The read option has been run at the high school and collegiate level for years. Just recently, with the emergence of extraordinary talented quarterbacks coming out of college, a handful of pro teams have started incorporating it into their own offenses.
The pistol formation is now in style in the NFL. But will it last?
The read option is, as the name suggests, a simple option play. There are many forms of it, and many different running and passing plays can branch out of it.
Whether or not the play works is determined by the defense. The quarterback will read the outside linebacker (or defensive end, depending on the formation) and then make his decision whether to keep the ball and run or hand off to the back.
The key to stopping it on defense is by playing assignment football—the defensive ends/outside linebackers cannot crash down the line of scrimmage, as is their natural instinct.
In read-option runs, the quarterback puts the DE/OLB (depending on the defensive scheme, it could be either the DE or OLB) on an island. If the OLB crashes hard down the line of scrimmage, the QB will keep the ball and run himself. Here’s a look from last week’s game in Washington:
In the above image, the Panthers are preparing to run a read-option run, isolatingRedskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. An aggressive player, Kerriganis eager to crash down the line of scrimmage, looking to track down the running back. Unfortunately for Ryan, that’s exactly what Carolina wanted him to do.
As the outside linebacker reads run, he crashes hard, neglecting his outside contain responsibility. Quarterback Cam Newton reads Kerrigan crashing and keeps the ball himself.
By the time Washington’s defense realizes it has been fooled, Newton has already rushed for 10 yards and gained a first down. Had Kerrigan trusted his teammates and played his responsibility, the play could have ended very differently.
So how can an OLB/DE properly read this play Carolina has run so successfully this season? By staying at home (in football terms, not literally).
Below, veteran linebacker London Fletcher, not as spry as Kerrigan but more experienced and wiser, counters Carolina’s read-option to perfection.
Trusting his fellow linebackers and defensive linemen to do their jobs and clean up anything he turns back towards the middle of the field, Fletcher knows his responsibility on this play is to contain the edge by not crashing down the line of scrimmage.
In the above graphic, the OLB reads the run and stays home, waiting to pursue running back Jonathan Stewart or keep Newton from getting around the edge.
As the play develops, Fletcher engages his blocker while still maintaining the edge, keeping Newton from running outside. As a result, Newton’s only option is to turn back inside, where Fletcher’s teammates are able to converge on Cam.
By not crashing down the line of scrimmage and playing his responsibility, Fletcher limited Newton to a three-yard gain on the same play that Newton ran for 10 yards earlier in the game. Denver’s outside linebackers and defensive ends can have similar success this weekend by containing the edge and not playing overly aggressive.
The option is an exciting play and has the potential to be a big play each time it is run. In Week 14, Cam Newton bolted 72-yards for a touchdown on an option keeper.
The pros to the read option are known, but the cons may eventually lead to its demise.
Either this is the future of the NFL or another Wild Cat-like fad, these option offenses only last as long as defenses cannot figure them out. Sooner or later, every option offense will be shut down.
In the 2012 divisional playoffs, the New England Patriots shut down the Broncos' read option with disciplined defense, playing assignment football. In the game, the option led to several miscues by the Broncos' offense and was ultimately responsible for Tebow suffering multiple rib, lung and chest injuries in the game.
Say what you want about Tim Tebow's ability—or lack of it—to play football in the NFL, but the moral of the story still holds true. Every read-option offense can be shut down, and running such offenses creates the unnecessary risk of quarterback injury.
For full disclosure, I am a fan of watching the read option—it is exciting. Watching a quarterback run 20-plus yards on a designed play gives the game a Madden video game-like feeling, which is entertaining.
But I have also run the read option and played against it (shutting it down, I might add). You live and die by it.
The Redskins' 2012 season ultimately ended because of a re-occurring leg injury suffered by quarterback Robert Griffin III, who ran the read option extensively in the regular season. After being abused throughout the year and further damaging his knee in the playoffs, RG3 was finally forced to leave the Wild Card game against Seattle last weekend.
With a healthy RG3, the Redskins offense was explosive. With a half-strength RG3, the Redskins offense was doll and ineffective.
In the same game that Griffin left due to injury, Seattle's Russell Wilson fumbled on an exchange with Marshawn Lynch on a read-option running play. Fortunately for the Seahawks, the ball was recovered by Lynch, and the play resulted in a net gain.
If Seattle makes it to the NFC Championship game—against either San Francisco or Green Bay—ball security will be of the utmost importance against the two ball-hawking defenses. Falling in the playoffs because of a miscue on an option play is not how Seattle wants their season to end, but it could become a reality.
As a fan, I enjoy watching the option have temporal success in the NFL. As a former defensive back and outside linebacker, I don't expect the option to have a long run in the pros (pun intended).
Time will tell the outcome of this story. In the meantime, enjoy watching the option—it may not be here much longer.