“I go crazy thinking about blitzes every week, and how we’re going to pick all this stuff up,” he said. “Halfway through the year, I’m starting to realize, we’re not getting any of these blitzes I used to see.”
The reason was the read option, an innovative play that takes advantage of an athletic quarterback. In Washington, Robert Griffin III ran it to perfection during the Redskins’ playoff run.
But the NFL is littered with offensive gimmicks that worked their first year, then were never heard from again. Most recently, the wildcat formation caught fire in 2008 before being extinguished in 2009.
That’s how Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a defensive guru, views the read option.
“I understand that that’s the flavor of the month,” he told reporters. “We look forward to eliminating it.”
Others aren’t so sure. They cite the new wave of athletic quarterbacks entering the league as proof that the nature of the game is changing.
Now in Year 2, will the read option will be revealed as a one-hit wonder, or will it transform the way offense is played in the NFL?
“The read option, just like any play we run, is schematically sound,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “So even if teams know it’s coming, they still have to stop it.
“Teams have seen (coach Mike Shanahan’s) run scheme for years, but it’s still effective. That’s the way I see (the read option) working.”
At its core, the read option works by changing the balance of power on the field (see an example on Page S4). The defense traditionally doesn’t have to account for the quarterback, because he stands in the pocket or hands off. That allows it an 11-on-10 approach to the game.
With a player like Griffin, though, defenses have to account for the quarterback, because he could run at any time.
Add that the read option allows one defender to go unblocked, and it’s an 11-on-10 matchup the other way.
“This system might be here to stay,” Redskins linebacker Darryl Tapp said. “You’ve got so many quarterbacks and athletic backfields that utilize this system to be successful — it might be around for a while.”
A lot of its success, though, was because defenses were caught off guard.
The system has been prevalent in the college game for a while, most notably at Oregon. During the offseason, a number of NFL coaches visited their college counterparts to study defensive techniques.
Griffin, who ran the offense at Baylor, said one of the best parts of the read option is that the Redskins don’t have to commit to running it in the huddle.
From the formation in which they line up, the offense can switch to any number of standard plays if Griffin senses the defense keying on the read option.
“Whatever the defense is willing to give us on that day, that’s what we are willing to take,” he said.
Mike Shanahan said the power of the read option is that defenses can spend all week preparing for something the Redskins might run only a handful of times during the game.
“People don’t know when we are going to run the read option, but they are going to have to prepare for it all the time,” he said. “If they spend half their practice time preparing for something we may or may not do, it gives us an advantage.
“It will be interesting to see the adjustments people will do.”
The thing that ultimately puts the read option out of business may not be a crafty blitz or a new breed of defender. It might be the quarterback himself.
Griffin’s injury, and how he adjusts his style, was one of the biggest stories of the offseason.
Whether teams will continue to subject their quarterbacks to open-field hits depends on how well they can protect a running quarterback.
Kyle Shanahan rejected the idea that the read option (which he occasionally refers to as the zone read) was behind those injuries.
“The three injuries were pass plays; they weren’t the zone read,” Shanahan said. “The zone read is something I think really helped us. It’s the least pass rush I’ve ever seen as a coordinator.
“I really enjoyed sometimes being able to drop back and not have four guys just teeing off on the quarterback, all trying to hit him in the pocket.”
Shanahan added that Griffin should only be keeping the ball and running with it when the defenders all pursue the running back, which means quarterbacks shouldn’t have to shake off tacklers.
Still, Griffin will have to change his style and slide or run out of bounds, something he was hesitant to do last year.
He said during the first week of training camp that he’s willing to make the changes.
“If it’s the second game of the season, and it’s third and 4, and I’ve got 2 yards, I might just run out of bounds and slide if I have to,” he said. “If it’s the Super Bowl, I’m going to get those 2 yards.”
Tight end Fred Davis thinks the read option’s future may not be as an entire offense, but rather a series of plays teams can run situationally.
“A lot of teams are starting to pick up the package a little bit,” he said. “But it’s not the main thing to go off of.”
Much will be dictated this year by the NFL’s defensive gurus during training camp as they work fresh schemes designed to turn the read option into a blast from the past.
firstname.lastname@example.org (804) 649-6546 @michaelpRTD