College football, the NFL and the read option: been there, done that.

Chris Brown does his usual fine job describing how much of the NFL spent the offseason trying to figure out a way to defend the read option.  What’s so enjoyable about his piece is that it nicely illustrates one of the college game’s big advantages over the NFL – diversity.  That’s because what the pros are struggling to defend now is something their college cohorts had to deal with a while back:

Last fall, these plays — common in college football but relatively new to the NFL — brought havoc. As one SEC offensive line coach put it, watching NFL teams try to defend the read-option was like stepping into a time machine: The poor technique, naive tactics, and ugly results were like seeing college defenses try to defend these plays, but a decade ago.

Indeed, what’s striking about the NFL’s search for answers this past offseason is how often it took the pro coaches to the college ranks.

To stop the read-option, ostensibly a “college” scheme, NFL coaches have gone back to school. Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy sent his entire staff to visit with Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M, and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers separately spent time with Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who faced Colin Kaepernick and his Pistol Offense for years at Hawaii and then Utah State. I’ve been told of visits from NFL coaches — some official, some very off-the-record — to schools as diverse as Stanford, Oklahoma State, Clemson, Alabama, Vanderbilt, BYU, and Florida State, where the primary topic of discussion was how to stop, or at least slow, the read-option.

What comes across as you read the article is how much more confident the college coaches sound about defending and deploying the read option than the pro guys do:  “NFL coaches have been understandably vague about just how they plan to stop the read-option. Even with all of last fall to focus on answers, teams still struggled, which led to the question of where solutions could be found.”  They went were the action was, because they had no better choice.

When it comes to scheming at the college level, necessity is definitely the mother of invention.  A lack of top-to-bottom parity, both in talent and financial resources, forces the have-nots to get creative to have a fighting chance.  It’s kind of like watching bacteria mutate in a petri dish.  And it’s definitely not what the NFL’s about:

The lower levels of football are always going to be more experimental than the inherently conservative NFL, as hundreds or even thousands of teams, many of them lacking even basic resources, grasp for any advantage they can get as part of a collection of teams with disparate talent. Rich Rodriguez famously said his staff invented the zone read at lowly Glenville State because they were “just trying to get a first down.” NFL teams, by contrast, are awash in facilities, technology, a relatively open market for players, and, maybe most important of all, time — time for coaches, who don’t have to zip around the country recruiting, and for players, who are full-time professionals.

How boring.

As I’ve said before, Paul Johnson may be an ass, but I love having the triple-option as part of the college game.  It’s part of the charm.


Filed under Strategery And Mechanics

14 responses to “College football, the NFL and the read option: been there, done that.

  1. Dante

    The NFL is always open to getting caught with its pant down. It doesn’t even have to be something innovative. Dan Reeves took the Falcons to a Super Bowl in 98 with a mid-70’s offense made up entirely of running plays and vertical pass routes. But when an NFL team does figure out how to counter an offensive scheme, that door shuts hard… at least for a few years.


  2. Macallanlover

    No “may be” about it Senator, PJ is an ass, with a gaping hole in the middle. I like the diversity of college offenses too, but his version is just flat-out boring. When you watch the spread offenses of Oregon, Ok State, West Virginia, Baylor, TAMU, even Clemson and Wake you see what the “modern” version of wide-open college offenses look like. Bear Bryant had already learned how to throw off the wishbone 35 years ago, FishFry must not have any of that film because he is one dimensional to the nth degree. Don’t think the NFL is too worried about anyone emulating that HS offense.


    • gastr1

      PJ makes no bones about running a spread or anything modern or innovative. It’s simply an anachronism. That’s why it’s so easy to defend it if you have time to prepare…the book on it is thick and well-preserved.

      The real irony is how he’s such a genius– by essentially copying existing formations and offenses from 40 years ago–which takes no insight or creativity at all.


      • Dog in Fla

        “the book on it is thick and well-preserved.”

        That book, like salted bacon, has been around so long it has old reviews

        “The covers of this book are too far apart…”, Ambrose Bierce


      • AthensHomerDawg

        I think you might reconsider the definition of “genius” here. PJ is paid 2.6 large each year and if fired buyout is ten. He a SOD Worthy Genius without benefit of shower protocol and bamboo agriculture. With that in mind …. he is a bargain. He certainly does not possess the WWII history chops of SOD!
        Muschamp grew his salary by $250,000 recently. He did that without winning the East and while embarrassing the SEC in his bowl game. SOD Genius at work. Nothing old fashioned about any of this.


        • Macallanlover

          That’s a whole different interpretation of “genius”. If we count flim-flams and schemes Madoff might replace Einstein in the Lexicon. Those nerds aren’t as smart as they like to think. $10MM buyout, who do they think would want him, even as a coordinator? They need a Business School. or consultant, in the slums for sure before entering into contracts. The only reason to have a buyout is to protect themselves from a raider. Let’s think of a list of potential programs that would have interest……OK, I came up empty.


  3. Newt

    I read somewhere that David Shaw’s staff at Stanford was one of the hot destinations for NFL teams, too.


  4. Jason

    I like reading Chris’ posts a lot, but I have to disagree w/ him on the part where he says, “it means a concept born on the dirt practice fields of backwater colleges will have become entrenched at the highest level of football.” If the offense were indeed that great, Tebow, Pat White, Dennis Dickson, Colt McCoy, etc. would all be NFL starters. What makes the Zone Read go, so to speak, is the same thing that makes every other offense go, the Jimmy’s and Joe’s. In college Pat White and Dennis Dickson could turn a 7-5 team into a 10-2 team by using this offense, but they can’t do that in the NFL.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, imo, this isn’t some grand scheme that is a game changer (although to a certain extent that could be said for the college game). It’s simply another scheme that will work IF it has the right parts. Kaepernick, RG III, Newton, Wilson, etc. can make this offense go, but other qb’s who were really good to great at the collegiate level, and we’re talking all world type athletes, can’t. It’s the same as Trent Dilfer not being able to do what Tom Brady does. Same offense, but vastly different results if you have a special qb. This offense is no different. It’s all about finding the right qb.


  5. MGW

    I’m still surprised there aren’t more triple option teams. A place like tech that gets moderate to bad talent consistently beats much more talented teams. The point is, so its bad for recruiting… who cares? If you’re somewhere like Kentucky or Mississippi State that’s never going to get the best recruiting classes, no matter what, why not run a system that’ll at least get you a big win or two pretty much every year?


    • Jason

      That’s why I thought AU was crazy for going after Kirby (although in the long run it probably would have worked out pretty well) and why Arkansas was definitely crazy for going after Bielema. As long as Saban is at Bammer, the only school in the west that could possibly line up athlete to athlete with Bama is LSU. History shows how often Ark will be able to do it and AU won’t be able to do it more than once per ~5 years. That’s why AU needed to go after a Malzhan type guy, to be able to go after some different athletes.


    • Cojones

      MGW- Perhaps you didn’t catch the last two years of MSU recruiting. And Kentucky’s efforts this year.


      • MGW

        Per Rivals: MSU was 10th in the SEC in ’12, and 11th in ’13. Yeah, they’ve been going gangbusters over there. Look out.

        Kentucky’s has a pretty big class with a total of 6 four stars, and its the greatest in the history of the program. Their high ranking will not continue through signing day once the rest of the classes fill out.