Option or Wildcat? Whatever it's called, NFL offenses evolving

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Rex Ryan have spent the past week explaining how Tim Tebow would not be their quarterback, but rather the triggerman in the latest incarnation of new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's Wildcat package. And on Wednesday at the NFL Annual Meeting, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll cringed when he heard about it.

It's not Tebow that bothers Carroll, mind you. It's the terminology.

"Wildcat, to me, means it's a running back [taking the snap] and there's minimal amount of throwing," Carroll explained over breakfast. "What you're calling it, that's when there's a tailback back there, and every once in a while he's gonna throw it. That's a halfback pass."

This is different. What Tebow proved last season, above so many other things picked apart on the surface, is that option football -- long believed to be an unemployable approach in the NFL -- works at the professional level.

Prior to the 2011 campaign, a quarterback had only logged 120 carries in a season twice over the past quarter century -- and both efforts came courtesy of Michael Vick (123 in 2006 and 120 in '04). Tebow just missed Vick's high-water mark with 122 carries -- despite starting just 11 games. And Carolina Panthers rookie phenom Cam Newton, once Tebow's backup at Florida, eclipsed Vick with 126 carries.

What gives?

Both Tebow and Newton are products of the read-option spread offenses that have blanketed college football over the past decade, pushed by innovators like Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez. Based on that pedigree, each player was questioned coming out of college. Each player was also too talented and successful at that level to ignore.

So NFL coaches have done what they're paid to do: They've adjusted to the talent provided to them. In the past, it meant finding ways to accentuate the talents of single players in spots -- like Brian Schottenheimer and the Jets did in running the option with Brad Smith, a college spread quarterback himself. Now, with read-option-bred quarterbacks becoming starters, the idea is broadening.

"When you've got a full-time player that got can do specialty things, it levels the playing field, because that quarterback is the guy who typically brings that eighth defender in, he's the extra guy," Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said. "That levels it, makes it 11-on-11. ... I never use the word gimmick. You've got special plays, because you have special players running them."

Mularkey cited the example of Kordell Stewart, whom he worked with in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and who was first a jack-of-all-trades before becoming Pittsburgh's starter. He explains that, "With (then-Steelers offensive coordinator) Chan (Gailey), we used Kordell as a starting quarterback in a number of roles."

And for defenses, that created the numbers problem Mularkey referenced. On most run calls, a traditional quarterback is out of the play quickly, creating an 11-on-10 advantage for the defense. On an option play, a defender has to account for the quarterback, making it 11-on-11. On a called run for the quarterback, a la Denver and Carolina, the offense is in essence adding a blocker.

"It's definitely option football," said new Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, fresh out of college ball, of what the Panthers and Broncos have done. "As I've tried to explain to people, whenever the guy who takes the snap is a threat to run, it changes all the math of defenses. That's really what defense is, getting your troops where the ball is gonna be run. And when that guy holding it is a threat to run, it changes the numbers -- minus-1. So as a coach, you now have to recruit extra resources."

And that concept explains why so often Tebow would be throwing to a receiver beating man coverage downfield, or why the Panthers were able to lead the league in pass plays of 20-plus yards for much of the 2011 season. The stress that the option game puts on the defense makes the passing game simpler for the offense.

"They gotta put enough in the box to stop it," said Gailey, now the Buffalo Bills coach. "And you've got an extra blocker because now the quarterback's running it, and not a tailback, and then you end up with one-on-one outside. That's all you can ask for in football -- one-on-one, and now it's, 'Can I win, or can he win?'"

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The ability of Tebow and Newton to carry a nearly unprecedented workload for players at their position is due largely to their very unique builds. The new Jets backup measures 6-foot-3 and a burly 236 pounds. Cam Newton is 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds, cut like a defensive end.

But even they need to be managed through a role where punishment can pile up in a hurry.

"I think the biggest difference that occurs at this level is the guys that are chasing them," Schiano said. "The defensive players are so talented and so explosive that there's a fine line in how much you're gonna put the ball in the quarterback's hands when he's not throwing it, because those guys are hard to replace. And you get hit. That's why running backs wear out more quickly than any position in the National Football League. You start making your quarterback a running back, his shelf life decreases."

Gailey adds that, "If it keeps going that direction, you gotta have three Cam Newtons on your team, because they're gonna take such a beating that it's hard to make it through the season. I feel like it may get to that. It may get to Cam Newton, and [Robert Griffin III], and all those guys, but you better have three of them. You better have enough to get through the year."

For now, the merging of the modern professional offense and the new-age option is underway.

That brings us back to the Wildcat. In 2006 and '07, then-Arkansas assistants Gus Malzahn and David Lee used it as a way to threaten defense with their two best players -- Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, with McFadden taking the snaps. Lee took it with him to the Dolphins, suggesting Miami run it the following year to similarly make the most out of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown.

The reasons for Denver and Carolina were different, finding a way to get the most out of a quarterback who brought unique things to the table for a player at that position. As Panthers coach Ron Rivera explains, "These are things that (Newton) has had success with, and Cam really has a good natural feel for it. It is tough, and it does add a couple of things, another dimension, that you have to prepare for."

How things grow from here is anyone's guess. But given trends at the college level of football -- a farm system that the pros have no control over -- it's unlikely that this kind of quarterback is going to stop being offered up to the NFL. It's the way the wind's blowing, and it's happening at every tier of the game.

"High school coaches couldn't get anybody to come out for football to play three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust," said Gailey, who spent six years as head coach at Georgia Tech. "So they went to this 7-on-7, throw-the-ball-all-over-the-park, and they got that point guard to come out and make plays on the football field. That's what the high schools are doing, so that's what the colleges are getting, that wide-open stuff, and the kids are going to where the wide-open stuff is going on."

Those kids are showing up in the NFL now. And they're knocking down a whole lot of old ideas.

Maybe the Wildcat, as constituted in 2008, is dying. But there's plenty of life left in the option, which, as Carroll will tell you, is a different breed all together.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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