And that will likely get harder and harder to do as defensive coaches start devising ways to stop it.

“Without a doubt now defenses are going to start preparing more for it through the offseason program, through training camp,” McCoy said. “Two years ago we were the first ones really to get into this on a game-by-game basis. Now a lot of teams are doing it. So there’s a lot more time in the offseason to prepare.

“‘What is our plan? How we going to stop this? What are we going to do?’ So really, the advantage changes a little bit to the defense having more time to prepare.”

It’s one more thing for defenses to worry about in an era when practice time has been curtailed, two-a-days have been eliminated and offseason workouts have been reduced.

“We’re doing as much as we can,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “It’d be foolish not to.”

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