The Future, or a Fad?
ASHBURN, Va. — The defining play of the read-option craze happened last season at Washington, on a Monday night in Week 13. The country was just learning about the pistol formation and the mesh point, when the quarterback sticks the ball in the running back’s gut but doesn’t let go right away. He instead waits, watching the unblocked defensive end, and then decides either to let the tailback take the handoff or to pull the ball back and run it himself.
On this defining play, the quarterback was Washington’s Robert Griffin III. The Giants led 13-10 midway through the third quarter as Griffin brought the offense to the line, in the pistol. Third-and-1. Big moment. And here it is, months later coming to life on the big screen in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s office.
“This is what I used to joke about,’’ Shanahan says. “Look at Jason Pierre-Paul here.’’
I look: Griffin takes the snap, plants the ball in Alfred Morris’ gut but still holds on, riding Morris while staring at Pierre-Paul. Washington doesn’t block the All-Pro end, who charges hard at the RG3-Morris tandem. Tight end Logan Paulsen started the play across from Pierre-Paul, and in most universes where logic reigns, Paulsen would have blocked (or at least tried to block) one of the most dangerous rush ends in football. But Paulsen skips past Pierre-Paul and locks on to safety Kenny Phillips, who has come down into the box and is playing a faux outside linebacker position behind Pierre-Paul.
Mind-boggling. Washington has chosen to block a safety with a 268-pound tight end while giving Pierre-Paul a free run at the men with the ball. There is something reckless about this. But the way Shanahan explains it, the decision makes perfect sense.
“Think about it this way: This guy’s the biggest freak I’ve ever seen, Pierre-Paul. Him and [Cowboys defensive end] DeMarcus Ware are the biggest freaks I see every year,” Shanahan says. “So when I prepare for these guys, I have to sit all week thinking, How are we going to handle this guy that nobody in the NFL is capable of handling on his own? What’s going to be our plan? Normally we put two or three [blockers] on him. Now, you know what my plan is with the zone read? Let’s put nobody on him. Let’s have not one person on our field touch their best player, and let’s just have him sit there. Let him do whatever he wants. If he wants to go get Robert, Alf [Morris] takes it. Go get Alf? Robert takes it. We used to wrack our brains all week, wondering how many guys have to help block him. Now all of a sudden, we’re not going to put anyone on him. That sounds stupid, but …”
The play rolls on. Eyes locked on Pierre-Paul, Griffin sees him steaming toward Morris. When Pierre-Paul is two steps away from Morris, Griffin snatches the ball back, pivots, and begins sprinting around the left end. Where, conveniently, there is no one. Bad play here by Phillips. This offseason, two Giants who were on the field that night—Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora—said Pierre-Paul’s responsibility on that play was to attack the running back. Pierre-Paul did his job. Phillips should have had the outside rush lane covered, but he was too far inside, neutralized by Paulsen. Griffin had 30 yards of open field in front of him, and he gained 46 on the play.
I counted five times in this game—out of Pierre-Paul’s 34 defensive snaps (he was limited with an aching back)—that Washington left him unblocked. “That’s disrespectful to a player,’’ Pierre-Paul said this summer. “It’s saying, ‘Look, we don’t need to worry about that guy.’ ”
On the contrary.
The more we learn about the read-option, the more interesting it becomes. A fad? Maybe. “Nothing is here to stay,’’ Shanahan says. “Everything’s evolving.” Maybe when quarterbacks get beat up a few times outside the pocket, coordinators will have second thoughts about using the scheme. But I don’t think Washington is going to handle Robert Griffin III much differently this season—except to emphasize over and over and over the importance of sliding to avoid direct hits, and running out of bounds instead of lowering a shoulder to pick up two or three extra yards. We’ll see if Griffin can play that way. He’s saying all the right things now about avoiding contact, but we’re not in the middle of a pennant race, nor is it the fourth quarter when he desperately needs a first down.
At 23, the future of Washington’s offense has already had two knee reconstructions, at Baylor in 2009 and then in January after shredding his right knee in a wild-card loss to the Seahawks. Griffin took his three biggest hits last year on non-read-option plays. Often, he got hit because he was trying to play like he did in college—with no fear of injury. The most damaging hit came six days after the Giants game when Griffin, trying to dive forward to gain a few extra yards against Baltimore, collided with 335-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and hyperextended his right knee. There’s no way Griffin should be lunging for three extra yards against a strong safety, never mind a behemoth who has 110 pounds on him.
But … and this is a very big but … we also have to keep the hits in perspective. Last season, the pocket-preferring Andrew Luck led all NFL quarterbacks in significant hits taken behind the line. Pro Football Focus charted 138 sacks or knockdowns for Luck while throwing, a gaudy 26 more than the second-most-hit passer, Sam Bradford. This doesn’t count hits taken in the open field, so the Ngata shot on Griffin wouldn’t be included. But in significant hits behind the line, Griffin was 14th, with 90 knockdowns.
Listen to Shanahan and you get the firm idea that he’s not changing the playbook; it sounds like he’s embracing it even more, as long as the quarterback runs smarter. “When Robert runs the ball," Shanahan says, “I want it to be a track race. I do not want to have him sit there and break a tackle. I don’t want him to sit there and dance and make somebody miss. That’s why we don’t call runs for him. We call them for Alf. If everyone gets Alf, we want Robert to run a 40-yard dash to the sideline, where nobody else is. We don’t want to subject him to the free hitters."
On Monday night, we’ll start to find out. Griffin will open his second season at home against Philadelphia, playing football in pads for the first time since that fateful day at FedEx Field 34 weeks ago. The crowd will be at a fever pitch. Griffin will be as excited as the fans, but he knows maturity, and only careful risk-taking, will lead to long-term NFL greatness.
“It’s ingrained in my head now,’’ Griffin said on Thursday. “I’ll be getting down on Monday night.”
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Kyle Shanahan is an idea man. When his father coached the Broncos in their late-’90s glory years, he and his high school buddy, Darnell McDonald, a running back who chose baseball over football after being a first-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in ’97, went to Broncos practices on Saturdays—McDonald to learn from his hero, Terrell Davis, and Kyle to hang around the coaches. “Kyle always wanted to know why,’’ McDonald said. Another friend, former Washington tight end Chris Cooley, describes him the same way.
After finishing at the University of Texas in 2003, Kyle became a grad assistant at UCLA and then served as a quality control coach on Jon Gruden’s staff in Tampa in 2004 and ’05. “I’m OCD,’’ the 33-year-old Shanahan says, “in that I think things are very easy to stop if you know they’re coming. Everything I do, I try to think of how people are going to try to stop things. I feel like maybe I was raised that way. When I got into coaching, my dad always told me when I worked for Gruden to soak up everything he said. He wanted me to always learn defense. If you want to be a good coordinator, you always want to make sure you know good defense. Maybe that’s how that seed was planted, but I’ve always studied defense harder than offense.’’
Washington took Griffin with the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. What excited Kyle Shanahan when he started thinking about running the read-option with Griffin was that he could also run the regular offense from the pistol formation, which he was mulling as an alternative to the shotgun. The shotgun has the quarterback seven yards behind center, the Pistol about four and a half. The pistol, Shanahan thought, made it possible to run 100% of the playbook from that formation because the running back was close enough to the line of scrimmage. The offense’s most effective running play, 18, a power run outside the right tackle, works equally as well with Griffin under center or in the pistol.
And when Washington began introducing the read-option out of the pistol, there was an unintended consequence: Defenses started getting more vanilla. There was less blitzing and less risk-taking, because defensive coordinators didn’t want to be undressed by a scheme that was so unpredictable. Griffin could execute the team’s favorite running play—Morris over the right side, to capitalize on the back’s powerful one-cut style—and by doing so out of the pistol, he could also run the read-option without opponents knowing the difference.
“That’s why I grew to believe in this so much,’’ Shanahan says. “I know how many issues it causes. No one’s really stopped it, so you have to think about how they’re going to try to stop it. They can stop something, but in order stop something, it opens up so many different holes for so many different things. What excites me is when people ask, ‘What do you do when people stop it?’ We’ll do what we’ve always done—play football like we always have. We’re going to do our offense. This is just another weapon we have that people have to worry about. All that does is help us use our other weapons. You better worry about it.
“Defenses can get confused on how to set their strengths. Defenses have to know what the strength of an offense is, so they can say it’s right or left, so they know where to set the front, set the three-technique [the pass-rushing defensive tackle], set the rotation of the safeties. You show them a weird formation, so they don’t know where to do the blitz from, so they check out of it. So when you give them weird stuff, it’s just an illusion of complexity. But they have to respect the formation you’re in.”
Empowered by his head coach/father, Kyle Shanahan is what the future of football is all about—a young coach willing to take chances, during the season no less. In Griffin, Mike and Kyle Shanahan knew they had a quarterback with the rarest of talents: a very good downfield arm, and Olympic hurdler’s speed. The last thing they wanted to do was chain him to the pocket. So Kyle studied the pistol and the read-option, spoon-feeding it to the team as the season went on … and who knows what would have happened if Griffin hadn’t been hurt against Baltimore in Week 14, leading to his deteriorated health in the final weeks of the season, and to the team’s demise in the wild-card round. The Shanahans had an offensive staff—keyed by line coach Chris Foerster, who had to re-do most of the blocking schemes—that taught new concepts last season instead of reinforcing ones that had been in the playbook since April. And they had a quarterback who wanted to soak in a dynamic new way of playing, who wanted to buy in.
The game today is an amalgam of styles, but there’s little question that the league will set a record for plays run in 2013 for the fifth straight season. Philadelphia, Buffalo, Jacksonville and the Giants are all going to play faster on offense—particularly the Eagles, because Chip Kelly has never met a huddle he liked. These new fast-paced offenses are run by coaches who aren’t married to the past.
A head coach (and Washington’s success could drive Kyle Shanahan’s market value up) has to be three things. One: smart and able to earn the respect of players who believe he’s helping them get better. Two: malleable, able to adjust to the talent instead of demanding the players adjust to him. Three: Well, let one current coach explain the last trait. “A coach today cannot be pigeonholed,’’ this head coach told me on my summer tour of training camps. “What makes [Bill] Belichick so good is that his game plans each week, on each side of the ball, can be totally different from what you’ve just seen. I’m convinced now that with all the different concepts we’re seeing in the game every year, a coach has to be an experimenter. He has to know when to take some risks.’’
Such as adding new elements of the pistol and the read-option … during the season. “First, the read-option is so far on the edge it’s almost unthinkable,” says Cooley, who retired in July and now does games on the team’s radio network. “And to install it during the season … I was cut before Week 1 last year, then re-signed in Week 8—and I didn’t recognize the playbook when I got back, at least in the running game.”
Finally, and this is a little corny, there has to be a love of learning involved. You’ve got to love football, and be confident in your ability to teach the game, for a crew of players to think you’re leading them down the right path. “Learning’s huge in football,” says Cooley. “I have to say I was excited every day to get a cup of coffee and sit in on Kyle’s offensive meetings for two hours. He taught the game so well.”
* * *
Let me be the 946th person to suggest how defenses might neutralize the read-option this season. When I asked coaches and players that question this summer, two things stuck out in their responses: punishment of the quarterback, and simple defensive discipline. The NFL didn’t let defenders hit quarterbacks freely when they held the ball in a running back’s gut last year; this year, a QB with his hands on the ball in read-option mode is fair game. I believe defensive players will attack the quarterback more, even if they incur an unnecessary roughness penalty or three along the way.
But discipline is big, too. If Kenny Phillips had held the edge and forced Griffin inside on that 46-yard run, would the play have worked? I doubt it. The Rams have had success against the read-option, and St. Louis defensive end Chris Long says: “The key is, don’t try to do too much. If someone tells me to just tackle the dive [the running back], I am going to relish the opportunity to just tackle the ballcarrier. That’s fine.”
Long, who'll see heavy doses of read-option from San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the NFC West this season, thinks the scheme has been overblown. “I know it’s kind of a hysteria right now,’’ he said of the read-option this summer. “We don’t talk about it a lot in the locker room. We’re not out here in training camp trying to think about only this situation. I really think with people buckling down and playing their assignments, it’ll slowly settle down and people will learn how to play it. I don’t think it’s going to go away. But it’s not going to take over the league either.”
Kyle Shanahan agrees: “Robert averaged pulling [the ball back] about four or five times per game. That’s what is entertaining to hear—that we ran a different offense. We didn’t run a different offense; we ran the same offense that I’ve been running here for three years. But we added another part. We added the zone-read, and it opened up everything else.”
Now we’ll get to see what Washington, and opposing defensive coordinators, do for an encore. It’ll be one of the great strategic stories of the NFL’s 94th season.