FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION (OR IS IT?) - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION (OR IS IT?)

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THE OPTION IS STILL REVERED AT CERTAIN HIGH SCHOOLS, BUT—DESPITE THE ZEAL OF SOME COACHES—THE ONCE VENERATED SCHEME HAS BEEN LANGUISHING AT THE COLLEGE LEVEL FOR YEARS. NOW RULES CHANGES MAY DOOM IT THERE TOO

MASTERING TECHNOLOGY is one of modern life's great challenges, especially for an old-school football coach like Matt McCullough of Acadiana High (La.). Sitting in front of two connected monitors, nearly touching they're so close, the coach can't seem to position the cursor on the screen, and at times, he's unable to find the cursor at all, violently shaking the black mouse in a fruitless effort. "This is just too fancy," says McCullough. "See, this is why we run the veer."

The veer-option offense is not fancy. It is football's ham sandwich, enduring and reliable but bland and sometimes tiresome. But here in southern Louisiana, reliable and boring are celebrated. At Acadiana High, in the town of Scott, the veer is central to the identity of the town—and has been for nearly a half century. "It is instilled in the community," says Kent Gable, an assistant coach and former player.

This is the 45th consecutive season in which the Wreckin' Rams are operating in the triple option offense that coach Bill Dotson installed in 1974. The veer has survived three head coaching changes, each new coach passing the offense down to his successor. Now the veer is flourishing in this pocket of Louisiana, having delivered four 5A state championships in the last 12 years. It is thriving against smaller defenses built to combat modern spread sets, battering foes in a way only the veer, a form of the triple option, can.

In the last four decades at Acadiana, the Rams have lined up in the shotgun no more than 20 times, says McCullough, a former Acadiana quarterback. Last year, his team averaged 335 yards rushing per game and threw a total of 72 passes. The Rams won 11 games, advanced to the state semifinals and averaged 37.9 points an outing. Bill Dotson's son Doug, is the coach at Comeaux High, six miles from Acadiana. Schools in this region never felt the need to experiment with anything else. "If it ain't broke," Dotson says, "don't fix it."

But outside this pocket of Louisiana—at high schools and certainly at the college level around the country—the option (triple, veer or any other iteration) faces an uncertain future. It's not as if it has been thriving over the last two decades anyway, but recent rules changes may doom it.

THE ZONE-READ, a kind of double option, has become pervasive in high school and college football; the triple option is rarely deployed and even when it is, it's often cloaked as a form of the spread offense. Some triples remain in their natural state (Army, Georgia Tech and Navy), pure battering rams operated from under center. Others are slightly tweaked (Air Force, New Mexico, Tulane and Nebraska, under new coach Scott Frost). The number of option practitioners has been dwindling since the 1980s, but the formation has never wavered at Georgia Tech, where Paul Johnson, the man some call the triple option's godfather, instituted it in 2008 after coming from Navy. Johnson's teams won 65.6% of their games and 11 conference, division or national championships at three schools. The other three Division I teams operating the pure form of the option are connected to Johnson too. Johnson, who's 61, says, "I'm not sure how many people who really know it are left," but his former assistants are thriving at Army (Jeff Monken), Navy (Ken Niumatalolo) and Kennesaw State (Brian Bohannon), an upstart FCS program. Entering this season, that trio is 54--24 with five postseason wins. At Navy, Johnson won two games with the Midshipmen in his first year as head coach ('02) and then won eight in his second with an offense that was all the rage decades ago. In those early years he'd often receive phone calls from a young coach at Utah named Urban Meyer, who was looking to pick his brain. The conversations would often end the same way: Meyer would remind Johnson and the Navy staff to keep the conversations on the down low. "Don't tell anybody!" Johnson remembers them saying. "We don't want to get labeled!"

The option family is always fighting the label—productive, but boring. Option teams claimed one third of the national championships from 1950 to '79, but the golden years are gone. Why? Coaches, like Lou Holtz at Arkansas in the early-1980s, ditched the system because high-profile recruits didn't want to play in it. "Talk to the high school coaches," says Johnson. "They'll tell you the kids want to be receivers."

The option is the "great talent equalizer," says Gerry DiNardo, former option coach at Vanderbilt and Notre Dame who's now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. DiNardo was offensive coordinator at Colorado when they won a share of the national title in 1990. The core value of the triple option is simple: Outnumber the defense, 11 to 10, by reading a defensive lineman's movement instead of blocking him and employing your quarterback as a runner. That's important for those teams with recruiting disadvantages like the service academies. There is no denying that the option does present challenges for the opposition. Preparing to defend the option often takes months—not days. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne says the Huskers in the '70s and '80s would spend one period each Monday from the start of the season practicing to defend against Oklahoma's wishbone attack, which they would not face until late in the season. It took Osborne's Nebraska teams 10 years of facing Barry Switzer's wishbone to finally begin to slow it, which meant holding it under 250 yards rushing.

SOUTHERN GEORGIA loves option football as much as southern Louisiana does. Since the Georgia Southern football program restarted in 1982, after a 41-year lapse, the Eagles have only strayed from the scheme during one three-year stretch, from 2007 to '09. Before moving to the FBS in '14, the Eagles won six Division I-AA national championships. Dozens of option-family members have cycled through Statesboro, Ga. Willie Fritz, now the head coach at Tulane, left Sam Houston State in '14 for a two-year term at GSU, where his shotgun-based triple option led the nation in rushing. Bob DeBesse is now the offensive coordinator at GSU, running the same shotgun-based triple option he and Fritz invented at Sam Houston. Who instituted the option at Georgia Southern? Johnson, of course, who was made offensive coordinator in 1985 by former GSU head coach Erk Russell. Johnson and assistant Tim Stowers took a hodgepodge offense that incorporated some of then USFL coach June Jones's run-and-shoot and an I-formation option and implemented what they still refer to as the "spread option." The formation is most similar to the flexbone, a derivation of the wishbone, in which two halfbacks are positioned just behind a center or tackle instead of in the backfield—a way to get "four receivers out quickly," says Johnson, who still uses the formation at Georgia Tech.

The biggest threat today to the option's survival isn't bored fans or unenthusiastic recruits. It's a rule change made this spring prohibiting cut blocks—blocking below the waist from the front—outside of five yards from the line of scrimmage; to improve player safety. The cut block is an essential piece to all triple-option teams, a method to quickly remove a defender from a play by slicing his feet from underneath him. "There is no data to support that it makes the game safer removing it," Monken says. "It's a way for other coaches to try to eliminate this offense."

Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, was in the room when coaches were debating the rule. Berry says the rule is "data-driven" and adds, "The majority of the injuries were happening on lower bodies on full-speed cut blocks." Furman coach Clay Hendrix, whose Paladins run the option, believes that rules committee members have an "agenda," he says. "Maybe because of who they have to play against."

PAUL JOHNSON is not afraid to acknowledge that his offense is dying. "I know I'm at the back end," he says, "but I'm glad [others] don't do it. It makes us unique."

Defenses, accustomed to battling up-tempo spread systems, are stocked with quickness and speed. They are more vulnerable up front against an offense that prides itself on firing off the ball quickly with a man-to-man blocking scheme uncommon in a sport captivated with zone blocking. "Most O-lines now go east and west, pass protecting or retreating," says Niumatalolo, whose program has appeared in the Top 25 three straight seasons. "We're always going north and south."

Johnson says he actually considered moving to a shotgun triple option a few years ago, but that he ultimately decided to remain under center because plays didn't "hit" as quickly from the shotgun. The speed at which line blocks are delivered is important. Niumatalolo and his Navy staff visited New Mexico, and they've incorporated traces of the Lobos' shotgun-based triple option that DeBesse implemented in 2012 after leaving Sam Houston. DeBesse spent six seasons under Bob Davie at New Mexico before moving to GSU, and the Lobos made the school's first back-to-back bowl trips in nearly a decade. The offense had a similar effect in reviving a struggling Sam Houston in 2010--11. Fritz and DeBesse installed a partial shotgun option, won six games and then implemented the full scheme in the offseason. The Bearkats then went 14--1 and advanced to the NCAA Division I championship. "I had people all over America calling us," Fritz says. DeBesse says he and Fritz stumbled upon the scheme, taking some zone-read principles, DeBesse's background with the veer, sprinkling in some pistol formation and adding men in motion. Voilà!

Fritz is now in his third season at Tulane. His version of the option is similar to the one Acadiana uses, but Tulane's QB is in the shotgun, he has receivers scattered across the field and there are men in motion at the snap. But now Fritz and coordinator Doug Ruse, are tweaking their system because D's have grasped the old one. Coaches are adding new components, like the run-pass option, the latest craze in the game, to stay one step ahead. Triple option and RPO in one offense? "We'll give teams a taste of both," smiles Ruse.

DOUG DOTSON played QB for his father at Acadiana. Bill Dotson used to make his son sit on the back of a chair and pitch footballs into a laundry basket for hours each day. Maybe that's a technique Bill learned from Bill Yeoman, who taught him the split-back veer in 1974. Yeoman is 90 and has dementia, his son says. Bill Dotson died in 2001 of cancer. Doug moved away from the triple option early in his career, but recently he had an epiphany. He is in the process of installing the flexbone-based option. It takes years to perfect but he hopes to build at Comeaux what his dad constructed across town at Acadiana. So, even as the triple option is dying everywhere else, another generation in this area will get a chance to run the dive, the option—and if they're good enough—the pitch. For his new pupils, Doug needs that laundry basket again, the kind with wheels, just like the one his dad used to teach him.

"I wonder if they still make those?" he asked himself recently before scouring the Web. "Sure enough," he says, "they do."

FRUIT OF THE TREE

Over seven decades, the option offense has been handed down through every level of football, passed along by a family of coaches who learned the system as assistants and brought it elsewhere. With each generation, the option has evolved, but the root remains the same. This diagram tracks the flow of ideas among the option's most prominent influencers. The traditional under-center formation may be dying, but the concept lives on in more modern schemes at programs including those at Florida, Ohio State and Texas.

[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]

JIM TATUMMaryland [SPLIT T]

DON FAUROTMissouri [SPLIT T]

BUD WILKINSONOklahoma [SPLIT T]

DAN MULLENFlorida [SPREAD]

URBAN MEYEROhio State [SPREAD]

TOM HERMANTexas [SPREAD]

BOB DAVIENew Mexico [SPREAD]

LOU HOLTZN.C. State [SPLIT BACK VEER]

BILL YEOMANHouston [SPLIT BACK VEER]

JIM WACKERTCU [SPLIT BACK VEER]

BOB DEBESSEGeorgia Southern [SPREAD]

WILLIE FRITZTulane [SPREAD]

TROY CALHOUNAir Force [FLEXBONE]

KEN HATFIELDArkansas [FLEXBONE]

FISHER DEBERRYAir Force [FLEXBONE]

CLAY HENDRIXFurman [FLEXBONE]

BILL MCCARTNEYColorado [I OPTION]

GERRY DINARDOVanderbilt [I OPTION]

JIM BRAKEFIELDApp. State [WISHBONE]

EMORY BELLARDTEXAS [WISHBONE]

BEAR BRYANTAlabama [WISHBONE]

PAT DYEAuburn [WISHBONE]

LARRY LACEWELLArkansas State [WISHBONE]

BARRY SWITZEROklahoma [WISHBONE]

PAUL JOHNSONGeorgia Tech [FLEXBONE]

TIM STOWERSGeorgia Southern [FLEXBONE]

KEN NIUMATALOLONavy [FLEXBONE]

JEFF MONKENArmy [FLEXBONE]

BRIAN BOHANNONKennesaw State [FLEXBONE]

TOM OSBORNENebraska [I OPTION]

FRANK SOLICHOhio U. [I OPTION]

SCOTT FROSTNebraska [SPREAD]

SPLIT T

The formation that launched a football revolution is implemented by Don Faurot at Missouri in the 1940s.

SPLIT BACK VEER

In the 1960s Houston's Bill Yeoman moves both backs closer to the line, just off the lineman's hips, with the goal to hit holes quicker.

WISHBONE

Texas offensive coordinator Emory Bellard (later head coach at Texas A&M) adds a fullback to the formation.

FLEXBONE

To create more options for the passing game, this formation, pioneered in the 1980s, moves the tailbacks into the slot.

I OPTION

Wishbone concepts are grafted onto the traditional two-back I to power Colorado to the 1990 national title.

SPREAD

Run out of the shotgun, with WRs swinging in, this formation accentuates the talents of a new era of dual-threat QBs.