Fundamentals : Option Offense

football, basics, optionChances are you’ve heard a thing or two about option offenses recently, maybe through terms like “pistol” or “zone-read” or “triple option,” or maybe through the breakout players who run these systems, guys like RG3 and Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, or college-turned-pro coaches like Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly, who are bringing these offenses into the NFL. The general consensus is that these types of option-based offenses are just fads and will take a back seat, as all fads eventually do, to the traditional pocket-passer model.

But whether option systems are here to stay or just here for a season, they will undoubtedly play a huge role again in 2013 since they were so successful last season. Today we’re going to spend some time looking at the basic basics of option systems (because to do an in-depth look would require me to quit my job and study playbooks full-time). (Which I would totally be up for, in case anyone is looking to hire for that position.)

So..what is an option offense?

An option offense isn’t so much a specific system as it is a blanket term for a variety of systems that use option principles.

So…what does that mean?

In a traditional, pro style offense, the offense goes to the line of scrimmage knowing what the play is going to be, unless the quarterback decides to audible (change the play at the line of scrimmage). One way or another, unless it’s a designed quarterback-keep play, the quarterback is going to give the ball to someone else after the snap.

In an option offense, the quarterback goes to the line of scrimmage with the option to run/pass the ball or hold onto it himself. 

Traditional Offense = Quarterback Hands Off or Throws

Option Offense = Quarterback Hands Off or Throws or Keeps It Himself

So far so good, right?

You can see right from the get-go why NFL teams haven’t liked this system in the past – it puts their quarterback, who is often the livelihood of the entire team – at much greater risk for injury. When he’s handing off or throwing he’s protected by the offensive line. But when he keeps the ball and runs down the field he becomes a running back, making it legal for defenders to tackle him just like any other runner.

Thus the concern over whether RG3-esque quarterbacks who take frequent hits will be able to achieve longevity in the league. It’s something we won’t know for a few years yet, if these systems stick around that long. (And for what it’s worth, I’m guessing they will.)

Moving on: from this basic option principle we now have a litany of option offenses with accompanying formations and plays, each with their own individual spin on the concept. We could be here until next week going over each and every one, so let’s take a look at a few of the most popular.

*Note: You won’t find an NFL team that is exclusively committed to one scheme. Teams and schemes are polygamist marriages. A team blends together several different schemes that best fit their players and their objectives. Even the teams that run predominately option offenses, like the Seattle Seahawks, still run quite a few plays out of a pro-style offense. That being said, most of what we’re going to be talking about it run out of a spread offense scheme. 

The Spread Option

The spread option offense is what it sounds like – a system that spreads players out across the field. Offenses running the spread option will typically have multiple wide receivers lined up in a wide alignment that spans the field with few to no running backs in the backfield. It’s all about numbers with the spread: if the offense can put 9 guys up front spread out across the field and then further confuse a defense through misdirection and a mobile quarterback, then it’s going to be a tall order for the defense to prioritize which part of the field and which players it’s going to protect most. In the spread, the quarterback takes the snap from shotgun – a formation in which he is aligned at least 5 yards behind the center.

Shotgun formation

photo source

The Pistol

In the pistol, the quarterback lines up closer to the center and has a running back directly behind him. This way he is much closer to the line of scrimmage and can read the defense from up front, choosing to either hand the ball off, drop back and pass, or make a quick sprint through a hole in the defense while keeping the ball.

(I’m sad to say I know the latter all too well after watching Niners QB Colin Kaepernick annihilate the Packers front 7 in the divisional round of the NFC Championships.)

Pistol-formation

photo source

The Zone Read

Once again, the name is indicative of what’s going to happen here: the quarterback needs to read the defense to decide what he’s going to do with the ball. What is he reading? Primarily, the defensive end on the side where he plans to run. If the defensive end “crashes” – runs straight into the backfield in anticipation of a quarterback keep – he gives the ball to the running back. If the defensive end “stays home” – stays toward the outside where he’s aligned – the quarterback keeps the ball.

(Whew.)

What do you guys think of the option offense? Is it here to stay?

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