Read-Option Offenses: Flash-in-the-Pan Gimmick or Here to Stay?
On a late winter night in 2008, I stumbled upon a recorded West Virginia Mountaineers game highlighted by quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton running untouched into the end zone on multiple occasions.
The Mountaineers were coached by Rich Rodriguez, who created the zone-read-option offense by pure accident. I wasn't entirely familiar with the intricacies of the zone read, but I thought that it could be successful in the NFL because of the trouble it caused for defensive linemen at the college level.
Over the course of the next three years, I watched NFL broadcasts and a few coaches' films of previous years that showed off quarterbacks running the zone read, including Michael Vick, Alex Smith and later, Cam Newton.
At 6'5'' and 248 pounds, Newton was the ultimate dual-threat quarterback when he came out of Auburn in 2011. Once Newton was drafted No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski utilized the concept with Newton.
A year later, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick saw their own teams implement the package.
The concept was successful because it placed stress on the defender who's being read. Teams have read the defensive end, defensive tackle or middle linebacker in the past, but for the sake of discussion, the focus will be on a backside defensive end.
When the ball is snapped, the defensive end is not blocked. Rather, the offensive line blocks down and looks to get the rest of the defensive linemen going toward the sideline.
By accomplishing this, the chances of a defensive lineman making a play on the ball-carrier are lower. The unblocked defensive end has a free shot at the ball-carrier, but he has to find out who has the ball and is forced to commit in one direction.
Here's an example from last weekend's game between the 49ers and Dolphins. Late in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick was facing 3rd-and-5 and received the play call of a zone-read option.
Once he took the shotgun snap, his offensive line blocked down toward his right and left the backside defensive end unblocked. Kaepernick brought the ball down as if he was handing it off to Frank Gore, and he looked in the direction of defensive end Jared Odrick.
If Odrick crashed inside, Kaepernick would keep the ball and run outside where his blockers were. If Odrick stayed, Kaepernick would simply hand the ball off to Gore for an inside run.
Another selling point on the run would be the tight end, Garrett Celek, coming down for an apparent trap block on Odrick, but he was really just going to run by him.
Eventually, Odrick charged the inside gap. Kaepernick kept the ball and scrambled to the outside for what became a brilliant 50-yard touchdown run.
If Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly ever comes to the NFL, we can only imagine how many variations there will be. Kelly has done an exceptional job of adjusting to defenses, and he is great at plugging whomever he has into his system.
Some may suggest the Wildcat offense didn't have a long shelf life in the NFL, but it is worth noting that it was not a failure. The strength of the scheme was blockers at the point of attack, but teams have gone away from that.
Will the zone-read option stay in the NFL for the long haul?
When the Miami Dolphins' David Lee used the scheme, it featured an unbalanced line (tackle over) that led the way for the ball-carrier, whether it was the trigger man or the jet sweeper.
Other teams started to do this as well, but they changed it by using other blocking schemes along with traditional linemen sets and introducing passing packages.
At its peak, the Wildcat was very successful and could have had sustained success had teams stuck with the original plan. This shouldn't be the case with the zone-read option.
It already has many variations and has been successful over a long span at the college and professional level.
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