“I think it’s the flavor of the day. We will see if it’s the flavor of the year. We’ll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit. We look forward to stopping it. We look forward to eliminating it.”
That was Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in 2013, referring to the NFL’s sudden infatuation with quarterbacks reading defenders in order to decide whether to keep the ball or give it away. NFL football should be about nothing but dropbacks, handoffs, and punts! He was far from alone in expressing this.
As of 2016 or so, the narrative at the pro level was that the option had gone the way of the Wildcat.
Lots of teams still used it, but it was considered a fad only trotted out in specific situations by teams with specific players (or with no better ideas). The option’s alleged obsolescence was one justification offered for Colin Kaepernick’s 2017 unemployment.
Such chicanery was thus successfully quarantined in the amateur levels forever.
And now, five weeks into 2017, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Mountain West offense is No. 1 in the NFL.
Football’s fallen in love with the shovel option ...
... about a year after Matt Canada’s Pitt offense tore apart eventual national champion Clemson with it in 2016 ...
... and decades after its use by a small school by the name of, uh, Alabama:
Bear Bryant sees all you NFL coaches showing how "innovative" you are with the shovel option and says, "oh yeah?" https://t.co/zbiUxXGNJO— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) October 8, 2017
Andy Reid has long been a college-style mind, coming up under legendary BYU passing-game innovator LaVell Edwards.
It was that connection to college football’s vertical game that made college fans hope Reid could guide Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes to one of the first NFL breakthroughs by an air raid quarterback. But the Chiefs had even more collegiate plans, as former Urban Meyer QB Alex Smith is putting together his best season ever in ... a spread-to-run offense similar to Meyer’s.
That shovel option is suddenly all over the place, even on Saturdays. Been a while since it felt like the NFL was influencing college schemes!
But at least the two-man option plays were eliminated, right?
Tomlin’s Steelers have achieved many things, but they did not wipe football clean of the dreaded QB keep-or-handoff decision. The beauty of the play popularized by the Chiefs is that the QB doesn’t have to take a hit, which was the NFL’s primary objection to the option, but there’s still room for the QB to run.
Rookie Deshaun Watson, who dominated in a college offense that was not exactly a Mike Martz algorithm, is destroying people with meat-and-potatoes option football while voyaging through Bill O’Brien’s demanding playbook.
And the Titans, Cowboys, and others still use versions of the shotgun zone read developed by Rich Rodriguez in the 1990s:
So the basic read option is still useful? That’s nothing. The NFL’s got full TRIPLE OPTION FEVER.
The second play here is roughly the same as the foundational play used by Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech, a team mocked by rivals for running a supposed high school offense (until those rivals have to defend it):
Over about five seasons now, the run/pass option has gone from a concept mostly seen in the Big 12 to a staple at every level.
RPOs aren't just gadget plays though. Sometimes all they serve to do is simplify looks and get one-on-one matchups pic.twitter.com/cDv6Rx4oIZ— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) July 7, 2017
The Seahawks were one of the first NFL teams to use it, and Pete Carroll said he got the idea from watching Auburn the year prior.
In the grand scheme, this is all normal football stuff that’s been used, to one extent or another, every weekend for years.
Let’s get weird.
In the NFL’s Week 5, the Bears blew minds by breaking this out on a two-pointer:
Even this oddity isn’t new, though we hadn’t seen it in years. This play’s roots also go back to college football, likely to the Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma teams of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Keep the trick plays coming. NFL OCs, you’re almost ready to try this one:
In the 2000s, the NFL developed a reputation for stodgy, grumpy football.
That’s despite the Patriots annually changing their offense from run-first to four-wide to ALL TIGHT ENDS ALL THE TIME, the Michael Vick Falcons bringing option ball to the NFL years before NFC East media noticed Robert Griffin III doing it, the Wildcat phase (that, much like Wildcat Jay Cutler, still just sort of lingers around), and so on.
That’s also despite the history of coaches at all levels stealing ideas from everywhere, even though it started to feel like ideas only float toward the NFL. 2017 Purdue didn’t invent the fake flea flicker, after all.
It is true that NFL offense had started to feel like nothing but a bunch of six-yard checkdowns, though. And it’s true that NFL coaches spent a lot of time griping about what college players were good at — especially when it came to QBs and offensive linemen — rather than adapting.
So if the NFL is re-embracing scheme diversity, that’s good for everyone, and there’s endless precedent for it. Remember when the Buffalo Bills won four straight AFC titles while running Portland State’s four-wide offense*?
* Let’s get Mike Leach an NFL job**.
** I’m joking, but I mean, look at college air raid QB Jared Goff ever since the Rams switched from Jeff Fisherball to a chuck-it-deep attack. I think I’m joking. Do it, Bears.
On the field, the NFL is as interesting as it’s been in a long time, and no single person deserves more credit for that than Reid.
These trends are the products of thousands of people all throughout football, but Reid, Smith, Kareem Hunt, and the Chiefs have left zero doubt that embracing the unusual can still work at any level.
He’s even motioned tight end Travis Kelce into the Wildcat ...
... and warned us all of what was coming when he had 346-pound Dontari Poe throw the largest touchdown of all time in Dec. 2016:
Turns out that was our heads-up that 2017 was going to be a fun season of football.