Others talk about NFL secondaries needing to play zone rather than man-to-man coverages so defensive backs aren’t chasing receivers and are able to provide help against running quarterbacks. They talk about teams needing cornerbacks who are good tacklers because they must help on the outside against teams that use option plays.
“In terms of how teams are going to deal with it, I think you’ll see a bunch of different reactions,” said Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “People will try different things with their alignments and their approaches, different secondary reactions and things like that. Everyone is going to say, ‘Hit the quarterback. Hit the quarterback.’ But when you look at it, you have to realize it’s not that easy. If it was that easy, everyone would do it. And those quarterbacks are aware that people are going to try to hit them.”
NFL coaches are turning to colleges for help. Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, told ESPN several NFL coaches had visited his school seeking tips for defending option-style offenses. The problem for NFL teams, Saban said, is pro defenses are predicated on pass rushing, and the option offenses take advantage of aggressive pursuit of the quarterback.
The option offenses also have simple math in their favor. When a quarterback in a traditional NFL offense hands the ball to a runner and doesn’t serve as a blocker, he’s essentially out of the play and the defense has an 11-on-10 advantage. The quarterback being involved as a runner makes it 11 on 11.
But it also exposes that quarterback to the risks of being hit while running. NFL traditionalists have long scoffed at running quarterbacks, and now some in and around the sport wonder if Griffin, in particular, can last in the league playing this style. They also wonder if the style itself has staying power.
Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said at the annual league meeting in Phoenix that he thinks “the read-option is the flavor of the month. We’ll see whether it’s the flavor of the year.” Some wonder if the option-based offenses will go the way of the “Wildcat” offenses of a few years ago, when the Miami Dolphins popularized the now-passe’ NFL fad of using a direct snap to a running back.
Mike Shanahan argues the option offense actually helps to keep a quarterback healthy by keeping the defense off balance and slowing down the pass rush. The key, Shanahan said, is a defense must prepare for the option game, even if the offense chooses to use it rarely.
“So what are you going to do to stop the option?” he said. “Are you going to change your defense completely? If you do, we have our offense to run. We might not run an option in a game. But they’re preparing half their time against the option. So it gives you a chance to be successful in what you do.”
It appears the option offenses are here to stay, at least for now. For how long? That might depend, in part, on what defensive coaches have come up with this offseason and how things go during the upcoming season. Offenses, too, might make a few moves in the coaching chess match.
“Will people have a better response to it? Yeah,” Hasselbeck said. “But Colin Kaepernick can still run. Russell Wilson didn’t get any less athletic. As much as defenses will evolve, offenses will evolve, too. You’ll see them doing different things as well. It’s not going to be that easy to stop it.”