A quarter of the way into the new season, it is clear that NFL defenses have come up with some of the answers that eluded them last season when option offenses were becoming such a craze. Two of the teams that thrived the most a year ago with such offensive approaches, the Redskins with Robert Griffin III and the 49ers with Colin Kaepernick, are struggling with their quarterbacks in their second seasons as starters. League-wide, the average gain per rushing attempt on option plays has dropped by nearly a yard.
“People are defending the read option better across the entire league,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans.
According to Ben Stockwell, the director of analysis for the Web site ProFootballFocus, option-play runs league-wide this season had gained an average of 4.9 yards through last weekend’s play, down from 5.8 yards per attempt last season. The Redskins are averaging 3.9 yards per option rush, down from last season’s six yards per attempt, according to Stockwell’s figures. The 49ers have plummeted from 4.5 yards per option run last season to 1.1 yards this season.
Redskins fullback Darrel Young said that defenses “absolutely” are playing the option differently and better than last season, and added: “They’re doing a good job of trying to stop it. I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know what they’re talking about. But they’re doing a good job.”
Said former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso: “I do think they’re playing it better. It’s not a strategic problem. It’s never been that. It’s an execution issue.”
The problem for defenses, which was particularly acute last season when the option offenses first became so fashionable, was that “it’s not a play that NFL defenses tend to see,” Kelso said. In addition, he said, “You don’t have scout teams that can replicate it in practice.”
Kelso said that, in his view, defenses have a few viable approaches against the option, the simplest of which is to move a safety close to the line of scrimmage to provide an additional defender against the run.
“You pretty much have to devote an extra defender to stop the read option,” Kelso said by phone. “If you do that, you become vulnerable on the back end. I don’t know that it’s difficult for defensive coordinators to devise a way to stop it. It’s whether you can execute it after you come up with your way to stop it. And it’s whether the offense takes advantage of where you’ve left yourself vulnerable.”
Those comments echo the remarks made recently by Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who said the league’s option-style offenses are “not shocking people” as they did last season, when “a lot of people weren’t ready for it at all” and “it was easy at times.”
Shanahan said it was clear that defensive coaches were “gonna work all offseason, find a way to stop it” after the attention the Redskins, 49ers and Seahawks received last season. “And when teams are completely committed to stopping something,” he said, “I don’t care what it is, they’re gonna stop it.”
Redskins a cautionary tale?
Shanahan’s comments came three days before the Redskins won at Oakland last Sunday for their first victory of the season following an 0-3 start. Shanahan and his father, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, devised what the elder Shanahan called the “East Coast offense” for Griffin last season, blending elements traditionally associated with the college game — such as the pistol formation and option plays — with an NFL passing offense and the zone-blocking running game always used by Mike Shanahan-coached teams.
Griffin and the Redskins thrived. The team’s offense was highly productive. The Redskins won the NFC East title and Griffin was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. But his season ended with him re-injuring his right knee during the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. He underwent surgery three days later and was in the opening-night lineup this season after missing all the offseason practices, heavy portions of training camp and the entire preseason. He is playing with a knee brace and his top wide receiver, Pierre Garcon, said recently that Griffin is “not fully healthy, obviously” and that “last year’s RGIII was a lot different from this year’s RG because of his knee.”
Although neither Griffin’s original knee injury nor his re-injury last season came on a play designed for him to run or have the option to do so, some observers have taken his knee surgery as a cautionary tale for the option-style offenses. Mike Shanahan regularly has argued that the option offense slows down opposing pass rushes and actually aids in safeguarding Griffin. But the traditional NFL view continues to be that the more a quarterback runs with the ball, the more he is put at risk.
“Those guys are gonna get hit,” Kelso said. “If they get hit a few times, not only are they gonna think about it, but their offensive coordinator is gonna think about it twice.”
Griffin is averaging four yards per rushing attempt this season, down from 6.8 last season. The Redskins, by Stockwell’s count, have averaged 3.5 rushing attempts per game on option plays so far this season after averaging 8.4 option runs per game last season. With the threat of Griffin as a runner diminished, his passing efficiency has suffered as well. He threw five interceptions all of last season and had a passer rating of 102.4. He has thrown four interceptions already this season and his passer rating is 85.5.
Kyle Shanahan said before the Oakland game that opposing defenses have “mixed it up” against the Redskins this season. He listed the possibilities for defenses to slow down the option game as “just go get the quarterback, not allow him to run, make him hand it off every time, overload the defense [and] put everybody over there, take a safety out of the middle of the field and bring him down so you’re outnumbered.” He also said the Redskins’ offense had failed to consistently take advantage this season of the openings created for other plays when defenses adjusted to stop the option game.
Two days after the triumph over the Raiders, Shanahan said: “I think Robert’s gotten better each week, just as the whole offense [has]. I don’t think we’re where we want to be. I don’t think we’ve done as good as we did last year. I think we need to get better. I’ve seen it week by week, getting fairly better. But we’re not where we want to be at. I hope we can come back after this bye weekend better.”
New trends emerging
The Redskins aren’t alone. The 49ers, after reaching the Super Bowl last season after Kaepernick took over as the starter, are just 2-2 this season. Kaepernick is averaging 5.4 yards per rush, down from 6.6 last season, and has a passer rating of 81.0, down from 98.3 last season. Even the Seahawks, who are 4-0 with second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, are having less success on option runs, generating 5.4 yards per attempt this season after getting 7.5 yards per try last season, according to the ProFootballFocus data.
“Robert Griffin is dealing with the same thing that Colin Kaepernick is dealing with,” said Randy Cross, a former offensive lineman for the 49ers. “NFL defenses have decided, it appears, if you see the read option, your job is to go full speed for that guy. You’re going to go get that guy. So as a quarterback, you’re going to have to figure out if you want to keep dealing with that, or if you’re gonna make a go of it as a pocket passer.”
The Philadelphia Eagles have had the most option-style rushing attempts in the league this season and are averaging 7.1 yards per attempt. But there is a freshness to what the Eagles are doing, given that their option plays come within the context of the fast-break offense of their new coach, Chip Kelly. The Eagles lead the NFL in rushing offense and are ranked second in total offense.
Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said that an option-style offense “doesn’t surprise people as much as it did last season,” but added: “Look at Philadelphia. That’s new and they’re pretty much leading the league in offense.”
The decline in productivity of the option offenses has come in a 2013 season in which passing numbers have exploded. That has intensified the notion that the option-style offenses are so 2012. Could the read option be headed the way of the Wildcat offense, a short-lived NFL fad from the sport’s recent past?
Not so fast, some say, contending that option elements can remain an effective part of an offense.
“Once we get our regular running game going, we’ll be fine,” Young said after a recent Redskins practice. “It just takes time. You could see it didn’t really start developing until the end of the year last year when it started to really become popular with San Fran and Seattle and all those teams.”