The option offense has long been used by college football programs across the nation. In the National Football League, however, a league based primarily upon downfield passing, use of the option offense is a rarity.
The option made a surprising NFL resurgence in 2011, however, when Tim Tebow became the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos. Tebow, who won a Heisman Trophy and two national championship as a quarterback in Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense at Florida, showed that the option offense can still be effective in the NFL as he led the Broncos to an AFC West title and a first-round postseason victory.
The Broncos, however, replaced Tebow with free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning, a pocket passer in the truest sense, and with that, remnants of the option offense will likely be completely removed from their playbook in 2012. With Tebow now a backup quarterback for the New York Jets, can the option offense make a true resurgence in the league?
Potential for Success as an NFL Option Offense
With Tebow leading their option-based offense last season, the Broncos had the NFL’s best rushing attack. The Broncos averaged 164.5 yards per game on the ground, 11.5 yards better than their closest competition.
One game where the Broncos really showed the effectiveness of the option run game came in their Week 8 matchup against the Oakland Raiders, in which they ran for a season high 299 yards.
With multiple running threats coming out of the backfield, the option can create big plays both by spacing out and deceiving the opposing defense. On one play, this deception helped Tebow to a 32-yard gain against the Raiders, as he sprinted through a wide open left side of the field.
This play came as a matter of using the first option to lead the defense one way, then using the second option to take advantage of the created gap.
The start of the play shows that the defensive front seven is evenly spaced, but with running back Willis McGahee lined up to his left, the entire defense bites as Tebow fakes a handoff to his back.
As a result, the defensive front seven lost containment of Tebow, making Tebow’s job of running for big yardage easy.
Running from the option can also create big plays for the running back. Later in that same game versus the Raiders, McGahee had a season-best 60-yard touchdown run (click link for NFL.com video).
While the Raiders defense previously paid the price for committing too much, this was an instance where a lack of commitment cost the team dearly.
On this play, the option created massive spacing within the Raiders’ defense. The Raiders sent Kamerion Wimbley to the front of the defense to create a five-man front line, with their other two linebackers lining up wide in an effort to contain either runner should Tebow go left or McGahee go right.
What the defense failed to account for was McGahee going left, then cutting back inside. The Broncos’ left guard and center did a tremendous job of creating a hole going up the middle, and once McGahee made it past the line of scrimmage, there was little but open field in front of him.
The 2011 Broncos are the most recent example of success with the option offense, but they are certainly not the only example. Another player who has made waves with the option offense is another team’s second-string quarterback, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers.
Kaepernick’s success as an option quarterback at Nevada made him the only player in NCAA history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and also rush for more than 4,000 yards over his career. In the 49ers’ opener this preseason versus the Minnesota Vikings, Kaepernick showed glimpses of how he can use his dual-threat, option offense skills effectively in the NFL.
This play is a textbook example of how a quarterback read-option run can equal a big offensive play.
Kaepernick uses his eyes well on this play. As he faked the handoff to running back LaMichael James, all of the front seven defenders went toward the left side of the field, leaving an opening to the right side that Kaepernick read properly.
From there, Kaepernick simply used his speed (he ran a 4.53 second 40-yard dash at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine) to do the rest of the work.
He hits the hole at a perfect angle, while cornerback Chris Cook and strong safety Jamarca Sanford are forced to unlock their hips and turn upfield.
This allows Kaepernick to separate from both defenders and run all the way downfield for a 78-yard touchdown run.
Why the Option Offense Remains Unlikely To Catch On in the NFL
Even though the Broncos were first in rushing yardage per game last season, they were only 23rd in total yardage per game and 25th in total points per game.
In recent years, the NFL has continued to grow each year as a passing-oriented league, and the option offense may simply be unable to keep up. The option is a run-based offense that utilizes mostly short passing, while the speed of the NFL game favors intermediate-to-long downfield passing that exposes flaws in opposing defenses, rather than create them.
While many variations of the option offense have proved to be very successful at the collegiate level, NFL defenses are much faster and much more disciplined.
Linebackers and safeties have better speed and instincts at the NFL level, enabling them to track down many more outside running plays than most collegiate linebackers. Meanwhile, because of the speed, intelligence and complexity of the NFL defensive game, NFL team defenses have much more complete field coverage than even the best collegiate defenses.
While the option offense can create big plays and be very tough to stop for an unprepared defense, it can be a slow-moving struggle against a disciplined defense.
Option running can create mishaps with its hesitation, but hesitation in the backfield also gives the opposing defense more time and opportunity to break up the play before it ever leaves the backfield. Additionally, while Tebow’s Broncos may have defied the odds with five fourth-quarter comebacks last season, the option is a generally ineffective late-game offense because it runs more time off the clock and usually lacks quick downfield passing strikes.
So while the option offense has created some great fireworks, both last season and in this preseason, do not expect it to become a growing trend in 2012. Tebow and Kaepernick are both backups, and there is not another team or starting quarterback projected to frequently utilize the option offense this year, a move that is probably for the better league-wide.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.