THE STORY OF the 2012 NFL season was young QBs Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III running the read-option straight to stardom. This year, however, Kaepernick has taken a step back, and RG3 will finish his disastrous season riding the pine. So the read-option is on its way out, right?
Don't bet on it. Yes, efficiency on read-option rushes has dropped from 6.2 yards per carry in 2012 to 4.9 ypc this season, and it's true that Griffin and Kaepernick have had their sophomore struggles. But through Week 15, NFL teams were on pace to run 1,151 read-option run plays this season, nearly triple last year's all-time high of 415.
With a larger sample size and a full offseason for defensive gurus to game-plan against the scheme, it's no surprise the ypc numbers are down. The base read-option run, though, still far outperforms a typical NFL rush, 4.9 to 4.1. Then consider this: Three teams called 50-plus read-option runs in 2012 (Carolina, Washington and Seattle); through 14 games this season, eight teams had blown past that number. And four of those teams -- the Eagles, Seahawks, Panthers and 49ers -- were in the NFC playoff hunt. In fact, through Week 15, the Seahawks had used the read-option on 21 percent of their running plays, compared with 10 percent in 2012.
After Kaepernick & Co. destroyed Green Bay with 176 read-option rushing yards last postseason, the entire Packers defensive staff traveled to Texas A&M to observe Johnny Manziel's read-option offense and look for ways to counter the scheme. The team's preferred tactic, which has been adopted leaguewide, is the scrape exchange, where the defensive end always goes for the running back and the linebacker has responsibility for the QB. And to a certain extent, that adjustment has worked, especially against the 49ers. With the offense hamstrung by receiver Michael Crabtree's 11-game absence, Kaepernick no longer had multiple deep threats to punish defenses for overcommitting to stopping the read-option. And so overcommit defenses did. From the time Kaepernick became the starter in Week 11 through the Super Bowl last season, the 49ers averaged 10.8 yards per pass attempt and 8.2 ypc when teams put more defenders in the box than the 49ers had blockers. Through Week 15 this year, those numbers had dropped to 7.7 ypa and 3.9 ypc.
But read-option offenses with plentiful big-play targets have fared just fine, even with the increased defensive attention. Look no further than the NFC-leading Seahawks for what Read-Option 2.0 looks like. Seattle still relies heavily on "old-school" read-option, but it also has turned to the ultimate counter to the counter: the read-option play-action pass. One prime example: Late in the third quarter of Week 8 vs. the Rams, Wilson faked a read-option handoff to running back Marshawn Lynch, then uncorked a picturesque deep ball to receiver Golden Tate. Eighty yards and six points later, the Seahawks were on their way to securing an essential win in the chase for the NFC's No. 1 seed.
Read-Option 2.0 isn't just a weapon in Seattle. Carolina, which has called 96 read-option runs this season (third most in the league), uses it to free up Cam Newton's passing lanes. In Week 6 vs. the Vikings, Newton faked an inside handoff to Mike Tolbert and, before the defense could recover, hit wideout Brandon LaFell for a 79-yard TD.
If defenses are smart, they'll see these big plays as even more reason the read-option can no longer be dismissed as a fad. Not with the next crop of NFL quarterbacks -- Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston -- all being read-option monsters. "When you draft players like that, you're drafting the read-option," says one AFC player who faced multiple read-option teams this year. "It's the future of the NFL."
Now more than ever.