Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson at the 2012 scouting combine. (Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Through read-option offensive schemes have been used in the NFL with success for at least the last decade, 2012 was the year that the general idea really took off. Between Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson (and let's not forget that Cam Newton guy), defenses are learning more and more that they'll be adjusting to quarterbacks being elusive in designed run packages more than ever before The difference now, with quarterbacks like the ones named above, is that they have the pure throwing ability to take these concepts far above mere gimmick status. And that's very much on the minds of the coaches and executives at this week's scouting combine.
"It obviously has been successful, where it will go and how successful it will be, I can't say," said Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. "Systems come and go, and the success of a system will dictate changes defensively. It may fade away, it may not, you can’t really trend where it will stick. All I know is, it was successful this year. If we have to play a team that utilizes that system, we have to be prepared for it. But you don’t necessarily draft, at least we won't, to play a particular scheme.
But that's a question a lot of teams will have to answer internally -- how, if at all, will these "newfangled" (or at least newly successful) ideas inform the defensive player evaluation processes? We've seen a definite trend toward faster and lighter linebackers in the last few draft classes, and that change is hanging over to the defensive end classes, as well.
New San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who wowed everyone in the league when he created an effective offensive template for Tim Tebow in 2011 as the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, obviously leads the NFL in belief about the college-to-pro transition for option concepts. More than most, he's seen it work -- and with a quarterback few would mistake for a pure thrower.
"I think without a doubt, the success the players had last year running it, there’s a lot to be said about it," McCoy said. "It creates a lot of problems for the defense. It’s not something they see every day in practice. The teams that don’t have those type of players, it causes them some issues on Sundays. You got to play disciplined football. As we did two years ago, if you get out of place, the guy reads it the wrong way, that’s when you saw Tim make some big runs. Or they overplay Tim, and you [would see running back] Willis McGahee going for 20 yards inside. The way guys are playing it right now, it’s going to cause some headaches for some time to come."
New Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who became the collegiate patron saint of the new ideas when Bill Belichick and former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien consulted with the ex-Oregon mastermind on ways to test defenses, said that no matter where you're running this stuff, it has to be multiple -- and that quite often, it is so far more than people think.
"It's what do we feel, on this level, that we can run," Kelly said of a set of schemes that he'll now be trying with a new group of players. "What's going to fit. When you start to put a playbook together, there's always more than less. Then you start to cull it down, as you get a chance to know your players and understand what they can do and what you're asking them to do. It's pretty wide-ranging right now. It's got a lot of things in it. But then I think any good coach will always tailor his playbook to his personnel. Until we get a chance to work with them, I can't really tell you what it's going to look like when we get rolling in August and start playing games in September, but right now, it's going to be pretty extensive."
But new Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who will benefit extensively from his own quarterback's mobility, put the issue where it really has to be -- if all your guy does is run around, he's going to be extinguished pretty quickly.
“Ten of the 12 teams in the playoffs this year had true pocket passers," Gettleman said. "At the end of the day, the quarterback has to make plays from the pocket. I think the read option is an option, exactly what you called it. But at the end of the day, your quarterback has got to make plays from the pocket. If he can’t, you’re going to struggle.”
McCoy acknowledged, as many around the NFL are, that defensive coordinators are working feverishly to find the antidote to what currently ails them.
"Without a doubt now, defenses are going to start preparing more for it through the offseason program, and through training camp. Two years ago we were the first ones really to get into this on a game by game basis. Now a lot of teams are doing it. So there’s a lot more time in the offseason to prepare. ‘What is our plan? How we going to stop this? What are we going to do?’ So really the advantage changes a little bit to the defense having more time to prepare."
But the difference between the Wildcat -- which crashed and burned pretty quickly -- and the Pistol packages favored by an increasing number of teams is that the Pistol provides an offense with more multiplicity of plays and formations. If it's easy to draw up, it's easy to stop -- and there's nothing simple about a three-back Pistol set, because you never really know where everything's headed. The Wildcat was three basic plays, and the straight read-option without the pass involved is a pretty easy "if this/then that" equation. The challenge for NFL defenses now is in keeping up with the new math.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera ran into that issue in the opening half of the 2012 season, when the calls were too often to keep the ball in Newton's hands at the expense of a number of playmakers. The Panthers learned the hard way what Rivera discussed on Thursday.
"If you're not diverse, if you're not giving them something else to look at, teams are going to load eight, nine guys up in the box," he said. "When they do that, you've got to be able to throw it. People try to do that, and the one thing we've seen is Cam is very accurate. He had a stretch where he set the [team] record for consecutive throws  without an interception. I think teams have to be careful. If you get too many in the box, we can throw it. If they don't, we'll run. It's going to be a mix."
In the end, as Rivera said, the best way to implement the concept at the NFL level is as a part of the process, albeit an important one based on one's personnel. The brightest future for the option, in any guise and color, is as an element -- not the entire picture.
"Is it sustainable? It's going to have to be the health of your quarterback. If you have one guy that that's what he does and the other guy doesn't do that, and your first guy gets hurt, now you've got to bring in the other guy and change your offense. That's where you get in trouble. If a team's going to commit to it, you're going to see teams have two or three quarterbacks that are the same. If your offense doesn't have any flexibility where it can go from a zone read back to a pro style back to a spread, you can get in trouble. So you've got to be very careful if it's a commitment you're going to make. We never really made that type of commitment. We have it as a mixer. We have it just enough that coordinators have to pay attention to what we do."
Keep the defense off its feet, while sticking to fundamentals? That's been the challenge in pro football since it was established almost 100 years ago. It's the one part of the game that will never change. No matter how differently the blueprints may be.
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