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The option offense is a generic term that is used to describe a wide variety of offensive systems in American football. Option offenses are characterized as such due to the predominance of option running plays employed in these schemes. Option offenses have traditionally relied heavily upon running plays, though modern option offenses now incorporate a large number of passing plays. Because they are run-based, option offenses are very effective in managing the game clock, giving the opposing team less time to score, and keeping the option team's defense from tiring. However, this also means that when the option team is losing near the end of the game, and needs to score quickly, it is at a disadvantage. These schemes rely on timing, deception, and split-second decision-making under pressure, which, in turn, requires flawless execution and discipline.
An option offense is any football scheme that relies on option running plays as its cornerstone. There are a variety of such schemes. Some of the most popular versions include:
At the heart of all option offenses is the option run. This relatively complicated running play may take on many forms. All option runs, however, rely on two common principles: Whereas the traditional running play typically designates the ballcarrier prior to the snap, the ballcarrier in a true option running play is determined by reading the defensive alignment or the actions of defensive players. This may occur at the line of scrimmage or after the ball is snapped. The second principle of the option run is that it must include two or more potential ballcarriers. These individuals each perform a predetermined route, or "track" that poses a unique threat to a defense. By threatening to attack the defense in multiple ways during the play based on the defense's own actions/alignment, the option run forces the opponent to maintain extraordinary discipline. Defenders must focus on their assignments, which stresses the defense and often mitigates its speed, size and aggressiveness. Consequently, option offenses are excellent for undersized teams.
Option running plays are as numerous as the schemes that employ them. However, nearly all option running plays can be characterized as either a double option or triple option. This is determined by the number of choices available during the play.
The option offense is most frequently utilized in the high school and collegiate ranks. It is rarely used in the National Football League for several reasons. First, the speed and athleticism of NFL defenders (in comparison to the large, relatively immobile offensive linemen who are primarily trained to pass block) negates the advantages of an option offense. Second, option quarterbacks are hit and tackled frequently, which increases their risk of injury. Few professional teams, whose quarterbacks have multi-million dollar contracts, are willing to assume this increased risk of injury.
There has been a resurgence of option offenses in major college football. When implemented properly, option offensive schemes can be very successful, as demonstrated by the success of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Oklahoma Sooners, Georgia Southern Eagles, and Syracuse Orange in the 1970s through the early 2000s. Despite its success, many teams favor more "pro-style" offenses that attract athletes who may want to play in the NFL, where option offenses are non-existent.
Recently Urban Meyer and other coaches have developed extraordinarily competitive schemes using an option attack out of the shotgun formation. These combine elements of the West Coast offense and the single wing with sorted elements of the flexbone and the wishbone. Meyer used his spread option offense with great success at Bowling Green, Utah, and most recently at Florida, where he won two Division I FBS national titles.
Meyer's version is based on the spread attack developed by then-Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez earned "pioneer" status for incorporating wishbone principles, such as the zone-read and option pitches, into the primarily passing-oriented spread offense. However, it is unclear whether Rodriguez developed the system, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder developed the zone-read philosophy with QB Michael Bishop in the late 1990s, or whether the two coaches coincidentally developed the system at the same time.
The option remains popular at mid-major levels as well. The Appalachian State Mountaineers, who won an unprecedented three consecutive titles in Division I FCS from 2005 through 2007, rely on the spread option offense. Additionally, the Cal Poly Mustangs achieved unprecedented success with its flexbone-style option offense under former head coach Rich Ellerson.
Option offenses are considered to be "equalizers" on the playing field – allowing less athletic teams to compete with larger and faster defenses. Appalachian State proved this theory by defeating the heralded Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium during the 2007 NCAA season. Still, some critics label option offenses "gimmicky". This is most likely due to the lack of acceptance of the schemes at the professional level.
Option offenses remain very popular among the United States service academies. The Navy Midshipmen, Army Black Knights, and Air Force Falcons each use option offenses. If run properly, an option offense should be able to gain 2-3 yards before the linebackers and defensive backs can identify who has the football and make a tackle. Due in part to this, Navy rarely punts the ball, which has led many Navy fans to jokingly refer to 4th down (normally a punting situation) as "just another down." Coach Paul Johnson was particularly effective using this offensive scheme, leading Navy to 43 victories between 2003 and 2007, and Navy led the nation in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2007. He left Navy for Georgia Tech after the 2007 season, where he continues to successfully run the option.
Former Army coach Bob Sutton joked that the Army–Navy Game could be played in an hour because the game clock rarely stopped due to both teams running option schemes. After Sutton's firing, Army went away from the option in favor of a Pro Style attack under new head coach Todd Berry. After eight years of poor performance on the field (with a record of 17-76 from 2000-2007 including the only 0-13 season in NCAA history), Army returned to a flexbone triple-option scheme in the 2008 season. Many Army alumni pushed for a return to an option-based offense in hopes of regaining the success they saw under head coach Jim Young in the 1980s and early 1990s. Under Young, from 1983–1990, the cadets went 51-39-1, including 3 bowl appearances. With the beginning of spring practice 2008, Army coach Stan Brock closed practices to the fans and media in order to install the new offensive scheme. In mid-April, the Times-Herald Record broke the silence and eased alumni concerns by announcing that Brock and Army would return to the triple-option offense for the 2008 season. Though Army improved statistically, they failed to achieve a winning season, and in December 2008, Army Athletic Director, Kevin Anderson announced Brock's dismissal after only two seasons. Later that month, the team welcomed famed Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson as the 36th head coach at West Point. In his first season (2009) on the banks of the Hudson, Ellerson implemented his version of the option and led the Cadets to a 5-7 season. The team showed a marked improvement from the previous 10 years, missing a bowl game by one game.
The United States Air Force Academy also ran the option successfully under coach Fisher DeBerry, often having a run offense near the top of the NCAA. Falcons option quarterback Dee Dowis was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1989, setting an NCAA record for rushing by a quarterback, with 3,612 yards. The option helped the team win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy 16 times, the most among the three major football-playing service academies.
The option has made rare appearances in the NFL. Starting in 2004, Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T. J. Duckett ran the option with a degree of success not seen in the NFL before. In a December 2007 game against the New England Patriots, the New York Jets ran the option with quarterback Brad Smith, substituting Smith for starter Chad Pennington.
In the 2008 AFC championship, Ravens QB Joe Flacco ran a QB option tucking the ball for a 5 yard gain and a first down on crucial third down. The Ravens offense was known for mixing up its game plan, and although Flacco is not known for his speed, the deception employed by Baltimore allowed for Flacco to mix up plays successfully despite an AFC championship game loss.
In the 2009 season, the New York Jets ran the option numerous times, with Brad Smith. Each play produced positive yards. The Tennessee Titans also ran the option when Vince Young was re-installed as quarterback. In addition, the option helped Chris Johnson rush for 2000 yards.
In October 2010 against the Oakland Raiders, David Garrard performed an option run and kept the ball for a 24 yard run to set up a FG.
On October 9, 2011, the Carolina Panthers effectively ran the option twice against the New Orleans Saints. The first play was an option pitch from QB Cam Newton to RB DeAngelo Williams for a 67 yard touchdown. The second time, Cam Newton kept the ball and ran for 13 yards.
A month later, the Denver Broncos ran seventeen plays with Tim Tebow as quarterback and Willis McGahee as running back totalling 298 yards on the ground. The option was so effective that the Broncos played it almost exclusively in the fourth quarter of the 38-24 win over the Oakland Raiders and continued using it a week later in a 17-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs and a week later in an overtime win over San Diego. In that win over San Diego, Tim Tebow set an NFL record 22 rushing attempts by a quarterback in one game. The 2011 Denver Broncos, with Tebow at quarterback, have been the most successful team in the NFL to run a read-option offense.
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