Because the NFL is a league of imitation, the read-option offense has become the fad of the moment, and defensive coordinators have been scheming for months to find a way to control it.
So what happens once teams do stop the read option?
It will be stopped. No innovation stays unchecked for long in professional football. One year’s clever twist is often the next season’s flop. How long did the Wildcat last as a viable offensive threat? Two years? A season-and-a-half?
Undoubtedly the new solutions to the zone read will be revealed this weekend. What they are is still unknown because teams would not have unveiled them in the meaningless preseason. But already there have been hints. Defenses are going to be more disciplined. Coordinators are going to demand their linemen and linebackers to not commit early as dual-threat quarterbacks try to anticipate the defense’s intentions. So much of the read option’s success is based on defenders who decide to go for the quarterback or the running back – certain they know which player will get the ball only to watch the other run from their grasp. If the defensive players guess less, the read option isn't as effective.
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League rules have also changed. Quarterbacks who hold the ball against their running back's stomachs while trying to dissect the defense in the first moments of a read-option play are free to be hit. Last season they weren't. This allows defensive players to take shots at quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick in spots where they couldn’t before. More than anything, this could stop the read option cold.
But what happens then? What do the Washington Redskins do when running back Alfred Morris can't rely on a defense's obsession with RG3 to race undetected for 1,613 yards this season? What changes when the 49ers face the Packers on Sunday, and Kaepernick can't run for 181 yards against them as he did in last year's playoffs?
"That’s not our bread and butter," Morris said this week. 'If it's working, we're going to keep riding it. If it's not broken, don't fix it. But if they take it away, that's fine. We can run our offense without the option.”
The thing about the Redskins, 49ers and Seahawks with Russell Wilson is that each of these teams had a basic offense without the read option that it ran as recently as last year. Washington added elements of Griffin's playbook at Baylor during training camp. Wilson didn’t win Seattle’s starting job until late in August, and San Francisco played a more traditional West Coast offense until Alex Smith got hurt midway through the season and Kaepernick replaced him.
Because Kaepernick was so effective in the read option during the postseason, it's easy to forget the Niners went to the NFC Championship Game the year before with Smith running a more basic offense. Lost in the excitement of the offense the Redskins unveiled on opening day against the Saints last year was the fact that several Washington players had been raving for months about Griffin’s ability to run the bootlegs and designed scrambles of coach Mike Shanahan's regular offense.
“If that's all people are worried about with us – the read option – I’m sorry for them,” Redskins receiver Santana Moss said. “That's obviously a big part of our offense, I won't lie to you. But if we can't do it, we can't do it. That's all right. We can still run the rest of our offense.”
For instance, even without the read option, Shanahan has produced potent offenses as long as he has had an effective quarterback to run them. Morris might not average 4.8 yards a carry as he did last year, but Shanahan has a long history of turning unheralded backs into 1,000-yard rushers. Yes, the read option made passers like RG3, Wilson and Kaepernick more effective, keeping them from making the kinds of risky throws that can be intercepted, but they all have good accuracy. All can be more traditional quarterbacks if they have to, especially Griffin, whose ability to hit receivers with 50-yard bullets in last year’s minicamps stunned the players who assumed he was a run-first, throw-second quarterback.
Completely forgotten in all the talk about the read option is that Seattle and San Francisco had the league’s top two defenses in points allowed last season, and all three were in the top half of the NFL in turnovers. Perhaps their offenses won't be as explosive, but now that Washington's top pass rusher, Brian Orakpo, is healthy again, the three teams can easily transition into defense-first powers that can win with more traditional offenses.
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All three can still be playoff teams. Their seasons won't be ruined if the rest of the league shows this weekend that it has figured them out.
They will be different. But they will be far from ruined.