Option routes, and why they drive some receivers crazy

The 2007 season brought us the most explosive version of the New England Patriots offense, when Randy Moss was reborn as far more than a malingering speed receiver, and Wes Welker put himself on the map as the ultimate underneath slot receiver. Moss, for the Patriots' system, was the perfect weapon in all ways. Not only was he a speed demon who could split any two-safety combo 40 yards downfield, but he grasped the Pats' complex route concepts to such a degree that Tom Brady famously said that Moss was perhaps the smartest player he'd ever suited up with.

When Moss finally lost his jets, the Pats looked in different directions for their much-needed speed receiver. Joey Galloway was one option, but he zigged when he should have zagged once too often, got the Brady Stare, and became an afterthought at best. The same thing happened to Chad Ochocinco, who was traded from Cincinnati to New England after the lockout, and didn't have the knowledge base to transition from a Bengals offense that allowed him to go free-form a lot of the time to one that thrived on precision in all things. Specifically, option routes in which Tom Brady and his targets must see the same things at the same times. It was way over Ocho's head, and that became apparent as the veteran posted his worst numbers in years for a team that was supposed to be his saving grace.

"I have to trust in Deion [Branch] and Wes [Welker] and all those guys out there to be in the right spot so I can play fast and anticipate what they're doing," Brady told the media in early June, right around the time Ocho got his walking papers and subsequently headed to Miami. "If everyone is not on the same page, it doesn't work. A lot of what these practices are about is everybody getting on the same page. You have a lot of new guys from other teams, rookies. The faster we can get up to speed and get better as a unit, the better we're going to be."

It isn't simple at all, as New England receivers coach Chad O'Shea said the week before a Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants in which Ocho was limited to one catch, and the Giants cheated their safeties up through the game with impunity. "At times, there are four decisions that a receiver needs to make after the snap the way our offense is. That's one of the advantages of our offense, that we give players a lot of flexibility within the system to take what the defense gives us. And that's definitely something that's unique about our offense."

O'Shea wasn't kidding. In one Patriots playbook I've seen (the 2004 version), there were 25 different single receiver routes, and that doesn't count all the available options. Nor does it cover where those routes are run in a split on the field, or how the receivers run routes in tandem. There were 17 different two-man route combos in the playbook I saw, and five different three-man route combos. Once you've mastered all that stuff, there's then the matter of the call in any pass play -- the name of the route group that a team decides on any pass play for anywhere from one to five receivers. Add in the protection at the line, and you have the start of what will be an eventual Patriots play call.

One example (diagrammed here): "1 Out Slot ZAC." In this play, the fullback (lined up wide left) runs a 14-yard in, though he should look for an outside release if anyone's cheating up expecting something quick. The halfback reads blitz, hits a run sneak through the A-gap if he's free, and digs sharply to the right. The "X" or iso receiver does a sight adjustment, reads the coverage, and could either come back outside, or loop to the seam, depending again on the coverage. The "Z" receiver motions from right slot, and heads 6 yards upfield, into a four-way option. The "Y" receiver could turn a "chute" route, or he might hook inside.

That's one pass play -- one variation of a subgroup -- in a playbook that would rival the phone book for any large metropolis in overall ginormosity. And there are other ways in which offenses can confuse.

In a West Coast offense, when timing is the order of the day, you'll see things like "U Take Off" calls (in which an in-line tight end is directed to run up the seam off an in route, based on coverage) or a "Deep Over" option where a receiver is tasked to read the safety coverage, and head up the seam if it's single-high or the safety to his side is otherwise occupied. On one play, an outside receiver may have to discern -- and in a big hurry -- whether he's running a "hot" route (close to the quarterback, most likely on a blitz read), a 15-yard in-cut or curl, or a 20-yard dash upfield. Obviously, if the quarterback and receiver aren't in sync on this, the quarterback will get pummeled, the ball will fall harmlessly to the ground in a place where the receiver isn't, or someone with the wrong uniform will be doing something unacceptable with the ball in the opposite direction.

In a three-digit system like the ones employed by the San Diego Chargers of Sid Gillman and Don Coryell, and later by Mike Martz with the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams, different issues arise. Receivers are directed to break their routes at times to adjust to a scrambling or pressured quarterback. Martz told his receivers to "break at a friendly angle" to the quarterback. On a simple halfback post, the back could have as many as three different options once he hit the middle of the field, based on the coverage. And the receivers? Fuhgeddaboudit. The Rams set up different calls for their routes based on six alternate coverage concepts -- retreat zone, retreat man, cloud, trail, bump, and quads. Some adjustments are minimal per those coverages (an up-and-in, or "Chop," translates pretty well), while others direct receivers to take different cuts, or route tails, or both, based on what they see.

The idea, with all those inherent complications in all those different systems, is to simplify the process as much as possible without dumbing the offense down and negating the advantage of the option concept. That's where practice comes in. And more practice. After that, a little more practice. Preceded and followed by a looooong time in meeting rooms, coordinating assignments.

"Most everything we do has an option to it," Seattle Seahawks receivers coach Kippy Brown (who directs receivers in a run-based West Coast offense) told me in early June. "There are very few routes that are what we call 'run-it' routes -- those are routes that stay on, no matter what. Usually, you have a conversion of some kind. Now, routes I've been associated with that are called options are normally slot routes. Guys in the slot will do certain things depending on how [the defense plays] you. We do our share of those. In the West Coast offense, an option route could go either way -- a lot of people call it a 'jerk' route -- where you go in, set the linebacker up, and then go either way. It depends on the terminology, and what you want to call an option route, but in our offense, nearly every route has a conversion. If they do this, you do that."

And that's where it becomes complicated for the quarterback -- or, more accurate to say, where it can't become too complicated. Not only does the quarterback have to read the defense; he also has to know that his receivers are reading the defense the same way he is ... and that they're adjusting accordingly. This becomes especially important for teams running more and more no-huddle offenses (as the Patriots are). Your play call may be abbreviated, because you have to get up to the line, and while the base routes would be in the name somehow, the options are then implied because there's only so much room in the abbreviated call.

"That's why you give them clues and parameters in what they're looking for," Brown said. "You have to make it clear-cut, so there's no confusion, and you know that the quarterback and receivers see the same exact thing. You're better off not having a bunch of conversions [if there's confusion], and we have some routes that 'leave home' no matter what. We run it, and if it's not there, we go somewhere else with the ball. It depends on who you're playing with and what they can handle, whether it's the quarterback or receivers. That's meeting rooms, walk-throughs, pre-practice -- it takes a lot of time to get everybody on the same page, especially when you have as many plays as we run.

"They have to learn the system first; then, they have to learn the conversions," Brown continued. "And then, we haven't even talked about splits, and depths of routes ... what do you do versus press coverage? What do you do versus soft and off coverage? There's a lot that goes into it."

A lot, indeed. When Chad Ochocinco was traded to the Patriots, he came from a system that didn't have a lot of receiver adaptations, and wasn't able to benefit from a full preseason, his fate was probably sealed before he even started with an offense this regimented, complex and precise. I am not among those who would question Chad's in-game intelligence -- as I've written before, this seemed like a very uncomfortable one-year marriage under the best circumstances. That's not to say that the Pats "owed" Chad more time to get the hang of things -- it's their offense, they've been ridiculously successful with it for over a decade, and that's that.

No doubt, they'll be a bit more careful about employing pure athleticism in future -- perhaps understanding that Randy Moss was the outlier, and not the norm.

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