Are Read-Option Quarterbacks Destined for Shorter NFL Careers?
We all know the new rage in the NFL: the read-option quarterback.
While the read-option is certainly exciting for fans, it's also exciting for the quarterbacks who play it. The question is, could it be too exciting?
Given that read-option quarterbacks tend to be exposed to more hits, will they end up with shorter careers on average?
The answer is: Yes.
Am I waffling?
Not really, because the truth is that the answer has a ton to do with each individual quarterback.
I'll get to what that means in a second, but first let's acknowledge that we have a very short sample size so far and an equally short list of players who fit the bill.
It's hard to be definitive when you only have about half a dozen players who you can examine.
Also, let's point to the fact that the read-option may not stick—or, as Pete Prisco of CBS Sports likes to say:
I compared the read option to Gangnam Style. Five years from now, nobody will know it even existed.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) January 14, 2013
If it's the next Wildcat formation, and not the next spread offense, then sure, some of the read-option bunch will have a shorter time in the sun.
How defensive coordinators adjust to the offense will be a huge storyline this season and have a tremendous impact on how long the read-option is around.
We saw teams get blown up last year when they didn't adjust well to it. It's enough of a problem that the Green Bay Packers sent coaches to Texas A&M to study how to counter it, as mentioned in an article by Rob Demovsky in the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller put together an excellent piece on how defenses might cope with the read-option, which I highly recommend reading.
As Miller says in his piece, stopping the read-option is a difficult task and really cannot be done overnight. You may see some gains this year in defending it, but they won't be huge, because you also need the right players.
It's one of the reasons you saw the Packers take Datone Jones, a hard-tackling and, more importantly, versatile player who takes good angles and is smart enough to avoid getting fooled.
The NFL is a league of push and pull between the offense and defense. One comes up with a new look, and the other counters.
Unlike the Wildcat, the read-option is more dangerous due to the ability of the quarterback to throw as well as run, and it will take longer for teams to subdue.
Ultimately, though, the longevity of a read-option quarterback's career (and the read-option itself) will be defined by each individual quarterback. His skills, his build and his ability to alter his game to protect himself are huge factors.
Right now we have four "veteran" quarterbacks who fit the bill for a read-option signal-caller. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton are guys who run it to some percentage most games.
EJ Manuel and Geno Smith are rookies who could run it. Smith isn't a runner, though. He can run; it's just not his mentality. He's predominantly a pocket passer who can move.
Manuel is not a starter yet, and we don't know 100 percent what the offense will be in Buffalo.
Besides, it's impossible to really involve incoming rookies here with so many factors at play.
Tim Tebow conceivably could run it, but as he doesn't have a team and certainly has issues as a passer, he is also not included here.
Alex Smith and Andrew Luck could run the read-option, but neither one is set to (although it will be interesting to see what Kansas City does for Smith). Michael Vick could as well but hasn't in some time (and actually would be a poster boy for abbreviated careers if he did).
Looking at our original list, here are the builds and sizes of the four current read-option quarterbacks (and again, that's not all they do, just a part of it):
Robert Griffin III: 6'2", 217 pounds
Russell Wilson: 5'11", 206 pounds
Colin Kaepernick: 6'4", 230 pounds
Cam Newton: 6'5", 245 pounds
Of course, Wilson is clearly the shortest and lightest, while Newton is the Mack Truck of the group.
Put a pin in that line of thought for a minute and we'll get back to it. Along with size and mass, we need to talk about football smarts and adaptability.
Of the four above, only one left the field injured. You could see Griffin's injury a mile away though, couldn't you? I respect the fact that RG3 will take a hit, but he is apparently religiously opposed to running out of bounds or even sliding.
Sometimes you have to take a big hit, read-option or not. Sometimes it's wiser to avoid the hit.
Griffin is not one to avoid the hit, and the result was a torn ACL. Of course, staying in the playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks on the horrific field had its place in causing the injury, but that's decision-making as well and needs to be adjusted.
For what it's worth, Griffin says if he's injured like was against the Seahawks, he'll take himself out (from ESPN The Magazine, via the Washington Post).
Even if he does, though, and even if he learns to slide, at a relatively slight 6'2", 217 pounds, he's not built to withstand the pounding.
It's why I feel better about Wilson going forward rather than Griffin, in terms of durability.
Yes, at 5'11", Wilson is shorter than Griffin, but his body type is far stouter than Griffin's and is likely to withstand a big hit a little better.
Also, Wilson was not shy about sliding and running out of bounds after he got jacked up a few times early in the season.
But slide or not, Wilson (as any read-option quarterback will have happen) will take a big hit sometimes and is better built to survive it.
Ditto Kaepernick, who was fine getting out of bounds and sliding.
In fact, while watching both players, it struck me how wise it was that they limited their exposure to the big hits. Again, as a read-option quarterback, you will get hammered. Heck, as any quarterback you will, but the read-option exposes you to more big hits than being a pocket passer.
So why not do what you can to limit your exposure to that?
Griffin appears to be wising up to it, but we'll see if it sticks into the season.
Again, it depends on the quarterback.
That's why in some cases, the answer will be yes, he will have a shorter career. If a quarterback can't adjust to protect himself, he will end up hurt.
And no, it shouldn't make too much of a difference—if a quarterback takes care of himself.
In the end, the read-option will be around for a while. There are plenty of quarterbacks who can run it who will enter the NFL over the next few years, and while they will never replace pocket passers, they will add an interesting flavor to the NFL.
When it comes down to it, the length of a read-option quarterback's career will come down to whether he can stay off the trainer's table and on the field.
All measurables according to NFL.com.
Andrew Garda is the former NFC North Lead Writer and a current NFL analyst and video personality for Bleacher Report. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at Footballguys and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.
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