February 1, 2013

Read-option offense of 49ers, others creating havoc in NFL

So far, defenses haven't been able to keep up with new trend.

NEW ORLEANS -- Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton not only have ushered in a new breed of quarterback. They've also introduced a new offense to the NFL.

The read-option offense has become part of a handful of teams' playbooks.

"Defending it obviously is a problem," New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said. "As you watch some of these teams, and with the quarterbacks that have come into the league -- three or four have come into our league this year -- they're talented; they're good passers; they can run. You can just go on and on. It's impressive."

The read option won its heart in San Francisco, just as the West Coast offense did in the 1980s under Bill Walsh. But current 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman insists he wants no part in ever being called "the father of the pistol."

"I am the father of Connor, Gregory and Emily, and that is the only thing I am father to," Roman said of his kids. "I've had the good fortune to have worked with a lot of great coaches now and in the past, and anything I'm able to come up with that might work is really a testament to all the people I've worked with and have taught me over the years."

Still, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh credits his coordinator, saying, "Greg Roman has done a job that is revolutionary in football."

The pistol's roots are in Nevada. Coach Michael Taylor is credited with being the first to use the formation, a hybrid of the shotgun and single wing, when he employed it at Ohio Northern in 1999.

But former Nevada coach Chris Ault, who popularized the formation, is given credit as the creator of the offense he renamed "the pistol." In four seasons under Ault, Kaepernick threw for 10,098 yards and 82 touchdowns while running for another 4,112 yards and 59 touchdowns.

When 49ers quarterback Alex Smith suffered a concussion at midseason, and Kaepernick took over the starting job, the 49ers added the read option to their offense.

Kaepernick is 7-2 in his nine starts, including two playoff victories. He has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 2,104 yards, 13 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 101.2 passer rating. He has run for another 457 yards and four touchdowns on 61 carries.

"It just opens the door for athletic quarterbacks to come in and try to make plays," Kaepernick said.

Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, hardly an "athletic" quarterback, was the first to use the formation in the NFL. The Steelers employed it in a 2010 game against Baltimore in an attempt to protect Roethlisberger's sprained right foot. They won 13-10.

Eight other teams since have used the read option, most notably Carolina, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington.

"I think it's hard to stop," said Wilson, who took the Seahawks to the divisional round of the playoffs. "It makes it really tough on defenses."

Chip Kelly, recently hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, had great success with the offense at Oregon. Niners rookie running back LaMichael James, who played at Oregon, said the concepts of the 49ers' offense are the same as what the Ducks ran as an every-down offense under Kelly. That leads James to believe the offense will succeed in the NFL.

"I've been asked it since the day I was drafted: Could it work? Could it work?" said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who ran the read option at Utah. "The big question is: Can the quarterback stay healthy? The quarterback is going to take more hits, potentially, in a system like that. Can you stay healthy? For me, I think that's the big question. What we've done this year, Kap's done more of it, I think it's definitely there. Can you live in it down-in and down-out? I don't know."

Kaepernick set an NFL rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries in a 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round. He passed for 233 yards and a touchdown in a 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

So far, defenses have had a hard time stopping the read option, though some believe it's just a matter of time. Others are convinced the read option will become the new offensive trend.

"I think the pistol read option will have staying power in the league," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The beauty of it is, and part of the genius of it is, it's such a simple idea. It goes back to Nevada and coach Ault out there. You can run your whole offense on it. You aren't limited to an option-type attack out of it. Not just the entire run game but the entire pass game as well. The backs get position to protect. You can run all your drop back stuff, you can run power run game inside and outside, and you can run read option, triple option. So it's just a very versatile-type offense and it forces you to defend a lot of different elements of the offensive attack."

Charean Williams


Twitter: @NFLcharean

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