The Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers all made the playoffs last season with quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick operating the read-option offense, an unpredictable college-style attack in which the signal caller is a threat to run as well as pass.
Not surprisingly, we’re going to see more of the read-option in 2013. The Buffalo Bills drafted E.J. Manuel with the idea of running it. The Carolina Panthers are already doing it with Cam Newton. The Philadelphia Eagles hired the University of Oregon’s Chip Kelly so they could deploy his fast-paced attack, which has read-option elements.
Pro football’s newest thing has created a philosophical divide, with its practitioners on one side and teams that run more traditional offenses on the other. The Ravens are squarely in the latter camp, having just invested $120.6 million in Joe Flacco, a classic dropback signal-caller.
That’s not to say the Ravens aren’t indulging in some of the offensive unorthodoxy sweeping the NFL. You might see them use a double tight end alignment or split their running backs wide. I do recall Flacco running the option once or twice, strictly as a surprise.
But they’re not about to turn Flacco loose as a constant running threat. That would be self-defeating. His strength is his arm.
While you can be sure Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell is tinkering with new ideas, the Ravens are generally going to remain traditionalists, with their running backs running and their quarterback throwing.
Does this make them a tortoise compared to the hare the read-option represents? Some might feel that way, and if the read-option does take over the game and stack up Super Bowl triumphs in the coming years, those on the other side will just concede they were slow to embrace the future.
But I think the Ravens should feel fine with where they’re situated in this philosophical debate. The read-option was certainly a smash hit and fun to watch in 2012 (although not so fun for the Ravens in the second half of the Super Bowl), but there are several reasons why I have my doubts about its ability to last as a popular practice in the NFL.
For starters, quarterbacks who run that much are liable to get hurt. This is the NFL, not the Big 12. The defenders are bigger, faster and hit harder. Griffin is already dealing with a knee injury, incurred while scrambling. The Eagles’ Michael Vick is battered from years of running around. Let’s see how all these guys hold up.
Also, there are plenty of smart defensive coaches in the NFL spending this offseason figuring out how to gird their units to stop the read-option. It caught them by surprise in 2012, but I’m guessing things will go differently in 2013. The University of Alabama’s Nick Saban recently told ESPN that several pro coaches have stopped by to talk about how to stop the college-style attack.
If last year brought the push, expect this year to bring the push-back. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin was outright disdainful about the read-option recently, calling it the “flavor of the month” at the owners’ meetings in March.
“We look forward to stopping it. We look forward to eliminating it,” Tomlin said. “I always take a skeptical approach. We'll see. We'll see if guys are committed to getting their (quarterbacks) hit, because when you run the read-option, obviously they're runners. There's something associated with that.”
Flacco would be the first to tell you dropback passers get hit, too. Although he has never missed a start in five seasons with the Ravens, he has taken his share of huge hits.
But quarterbacks running loose across the field are going to get hit more.
Having invested in Flacco, the Ravens find themselves aligned with the Green Bay Packers, who just invested in Aaron Rodgers; the New England Patriots, who have Tom Brady; the Denver Broncos, who have Peyton Manning; and basically all teams with established, elite quarterbacks. With all due respect to the read-option guys, who are new and fun, I’ll take the company the Ravens are in.