RG3, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson head NFL's option trend

Associated Press
Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson (from left to right) all terrorize defenses with their legs.

I've gone sore-throated talking about the introduction of option football to the NFL game the last couple years, from Tim Tebow to Cam Newton to Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.

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Spent countless hours writing about it, too, most recently two days ago.

But now is as good a time as any to go right back to the well. In the broader sense, there's no greater evidence that the trend is producing than this: If the playoffs started this weekend, half the NFC's playoff field would feature the option as a prominent offensive tactic. Two of those teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, face off in Sunday's spotlight game, a bloodsport-style showdown with big implications.

At the very least, all this is a piece of evolution in a league that told you for decades that the option would never work at the game's highest level. It's easy to conclude now that those naysayers were either wrong or simply crotchety about change.

"What you're seeing with these option-type quarterbacks, since they're all really good athletes, is that offensive coordinators are getting away from being stubborn and trying force players to be pocket passers, when they can move the pocket," one AFC college scouting director said. "You put a defense on its heels playing that way. The flip side is you have to have a guy who can come in and play. Look at (Robert Griffin III) -- he's already hurt. You better get a good backup if you're gonna play like that."

This is a complex trend. But the roots of it are simple. The NFL really hasn't had much of a choice.

Different incarnations of the spread-option style are prominent at all levels of college football -- the de facto farm system that the pros have little control over. Two of the first six quarterbacks taken in the 2011 NFL Draft (Newton and Kaepernick) ran an option-reliant offense throughout their entire time as collegians, and a third (Jake Locker) ran one for part of his college career. The second pick last year, RG3, did the same.

The benefit of carrying it over for guys like that is twofold. First, it obviously eases the transition to pro football, giving the quarterback elements of a scheme he's comfortable running. Second, as the college director mentioned, it stresses the defense, making opponents account for six skill players rather than five. This can open things up in the passing game, which explains a large part of why Tebow had such a great completion percentage in college, and why Griffin has had his robust number smoothly come with him to the pros.

An example of how it works: The Tennessee Titans rarely saw man coverage with Vince Young at quarterback, because defenses couldn't have players playing with their backs to that kind of threat. That meant more Cover 2, more zone in general and more predictability, with Young told to tuck and run if he saw "man."

Again, for Tennessee, that dynamic provided an avenue for Young's athleticism, while reducing what a defense could throw at him.

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"It's interesting to see the willingness of coaches to adapt to players' strengths and what they do well, rather than forcing them to do it within a set system," an AFC personnel executive said. "Some of these guys are such great athletes; it's common sense to allow them to be multiple and pressure the defense. While you develop the nuances of a traditional offense, having the flexibility and latitude to do what they did well in college can only help your offense.

"You expand the mismatches and, to me, you really challenge the defense coordinator. You still have to develop the guy. But in the meantime, you're playing to a guy's strength. It's a credit to the Redskins, Seahawks and Niners that they've done that."

It's not without drawbacks. Obviously, there's the aforementioned inherent injury risk that's already bitten Griffin and the Washington Redskins. You can help solve that by creating rules. Washington has told Griffin to only tuck the ball on scramble plays if he's unaccounted for by the defense, and taught him to slide and sprint to the sideline on all runs, designed or otherwise. But that only mitigates the problem. It doesn't eliminate it.

The old high-school approach to defending the option -- hit the quarterback until the offense doesn't run it anymore -- applies here, and was employed by the Ravens against the Redskins and the Patriots against the 49ers.

There's also the concern that if a team falls too hard for the option, it could hinder the long-term development of the group.

"The thing about it, and this is my personal opinion, is that it's working now because it's new," an NFC executive said. "Coaches are really good at this level, and that's part of it. And you're putting your quarterback in harm's way too much. ... If your quarterback's taking an extra 10 or 15 hits a game, he's not gonna last. Sixteen games, you figure that's 160 hits a guy wouldn't take in a pro-style offense. You can make it through a year like that when you're 23. Now, a 10-year career? Your body can't take that."

That probably best explains why the next step in this NFL evolution is hard to predict. Young washed out, but that's largely because of his inability to develop as a passer, as well as his lack of maturity as a professional. What if the guy running this stuff can throw it, as Griffin or, say, Kaepernick can?

Should be pretty interesting watching that dynamic play out. And the best part: We can all catch the next chapter live and in living color on Sunday night.

Players on the spot



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Baltimore Ravens ILB Dannell Ellerbe: The Ravens lost another piece at this position when Jameel McClain went on injured reserve this week. And even if Ray Lewis is back, it's hard to say what Baltimore will get from him. Meanwhile, the athletically gifted Ellerbe has missed the last three weeks, and his status is up in the air for Sunday's game against the New York Giants. Ellerbe hasn't been known for his reliability, but the Ravens really need him to make a difference now.

Seattle Seahawks CB Jeremy Lane: With Brandon Browner serving his PED suspension, Lane jumped into the starting lineup, and the sixth-round pick acquitted himself in 54 snaps. But this week, the task gets tougher in that a) the Niners have tape on him and b) Jim Harbaugh's pretty good at attacking a defense's vulnerabilities. You can expect Lane to be tested early and often by Kaepernick and Co.

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Minnesota Vikings QB Christian Ponder: At some point, Minnesota's gonna need him to win game, and he hasn't looked all that capable of late, failing to throw for 100 yards in three of his last eight games and cracking 200 just twice over that span. Part of that, of course, is that he spends a lot of time handing off to Adrian Peterson. That's worked well, too. But it's a safe bet that the Houston Texans will make Minnesota do a little more than that.

Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo: Romo has been outstanding since the beginning of November, completing 68 percent of his passes for 2,196 yards, 13 touchdowns, three picks and a 101.4 passer rating in seven games. Now, the pressure ratchets up. The division title is there for the taking for the second straight year. Slip up, and you miss the playoffs for a third straight year. And this week, Romo has to keep up with Drew Brees.

Coaches in the spotlight

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano: No part of a four-game losing streak is going to sit well with a staff, but Sunday's game in New Orleans was the first one in which the Bucs were not competitive. For a young coach like Schiano, setting the right tone going into the offseason is important. And they have a winnable game this week against the St. Louis Rams, before next week's season finale in Atlanta.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer: My personal feeling has been that Zimmer is overdue for a head-coaching shot, and this is one of those weeks he can prove it. Cincinnati's been airtight on D the last two months. The last real rough one? On Oct. 21, the Bengals yielded 431 yards, 167 on the ground, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Zim and his group get a good opportunity to show how far they've come in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Something to spot on Saturday night

The peaking Atlanta Falcons. Two years ago, then-No. 1 seed Atlanta got a lesson in the importance of building toward the right moment, as taught by the red-hot, eventual-champion Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs. The Falcons are again closing in on the conference's top seed. Even better, last Sunday's big win over the Giants is a sign that Packer-like momentum could build. Now, they have to keep it going.

Spot check

Indianapolis Colts' offensive line. It's been mentioned in this column on numerous occasions, and is very likely to be addressed by Ryan Grigson and Co. in the offseason: Indianapolis has to do a better job of keeping Andrew Luck clean. And even though the Kansas City Chiefs aren't exactly rolling into Sunday's game at Arrowhead as a team on a mission, one way the upset happens is if Tamba Hali and Co. consistently get to Luck, who's been shaky on the road.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.