OPTION FINALLY AN OPTION IN NFL, AS BARRY SWITZER ALWAYS ARGUED
If you’ve closely followed American football for three-plus decades, you’ve probably heard Barry Switzer sing the praises of the option offence at one time or another.
Ya know, the college-style schemes predicated on the quarterback running, with the option to give or fake to a running back – either by pitchback or handoff.
Switzer was head coach of the University of Oklahoma Sooner juggernauts that ran it down everybody’s throats from the Wishbone in the 1970s and ’80s. That was before he became the most recent man to coach the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl title, in 1995.
Switzer always has said the option attack could work in the NFL.
Finally, it is.
With the NFL’s new wave of dual-threat quarterbacks ripping off big gainers and dazzling touchdowns on option plays this season, we caught up by phone with Switzer this week.
He’s now age 75, living out his years as the resident legend in Norman, Okla.
“The option is the No. 1 play in football,” Switzer told me. “More long runs are made on the perimeter of defences with the option than any other play in football.
“That’s my life, that’s my playbook.”
Switzer had his own chance to implement the option in the mid 1990s, when Jerry Jones hired him – five years after his brilliant 16-year run ended at Oklahoma – to replace Jimmy Johnson as head coach of the Cowboys. But, hey, with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Co. on offence, resorting to the option wasn’t remotely an option.
Nor was it anywhere else in the NFL all through those years.
Times have changed.
Of the all the rookie and second-year quarterbacks starting in the NFL this season (Greg McElroy of the New York Jets will become the 16th on Sunday against San Diego), several were dynamic dual-threat stars back in college, where they ran a lot of option.
Surprisingly, their NFL offensive coordinators are designing run-first plays for them as pros. Even option plays.
Washington’s Robert Griffin III leads the pack, but San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Carolina’s Cam Newton have shown they can be every bit as dangerous and exciting as RG3 once they get around a corner with the ball in their hands.
“They’ve used Robert Griffin to make plays, using the read-option and stuff like that,” Switzer said. “They’ve done some interesting things with him – all to put him on the corner.”
Switzer makes the clarification that he has never advocated running an option offence lock, stock and barrel in the NFL.
“You don’t run it every down,” Switzer said. “You don’t run it every series. But it has its place.
“In pro football, you’re going to win with the passing game. They’re going to recruit the prototype thrower, and they’re not gonna pay a guy a lot of money to be a damn option quarterback.”
That’s a crucial point.
RG3 is an awe-inspiring runner – fast, instinctive, great feet. But that isn’t why he was the No. 2 overall draft pick in April; rather, it’s because he’s an incredibly gifted and accurate passer, in the pocket and on the run.
Same with Newton the year before, Carolina’s No. 1 overall draft pick.
And it’s the same reason why Wilson supplanted Matt Flynn at Seattle’s training camp, and why Kaepernick unseated Alex Smith last month in San Franciscso.
By contrast, even the best option quarterbacks in Switzer’s college heyday don’t remotely compare as passers. While their acumen in the highly complex and nuanced triple-option game was beyond impressive, few option quarterbacks ever passed their teams to victory from a big deficit.
The passing stats of Wishbone (especially) and Option-I quarterbacks in the 1970s and early ’80s were as atrocious by today’s standards as they were paltry. To be fair, many of their infrequent pass attempts were low-odds deep shots to loosen up defences.
Take J.C. Watts.
He was Switzer’s quarterback in 1979 and 1980 at Oklahoma, before playing six years in the CFL for Ottawa and Toronto, and before becoming an influential Republican politician in the States. Watt never attempted more than 81 passes in an entire season – 12 games! And he never completed 50% of those passes. His career touchdown-to-interception ratio was 8-to-19.
The option-I quarterbacks were usually a bit better.
Rick Leach – before he played pro baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays – was a four-year starter at Michigan. He finished 14th, eighth and third in Heisman Trophy balloting from 1976-78. He was the first player in NCAA history to account for as many as 82 touchdowns passing and running.
Yet Leach completed fewer than 50% of his career passes, and almost had as many interceptions (35) as touchdowns (48).
Today’s dual-threat stars in the NFL are exceptional passers first and foremost, who can also dazzle with their feet. Big difference.
As we have diagrammed in our Chalkboard Session feature in recent weeks, both Griffin with the Redskins and Kaepernick with the 49ers are running plays out of a new Pistol formation that’s novel even in the college ranks.
Until someone comes up with a better name, we’re calling it the Bonewish – because by appearance it’s an inverted Wishbone.
The quarterback takes a snap at pistol depth, with a running back directly behind him and blockers flanking him on either side.
In Washington, either Griffin or running back Alfred Morris usually runs out of this formation – a “read option” based on Griffin’s read of the defence. But against Dallas late last month, Griffin faked the handoff, dropped back and fired a rope 60 yards in the air to a wide receiver for a touchdown.
As with the old Wishbone, the Bonewish appears destined to produce big plays in the passing game, if only because passes are relatively infrequent, and thus unexpected.
Option plays vex NFL defenders in other ways.
Two weeks ago in Miami, Kaepernick faked a Bonewish handoff up the gut to LaMichael James and bolted around left end, untouched, for a game-clinching 50-yard TD run.
Never mind that the other 10 Dolphins defenders all collapsed to the middle to get James. The defensive back on the run side was in press-man coverage against the only wide receiver on the field, and he thus had his back to the backfield. Kaepernick ran right by him before the cornerback knew what was happening. (Here’s the play, below:)
“I’ve seen that formation,” Switzer said. “You cannot play man-to-man and stop it when they run the option. If you’re running like hell with the wide receiver, before you know it you’re chasing the ball carrier’s ass down the field.”
Defensive linemen and linebackers can get burned even worse by option plays, Switzer said.
“Especially defensive ends. Now they can’t just rush the passer. They have to defend the option rush. You cannot rush inside an offensive tackle and have a free rush – they’ll come around the corner on your ass before you know it.”
Ask Mario Williams of the Buffalo Bills about that. Last Sunday in Toronto, the $100-million defensive end got burned badly twice by QB Wilson of the Seahawks.
Wilson made Williams pay for crashing hard and over-committing on a zone-read fake handoff. Wilson both times pulled the ball from running back Marshawn Lynch’s belly on the criss-cross, and scored himself on TD runs of 14 and 13 yards.
Wilson’s Seahawks play host to Kaepernick’s 49ers on Sunday night in a big NFC West showdown. Expect both young quarterbacks to run some option plays, perhaps further proving the option play has merit even at the NFL level.
“It’s always been effective!” Switzer said defiantly. “There’s been no cycles to it.
“There’s a place for it in the NFL. It takes discipline and it takes a good understanding of it, and you’ve got to work on it and execute. Then it has a place.”
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WISHBONE DEAD? NO WAY, SWITZER SAYS:
Of course, the one option formation nearest and dearest to Barry Switzer’s heart is the Wishbone.
He won three national championships with it at the University of Oklahoma from 1973-88, compiling a 157-29-4 record along the way.
Except for a few holdouts in U.S. college football – mainly just the service academies – the Wishbone has been obsolete since the early 1990s.
Just don’t tell that to Switzer.
“Someone said to me, ‘Is the wishbone dead?’ And I said, ‘No, the only thing dead are the guys that coached the son-of-a-bitchin’ thing.’”
Common perception is that the University of Miami Hurricanes’ defences in the mid to late 1980s exposed all the shortcomings of the Wishbone and Option-I offences in marquee bowl games, with their huge, fast and powerful defensive fronts.
Not true, Switzer said.
“Good players on defence handle any offence,” Switzer said. “That’s why people say you win with defence first. In the mid-’80s we were 33-0 against the rest of the world, but we were 0-3 against Miami. Miami had great talent in the ’80s. They should have won three national championships. They had tremendous talent and speed.
“But they were shutting down EVERYBODY’s offence, not just our Wishbone.”
And yet, as Switzer told The Sporting News in 1994, nobody ever suggested the I-formation – or any conventional pro-style offence – had become obsolete.
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(The above videos contrast the 1977 Wishbone attack of #5 Texas A&M’s Emory Bellard vs. the Option-I offence of #3 Michigan’s Bo Schembechler)
THE HISTORY OF THE OPTION OFFENCE:
Option football dates to 1941 in American football.
But the rule change that made it possible occurred 14 years earlier. Not that anyone remembers that.
It was while researching my next football history book – the untold story of how the University of Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg sold out to dismantle Fielding H. Yost’s ‘Point-a-Minute’ Michigan machine, circa 1901-05 – that I stumbled on the key rule change, lost to antiquity.
It involved Yost, one of football’s great coaching minds and visionaries.
In 1927, a new rule was passed in the college ranks mandating that a muffed or errant backward pass (a lateral) would be blown dead at the point of recovery by the defence.
Many coaches hated the rule. After the season, Yost was one of the few members of the American Football Coaches Association who fought hard for the retention of it. He argued that the rule would compel the more creative coaches to conjure wonderful offensive wrinkles, what with the risk of a gimme touchdown by the defence eliminated.
By 1934, the innovations indeed started to come, which prompted Yost to further predict: “The real use of the lateral pass is just in its infancy. Future football players will learn to pass and receive a football with the same proficiency that basketball players handle a basketball.”
Seven years later, University of Missouri head coach Don Faurot had the eureka moment – inventing the “option” offence, in which a quarterback running laterally decides either keep the ball and cut up field, or pitch the ball backward to a trailing, hard-charging, further flanked running back.
The pitch-or-keep principle of the option is no different than that behind the series of lateral passes in rugby: in trying to flank the defence by pitching the ball out yet wider, you either get around the corner, or create a gap to burst through.
Here, then, are eight signature evolutionary formations of the option offence in American football (big thanks to Steve Sapardanis for the graphics help!) – all devised and implemented at the college level … until now:
1. THE SPLIT-T
Originator: Don Faurot, head coach of University of Missouri, 1941.
Elements: The birth of the ‘triple option’ – a fake or give to the first back up the gut, then a pitch-or-keep down the line by the quarterback … The first offence to feature linemen not bunched shoulder-to-shoulder, but rather in wide ‘splits’ to create defensive gaps … The quarterback’s option pitch wasn’t one-handed. He’d go down the line, turn his back to the defence and lateral it with two hands to the trailing back, as a QB would today on a pitch sweep. Slow developing but effective for the time.
Heyday: 1950s and 1960s. Popularized by Notre Dame head coach Frank Leahy in the early ’50s, and Oklahoma head coach Bud Wilkinson in the mid ’50s.
2. THE HOUSTON VEER
Originator: Bill Yeoman, head coach of University of Houston, 1968.
Elements: With teams in college and pro lining up a pair of ‘wide’ pass receivers, rather than ends tight to the line, as always had been the case up to WWII, Yeoman incorporated two wide receivers into his modification of the Split-T option attack … The two halfbacks were symmetrically split, lining up behind the guards, with no fullback. By now, option quarterbacks were beginning to pitch back one-handed, with a quick flick of the wrist – which made the pitch play far faster, with less telegraphing.
Heyday: Late 1960s and 1970s, mostly in the South. Lou Holtz at the University of Arkansas was one of the lead proponents in the late ’70s.
3. THE OPTION-I
Originator: Head coach Tom Nugent is credited with originating the I-formation at Florida State University in 1950, but a young Gene Stallings at Texas A&M in the late 1960s popularized the Option-I.
Elements: The ‘tailback’ stands mostly erect, hands on hips, so he can see over the crouched fullback directly in front of him … As with the Veer, the Option-I features two WRs and a TE.
Heyday: 1960s to 1990s, but especially 1970s.
Derivatives: By the early 1970s, when running predominated college football, teams sometimes subbed out a wide receiver for a wingback – a fast slotback type who would keep defences from over-pursuing to the option side by taking a QB’s option pitch on a reverse the other way. Michigan and Ohio State helped to popularize this wingback feature, which Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams used to devastating effect by the mid 1990s.
4. THE WISHBONE
Originator: Emory Bellard, offensive coordinator of University of Texas, 1968.
Elements: Tasked by Texas head coach Darrell Royal with devising a new four-back rushing attack, Bellard came up with this devastating formation. It effectively trades one of the Option-I’s wideouts for another running back. The option-pitch trailer always comes from the opposite side, so the option-side halfback becomes a lead blocking back – something the Option-I lacked.
Heyday: The 1970s to the mid 1980s, although a few teams (such as the service academies) never have dropped it. The lead proponents were Royal’s Texas, Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma and Bear Bryant’s Alabama juggernauts.
Derivatives: On long passing downs, Wishbone teams would “break the bone” and send one of the halfbacks in motion to set up as a wide receiver.
5. THE FLEXBONE
Originator: Fisher DeBerry, head coach of the Air Force Academy, mid 1980s, a variation of Tiger Ellison’s original formation some two decades earlier.
Elements: Essentially the Wishbone, except two slotbacks (smallish, fast running backs in the mould of Patriots’ Danny Woodhead) replace the two halfbacks, and are ‘flexed’ wide of the tackles, and much closer to the line of scrimmage – much like an I-formation wingback … On passing downs, the slotbacks can become the 3rd and 4th downfield pass receivers.
Heyday: 1980s and 1990s, although few teams adopted it. Syracuse under Paul Pasqualoni was one, and QB Donovan McNabb became a star in it in the late 1990s … Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech revived the Flexbone with his own variation a few years ago.
6. THE ZONE-READ SPREAD (double option)
Originator: Rich Rodriguez, head coach of Glenville State, in 1991.
Elements: Takes the spread-the-defence-out principle of a four-wide, shotgun spread passing attack, but mainly to open up lanes for running purposes. The double option does not involve a pitchback. Rather, the QB and RB criss-cross, with the QB belly-faking to the RB, much like a QB and FB would do in previous option offences. The QB reads to see if the defensive end on the RB’s starting side is crashing in to get the RB. If so, the QB pulls the ball and runs into that vacated hole; otherwise, he gives to the RB.
Heyday: Late 1990s to present. Wildly popular at the high school and college levels. Popularized by Rodriguez himself in offensive-coordinator stops at Tulane and Clemson, before becoming head coach at West Virginia in 2001. Key disciples and further innovators include Urban Meyer (at Utah, Florida and now Ohio State) and Chip Kelly (at Oregon).
Derivatives: Hurry-up mode, which Kelly and Oregon use to extreme, devastating effect … A key passing element of the zone-read is the fake-handoff, quick bubble screen pass to one of the slotbacks, which effectively acts as a third (albeit passing) option … Subbing out a WR or SB, for a TE or FB or even an H-back tight end of sorts.
7. THE ZONE-READ SPREAD (triple option)
Originator: Rich Rodriguez, head coach of West Virginia, approx. 2001.
Elements: One of the slotbacks comes in motion before the snap and sets up on the same line as the running back, but on the other side of the quarterback – like the FB and HBs of the Wishbone. The QB and RB do their double-option thing, and if the QB pulls the ball and runs, the SB trails the QB, awaiting a potential option pitch.
Heyday: Early 2000s to present, by select teams employing the zone-read double-option. Randy Walker at Northwestern was an early implementer, and further innovator.
8. THE PISTOL ‘BONEWISH’ – AN INVERTED WISHBONE
Originator: OK, we’re giving it this name: the “Bonewish.” What else to call an inverted Wishbone? The ‘short shotgun’ Pistol formation was devised by head coach Chris Ault at the University of Nevada in 2004. Dozens of college teams and several NFL teams (in the renamed “Wildcat”) since have employed versions of the Pistol. The full-house Pistol, or Bonewish formation, developed in the college ranks just in the past couple years, principally at Clemson University.
Elements: The QB stands in the Pistol (that is, much closer to the centre than in the Shotgun), with a running back two yards directly behind him. At the college level, the backfield men flanking the QB usually are additional running backs, or fullbacks … The key feature is a double-option play. The QB hands off to the running back up the gut, or pulls and takes off around end, with the aid of his two flanked backfield blockers … At least two NFL teams in 2012 have embraced this formation. Mike and Kyle Shanahan on the Washington Redskins have a fullback and a tight end flank RG3. Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers employed two tight ends on either side of Colin Kaepernick on his game-sealing, read-option-keep TD run two weeks ago in Miami.
Heyday: Rapidly approaching it now.
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