When Will an NFL Team Have Nothing Left to Lose and Turn the Option Loose?

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In political science, states are sometimes described as the “laboratoires of democracy.” The 50 individual states can try out “experimental” public policies that will then diffuse to other states or, potentially, get adopted at the federal level if successful. Whether that theory is true or not isn’t for a sports column to discern, but it makes for a nice metaphor for college and NFL football. The college ranks should be “laboratories” for the NFL. Indeed sometimes they are, cf. spread “Air Coryell” out of San Diego State, Jimmy Johnson’s 4-3 Miami Hurricanes defense going to the Cowboys, the no huddle. It’s a very long list, of course. But, with the arguable exception of the Panthers, which we’ll get to, NFL teams have been reluctant to adopt the running quarterback based option systems that have made such an impact on the college game.

The basic reasons why is not hard to discern: money and risk. Quarterbacks are by far the most expensive player on most teams and putting them at risk is too dangerous. They are “the Franchise.” But, what if there was another way to win games? Wouldn’t SOMEBODY try it? The Carolina Panthers last year came closest in recent years, and we’ll get to them later, but let’s take a quick look at how this works or doesn’t at the college level.

Lets look at three college offenses in, admitted, oversimplified thumbnail form: Alabama, Navy, and Ohio State. Alabama is a very boring offensive team. They are fairly close to an NFL or “pro style” offense. Lots of under center formations, read progression, play action, pretty standard Sunday football stuff. Alabama wins games not because they innovate but because they have the talent to pound on most opponents and be competitive with anybody, simply by doing the fundamentals of the game at a very high level. Alabama’s third string would start at half the college programs in the FBS. This strategy is hard to second guess, although Alabama’s fan base can get a bit frustrated when they seem to be too predictable or get beaten by Gus Malzahn and his trickery. Of course, Alabama is more run-centric than most NFL teams and they haven’t had a terrific track record of sending their “pro ready” quarterbacks to the NFL. But the basic philosophy there is what seemingly every NFL coach wants to emulate: get good talent, execute, balance the run and pass, protect the quarterback. With superior talent, this system is hard to beat.

The always enjoyable Navy Midshipmen on the other hand, have, thanks to service academy restrictions, academic rigor and post college commitments, some of the least talented teams in the top division of college football, on the other end of the spectrum from Alabama. But they still win lots of games including against big time teams like Notre Dame and Houston who have a better talent at nearly every position. How do they do it? The flexbone (modified wishbone or whatever you want to call it) option system and the difficulty in preparing for a system that teams only see once or twice a year. It gives them a huge advantage. There are aspects to the service academy (and to an extent Georgia Tech) offense that will never work in the NFL, so I’m not suggesting that NFL teams start running the wishbone. A particularly clear problem is that the triple option utilizes outside runs that are much harder to execute in the NFL because of the speed at every defensive position in the NFL. Edge setting defenders and middle linebackers in the NFL can run down pitches that would develop in the college game. Yet, the continued success of the Navy program shows how a system with a running quarterback can cause headaches for any defensive coordinator, even one with superior talent. Navy keeps plugging new players into the system and competing.

Finally, let’s look at Ohio State. The Buckeyes have both obscene talent AND willingness to run the option and they absolutely beat the sin off Nebraska this weekend. For a top 10 team to get razed to the ground like that is a serious statement game. Ohio State shows what a willingness to run the quarterback along with top talent all along the offense can mean: problems. Lots of them. Defenses have to account for the OSU quarterback as a runner on every play. It’s simple math--see that the opponent is committing an extra defender to shadow J.T. Barrett, throw it, get them worried about that, run some options or handoffs with the running lanes wide open. It makes the decision of what to do at the line of scrimmage easy when it’s going well, as it clearly did against the Cornhuskers. Offensive coordinators can simply count defenders in the box and make relatively high percentage choices about what plays to run. Add to that the run/pass option plays that typically isolate a single defender, such as the stick/draw combination and you have the ability to use a fairly simple set of play concepts to beat whatever you see in front of you. The way I describe this makes it sound as if it’s so simple, every team should use it. That’s not the case. First off all, you now need a true dual threat quarterback, not just the kind of option point guard you need at Navy. Those aren’t easy to come by. But it’s more than that; you need to be willing to risk that player on frequent running plays. If that player gets injured, you are in trouble. How can you get around that? Well, remember when OSU won the national championship, they were on their THIRD string quarterback, Cardale Jones, who is now in the NFL. Not many teams can stock enough dual threat QBs to lose two of them and still beat the top teams in the NCAA. Urban Meyer is able to recruit talent very well and tailor that talent to his system.

Chip Kelley was pretty good at that, as well. Oregon built a similarly frustrating offense to defend and tended to speed it up as much as possible to further exploit the matchup advantages and fatigue the defense. Kelley brought a version of that system to the NFL with some early success. However, Kelley’s employment of the quarterback at the professional level has been puzzling to many who watched the Ducks college system. At first it looked like he might do the same thing with Michael Vick, but he soon tired of Vick’s problems with accuracy, tendency to hold the ball too long and other failings. He moved on to Nick Foles, who is a better athlete than his build might indicate, but who could never really force a defense to commit a man to cover him as a runner. When Kelley moved to San Francisco he again has struggled with Blaine Gabbert, another deceptively good athlete and Colin Kaepernick, whose athletic talents are more apparent. Neither has seemed to find the key to make the system work and Kelley hasn’t been using them as runners much more than he did Foles. He seems to have settled on the key to his offense being the reads and the speed, not lots of quarterback runs. It’s not for me to question how Kelley thinks his offense works, he knows far better than I, of course, but for those of us who hoped Chip Kelley would unleash a college style system on the NFL, we’ve been a bit disappointed.

The closest thing to this actually being employed over a full season has probably been the Panthers of last year. The Panthers are decidedly not afraid to run Cam Newton, regardless of how much he costs, because he’s generally been remarkably durable. Newton takes some hits, for sure and in some games it clearly affects him. However, the Panthers’ 15-1 record last year, running lots of option and QB called runs speaks to the problems such a “college” system can cause the NFL. The Panthers’ offensive line has underperformed this year, decreasing the effectiveness of Newton and Jonathan Stewart some, but their main reason for residing in 4th place in the NFC South right now is a defense, that, at least against the pass, has been much less effective this season, which seems to be a direct result of the decision to let Josh Norman go. The offense is still 9th in the league, which would be getting it done with last year’s D.

So, it seems it CAN work. You can run a system that depends on QB runs in the NFL, but the Panthers this year have been the subject of much talk about the beating Cam Newton takes and whether it’s worth it or whether his runs make officials less likely to protect him in the pocket than Tom Brady types. Maybe that system is on it’s way out in Carolina as they choose to protect their most valuable asset. For an NFL team to work this system successfully they probably need to do (at least) two things. First they have to give up on the idea of a “franchise” quarterback and his salary cap impact. You do have to put a significant amount of talent around the QB for this to work, and, almost by definition, you can’t expect the QB to carry the team singlehandedly. You will have to pay QBs like running backs or guards. Secondly, you have to assemble a roster of QBs, two, probably three, that are “system” type quarterbacks that can function equally well so you can deal with the fact your QBs will be about as likely as your running backs to get injured over the course of a season. There are upsides to this, though. First, you should be able to commit fewer resources to the QB spot on the roster and make use of the salary cap more effectively (this is what teams can usually do with rookie QB contracts and why Seattle was able to construct the team it was around very cheap Russell Wilson). More attractive, in some ways, though would be the ability to make use of quarterbacks that would be “undervalued” by other teams. Yes, this is going to work BEST when you have a transcendent talent like Wilson, Newton or in-his-prime Michael Vick, but players like Braxton Miller, Tyrod Taylor, Terrell Pryor or (yes) even Tim Tebow become viable options here. It has a “Moneyball” possible upside.

It would seem right now, no NFL team is willing to take the chance on a system like this. Maybe I’m an idiot for thinking they should try. But, then again, when you look a team like the Browns or the Jaguars that cannot seem to compete with the talent they have and have been missing badly in the hunt for their own Peyton Manning or Drew Brees (or even an Alex Smith, for that matter), you wonder “why not?”

It’s going to be an interesting upcoming NFL draft. DeShaun Watson, Taysom Hill and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett are certainly the types of players that could make this work. Watson might be a top 5 pick or might slide into the late first/early second depending on how pro scouts feel about him. The others likely would be available in the 3rd or later rounds. You could start such a system. Then we have the guy you really can’t avoid wondering about: Lamar Jackson in the 2018 (at the earliest) draft. The Louisville star has been a joy to watch this year, putting up ridiculous numbers and shredding defenses. But he’s only over 200 lbs. if he’s been to Five Guys that week and it’s hard to imagine you can run him at NFL defenders like Cam Newton. It’s also not clear he’ll be effective without heavily utilizing his running talents, very much in the vein of Robert Griffin III. Griffin is truly the cautionary tale. He was seemingly the “next generation” of quarterback when healthy, which lasted all of one season. If he was a third round pick—so what? But when you trade a pile of draft picks to get him that’s another matter.

Will some NFL team ever go “all in” on one of these option offenses or will Meyer ever get to take his show to the NFL in full form? I don’t know. Maybe Chip Kelley will go more Ducks less chucks at some point this year with Kaepernick. I can hope. I want to see it, even if it fails. I’d like to see some owner/GM/coach combo come along that has zero flips to give and tries something different. But the NFL doesn't seem like it goes in for bold experiments these days. What will it take?
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