Throughout most of the modern era of pro football, the widely held belief was that option plays wouldn’t work in the NFL. Defenders were too good, teams were too fast, and most importantly, quarterbacks were too important (and highly paid) for coaches to expose them to so many big hits. But, slowly at first, those college-style plays made their way into the pro game: Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, and T.J. Duckett ran option plays with the Falcons in 2004, Vince Young ran some with the Titans in 2006 and 2007, and the Dolphins utilized the wildcat in 2008.
Option plays sprung back onto the scene in 2011 in Carolina with Cam Newton and in Denver with Tim Tebow, and in 2012 and 2013, a few more teams joined the party. The most notable were the run-based option offenses built around Robert Griffin III in Washington, Russell Wilson in Seattle, Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, and Vick and Nick Foles in Philly. This boom of “read option” offenses was short-lived, though. The Broncos signed Peyton Manning and traded Tebow to the Jets. Griffin tore up his knee (on a scramble play and subsequent sack, not on a read-option run) and was never the same. Jim Harbaugh left the 49ers and Kaepernick floundered. Chip Kelly washed out of the NFL. Both the Seahawks and Panthers cut down on quarterback keepers in order to protect their franchise players.
But while the read option (and by that I mean the extended family of option runs) may no longer function as the foundation of any team’s offense, those plays are anything but gone from the league. Their use has just evolved. As Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote last month, though teams have worked to better protect their quarterbacks, they still ran 2,022 plays and scored 63 touchdowns with the read option in 2016. Teams run these plays less frequently, but they’re still effective. This year, we’ve seen the Panthers start going back to quarterback-oriented runs in order to kick-start a stalled offense. We’ve watched Andy Reid and the Chiefs mix an awesome and fun smorgasbord of option plays into his West Coast scheme, exploiting Alex Smith’s athleticism and experience as a college option quarterback. The Bills utilize Tyrod Taylor as a threat on the ground, the Texans have leaned on option runs to best use rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, and the Titans were still rolling out those plays when Marcus Mariota was healthy. Hell, the most exciting moment from Monday Night Football’s matchup between the Bears and Vikings was this amazing double handoff option-pitch play on Chicago’s fourth-quarter two-point conversion that tied the game.
On the play, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky hands off to running back Jordan Howard on a run to the left. Howard then hands back off to tight end (and former college option quarterback) Zach Miller, who is running back across the formation to the right and, in true old-school triple-option style, pitches it to Trubisky as soon as Miller draws a commitment from a defender. With no defender left on Trubisky, he walked into the end zone. Right after it happened, colleague Rodger Sherman took to The Ringer’s Slack channel to describe it as “the most beautiful play in the history of any sport.” Most of us had never seen anything like it. You’d probably have to go back to 2000 to find the last time anyone in the NFL had run it.
As for that play’s technical name, your guess is as good as mine. Football Outsiders’ Charles McDonald called it a “power read, shovel, [and] speed option all thrown into a blender.” That works for me. And it’s just one of a growing number of creative option-style runs that teams have turned to this year to confound defenses, move the ball, and score points.
Teams often use option run plays like a pitcher uses a changeup. It’s not your fastball; it’s the pitch you pull out only when the batter expects your bread-and-butter heater. In football, an option play can be one of many “constraint plays,” which, as Smart Football editor Chris B. Brown explains, “work on defenders who cheat.” Option plays like draw plays, bubble screens, and end arounds take advantage of players who relax on their fundamentals, rush in too fast, or get themselves out of position trying to make a big play.
Opponents of the Cowboys and Titans are probably getting sick of watching Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray constantly pick up positive yards on carries up the gut. Against both these teams, you’ll see edge defenders inch closer to the middle of the field and deep defenders get closer to the line of scrimmage—that’s where they’re most vulnerable for that changeup. Late in the fourth quarter of the Green Bay–Dallas game on Sunday, quarterback Dak Prescott scored the go-ahead touchdown on a read-option keeper. Green Bay’s defense was expecting an Elliott run on third-and-1, and veteran linebacker Ahmad Brooks rushed in, unblocked, to tackle the Cowboys running back in the backfield. Except Prescott saw Brooks rush in, pulled the ball back, and ran it in himself, untouched.
The Titans ran a similar concept in Week 4 against the Texans. As Houston edge defender Jadeveon Clowney crashed down the line with his eyes on Murray, quarterback Marcus Mariota pulled the ball back and ran 34 yards for the score.
Don't be fooled—option plays aren’t about smoke and mirrors or the element of surprise. They aren’t trick plays, but rather provide a mathematical advantage worth exploiting. As former 49ers (and now Bears) defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said when he was in San Francisco, defending option plays “becomes a numbers game. Your typical run, the quarterback hands off and it’s now their 10 against your 11. Now when he's a potential runner, it’s their 11 against your 11; and, they’re not even blocking one of the guys at the point of attack, so it actually becomes 11 against 10 if they do it right. The numbers are flipped.”
The Panthers put that numerical advantage to good use against the Lions last week when they ran a power shovel-option play for a touchdown. At the snap Newton strafed to his left; he had running back Jonathan Stewart on the outside for what looked like a standard option pitch, a staple in Carolina’s playbook for years. But underneath, starting from the right side of the formation, rookie back Christian McCaffrey snuck behind the line to give Newton a second option on a shovel pass inside. As the Lions reacted, they over-pursued to the outside, with two defenders taking Stewart and a third focusing in on Newton. That left McCaffrey open on Newton’s right, and, after drawing the defender, he tossed it to the rookie, who found daylight for the score.
No one has dug deeper into the option game this year than the Chiefs. Kansas City’s incorporated wildcat-style direct-snap plays to tight end Travis Kelce, and the team employs a wide variety of option plays from a multitude of formations. The most common has probably been their variation of the power shovel-option that we saw the Panthers run above. Against the Eagles in Week 2, Kelce took a shovel pass from Smith and rumbled, tumbled, and leaped into the end zone for a score. There were a few keys to the play: First, receiver Tyreek Hill’s motion to the right prior to the snap confused the defense and carried a pair of second-level defenders out of the play. Second, Smith holds the unblocked defensive end because of his threat to run. Third, the Chiefs get great blocking up front, and fourth, Kelce is a monster in the open field.
For option runs to work, quarterbacks do need to keep the ball and run from time to time, and, used in excess, these plays can put those franchise players at risk. But this year we’re seeing teams figure out that they don’t have to make a choice between building their entire offense around these plays or ignoring option concepts altogether. Instead, smart clubs—with athletic quarterbacks like Smith, Newton, Prescott, Mariota, Wilson, and Watson—have figured out how to effectively fold those plays into their core schemes. When option concepts are used as a small part of a bigger plan, and as just another tool in the play-calling toolbox, they are damn near impossible to defend with any consistency. These plays stress defenses and confuse them, and force defenders to make impossible choices. We already see these concepts featured in just about every offense, and not just in the ground game: Run-pass options give quarterbacks the chance to throw downfield, too, depending on how the defense lines up and reacts. The days of seeing quarterbacks carry the ball 120-plus times a year may be behind us, but option plays are here to stay.