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The Decline of the NFL's Read-Option Offense

The read-option offense has a complicated history in the NFL. Five years ago, with the influx of quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick, it was the offense of the future. Now it's an afterthought. Why did it fall out of favor?

The idea, in the minds of the Titans’ coaches, was to build on the zone-read option concepts that helped make quarterback Vince Young a star at Texas. After all, if Tennessee was going to move the ball, while also getting its young field general the game reps he needed, it would need to be creative; making Young into a reliable drop-back passer would be a long work in progress.

Young’s people had other ideas.

“Vince’s agent refused to let us use it because of the injury factor,” says Norm Chow, the Titans’ offensive coordinator for Young’s first two NFL seasons. “When Jeff Fisher came to me, I said, ’Coach, you gotta be kidding me.’ I was flabbergasted. We had no chance, unless we utilized his skill.”

For decades, conventional wisdom was that the option would never work in pro football. And then, starting with Young in 2006 and peaking a half decade later, option offenses not only worked but also thrived, highlighting the dynamic gifts of quarterbacks who had become household names at the college level: Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and, yes, Colin Kaepernick. It seemed an offense for the 21st century had arrived.

In the wake of the request from Young’s camp, the Titans curtailed his role as a runner, but their implementation of the zone-read proved the high point of Young’s professional career. Chow was right to insulate him schematically—Young wasn’t ready to run a traditional pro-style offense then, or ever. He lasted only six NFL seasons, making 22 starts in his final four years after making 29, including one in the playoffs, over his first two.

As the stories of Young and others over the past decade illustrate, the option’s place in the NFL has always been complicated by the flexibility of modern defenses and the importance and economics of the quarterback position.

Collegiate stars like Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost, national-title winning QBs at Nebraska in the 1990s, never got a shot in the NFL, shut out due to doubts about the option’s viability in the pros. But one thing that has always worked in the option’s favor is simple math: Making the quarterback part of a run play turns what had been a 10-on-11 game into 11-on-11.

Among the NFL’s issues with running the wishbone that Darrell Royal pioneered at Texas, or the triple-option Nebraska mastered under Tom Osborne: The quarterback took snaps from under center. “The problem at the pro level,” says longtime NFL coach Mike Shanahan, “is that the defensive linemen are so strong and sturdy, you could never run the option a yard removed from the line of scrimmage.” The solution came from college coaches such as Chip Kelly, Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez, who in the late 1990s and early 2000s began running the zone-read out of the shotgun and spread sets.

Still, even though that tweak helped give quarterbacks more room to operate, NFL teams were reluctant to risk the health of, often, the most important and most well-compensated player on the roster. That’s why the Wildcat came first. It was a way of implementing creative, defense-stressing concepts without putting the franchise in harm’s way.

The Dolphins’ version grabbed headlines when running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams carved up the Patriots for 211 rushing yards in Week 3 of 2008. But the truth is, they weren’t the first to do it. The Panthers had the “Memphis” and “Tiger” formations behind DeAngelo Williams (who’d run it at Memphis) and Jonathan Stewart (an option back for Kelly at Oregon). And the Browns had the “Flash” for former Kent State QB and return specialist Josh Cribbs. Those packages helped pave the way for the read-option.

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“[The Wildcat] worked for a minute,” Bears coach John Fox says. “When you started getting more athletic quarterbacks, you could just implement it [full-time]. The line blocked the same, the extra blocker blocked the same. And then teams [were running the Wildcat] with their quarterback.”

Meanwhile, the college football pipeline was bursting with passers from spread offenses. Unlike the smallish option QBs of the past, these prospects had pro-style size and arm strength. Alex Smith was the top pick in 2005, Young went No. 3 in ’06 and Tebow was the 25th choice in ’10. And in 2011 there was an explosion: Five quarterbacks from spread offenses with option elements (Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Andy Dalton and Kaepernick) went in the first 36 picks. A year later Washington took Griffin second overall. It was a trickle-up effect: As the scheme began to yield top quarterback prospects, NFL offenses began borrowing more heavily from the college game.

Tebow’s first start in 2011 came in Week 5 at Miami, and it took 3½ quarters for concerns about his readiness to arise. The Broncos trailed 15–0, and Tebow was 4 of 14 for 40 yards. Broncos p.r. chief Patrick Smyth texted the team’s new football czar, John Elway: “FYI, we have the second-longest scoring streak in NFL history entering today.”

Little did they know a furious comeback that day would end in an 18–15 Denver win, launch #Tebowmania and turn Fox’s staff room into a think tank. The Broncos got blown out the next week by the Lions, but the week after that, in Oakland, a few big first-half option plays led to more in the second half. Denver wound up with 299 yards rushing, then a week later went for 244 at Kansas City. The offensive staff scrambled for ideas to keep the momentum going.

“[Line coach] Dave Magazu, I remember him bringing his Boston College playbook,” says Adam Gase, now the Dolphins’ coach and then Denver’s quarterbacks coach. “I started watching tons of West Virginia, Navy, Air Force. I mean, I’m watching triple-option, I’m watching this old stuff. I call [Tebow’s coach at Florida] Urban Meyer at one point and say, ’Give me Tim’s three favorite passes, what would you call in a critical situation?’ And he gave me those. We got in this mode where we’d try anything.”

It didn’t last. Detroit’s successful strategy that October—putting an eighth man in the box to cover Tebow as a runner and using softer, off coverage to exploit his inaccuracy and elongated delivery as a passer—was copied by New England, Buffalo and K.C. in December, leading to a season-ending three-game losing streak. The Broncos still backed into the AFC West title; for the playoff opener against Pittsburgh they had a plan (later scrapped) to have Brady Quinn replace Tebow in third-and-long situations.

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“We literally had a separate game plan for third down,” says Quinn. The problem, as Quinn recalls, was that while the option caused conflicts for defenses in the run game, Tebow’s shortcomings as a passer prevented them from beating opponents through the air. As a result, Quinn says, “We were awful on third down.” The other issue: Denver’s defense needed to be great; the Broncos couldn’t allow an opponent to jump out to a lead and force them to pass. “We were like Navy,” says Gase. “If we got behind, we were in trouble.”

Denver beat Pittsburgh on wild-card weekend, with Tebow throwing for 316 yards thanks to a plethora of big plays—he was 10 for 21 that game. A week later he went 9 for 26 for 136 yards in Foxborough, a 45–10 loss to the Patriots.

A larger point was made in the process: There was only so far the option alone could take a team. It could buy a quarterback time to develop as a passer. But eventually he needed to do that; Tebow didn’t. The Broncos signed Peyton Manning before the 2012 season, and Tebow never started another game as a quarterback.

During the ’11 season the Panthers were also drawing up a blueprint for Newton, the No. 1 pick. Carolina used the option and their rookie’s off-the-charts athleticism in the run game to force defenses to play straight-forward, simplified coverages, making life easier for offensive coordinator Chudzinski and his quarterback. And Newton could cash those checks with his arm in a way that Tebow couldn’t.

“You utilize his ability and talent that way,” Chudzinski says of Newton. “And in the process, also transition him. It really was a combination of how special we thought he was, and then, ’What can we do offensively to give him time to adjust and to get him time to develop as a passer in a traditional pro-style system?’”

The other thing that didn’t hurt: Newton’s 6' 5", 260-pound frame allowed him to take a pounding that many other quarterbacks couldn’t endure.

Though an agent instructing a coach about play-calling certainly qualifies as a faux pas in the NFL, Young’s people did have a point. The biggest problem with the option is that teams can’t afford to have their triggermen taking extra hits.

That’s why Kelly’s rules for his quarterbacks went like this: touchdown, first down, get down. In other words, if you can score, go; if you can get to the sticks, go; otherwise, hit the deck. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn held Buffalo’s offensive coordinator job for most of 2016. His guidelines for Tyrod Taylor, who rushed for more yards (1,148) than any NFL quarterback over the last two seasons, were even simpler: “Get down, get down, get all you can and get down,” he says with a smile.

During his comet-across-the-sky rookie season, in 2012, Griffin tweaked his right knee in Week 14 and sat out the following Sunday’s game in Cleveland. Kirk Cousins stepped in and threw for 329 yards. What struck Griffin’s family that game was how the Redskins’ coaches relied on Cousins’s arm rather than his legs.

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Like Young’s agents, Griffin’s relatives envisioned him as a drop-back passer. And so seeing Cousins line up under center and throw—even though he ran many of the same plays Griffin had, just dressed up differently—prompted a call to ownership, who ordered coaches to stop risking Griffin in the run game. Griffin blew out his knee and needed surgery on his ACL and LCL three weeks later. Shanahan was fired one season after that.

What happened in between illustrates how the development of these quarterbacks was complicated by their early success.

A rehabbing Griffin became the toast of D.C., his return expected to ring in a new era of Redskins football. There was nothing the team’s staff, who knew how far Griffin had to go, could do to contain the hype, but his circumstances were changing.

Defenses were catching up in the game of cat and mouse. For instance, some started sending the unblocked defender crashing down the line to take out the back, with a linebacker scraping outside behind him assigned to the quarterback. Others chose simply to knock the quarterback (who is not protected by roughing the passer rules when running the option) into Tuesday whether he kept the ball or not.

And, because of his knee injury, Griffin wouldn’t be able to run it as much or in the same way as he had in 2012, which put him in the position of having to be what he and his family desired him to be: a more traditional quarterback.

“We knew we could implement [the option] with Robert,” Shanahan says. “What we didn’t know was how long it would take him to learn the drop-back passing game, because he’d never done it. We knew it’d take time, just like it always does. And a lot of it has to do with how a person wants to study it, wants to be involved with it.”

It was difficult for Griffin, after his ’12 heroics, to grasp how difficult the path ahead would be. And as he struggled through a coaching change Cousins lapped him developmentally, which contributed to his 2015 benching and ’16 release. An injury in the opener effectively ended his ’16 season in Cleveland, and he’s now out of football.

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Meanwhile, in a similar way, Kaepernick’s 2012 and ’13 stardom for the 49ers hid his need for similar incremental progress. During the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco, Kaepernick was surrounded by a running back, offensive line and defense that were among the NFL’s best, insulating him from the sorts of third-and-long situations and big deficits that once felled Tebow’s Broncos.

What those on the outside saw: Kaepernick took Alex Smith’s job in mid-2012, posted a 98.3 passer rating, had a transcendent playoff game against the Packers (263 yards passing, 181 rushing) and got the Niners to within a few yards of a championship. He followed that with another solid season.

What those on the inside knew: Kaepernick had a long way to go, since the coaches built complexity into the option run game rather than building it into the passing game. That led to big plays on the ground, with defenses trying to catch up to coordinator Greg Roman’s run concepts, and more manageable situational football. And when defenses became more adept at stopping the option, Kaepernick’s fortunes shifted.

Another problem: Kaepernick was playing for a contender, and the best way for the Niners to keep winning was to continue using him the way they had. By 2014 the team was 8--8 and Harbaugh was on his way out. And as the option began to yield fewer 70-yard runs and more seven-yarders across the league, teams relied on it less and less. That, in turn, meant fewer suitors for quarterbacks who once majored in it.

Griffin, Tebow and (while there are other factors at play) Kaepernick, once seen as potential stars, are out of football. But contrary to popular belief, the option is not dead. Per Pro Football Focus data, NFL teams ran 2,022 plays classified as read-option in 2016 for 8,884 yards and 63 touchdowns. Clearly it still has its place.

“It really just depends on what your personnel is,” says Kelly. “Obviously, if you have Cam or RG3 or Kap or Russell Wilson—Blaine Gabbert did a nice job for us on it last year—it’s another tool in your toolbox. It’s not something you feature all the time but it’s something you can make the defense spend more time on.”

When Saints coach Sean Payton studied the Bills’ offense last year, he saw the side benefits of involving the quarterback in the run game “because it can reduce what you see defensively. When you watch Buffalo offensive film, man, you’re getting a similar look [on defense every week], because [the option is] something you have to contend with.”

Yes, the explosion early on was, in part, due to defenses scrambling to catch up to it. (Bill Belichick called Nick Saban for help the day after Miami sprung the Wildcat.) But it is now most effective as a changeup pitch. “It’s not like it’s a gimmick or some sort of thing that can’t last or you can’t continue to do,” Chudzinski says. “[Defenses] definitely know how to play it better, and have learned to play it better. But it’s sound.”

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One of the NFL’s elite teams has been at its forefront over the past five seasons. “The team that does it best is Seattle with Russell [Wilson],” Kelly says. “You always have to be conscious of it. They’re not gonna run it a ton. He’s as good as I’ve ever seen at not taking the hit. There’s nothing more frustrating than the quarterback out in the open field, then he hook slides after the first down, flips the ball to the official and lines back up again. You just can’t get to him.”

Wilson played through ankle, knee and pectoral injuries for most of 2016, logging only 17 keepers on zone-read plays as a result. Yet, the Seahawks persevered. Wilson persevered. They won a postseason game for the fifth straight year.

And perhaps the success Seattle has had over Wilson’s five seasons is due to the simple fact that it didn’t use the option as a starting point with the young QB. Wilson’s background coming into the NFL was pro-style rather than spread. That gave him other tools in his toolbox to reach for when he lost the metaphorical wrench he and Seattle were so apt at throwing at defenses.

In short: The option is part of what Wilson can do; it’s not who he, or Seattle, is.

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