Reading This Is Optional
July 27, 2013 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Offenses attack; defenses react. This is a truism, but it's a truism on which almost all sports strategy is built. In the NFL today, no tactic more pressingly requires a swift, strong reaction than the so-called "read-option." Defending the Read-Option sends coaches back to college. If the read-option is dead, the next great offensive strategy may also be one of the oldest, it was good enough to beat Sean Payton and a bevy of NFL coaches.
posted by Ghostride The Whip (57 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
God, it pisses me off to see Kaepernick's picture at the top of that article.

Go Hawks!
posted by The Hamms Bear at 9:05 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hopefully just hiring a college coach instead of consulting them for advice will work out.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:28 PM on July 27, 2013

During his Roger Goodell–mandated suspension from the Saints, Payton spent his time coaching his son's sixth-grade pee wee football team, the Liberty Christian Warriors, who eventually went to the league championship game.

Can you imagine signing up your kid for pee wee football only to discover his coach is Sean Payton. The Sean Payton, the same one that brought the New Orleans Saints to the Superbowl and won!!!

Welcome back Coach Payton, we missed you in New Orleans.
posted by JujuB at 9:29 PM on July 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

A fun fact about the word football: it originally was used to differentiate games played on foot, versus those on horseback. So the much-derided "American football uses hands" is something of a mistake, though perhaps an understandable one when compared to soccer's foot usage.

The American use of "soccer" to refer to what most everybody else calls football is also teased. However, the word originated with the sport's full name of "association football," from which came the decidedly British, Oxford -er nickname of "soccer" (also rugger and footer).

Offenses attack; defenses react.

One of my favorite baseball fun facts is that, unlike most other sports, the ball is put in play by the defense.

posted by Celsius1414 at 9:33 PM on July 27, 2013 [12 favorites]

posted by jabo at 10:13 PM on July 27, 2013

Uh, so, the NFL is looking at re-adoption of the read-option.

Someone had to say it. I'm so, so sorry.
posted by converge at 10:21 PM on July 27, 2013 [21 favorites]

Plus, that readoption tag is going to seriously screw with someone's AskMe search someday.
posted by converge at 10:23 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is amazing. I literally do not understand this issue at all. Now I understand how Americans feel about cricket. Can someone give me a really dumb explanation?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:37 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

You block everybody but one guy. That one guy has to choose to cover one of your two guys. The guy he doesn't choose runs down the field with the ball. The other team tries to prevent that.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:52 PM on July 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

The Grantland article gives a decent explanation of why defenses have a problem with it, but that may only make sense if you already have an understanding of how American football works.

Basically, only a couple people on the offense in football are allowed to touch the ball (barring a fumble or something). As is often derided, there's one play, and then once that play is "dead", everything stops and everyone sets up again to start from scratch wherever the ball ended up last time. The play is started by the ball being given to the quarterback (QB). In normal football, before the read-option came up, once the QB gets rid of the ball, either by a forward pass or handing it off, the defense really doesn't have to worry about him any more, and the offense then plays at a disadvantage because it's then a 11-on-10 game. The read-option keeps the QB in the package much longer AND deliberately ignores one player on the defense by routing the play away from him, which effectively gives the offense an 11-10 advantage. So, defenses have had the tide swing two players against them from what they're used to, and that's a really big adjustment to make.
posted by LionIndex at 10:53 PM on July 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

This is amazing. I literally do not understand this issue at all. Now I understand how Americans feel about cricket. Can someone give me a really dumb explanation?

So, we'll skip the intro about gaining yardage, first downs and scoring points in football. In football, offenses have always known what they're going to do with the ball before the ball is snapped to the quarterback. They're either going to run it or they're going to throw it, and which choice that will be is pre-determined before the play is run. The read-option is different. The team knows what area of the field they're going to attack, but the quarterback can either hand the ball off, keep the ball and run it himself, or keep the ball and then pass it. This determination is made as the play develops and the QB sees what the defense is going to do. The offense intentionally leaves one defender unblocked, and how he reacts determines which choice the QB will make.

Before, if the defense sniffed out your pre-determined play, you were pretty well screwed. With the read-option, the defense has to cover everyone, everywhere, and a good QB will be able to identify the area of the field where the defense is weakest and act accordingly. But it requires a player at quarterback that is able to make those reads extremely quickly, and who can execute immediately.
posted by azpenguin at 10:58 PM on July 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I like how Bill Walsh talked about how the single wing offense would wreak havoc on defenses, as his West Coast Offense always struck me as a variation on the single wing whenever the QB lined up in the shotgun formation on his teams.
posted by KingEdRa at 11:01 PM on July 27, 2013

Joe in Australia: "This is amazing. I literally do not understand this issue at all. Now I understand how Americans feel about cricket. Can someone give me a really dumb explanation?"

American football features two major kinds of plays: carrying the ball while running with it or throwing it. Defending against one but not the other is simple; you defend the run by having everyone as close as allowed to the ball at the start of the play (the line of scrimmage), and you defend the run by matching your fast people with their players eligible to catch it (receivers), and having them start away from the line of scrimmage to have a head start.

The challenge is to defend against both; you typically have something like a zone defense where some of your players are on the line of scrimmage, and others sit midrange so they can respond to the play as it reveals itself to be a pass or a run, and either running to the line of scrimmage to tackle a runner who breaks through, or falling back to double cover recievers. You also have one player far back in the safety position far back to cover the case when the offense players are faster than the defenders, or manage to trick your defenders with clever footwork or choreography.

Normally the defense reacts to the offense, so the read option turns this on its ear, by having the quarterback and running back run the ball nearly together, and deciding at a critical moment near the line of scrimmage what to do. This all works because the safety position is far away from the line of scrimmage. Because of that, there ends up being one defender who has to pick whether to block the quarterback or running back (but not both). Hence it's called an read option, since it requires the quarterback to read the defensive reaction, and there's an option to run the ball or pass.

And you can't just pull the safety in because if you do that reliably, the offense will try to run a passing play with a high chance of their fastest player becoming wide open for a pass. And because he's the fastest player, also a touchdown for 7 points. But as the article points out, this requires quarterbacks, handsomely paid for their ability to think on their feet and throw a ball real, real good, to block people paid to lift weights and run real fast all day. Injury is a serious problem in the NFL, and the difference between your star quarterback and your 2nd string quarterback is going to be huge if you care at all about franchise profitability.
posted by pwnguin at 11:12 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Basically, only a couple people on the offense in football are allowed to touch the ball (barring a fumble or something)

not true. There is no rule that prohibits all the backs or receivers touching the ball on a given play (even twice on the same play see the "Flea flicker")

Of course its usually the quarterback giving it to a running back or throwing it to to a receiver and thats the play but not always.

The real issue here is the Running quarterback. The NFL has made the transition to more athletic quarterbacks (usually black quarterbacks, just saying) who can run like running backs and the read option and other plays take advantage of this.

The NFL wants to be a passing league though so i dont think this will be a sea change.
posted by Colonel Panic at 11:15 PM on July 27, 2013

When you say "only a couple people on the offense in football are allowed to touch the ball" you mean that their coach has said "this is what your job is, and you are not to do anything else", right? It's not forbidden by the rules of the actual game? So this terrifying new-old tactic is basically letting a player with the opportunity to score points, score points?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:15 PM on July 27, 2013

No, generally linemen are forbidden from touching the ball by rule. There's an exception to that where they can "report eligible" if they line up in a certain position.

not true. There is no rule that prohibits all the backs or receivers touching the ball on a given play (even twice on the same play see the "Flea flicker")

That's not really what I meant.

So this terrifying new-old tactic is basically letting a player with the opportunity to score points, score points?

Yeah, basically. And previously, that player (the QB) rarely attempted to score points/move the ball in professional football. azpenguin gave a good explanation of why that's tough for the defense.
posted by LionIndex at 11:21 PM on July 27, 2013

But yeah, "a couple" is understating how many people are allowed the touch the ball. I don't know if there's a rule limiting how many eligible players (i.e. guys that can touch the ball) are allowed in a play, but the general max would be 6 out of 11, not counting the center after he hikes the ball. Basically guys numbered 1-50 or 80-89, which is partially why guys that play simlar positions have similar numbers. On offense, kickers and QBs are usually 1-19. Half backs will be 20-39. Fullbacks will be 40-49. Receivers and tight ends will be 80-89. There are exceptions where a receiver will wear a number in the 20s or something but that's rare.
posted by LionIndex at 11:29 PM on July 27, 2013

I played football for five years and I have no idea how defense works. I mostly played offensive line, where like previous posts have said each play is predetermined. This doesn't mean O-lineman are big dumb battering rams (well, at least not dumb) but that knowing exactly what the people behind you with the ball are doing informs your reads and who to hit. Whenever I played defensive line the plays seemed to amount to "HIT THIS GUY" and I never really understood what the defensive backs were looking at to defend where they did.

So I'm saying as someone who played football for a long time but has never had any desire to watch it, I completely understand anyone's confusion on this topic.
posted by edeezy at 11:47 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could hand or lateral the ball to anybody, but the linemen can't go downfield to receive a forward pass.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:48 PM on July 27, 2013

This doesn't mean O-lineman are big dumb battering rams (well, at least not dumb)

Is there any truth to the idea that, as a whole, o-linemen actually tend to be the smartest guys on the teams? That's something I've always heard football guys say.
posted by graphnerd at 11:53 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

There have been a lot of good explanations of the read-option offence, but nobody has touched on the Pop Warner-style single wing offence that stymied Sean Payton. Not only is one side of the o-line overloaded, the center has the option to direct-snap to either of the running backs or the quarterback. One thing I'm not clear on is who is the play caller - the QB or the center? And does the center have the option to "read" the defence and change who he's snapping to?
posted by thecjm at 11:59 PM on July 27, 2013

Is there any truth to the idea that, as a whole, o-linemen actually tend to be the smartest guys on the teams?

I think it depends on what you mean by smartest. They are definitely among the most mentally "quick" people on the field. I only played in high school where the plays are relatively simple, but at higher levels o-lineman are reading and reacting on plays much quicker than anyone else because they're the first people making contact with opposing players.

The NFL somewhat famously uses the Wonderlic Test to assess players about to be drafted. I've never taken it, and don't know exactly what kind of intelligence it attempts to measure, but if you look at the average score by position four of the top five scoring positions are offensive lineman, with quarterback placing third.
posted by edeezy at 12:09 AM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Note, however, that there is no correlation between score on the Wonderlic test and NFL performance. It's voodoo more than anything.
posted by Justinian at 12:12 AM on July 28, 2013

But it let's me brag to all my friends that I played o-line and therefore am the smartest
posted by edeezy at 12:16 AM on July 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

For defense there are a number of formations. There's 3-4 and 4-3, which refer to the number of defensive linemen and linebackers specifically and each has advantages and disadvantages. VERY generally speaking, the 4-3 is better against a running or power attack since you have more guys on the line and the 3-4 is a more balanced attack but you need more good linebackers. Usually there are 2 cornerbacks, a strong safety, and a free safety.

So as to what everyone is trying to do: Usually, your defensive ends (the guys on the outside of the defensive line) are trying to beat the hell out of the quarterback or anyone that gets the ball in the backfield. The guy(s) in the middle of the line are usually trying to clog the running lanes and probably trying to get upfield and sack the quarterback if he's taking too long to throw.

Linebackers are, depending on the play, either blitzing, coming up to try and tackle on a run, or dropping back to assist in coverage. A linebacker is usually okay on something like a fullback or mid-level tight end but usually a mismatch on a good TE or WR. One linebacker may also be "spying" the quarterback, meaning they hang out, see what he's doing, and keep him from rushing, and run to the ball. Urlacher did that a lot.

So for coverage, there's basically two kinds. There's zone, meaning each of the secondary (and linebackers ,if they're dropping into coverage) is responsible for a chunk of the field. Here's an example, the famous Tampa 2. And then there's man-to-man, which is what it sounds like, each of your guys are covering one of their guys.

There are also a couple different formations, like Nickel which is five DBs (usually a 3rd CB but some play with a 3rd safety) and whatever combination of LBs and DLs you put in, and Dime which is six DBs. And then there's the 46 defense which doesn't actually refer to linemen and linebackers because football is dumb like that because you have 6 men on the line but 2 of them are linebackers and...well, if you care at this point you can go do some further reading.

Anyway, what the offense is looking for is usually mismatches or mistakes in coverage. For example, shifting around your fast pass-catching tight end means a LB winds up covering him. Or as your RB cuts across the middle, he hits the seam between the safety and the linebacker and is momentarily uncovered. Or it turns out your 3rd string CB is on the best WR they have and, hey-ho, torched for six.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:38 AM on July 28, 2013

The teams that run this style of offense need one crucial thing: a young, fast quarterback who can master the offense, elude the defense, and most importantly, absorb far more punishment than quarterbacks are usually subjected to. That last point is the key, since, as much as there are rules to protect the quarterback, one of the features (bugs?) of the read option is how it puts the QB in a position where some, if not all, of those rules no longer apply.

The thing is, the number of quarterbacks that can do this, and do this well, is vanishingly small. There's Kaepernick in SF, Wilson (I think) in Seattle, and RGIII in Washington (depending on how he recovers from the knee injury. Maybe Cam Newton.

But then look at one of the most prominent changes to the league in the last decade: the end of the every-down running back. Almost every team has a running back by committee, even teams with a 'franchise' back (Chicago has Forte, but also a solid backup behind him, Minnesota has a solid running back to spell Adrian Peterson). They have to have a dependable backup because it's almost a given that their 'star' will get injured. I don't know the current numbers, but maybe a decade or so back, the statistics were the average career in football was something like four years, but running backs averaged a full year less than that.

And that's a running back. Sure, there are important things they have to master, but they're not leading the offense. To some extent, running back can be 'plug and play,' but if the QB goes down, the drop off from first string to second string can ruin a season (I'm looking at you, Caleb Hanie). To have the most important, and traditionally, most fragile member of your team in the, again, traditionally most dangerous, injury prone situation in the game, that's just asking for trouble.

I've enjoyed watching Kaepernick and RGIII. But I'd be outright stunned if they last three more seasons in that style of offense.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:26 AM on July 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do a search for 'read option madden' on YouTube to see a bunch of videos of people explaining how to run it using the video game, which is a lot cleaner visually to read.
posted by empath at 2:03 AM on July 28, 2013

I particularly like the sixth illustration showing a play between the 49ers and Packers with one of the Packers defenders labled "??" as he faces the wrong way while Kaepernick runs behind him with the ball.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:05 AM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Required reading: Homer Rice on Triple Option Football.

... and how is this not the triple option?
posted by squorch at 2:36 AM on July 28, 2013

It's "double option." If you look at the way Nebraska used to run the triple option out of the I, there were three ways the play could go--QB, RB, or FB. (Paul Johnson's teams run it this way, too.)
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:58 AM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

That article on Sean Payton and the single-wing makes me suspect that some did finally forget the way a certain team thrilled the nation with its T formation.

Bear down, Chicago Bears!
posted by Copronymus at 3:47 AM on July 28, 2013

Football always makes me feel so dumb. I love watching it but my understanding of stuff like this is so superficial that I feel like people who do understand it better are seeing a different game than I am.
posted by octothorpe at 5:33 AM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ghidorah you omitted Michael Vick but that may be moot as his body may have endured its final meaningful season already.
posted by bukvich at 5:34 AM on July 28, 2013

It's actually not that complicated.

Imagine football is a board game.

Each player has 11 pieces to move.

One player (the offence) tries to advance 10 yards in 4 turns. The other player (the defense) tries to stop them.

Imagine each turn goes like this.

Both players set up their pieces simultaneously. The pattern the pieces are set up in is called a 'formation'

Each player also submits moves for each of their pieces at the same time. This set of moves is called the 'play'. Players choose from a book of predefined sets of moves called a 'playbook'.

Offensive plays are generally categorized as either running plays (where one piece moves the ball forward on the ground) or passing plays (where one of the pieces, called the quarterback, can throw the ball in the air to another piece, usually a Wide Receiver)

Defensive plays can be oriented to stop either the run or the pass. Usually if the defensive player correctly guesses which play the offense is going to run, they have an advantage.

There are set times during the execution of the play where the offensive player (in reality, the Quarterback) can make decisions about how the play unfolds. For example, he can choose which receiver to throw the ball to, based on how far away he is from defending pieces (how 'open' he is).

Traditionally, in a running play, there are no chances to change the play -- no 'options'.

This new play introduces options during a running play. The quarterback has a fraction of a second to 'read' the defense. The offense intentionally leaves a defender unblocked, which frees up an extra offensive player to open up a gap in the defensive line for the runner to go through. Then the quarterback looks to see what the free defensive player does. If he goes after the player that would ordinarily run the ball, the quarterback holds onto it and then runs himself in the gap the defending player opened up by moving. If the defensive player doesn't attack the runner, he gives the ball to the runner, who can run into the gap the extra offensive player opened up.

That's what the read-option is, basically.

The point of all of this is to establish what they call the 'running game' --- the ability to move the ball down the field through running alone. Once they can do that, the defense is forced to adapt by moving more people up front to stop the runner. Which then enables the offense to take advantage by running another kind of play -- the 'play action', which looks like a running play, but is actually a pass, taking advantage of the fact that their receivers can get open because the defenders are watching the run.
posted by empath at 5:49 AM on July 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

bukvitch, I sort of thought of Vick as an edge case, or more of a likely outcome. His physical gifts were undeniable, but the injuries stacked up, and he's a lot less mobile now, and without that, he's just not that good of a QB. I think the central point is that he had only a couple solid seasons, and if the NFL is moving towards the kind of disposable star system like they've got at running back, it'll be a very different league.

Then again, defenses will probably figure out how to stop this, just as they usually do with the latest flavor of the current month.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:11 AM on July 28, 2013

The single wing assumed very different personnel than you normally see in the modern game. There were no gazelle-like wide receivers zooming down the field. There were no specialized, cannon-armed (and delicate) quarterbacks surrounded by pass blocking linemen. All the backs in the offense were utility backs that could run inside or out, block, catch a pass and even launch the occasional wounded duck, normally to the wing back or a tight end that had lumbered into the open down field. The unbalanced line meant there were a lot of sweeps where the offense tried to outnumber the defenders. Misdirection was integral, where any back might receive the snap from center and then do anything with the ball in any direction. It was almost impossible to overload the defensive line or play an attacking style defense because there was no indication where the play was going by the offensive set and every offensive back retained options on every play. Even the pure option wishbone was formulaic and predictable in comparison. The single wing was closer in many ways to rugby than the modern game actually...
posted by jim in austin at 6:48 AM on July 28, 2013

Is there any truth to the idea that, as a whole, o-linemen actually tend to be the smartest guys on the teams? That's something I've always heard football guys say.

Indeed, they do tend to be very intelligent. Blocking schemes at the pro level are extremely complex, and there are so many different ones that the linemen on a team have to learn, remember, and execute.
posted by azpenguin at 6:58 AM on July 28, 2013

Nobody's running the read option in the NFL. We're not in college. These are effective passing offenses with solid play action from the shotgun and a running game bolstered by a few option plays. The fact that they have young mobile quarterbacks keeps defenses guessing, which is huge at the NFL level because misdirection allows you to get plays open - regardless of who winds up carrying the ball. But the bread & butter of modern NFL offenses remains intermediate (5-15 yard) passing. What we're seeing are different ways (a few read option plays, two tight end sets, no-huddle series) to stop defenses from simply shutting down the passing game.

It really isn't about establishing the run. The correlation of high rushing yards with wins is more about grinding out clock than it is about rushing meaning wins. We are in a passing era, and these teams are just finding ways to extend that.
posted by graymouser at 7:13 AM on July 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you scroll down on Chris Brown's smart football web site there is a great column on Tim Tebow, with comments on video recorded when Tebow was still a senior in high school.
posted by bukvich at 7:53 AM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's hard to say whether and to what extent the read option will stick around. There are a lot of imported-from-college systems that stymie defenses for a season or so due to their novelty in the NFL (wildcat, anyone?) but are quickly figured out. The read option was particularly effective last season because it really takes a 3-4 to defend it and your pass rushers have to use a different technique (i.e., they can't just go straight for the QB).

The thing that makes today's crop of read option/running QBs especially deadly is that, in addition to their abilities running the ball, they also have good accuracy throwing it either on the run or from a fixed position. This has been a major issue with running QBs in the past, with Michael Vick and Tim Tebow being the obvious modern examples.

There are several things that suggest to me that the read option won't last and that these new running QBs will run into problems sooner than later.

The first and most obvious one is injuries. As others have pointed out, there is a variety of protections in place for QBs when they are passing the ball, designed to reflect both their somewhat helpless position standing back there and their central importance to the success of the modern game. But once the QB starts running, he is not considered a passer any more, even if he does eventually pass the ball -- now he is a runner with no special protections. The running QBs not only don't have the classic physical attributes of durable "every down" running backs that can hold up under a lot of punishment, but because they are not running backs they often don't have the ingrained physical discipline to put their bodies in positions that minimize the dangerous impact of tackles and hits (or their scrambles make this impossible). This means that most read option or running QBs eventually absorb punishing hits and incur injuries that take them out of games, seasons or even careers. I don't know if Michael Vick ever played a compete season, and the RG3 injury demonstrates just how dangerous this can be. It's hard to think of a "dual threat" QB in the NFL for whom injuries didn't play a major limiting role.

Another thing that goes along with splitting their attention and techniques between running and throwing is accuracy (although the current guys are unusual in having good accuracy) and accumulating the knowledge, tools and experience that enable them to understand the fullness of the complex modern passing game and execute it at a high level. The read option by its very nature reduces the passing options for the QB and very much simplifies the kinds of reads, analysis and adjustments he has to handle. So, as NFL defenses start to figure out how to neutralize the ground game aspects of the read option, these QBs are going to have to beat teams with their accuracy and understanding of how to attack the defense with the complex read-progression passing game. Many running QBs have never really faced this prospect, because they never had to. Some of them make this adjustment well, but some them, don't.

Finally, notwithstanding a few notable exceptions like Michael Vick, if speed and running with the ball are a major part of your game, these things do tend to start going away around the age of 30 as a result of aging factors and regular wear and tear. Not for nothing is 30 usually considered the limit to a running back's career at his best, with retirement looming around the corner. Meanwhile, many QBs expect to be entering some of their best years at 30. Brett Favre, for example, made six Pro Bowls after he turned 30; Steve Young made 7; and Peyton Manning has made five with perhaps more to come. Most of the dual-threat QBs who run by design, on the other hand, are starting to break down by 30.

Ultimately, I will be surprised if anyone is talking about the read option by the 2014 season. QBs who can run will always have more lasting power and be more valuable in the long haul when running is just a part of the package they can use every so often, most often to escape after a play has broken down or to take advantage of an open field to gain yards safely. Aaron Rodgers is a great example of this today, and Steve Young a few generations earlier.

Of course, we can expect more offensive quirks to filter into the NFL, have great success for a season or two as a result of unfamiliarity, and then largely fade out of the game as teams figure them out. What I don't understand is why NFL coaches don't immediately go to the colleges for help with this stuff when it comes up. I can't believe the Packers couldn't have foreseen the likelihood they would face a read option team in the playoffs, sent some staffers to the colleges for a few weeks of learning, incorporated that knowledge into their defensive plan and done much better against the 49ers. Why wait until the offseason? It's not like chances to get to the Super Bowl come around all that often.
posted by slkinsey at 8:13 AM on July 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

If the read option does stick around, it'll be interesting to see what happens when the rushing quarterbacks reach the point where they just can't rush that way anymore. It'll be sort of like watching an aging pitcher who has to move from blazing fastballs to savvy pitches. Some make the transistion, some don't.
posted by drezdn at 8:24 AM on July 28, 2013

The other thing about the modern read-option offenses is that they let you run with a numbers advantage from a passing formation. Traditionally if you ran the option from the wishbone or the I-formation, everybody was pretty close to the ball. A defense with enough fast players (like Miami, or the entire NFL) could react fast enough to slow you down.

The read option usually is run from a formation with 3 or 4 wide receivers, so the defense has to spread out to cover them. So you can run option plays that give you a 1 or 2 man advantage against 5 or 6 defenders instead of 8 or 9.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:58 AM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I’m not a Football fan and had trouble following this, but what I don’t understand about the story; If this is something that has been a part of college football for a decade how is it surprising to the pros? Weren’t almost all of the players in college football within the last decade? Wouldn’t the same mechanism that brought the plays in to the pro game have brought the defensive in as well?
posted by bongo_x at 9:11 AM on July 28, 2013

^ Not many defenses have been able to consistently stop the teams that are best at it, like Oregon.

bukvitch, I sort of thought of Vick as an edge case, or more of a likely outcome. His physical gifts were undeniable, but the injuries stacked up, and he's a lot less mobile now, and without that, he's just not that good of a QB. I think the central point is that he had only a couple solid seasons, and if the NFL is moving towards the kind of disposable star system like they've got at running back, it'll be a very different league.

His mobility is just fine despite his rushing numbers being down last year. He beat LeSean McCoy in a 40 yard race this year and looks to be in absolutely fantastic shape at camp. What is ending his career is his inability to stay healthy and the crippling turnovers, especially in the red zone. If he can't make quick reads and avoid turnovers Kelly isn't going to play him no matter how great an asset his mobility could be for the option plays. I don't really know how it will turn out, but there is definitely potential that he could start and have a monster year or he could not win the starting job in the first place.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:19 AM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

If this is something that has been a part of college football for a decade how is it surprising to the pros?

Well, it's not really surprising to the pros at all. The Grantland article is misleading and a little dramatic. Sean Payton wasn't fooled. His 6th grade team didn't have fast enough and smart enough kids who could handle it.

Here's the thing: the reason why the read option works so well in college is because the quality of defensive play is so inconsistent. Few teams have fast, smart players across the board.

A read option offense essentially picks out 2-3 players on the defense. It sets up a situation where the defenders have to move to cover the offense, then it forces the defenders to instantaneously make a choice. The offense then takes advantage of whatever mistake the defenders make.

You can do this in college. Oregon, Texas A&M, and others, do this over and over. So long as the other team has defensive ends and linebackers to exploit, your chances of success are huge.

What's more, once you find an exploit, you keep going after it. Oregon can be mind-numbing to watch because they will run the same set of a couple plays over and over and over and over, once they've found a weakness in the other team's defense.

But in the pros, while your offense is now a collection of incredible athletes, so is the defense. If Oregon tried to run its read option against the weakest and worst NFL team, Oregon would fail spectacularly. Defenders in the NFL are the best of the best, and would have a much easier time of sniffing out the read option "gimmick." They are faster, smarter, and much less likely to fall for the same tricks over and over again.

Bottom line: the NFL is not surprised by these kinds of offenses. They've just never really caught on in the NFL because they are too simplistic; they require going up against a defense that can be easily exploited, and those pretty much don't exist in the NFL thanks to the quality of athletes and personnel.
posted by Old Man McKay at 9:37 AM on July 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

The fundamental problem I see with running the read option as anything more than an occasional play in the NFL is that the defenders are so much bigger and faster than at the college level, so QBs are going to get hurt a lot more than they already do. The Grantland article paints the fact that the QB is often in the position of blocking the other team's best defender as if it's a good thing, and, yeah, from a tactics standpoint, it's great if you can neutralize the other team's best defender with a "freebie" blocker that's usually not involved in the play after the ball is handed off. Yet, as an Eagles fan, I cringe every time I see Michael Vick in a position where he has to put himself between a defender and the ball carrier, and I can't imagine Redskins fans are going to want to see a whole lot of RG3 trying to block DeMarcus Ware on a regular basis.

I understand teams have had success sprinkling option plays into the playbook, but if it becomes the core of the offense the way it is at many college programs, some teams are going to be sorry when they see their team's most important player carted off the field. And given that very few teams have a backup QB who can run a competent option attack, they're going to be in a position of trying to suddenly run a more vanilla playbook that they're not used to running.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:39 AM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Kaepernick is an exception in that he is a great running threat, but also a very accurate pocket passer, so you have to defend two opposing game plans. Not every coach gets this kind of raw material to start with.
posted by Repack Rider at 10:31 AM on July 28, 2013

I think that's the key point, Repack Rider. There are maybe a dozen "good" quarterbacks in the league at any one time. Maybe more, I'm being uncharitable. But the thing is, out of all of the people who play football in high school, the best play in D1 in college. The best of those have the chance to play in the pros. Every team needs a good QB, but given the sheer speed and skill of all of the other best of the best, the QB has to be that much better, but the problem is, most just aren't up to the task. To have a QB who can run and pass so well, now you're looking at, what, three or four guys in a league of over 1,500 players?

Kaepernick is an exception, at least until his first serious injury. And I wouldn't bet against nfl coaches figuring out defensive schemes to limit the read option this season.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:15 PM on July 28, 2013

Ghidorah: "and if the NFL is moving towards the kind of disposable star system like they've got at running back, it'll be a very different league. "

Given the new CBA with young players getting a pittance compared to veteran players, its what literally will happen. Teams will have an incentive to push their best youngest players into the ground before they can start demanding contracts that match their output/market value. This will also have the perverse effect of reducing long term brain injuries as there will be fewer older players getting continuous concussions over decade and a half long careers. It's fucking the most insane, evil, way to deal with their current issues while keeping the NFL as a system.

What it depends on is a regular supply of young gifted players. The NFL's bet is that over the medium term (10-25 years) the reduction in measured brain injuries (which has finally started drawing epidemiological attention after years of stalling) will be enough to keep kids playing the game. Parents barring their children (those one in a million RG3's who could be god forbid playing basketball) from playing football young is the single largest threat to future of professional football, and they've aligned the entire system to block that, see their ads promoting pee-wee play.

As to the rest, you also have to think of football as a GIANT game of rock-paper-scissors in which player talent, split second reads, and play bluffing by both offense and defense determine who is rock and who is paper. It's amazing what the limits of human ingenuity are when the outcome is on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars (I think about jet fighters this way too).
posted by stratastar at 3:33 PM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

he is a great running threat, but also a very accurate pocket passer

Great arm, but he still, at this point, has to see his guy open before he throws. There was one play in the playoffs last year (might have been the Superbowl) where he came close to throwing a pick six because he waited for his guy to break before he felt safe to throw the pass. You can bet that was noticed.

Nothing against the guy, but all these young QBs from last year will have been studied like crazy all this off season. Teams will start to make them do what they least like doing. Don't like throwing across your body? Well, that's what we're giving you....

As always, it's going to be a fun year.

Andy in KC, Mr. Smoothie in Philly, Ariens and Palmer in Arizona...

Chock full of questions and stories.

BTW as to what octothorpe says: Is there another sport that comes close to football in the disparity of understanding between followers of the game and what the game actually is?

I love it. The complexity. So much to learn.
posted by Trochanter at 3:39 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is a good analysis of Kaepernick. It was one of the highest rated comments on reddit a couple of months ago so many of you have probably already seen it. As a 49er's fan my optimism is definitely of the cautious type.
posted by bukvich at 6:24 AM on July 29, 2013

BTW as to what octothorpe says: Is there another sport that comes close to football in the disparity of understanding between followers of the game and what the game actually is?

Baseball's pretty famously divided between the statistical community (for lack of a better word) and the old school baseball fans that want to talk about grit and scrap and heart and clutch.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:52 AM on July 29, 2013

This kinda reminds me of Gladwell's full-court press piece. They both require the athletes to get tougher in order to apply unconventional pressure.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:20 AM on July 29, 2013

This is all really just another variation of the 'meta-game' common to pretty much any competitive game or sport. In any well designed game, there's no true 'dominant' strategy, but merely a shifting ecology of several strategies that do well or don't do well based on what is currently most popular among players/teams.
posted by empath at 11:50 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

BTW as to what octothorpe says: Is there another sport that comes close to football in the disparity of understanding between followers of the game and what the game actually is?

I think that kind of disparity is probably more common than you think. The average NBA fan can probably talk a little bit about the Triangle Offense, for example, but most (or at least, most that I've talked to in person, online NBA fans are a whole different kettle of fish) couldn't tell you in detail what the Triangle is, why it's called the triangle, what the philosophical point of the offense is, the assorted higher order stuff. And that's an offense that's won 11 titles, in 2 of the biggest markets in the world, in the last 2 decades.
posted by protocoach at 12:58 PM on July 29, 2013

One of the things I noticed watching Russell Wilson last year is that the spate of rules intended to protect QBs might be making running stratrgies newly viable. If the defense touches a QB sliding at the end of a run, the offense gets 15 yards for free. That's the kind of subtle shift in the risk/reward calculation that can tip the scales.
posted by chrchr at 1:31 PM on July 29, 2013

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