Is the read-option a trendy gimmick or is it a valid offensive scheme that is here to stay in the NFL? That is a good question, and no one knows the answer. Opinions on the matter vary greatly and every asshole has an opinion. Wait, is that the saying? I don't know. Whatever.
Regardless, it's this asshole's opinion that, as with pretty much everything in life, there's a grey area. Wolf grey, if you will. That's not a cop-out, but really - what's wrong with thinking that the RZO is here to stay in some capacity as a change of pace - a strategically-used ace-up-your-sleeve to be used conservatively - rather than a mainstay or core philosophy? This perspective is something I don't think a lot of people can really grasp. It feels like for some media, and judging by some coaches' quotes, a lot of people look at it as an all-or-nothing concept, mutually exclusive: "We'll stamp it out of existence completely" or "it's going to take over the NFL completely." No. Stop with that.
So the read-option can't simply be a new wrinkle in team's offensive toolbox that defensive coordinators will now have to prepare for? My hot take: even if you 'figure out' how to defend it, sometimes it will still work, because every play in the NFL still works sometimes, simply because sometimes you have better players or better play-calls or better execution. Or, *gasp*, what about the idea that offensive coordinators will figure out new wrinkles to beat your new idea on how to stop it (think LB scrape exchange vs. TE slice blocks).
Haven't teams 'figured out' how to stop end-arounds? Haven't they 'figured out' how to defend a screen? Why do stupid-head coordinators still call this crap? At the end of the day, offensive coordinators will always have to call plays that opposing defensive coordinators haven't or aren't prepared for - either in the week of practice leading up to the game or regarding a specific defensive formation or personnel grouping or matchup. Players still have to make plays. Diagnose, execute, tackle; run, pass, catch, juke, win. That's football, that's why they play the games.
"I think it's the flavor of the day. We will see if it's the flavor of the year. We'll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit. We look forward to stopping it. We look forward to eliminating it."
- Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin
"I think the college system has kind of taken hold in the National Football League. We have a lot of quarterbacks that have the ability to run and do that and I know that is coming into our league. It will be interesting to see. I look at that offense kind of like the Wildcat. The Wildcat took us by storm and then until you can see it, understand it; then you can defend it."
- Giants Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell
"The read-option is f*cking stupid and anyone that thinks it will survive is a f*cking idiot."
- Pete Prisco's inner monologue, probably.
Anyway. I'm not a coach. I don't know shit, really. Tomlin and Fewell would straight up take me to school, embarrass, then ruin me if we went to a chalkboard. Still, I can't help but think that some of these statements feel like... hubris. Or something like that. The NFL old guard mentality vs. new-school college concepts and their silly coaches and weird players.
Now, I'm sure that new methods in scheming will help to diminish the effectiveness of the RZO, and since I'm talking about the effectiveness of the read-option, it's worth mentioning that teams that ran it consistently were WILDLY successful with it. Like, absurdly successful. That type of unchecked success does seem untenable, I will admit. Maybe that's how most coaches feel. I don't know. But like I said, even scheming that 'figures out' the RZO doesn't guarantee its extinction. Maybe it'll just settle in to the group of most NFL plays that 'sometimes work, sometimes don't work.'
If anything is going to kill the RZO, I'd (unfortunately) side with Tomlin's take on it a little bit in the fact that there remains the fear - real or perceived - that it opens your quarterback up to injuries.
Redskins OC Kyle Shanahan doesn't buy that. When asked recently whether Washington plans to continue using that scheme when RG3 returns, it was an almost emphatic 'yes'. He addressed the idea that it opens up your QB to more injuries:
"Just look at all the zone-read clips. Not many big hits happened on that because usually everyone is blocked. You know who isn't blocked. Look at the big hits. Look at what plays they were. The three injuries were pass plays. They weren't the zone read."
A study of Redskins tape by a Redskins blog confirmed Shanahan's statement, and author KC Clyborn concluded "some of the biggest, hardest shots RGIII [took were on] blind-side shots in the pocket. That's not to say that he didn't occasionally get popped running the football. But on the whole, I found that Robert Griffin III was far better about getting down, and getting out of bounds and protecting himself on the read-option runs, than he was on the scrambles."
I'd say that's consistent with what we saw with Russell Wilson (and, as I'll get to later, Tom Cable insists Seattle is much more conservative with Wilson than Washington or Carolina is with RG3 or Cam Newton). Still, I find myself far more worried about Wilson when he's scrambling off-script than when he's running a keeper on the read option, and it comes down to pre-determined blocking downfield and a fairly limited set of available running lanes. On the read-option, Wilson will typically know where tacklers will be coming from and can prepare himself better to slide, get out of bounds, or give up on a play. As Cable describes Seattle's priority system for Wilson on those plays: "Hash, Numbers, Sideline, Slide."
This is not the same in the pocket or on scrambles, where hundreds of variables can create chaos. There have been many times where I've seen Wilson dive, juke, take a hit and get piled on by a defender or two during a scramble, but there are maybe two or three times I can remember where Wilson took a real shot on a read-option keeper (all of which, I think, were Wilson's fault for not sliding soon enough).
More typically, he'll run out of bounds unscathed, give up on a play super-early when he realizes it's dead, or slide when defenders get near him downfield. You'll even notice that Wilson often comes up a yard or two short of a first down on his runs because he's so careful to slide. In the heat of the moment, I occasionally find myself yelling at the TV "Get the first down, man!" but Russell don't care - he's smart. I'm dumb. Get down, Russ, get down. Live to play another day. That's the key to this whole thing.
The question is - will the perceived increased danger of getting your quarterback hurt lead to coordinators paring down, limiting, or even eliminating the ZRO going forward? The case study on this is probably Robert Griffin, who suffered a gruesome ACL tear in Seattle's Wildcard Playoffs game last year. As said above, Kyle Shanahan doesn't seem fazed:
"I was real pleased with [the read option]. I think it really helped us. It's about a third of our running game, at the most. The majority of our running game is outside zone like it has been since I've been coaching, and I know it has been that before that in the Denver scheme with the zone blocking.
But as far as the zone read and everything, it has opened up a lot. Those aren't really designed quarterback runs. They're designed to give the ball to Alf [Alfred Morris]. When the whole defense is not accounting for the quarterback and taking everyone else, that's when he goes the other way. I kind of enjoy the zone read because the quarterback is not taking it unless there's no one to hit him. If there is someone to hit him, you're usually handing it off. So the zone read is something I feel in the long run helps the quarterback."
In the long run it helps the quarterback? Blasphemy!
"The zone read is something I learned, throughout going through the year, that I think really helped us. It [worked to create] the least [amount of] pass rush I've ever seen as a coordinator. Guys just sitting there scared to death just watching everybody, not moving. I really enjoyed, actually, sometimes being able to drop back and not have four guys just teeing off from the quarterback, all trying to hit him in the pocket."
How does the RZO help to limit the pass rush? Well, for one, and this is the reason the read-option is decidedly NOT like the Wildcat, is that it's harder to diagnose pre-snap. As a QB, you can do any number of things out of a shotgun formation with your running back next to you, for example. Defenses can't key in on your formation to know the read-option is coming. They just have to be ready for it. For the Redskins, their 'base' look often came from Pistol formations.
"Yeah, that's the whole key to the pistol. I laugh when people talk about the ‘Pistol Offense.' You can run the zone read out of the pistol, so it gives you the threat to run the zone read. But the good thing about the pistol is it's the exact same as your entire offense. The quarterback is taking about three steps back behind the center, so instead of reaching his hands under the center, he's just reaching out to catch the ball. But the back is still behind the quarterback, so you can run your entire offense. Nothing changes, and I think that's the key to everything."
So, you can run the read-option from most personnel groupings (ie, your normal personnel groupings and formations, not with your quarterback on the f*cking wing playing receiver) and you can vary your formations greatly. You can handoff, throw, or keep the ball. Multiplicity is what makes it dangerous.
So, you want to just throw the ball out of a shotgun set? Use a set that makes it look like you're going to run the read-option, which allows you to get "guys just sitting there scared to death just watching everybody, not moving." It's like play-action, essentially.
Now, the Seahawks are not the Redskins. Though they both run the read-option out of zone-blocking principles, they have very different styles. However, it's clear that, like Washington, the read option helped transform the Seahawks' offense and while they didn't necessarily rely on it, they sure as hell used it effectively. As The Sideline View points out, the Hawks averaged 9 RZO plays per game from weeks 12-17, where running backs averaged 7.2 ypc and Wilson averaged 8.1 ypc. That's.... pretty good. I'll steal Craig Johnstone's exact hyperlink to Alex Gibbs' chalkboard session from his post this morning and USE IT AGAIN RIGHT NOW (EARMUFFS) .
As Shanahan notes:
"The zone read is a good play, but if defenses know it's coming, I don't care how good it is. People will stop it. The whole key to the zone read is that - just the threat of the zone read."
"We want to run our offense. We want to do what we've been doing, but you better honor the zone read because it is a good play. And if you're not honoring it, you're usually going to get about 15 yards before contact."
One thing that we never really talk about (or I don't, anyway) is that this isn't Tom Cable's first rodeo when it comes to the read option. Cable joined Atlanta's staff in 2006 - a year in which the Falcons further adapted West Virginia's read-option offense with Michael Vick & Warrick Dunn. The Falcons had, from 2004-2006, become the first to really use that type offense in the modern NFL. Vick ran for over 1000 yards in '06 while Cable coached offensive line (and Alex Gibbs consulted), Warrick Dunn went for 1,140, and Cable formed some of his beliefs.
[In 2004], the Falcons were transitioning from Dan Reeves to Jim Mora, and brought offensive line guru Alex Gibbs on staff. Gibbs made his name guiding a series of dominant zone-blocking teams in Denver, and his blocking concepts made Atlanta's option ideas nearly unstoppable.
The Falcons used many different versions, but the overall concept was the same: get the line zone-blocking away from the play side to influence the front seven, and have Michael Vick roll right to get the left defensive end on a string.
Diagram via Yahoo! Shutdown Corner & Doug Farrar
The difficulty any defender had in picking up the option was that Vick could either read the end pursuing outside and pull the ball in, or catch the end pinching inside and pitch it out to the back. Between Vick and running backs T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn, it became quite the challenge to figure out what the Falcons were doing on any given play.
In the Falcons' version of the option offense, Vick's unreal athleticism made all the difference - they'd also run a version of the quarterback draw in which Vick would drop back, stop at the dropback point, wait, and hit the first seam he saw at maximum speed.
The Falcons went 7-9 that year and Cable moved on to the Raiders shortly thereafter, but there were lessons to be learned. Cable recently talked about the evolution of the read option on an interview with 710ESPN:
"In 2006, we just kind of tricked everybody because they weren't ready for it. You could just put three guys around Michael Vick back then and they couldn't tackle him. So it was like, OK, this is cool, let's do this, right? And, Warrick Dunn was a phenomenal runner and it was great."
So why didn't it catch on immediately?
"As it went away (Vick was suspended and then went to prison), you were like, man, you need that quarterback who has that ability. That's not this league. You looked around, and you said, 'who really can do this?' Mmmm, about two guys, really.'"
"And then, college has said "How do we fill the stands up more?'- That's what their AD's telling them, 'how do we put more people in the seats, how do we make this more exciting? You know what, let's go to something a little more funky. Look what Oklahoma State's doing, look at what Clemson is doing,' and it has grown."
"And, there's a lot of small-school, Division II football that has been doing this for years, ie, Chip Kelly, and he gets his gig at Oregon, and the rest is history. 'Who cares whether they understand it, let's just go so fast, and kind of trick them a few times here, and they can't keep up with us, they get tired,' and that's what it's evolved to. Everyone kind of looks at this and goes 'okay they can score 50 points a game, this is exciting, let's do some of this.' So, that's the evolution of it, really."
As for now?
"I've heard Mike [Tomlin] and others talk about defending it. Whoever is going to do it, you better have the answers. All we've heard all spring is every defensive coach in the NFL is saying ‘I'm going to go to Texas A&M, I'm going to go to Oregon with their new coach, and try to figure this thing out."
Then Cable said something that I agree with fully, as I sort of laid out above:
"Hey, its football. Its no different than getting in the I[-formation] and running the lead play. It's a different way of doing it."
You've still got to stop it. You still have to account for it.
"Our biggest goal is we didn't want to get passive. We wanted to keep out mentality and keep hammering you."
So, the important question, as it relates to Russell Wilson, is 'how do we make this a viable system going forward?' It comes down to, really, protecting the quarterback:
"It's huge, and I think there's a couple styles with this whole thing. If you look at what, say, Washington's doing, or Carolina, the quarterback is part of it. I mean, he's going to go in there, he's going to keep it, and run down into what, you know, we call the "briar patch", and he's going to get whacked. We're not doing that. We're not going to do that."
"If we're going to continue to do it, our guy's going to be like an old option quarterback: hash, number, sideline, slide. If you see danger, get down. But, we weren't going to run him up in there, because in my opinion, you might not like to hear this, some people, but I think that's foolish. There's 32 of them, and we're fortunate enough to have a franchise guy, those are special dudes, so, take care of him, so that's what we'll do."
Hey, what do you mean "If we're going to continue to do it?"
Read more about the read-option. I've written enough about this now.