College-style option offenses became all the rage in the NFL last season. The Washington Redskins devised what Coach Mike Shanahan called their “East Coast offense” for quarterback Robert Griffin III and won the NFC East, while Griffin was named the offensive rookie of the year. The San Francisco 49ers reached the Super Bowl after turning to second-year pro Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and employing similar tactics.
So the primary task for defensive coordinators league-wide this offseason has been clear: find new ways to deal with the option-game offensive systems. That homework assignment will be due soon, with NFL training camps opening.
“Anybody that has an opponent on their schedule that runs it, I think they’re spending a lot of time on it,” former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said. “It might be a phone call to someone who played against one of those teams last year. It might be studying it. But I think there’s a lot of time being spent on it.”
Although option offenses have many variations, they all rely on deception by giving the quarterback the option of either handing the ball off to a runner or keeping the ball and running with it himself.
The Redskins and 49ers weren’t the only teams to blend ingredients borrowed from the college game into their offense. The Seattle Seahawks incorporated some option elements into their offensive scheme with their rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson. The Carolina Panthers had option-style running plays with their second-year quarterback, Cam Newton.
Shanahan and his son, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, studied what the Panthers had done with Newton during the quarterback’s rookie season in 2011 when they were designing their offensive system for Griffin. They also studied what other pro and college teams had done and came up with an offense that included option running plays and the “pistol” formation, borrowed from college football, as well as the zone blocking, “stretch” running plays and West Coast passing offense used previously by Mike Shanahan’s teams.
Griffin and the Redskins’ offense thrived. But the team also faced scrutiny for the number of hits absorbed by Griffin during his rookie season. He was knocked from one game against the Atlanta Falcons after suffering a concussion. He failed to finish another against the Baltimore Ravens after suffering a knee injury on a hit at the end of a run. Griffin’s season ended when he crumpled to the turf at FedEx Field late in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. He underwent surgery days later to have tears of the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his right knee repaired.
Former NFL coach Dan Reeves said he suspects some teams spent the offseason studying the Ravens, who used the experience from their regular season game against Griffin and the Redskins to help them beat Kaepernick and the 49ers in the Super Bowl, for clues about how to deal with the option offenses.
“They’re all copycats,” Reeves said. “They’ll see what someone else did and try to do that. I think it helped the Ravens that they had played against it earlier with that Washington game.”
The key for defenses going forward, Reeves said, will be to make such an offense one-dimensional, dictating either that the quarterback always keep the ball on option plays or always get rid of it to his running back. Defenses also must learn to play in a more disciplined, organized manner, according to Reeves, with defenders remaining in their assigned spots and lanes rather than trying to chase the ball too zealously.
“You’ve got to have it coordinated, that’s how I’d put it, or it kills you,” Reeves said. “It’s like Coach [Tom] Landry years ago with his ‘flex’ defense. Everyone had a gap. You have to be coordinated like that and you can’t start following the football around.”
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.”
More on the NFL and Redskins:
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Magazine: The book on Griffin
The Early Lead: Ravens’ Jones fails conditioning test
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