The read-option offense in the NFL was supposed to revolutionize how the quarterback position was played. The way it works is as follows: An athletic quarterback lines up in a shotgun formation with a flanked running back. He receives the snap, and the running back sweeps across him. From there, he has the option either to hand off the ball to the back or to keep it himself to run or throw. Because of its unpredictability, this scheme promises to result in explosive plays and a flurry of points.
For read-option enthusiasts, the 2013 NFL season came with much promise. The option offense was expected to usher in a new style of athletic and mobile quarterbacks, reflected by E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith being the first two signal callers taken in April’s draft. Meanwhile, returning quarterbacks Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson were all expected to have great years playing in read-option offenses.
Unfortunately, the read-option offense has floundered this year.
Vick is injury prone and lost his job in Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense that seemed built for Vick’s skill set. He lost his starting role to Nick Foles, a pocket passer.
Kaepernick has struggled without his number-one target Michael Crabtree and has been one of the biggest disappointments in the league this year. The 49ers are winning many games because of their defense, not Kaepernick. Meanwhile, Alex Smith, from whom Kaepernick took the 49ers’ starting quarterback job last year, is enjoying solid success as the starting, pocket-passing quarterback of the 9-3 Chiefs.
RGIII is coming off a knee injury and is perhaps the only quarterback more disappointing than Kaepernick. Ahmad Brooks of the 49ers thinks he is still hurt and that by playing he is risking further harm.
“I don’t think he should be playing,” he said. “You can see it. Everybody can see it.”
As for Newton and Wilson, their success can be attributed to their maturity as passers. They no longer rely on the read-option; they are running less, passing more and winning at a greater frequency.
Don’t get me wrong – the read-option is still an effective wrinkle in an NFL offense. We have seen the Seahawks deploy it in goal-line situations with great success. It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that it is not the revolutionary system that many expected.
But where did it go wrong for an offensive system with so much promise?
There is a reason that Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Bruce Arians recently said the read-option is “a great college offense.” The read-option is less likely to enjoy success in the NFL because there is less of a gap in athleticism in the pro game than in the NCAA. Additionally, NFL teams learned how to defend it. Last season it did not seem as though teams had expected the prevalence of the read-option. If you give a team a year to plan against a gimmick offense, expect the novelty scheme to crumble (see wildcat).
Another reason that the read-option is on the outs is player safety. Before the 2013 season, the NFL clarified that read-option quarterbacks can be hit like runners, even if they don’t possess the ball. Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers’ head coach, was not too pleased to hear this, and understandably so. Kaepernick has played horrendously this year and is looking less and less athletic as he takes more and more hits. Similarly, Vick has been hurt and is now benched in favor of a pocket passer. RGIII has not looked the same. In an era in which quarterbacks are making exorbitant amounts of money, leaving them open to take big hits can begin to hit not only teams’ win-loss totals but also their wallets.
Therefore, the creme de la creme of NFL quarterbacking lies in the pocket passer. Who are the best quarterbacks this season? Peyton Manning. Nick Foles. Philip Rivers. Drew Brees. Tom Brady. Maybe even Aaron Rodgers if he can return to his pre-injury glory.
Being a pocket passer, however, does not mean a quarterback should never run. Rodgers runs pass plays out of a play-action boot better than anyone, and he is not afraid to tuck the ball and pick up a first down with his legs. The difference, though, is he looks to pass first by keeping his eyes downfield, only deciding to run when all passing options are clearly covered. Most read-option quarterbacks decide to run a lot more quickly.
Moving forward, NFL teams need to realize that their success lies in throwing the football. With Marcus Mariotta, a practitioner of the read-option, remaining at Oregon for another season, another NFL franchise will hopefully be saved from floundering away a season chasing the impossible dream of having a successful read-option offense.
Matt Castaldo is a junior in the College. This is the final appearence of FULL CONTACT this semester.
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