WITH 7:16 left in the third quarter of an NFC divisional playoff at rickety Candlestick Park last January, the game was up for grabs. The Packers and the 49ers had traded body blows all day, and they were tied at 24 when San Francisco broke the huddle for a second-and-four at their own 44.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick lined up four yards behind the center in the pistol formation—before last season, something seen solely in the college game—with running back LaMichael James another two yards back. Kaepernick eventually motioned fullback Bruce Miller to his left. At the snap Kaepernick put the ball in the belly of James, who was charging straight toward the line. Green Bay's left outside linebacker, Erik Walden, and left inside linebacker, Brad Jones, charged James.
Only, he didn't have the ball.
Kaepernick had pulled the pigskin away from James at the last second and scampered to the right side—where Walden had just been. Turning the corner, Kaepernick saw nothing but open field. He galloped 60 yards—in 6.56 seconds—for a touchdown.
The 49ers went on to win 45--31. They were on their way to the NFC championship, and the NFL was staring at an offensive revolution.
THANKS TO an influx of young QBs who run as well as they throw and bright, daring offensive coordinators eager to innovate and surprise, the read-option took the NFL by storm in 2012. The four teams that ran it as a major part of their offense—the 49ers, Panthers, Redskins and Seahawks—went a combined 39-24-1 and won two of the NFC's four divisions. San Francisco came within a last-minute goal line stand of winning the Super Bowl; Seattle outlasted Washington in the playoffs. Even Carolina, which finished 7--9, closed with a four-game winning streak. All four teams were among the league's top nine in yards gained per play.
In the wake of that success, there are two questions about the read-option. The first: Does it represent a lasting shift in the NFL landscape or is it simply another fad?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is among the skeptics: He likens the read-option to the Wildcat, calling it "the flavor of the month." He's not alone. Some coaches feel that defenses were caught unprepared last season. The scheme flourished on the talents of two rookie QBs (Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) and one who didn't start until Week 11 (Kaepernick), so teams did not know what to expect. And once the onslaught began, it was difficult to stop because it's almost impossible for defensive staffs to prep players for new schemes during the busy regular season. Most franchises didn't even have backups that could mimic the speed and skills of Griffin, Kaepernick, Wilson and the Panthers' Cam Newton. With an off-season to get ready, Tomlin and others expect defenses to catch up with the read-option.
Still, some coaches think the scheme has staying power—including Rex Ryan, one of the game's most creative defensive minds. "I think it's here to stay," says the Jets' coach, "for the simple fact that [teams] are getting these mobile quarterbacks [who have] the size, speed and all that type of stuff."
The half-dozen teams that are incorporating some element of the read-option into their offense for this season hope Ryan is right. Even those that aren't preparing to run it have been trying to figure out how it works. Which leads to the second question about the read-option: How do you stop it?
THE READ-OPTION revolves around one basic play, in which the quarterback, usually in the shotgun with a running back next to him, takes the snap and does one of two things: hands off to the back on a dive between the tackles, or keeps the ball and runs around the outside. To decide which action to take, the quarterback reads a deliberately unblocked player—usually a defensive end or linebacker on the end of the line. If the unfettered player pinches horizontally to chase the running back, the QB keeps the ball and scoots around him. If the linebacker or end moves vertically to cut off the quarterback's outside route, the QB gives the ball to the back.
The complexities build off that signature play. If a third player is added to the backfield, the quarterback has a triple option—he can hand off on the dive, keep it himself on an outside run or pitch it to the second back on a path farther outside. In another variation the quarterback can fake the handoff, then drop and throw a pass. "When you look at the pass, run, vertical pass, there are just so many options, it puts stress on the defense," says Stanford's director of defense, Derek Mason.
Defending the read-option comes down to basic math. With a pocket passer like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, the defense doesn't have to account for the quarterback's ability to run. The lack of mobility of such quarterbacks essentially makes it 11 defenders against 10 offensive players. But if the quarterback is a capable runner, it's 11 on 11. And because the read-option intentionally leaves one player unblocked—that edge linebacker or defensive end—it's actually 11 offensive players against 10 defenders.
That sort of math sent the NFL's defensive coaches back to school. In February and March, dozens of assistants boosted frequent-flier accounts and burned cell minutes consulting with college coaches who regularly deal with the read-option. It's not as if NFL coaches had never seen it before: Virtually all of them played or coached in high school, where similar offensive systems—the option, veer and double wing—are staples. But for most a refresher course was in order.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett consulted with former colleague Paul Pasqualoni, now UConn's coach. Alabama's Nick Saban heard from all his old NFL buddies. Stanford's Mason talked with a half-dozen teams, including a few that told him to keep the visits quiet. The Falcons' coaches, who were victimized by the read-option in their NFC Championship Game loss to the 49ers, paid a visit to Clemson co--defensive coordinator Marion Hobby, a Saints assistant from 2006 to '07. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff visited Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who's considered an offensive guru. Capers and his staff picked Sumlin's brain about which defensive strategies gave him trouble and which ones he was thrilled to see.
The takeaway from all these meetings and phone calls? Defenses basically have two choices against the read-option: speed up or slow down.
STANFORD'S MASON, a former Vikings assistant, leads the slow movement. He preaches that the unblocked player should put doubt in the quarterback's head by starting up the field slowly and then reacting to the dive. "If you come up the field and then try to squeeze [down toward the running back], it doesn't give [the quarterback] a fast read," says Mason, scribbling furiously on the whiteboard in his office. "Don't give a fast read, give a slow read."
If the uncertainty of a slow read causes even a moment of hesitation for the quarterback, it can swing the advantage back to the defense.
To illustrate the point, Mason flips on the film of last season's Stanford-Oregon game, a 17--14 Cardinal victory against the No. 1 Ducks, who had been averaging 54.3 points a game. Facing second-and-12 from the Stanford 27-yard line on the second play of overtime, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is in the shotgun with running back Kenjon Barner behind him. As the play begins, Mariota pivots to his right and stares at Trent Murphy, Stanford's senior outside linebacker. Murphy does just as Mason has instructed. Murphy takes two hard steps forward and freezes, putting doubt in Mariota's mind.
The blocking is there for the handoff to Barner, but the slow read causes Mariota to misjudge. He keeps the ball and Murphy chases Mariota wide, stopping him after a three-yard gain. On the next play, third-and-long, Oregon fails to convert and then misses a field goal, setting the stage for Stanford's upset.
The other option is to attack the quarterback: The unblocked player charges him, forcing the QB to make a quick decision—hopefully the wrong one. "A lot of times you want to speed up the quarterback on his read," says Clemson's Hobby. "It allows the defense to dictate what goes on up front."
If the quarterback keeps the ball, he gets crushed; if he hands it off, a fast-closing defender will often arrive just after the exchange, in time to deliver a legal blow to the quarterback. Those hits add up over the course of a game and a season. "The more you put your quarterback in harm's way," says Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, "the more harm is going to come to your quarterback. "
In the speed-up scenario the unblocked defender's only job is to ignore the running back and stick with the QB. Someone else is responsible for the running back. This is known as assignment football: Everybody has a duty, and if each performs it well, all options should be covered. The Ravens, with two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl, used that tactic against the 49ers and kept Kaepernick bottled up until the second half.
Assignment football has been the preferred reaction to the spread option in the NFL. The Patriots used it in 2011 when they faced Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the regular season and the playoffs. In the first game the Patriots allowed 167 rushing yards in the first quarter and trailed 16--7 early in the second. Then New England settled into its assignments and outscored Denver 79--17 in the next five-plus quarters of action.
"Personally, when everybody has their own assignments, and I have a green light to go hit the quarterback, I enjoy that," says Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who keyed the defensive approach against Tebow. "The problem with that comes when guys are doing more than one thing—dive and quarterback at the same time, and then get to the pitch? It doesn't work. Everyone has to be on the same page. That's what stops those plays."
That's a good plan against a quarterback like Tebow, who is less of a passing threat, but the QBs who emerged last season can throw as well as they run.
"The play action is just as tough as the zone read," says Hobby. "It freezes the linebackers. And then [if] the quarterback has a strong arm, boy, he's hitting those quick slants and digs right behind you, and then the deep ball. It takes a special, talented quarterback to play that offense. Those four guys are special."
TO MAKE assignment football work, the defense has to cheat by bringing an extra player closer to the line of scrimmage—usually a safety who patrols the otherwise uncovered alley between the tight end and the wide receiver. It's effective, but it takes a player out of the defensive backfield, making the D more susceptible to the pass. An accurate quarterback has a distinct advantage.
That's what happened to the Patriots last season against the 49ers. New England dared Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. Sure enough, all five of San Francisco's biggest offensive plays in its 41--34 win came on passes:
• Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree, 38-yard game-winning TD.
• Kaepernick to Delanie Walker, 34-yard touchdown.
• Kaepernick to Crabtree, 27-yard touchdown.
• Kaepernick to Frank Gore, 26-yard gain on third-and-15.
• Kaepernick to Randy Moss, 24-yard touchdown.
"It makes it difficult to defend when you're able to pull the ball back off one of these fakes and there's a receiver who's 20 yards open," Saints coach Sean Payton says. "We're not used to seeing that in our game."
One counter is to play man-to-man on the receivers. But man coverage requires the defender to watch the receiver and not the quarterback, so when a mobile passer decides to scramble, he can be 20 yards downfield before half the defense even realizes it. In their playoff loss to the 49ers, the Packers were victimized by those types of scrambles more than by the read-option itself.
To combat the problem, Capers says, "you can [play] zone and keep all the defensive backs with vision on the quarterback, or you've got to do a better job with your rush up front."
The league's top pass rushers, many of whom are used to firing off the ball, are being retrained: They will have to play standing up and react to what they're seeing in front of them. That's a difficult transition for a veteran who in the past has been worried only about hunting quarterbacks on passing downs.
"You can't run up the field to get the quarterback," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a defensive coordinator for seven seasons. "For some of these guys getting paid $10 million to rush the quarterback, that's a change. They're not used to doing that."
Still, passes are lower-percentage plays than runs, and the longer the pass, the lower the odds of connecting—which is why college defenses have taken what Mason calls a "stop the run, defend the pass" approach. Getting read-option offenses into third-and-long situations creates a distinct defensive edge by reducing the effectiveness of the option run and the play-action fake.
Says Hobby, "You definitely have to get them behind the chains."
A CORE GROUP of NFL coaches—including Tomlin, Arians, Tom Coughlin (Giants), Payton and Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham—believes the read-option will be phased out because of the injury potential for quarterbacks. There's sound thinking behind that theory. Many of the QBs in question are or soon will be the best-paid players on their teams. They are often the faces of the franchise, and the owners who pay them want their most valuable commodities on the field. Never mind the safety rules owners have enacted to protect the pocket-passer poster boys—those protections do not extend outside the tackles. If the players who have made the read-option a hit start to fall, the QB running game will be curtailed.
It's true that the more times a quarterback carries the ball, the greater the chances he'll be hit and injured, but it's a mistake to pin injuries on the read-option. For starters, the decision the quarterback makes is designed to take him out of harm's way.
The Redskins' 2012 season was stunted when Griffin suffered a knee injury against the Ravens in Week 14 and reaggravated it in the playoff loss to the Seahawks. But Griffin wasn't injured on a read-option play; it was a scramble on a straight drop-back, and he had ample time to go down safely before the tackle. Of course, injuries strike pocket passers like Brady and Manning too. And in the NFL nobody uses the read-option full time. "[The 49ers] aren't running Kaepernick an inordinate amount of times," Mason says. "I don't see [the read-option] going away anytime soon, but you're not going to see it 25 times a game."
Maybe we'll see it even less than that because the read-option has lost its surprise factor. Defensive coordinators have done their research, studied the film and spent an entire training camp drilling their players on the theories and techniques.
At the same time, offensive coordinators such as Greg Roman (49ers) and Kyle Shanahan (Redskins) have had an off-season to implement tweaks and variations designed to keep them one step ahead. The stage is set. The field is even. The proving ground for the read-option in the NFL is upon us.
"When you look at the pass, run, vertical pass, there are just so many options, it puts stress on the defense," says Stanford's director of defense, Derek Mason.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likens the read-option to the Wildcat, calling it "the flavor of the month."
BEAR TRAP In Seattle's 23--17 overtime win over the Bears in Week 13, Wilson ran for 71 yards, including 11 on the play above, which started when Chicago left end Corey Wootton pinched inside in pursuit of Marshawn Lynch. Wootton then crashed into Seattle tackle Breno Giacomini. Wilson read the pursuit and chose to keep the ball, and—with an assist from Zach Miller (86), who slacked off the trapped Wootton—he ran around right end for a big gain.
If the DE/LB pinches ...
... the QB opts to keep the ball
If the DE/LB moves up the field ...
... the QB hands off to the RB
If the safety fills the outside lane ...
... the QB pitches to a flanker or RB
Want even more NFL info? Make sure to check out Andy Benoit's Deep Dive analysis of all 32 teams at TheMMQB.com
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WHO'S GOT IT? The QB-RB crossing point, called the mesh, allows Griffin to disguise his intent and take the open lane.
NFL GAME REWIND
ILLUSTRATIONS BY NICOLE ZIGMONT
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
THE OLD COLLEGE TRY Stanford's shutdown of Oregon last fall drove NFL coaches to Palo Alto in search of solutions.
JIM DEDMON/CAL SPORTS MEDIA
BUILT TO LAST Wear and tear can be a problem for read-option QBs, but the 6'6", 245-pound Newton (1) can take it.