Ronald Reagan, who was pretty good at debates, could offer an argument as to the staying power of the read option.
Some dismiss the package as a fad already fading from the NFL. But Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says he watched the read option in the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne, All American,” which including Reagan as triple-threat halfback George Gipp.
“They were doing it back then,” Rivera says. “It’s interesting that it has kind of come back. I don’t think it’s a fad.”
Rivera has been instrumental in the resurgence by taking advantage of quarterback Cam Newton’s running ability. The package blossomed in popularity in the NFL in 2011, when Newton ran for 14 touchdowns as a rookie and Tim Tebow led the Denver Broncos to an improbable playoff victory.
Midway through the 2014 season, running quarterbacks continue to make an impact.
Russell Wilson of Seattle, Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco and Ryan Tannehill of Miami are all on pace for career highs in rushing yardage while averaging more than 5 yards per carry. Their teams and several others have used the read option with regularity.
“It’s changing the face of football,” Rivera says.
Others disagree, comparing the read option to the wildcat, which created a buzz six seasons ago but has pretty much gone the way of the single wing — which is essentially what the wildcat was.
“The read option is fun to watch,” says former Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci, now an NFL Network analyst. “It can be dynamic at times. But it’s not necessarily a trend. I don’t think Tom Brady or Peyton Manning are going to run it. Defenses have really caught up to it a little bit.”
“It hasn’t been near the issue or as great as it was that first year,” former quarterback and CBS analyst Phil Simms said. “The telltale sign is you don’t see it being even close to as big in college as it once was. If the college game is adapting to it, what do you think the pros are going to do? They have the answers for it.”
Some teams have indeed weaned themselves off the package. The Oakland Raiders largely abandoned the read option when they switched quarterbacks from Terrelle Pryor to Derek Carr.
The Washington Redskins shelved the package when Robert Griffin III was sidelined with an ankle injury, and coach Jay Gruden wants to remold his quarterback into more of a pocket passer.
But in Seattle, Wilson is averaging 49 yards per game and 7.6 per carry, both career highs. Tannehill has run for a gain of at least 20 yards in each of the past four games, and has averaged 7.9 per carry this year while showing an ability to sense when the defense is geared to stop something else.
“I’ve had a few opportunities to run and get big plays for us,” Tannehill said. “You never know when those opportunities are going to show up. You just have to take advantage of them when they do.”
While Wilson and Tannehill haven’t missed a start since the beginning of their rookie seasons in 2012, risking the quarterback’s health remains part of the read-option debate.
“It’s not going to add to the lifespan of these quarterbacks,” Mariucci says.
Rivera sees the danger as minimal because of today’s restrictions on tacklers, making the quarterback keeper a safer proposition.
“If the rules weren’t as protective on quarterbacks, I think it would be a fad, because people would take more shots,” Rivera said.
It’s difficult for defenders to get a solid hit if they’re fooled by the play. And while teams brace for Newton or Wilson to run, other quarterbacks benefit from the element of surprise.
Even Manning has employed a variation of the read option, making a quick throw after faking a handoff.
“The read option is a very sound deal,” says Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who was with Griffin for two seasons in Washington. “When teams aren’t expecting it, it causes serious issues.
“Now, when teams expect it, they can stop it. But sometimes that can open up some other stuff. If you can make defenses scared of it, then you can do some other things off of it.”
For the opposition, read-option packages can be a headache because they’re one more thing to prepare for, and difficult to anticipate, Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle says.
“Those plays tend to surprise you,” Coyle says. “It’s not like they’re in a rhythm where they’re running it every three or four snaps and your defense gets into a mind-set of defending it.”
In the end, Coyle and his defensive colleagues in the NFL will decide the fate of the read option.
Until they can consistently stop it, quarterbacks will keep running it.