Zac Boyer will be entering his third season covering the Washington Redskins for The Free Lance-Star this fall. Make sure to follow Zac on Twitter (@ZacBoyer) for the latest updates or e-mail him with any questions at email@example.com.
Quarterbacks Making Use Of The Option A Clear Choice
ASHBURN – It’s a play so often used in college that an overwhelming majority of teams have pages of their playbooks devoted to it. It’s so common that defenses routinely prepare for it because they know they’ll see it, and so ordinary that the excitement amongst those witnessing it is almost nonexistent.
It’s the option play – and until recently, none of that held true in the NFL.
Two offenses that have pioneered its use in the professional game will meet this afternoon at FedEx Field when the Washington Redskins play host to the Carolina Panthers – a meeting of two teams perfectly suited for running such a play.
It’s been shunned in the NFL for a variety of reasons – namely, its perceived ineffectiveness and the danger a quarterback running the play faces. But as Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton have demonstrated during their brief time in the league, it’s best to play to one’s strengths.
Bringing In College Ball
When the Redskins chose Griffin with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft in April, one they traded up to get, they did so with an eye to Griffin’s strong arm and elite speed.
Almost immediately, the coaching staff went to work on trying to tailor the offense to Griffin’s talents. Already a proper fit for their West Coast system, one that relied heavily upon bootlegs and keepers, Griffin could still provide a greater threat in the backfield.
“When people have the ability to run and throw, it puts the quarterback at a different level,” head coach Mike Shanahan said. “We thought he could do some things that people can’t do, that people haven’t done, and we still believe that.”
Griffin ran a fairly simple spread offense at Baylor, which maximized his abilities to throw and run out of the shotgun formation. To acclimate Griffin to the professional game, the Redskins incorporated some of the principles, and even some of the plays, that he ran in college to their current playbook.
Still, the coaches believed, there was more that his speed would allow him to do. It didn’t take long before they began to investigate the possibility of running the option play with Griffin – a move partially inspired by the success Newton achieved while doing so as a rookie last season in Carolina.
“It definitely is a different brand of football for us and something that most of us have not been exposed to,” said quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, who experimented with the play as a quarterback at Saginaw Valley State, a Division II school in Michigan, in the early 2000s. “I think the more we do it, obviously, the more we learn about it, and that’s kind of got us going in the right direction.”
The Redskins didn’t show the play at all during the preseason, keeping Griffin confined to a simplified playbook during a gradual breaking-in period. But they ran the zone-read option against New Orleans in the season opener, began incorporating some speed option runs against Cincinnati and were particularly sophisticated against Minnesota, utilizing fullbacks, receivers and tight ends in the triple option.
“It definitely changes up how I see football – how we look at it schematically, the coverages you see, the fits you see from a defensive standpoint,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “It changes everything.”
Paying A Price For Play
One of the biggest challenges with running the option at the professional level came, coincidentally, not on an option play. In the third quarter against Atlanta on Oct. 7, Griffin was flushed out of the pocket and tried to scramble for a first down, only to be hit by two defenders, sustain a concussion and be forced from the game.
The value of a quarterback in the NFL goes beyond money. That player is, arguably, the least-replaceable on a team, with a significant difference in talent and ability coming when the backup enters the game.
“Usually the drop-off from the first quarterback to the second quarterback is so big, especially with the guys you’re talking about – their backups are totally different athletes than they are,” said Charlie Weis, who has been the offensive coordinator in New England and the head coach at Notre Dame and is currently the head coach at Kansas. “You get them knocked out, not only do you have a guy on injured reserve that’s one of your highest-paid players, but you’ve got no one to replace them with.”
Griffin’s concussion further reinforced to him the need to stay safe. When Kirk Cousins, significantly less mobile than Griffin, entered that game, the Falcons had one less dimension of the Redskins’ offense they needed to account for.
That allowed them to focus more on the passing game and Alfred Morris’ running attack. Despite a 77-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss, which came on a busted coverage, Atlanta was able to shut Washington’s offense down.
“You’ve got to have the right personnel to run the option,” said Morris, who ran it exclusively in high school. “You can’t run the option with just anybody. Look at Georgia Tech – they’re an option offense team. You can’t just have anyone running that. Same with our zone running scheme – not every running back can survive in that offense. You’ve got to have certain players, certain types of players, who can succeed in that.”
The Tennessee Titans ran variations of the option play with Vince Young at quarterback in the mid-2000s, but when Young left, the play disappeared. The same happened in Denver, where the Broncos traded Tim Tebow, the zone-read star, and replaced him with Peyton Manning – perhaps the exact opposite type of quarterback.
“Tom Brady, Peyton Manning – they’re sit-in-the-pocket kind of guys, just drop-back passers,” said Redskins running back Keiland Williams, who used the option play extensively in college at LSU. “Then there’s guys like Robert Griffin or other guys in the league, Michael Vick, that are more athletic quarterbacks. … If a quarterback’s not a threat to run, you know they’re not going to be a factor.”
Sign Of Game Change?
The college game, for decades, used a power offense because it was what was done extensively in the NFL. In the past 20 years or so, innovations have unchained teams at each level from consistently following the same formula.
“I think it comes down to the individual player,” Cousins said. “I think you could have said that six, seven years ago with Vince Young. ‘The league’s going that way! He’s rookie of the year! It’s going that way!’ Or with Cam Newton who was rookie of the year – now what? The Panthers are 1-6 and Vince Young’s out of football, from what I can tell, so it’s going to take 10 years to see how everybody who has that style of play does.”
Rich Rodriguez, currently the head coach at Arizona, runs the option play extensively. He was incredibly successful doing so during a prior stint at West Virginia, but markedly less so at Michigan, where he was fired after three seasons in 2011.
“I think spread offenses are the new pro-style,” Rodriguez said. “You have [Griffin], you look at Cam Newton last year, a few other guys that have come from spread offenses … I think the spread guys are more prepared for that than some of the guys who spend all their time under center.”
“It just comes down to what type of personnel that you have,” Newton said. “If you have a quarterback that has the ability to run it, then there you go. If he doesn’t, then you probably play to the quarterback’s strengths. That would be the smart thing to do if I was a coordinator or coach.”
As the Redskins demonstrated, there’s also an adjustment. They spent the entire offseason working on the basics of the play, and only as they’ve gotten increasingly comfortable with the matchups as the season progresses have they been able to devote more time to nurturing its development.
“The option won’t work if you don’t wholeheartedly buy into it,” Griffin said. “It’s not something you have to run 15 times a game, but if you don’t buy into it in practices and get the guys to run the option or the zone read, then you won’t be successful at it.”