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Summer School: The evolution of running QBs

"Running isn't as easy as it looks" - Eli Manning, probably.

On average, it's fair to say that defenders have a harder job than offensive players. Rule changes over the past few years have favored the offense. The NFL knows that high-scoring games attract attention, and the easiest way to generate more of those is tweak the rules to make it easier for offenses to make big plays. However, the defense always had one advantage; numbers. With five offensive linemen and a quarterback dedicated to every passing play, the defense could rush four players and let extra guys play back in coverage. This was how it was for a very long time.

Running QBs

The idea that a quarterback can run around is not new. In the 1950s, Green Bay Packers QB Toby Rote lead the team in rushing yardage in three separate seasons. The New York Giants' own Fran Tarkenton was a nightmare for defenses, scrambling, dipping, dodging, and yeah, escaping. So, when a commentary team starts talking about Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III as the new breed of rushing QBs, ignore them. Scrambling has been around forever. QB runs have been around forever. What they really mean is that recently we saw a sudden uptick in the number of plays specifically designed for the QB to be a runner, and while that isn't a new concept either, it's showing up in ways people didn't expect.

The Wildcat

Before we saw the proliferation of QBs as runners, we saw a brief period of the runner as a QB. In 2008, the Miami Dolphins unveiled their Wildcat package with great success. Other teams had used its playing style for trick plays, one-offs, in the past. Nobody envisioned a team would deploy it as a major part of their offense in the NFL. Their QB coach at the time was David Lee, a man who ran that offense while he was with Arkansas, and he knew it would work. Their offensive coordinator at the time was Dan Henning, who had experimented with a similar style when he was with the Carolina Panthers, and he knew it would work, too. The Dolphins went into Foxborough that year and used the Wildcat formation six times against the New England Patriots. It worked. Four touchdowns from six attempts.

The Wildcat involves lining up a running back where the QB normally would be. The QB either substitutes out of the play or lines up as a wide receiver. The center snaps the ball directly to the RB who has the option to run, hand off to another runner, or even throw. If the defense over-commits to one player, the ball is handed off to another. That's the first trick. Once it's determined which runner will be carrying the play, defenders will then pursue as if it's a standard play, often coming off their man in coverage. RBs are not NFL-caliber throwers, but it doesn't take a lot to complete a short pass to a wide-open receiver.

The Wildcat forces the defense into multiple 50-50 decisions with which there is seemingly no right answer. Imagine I held a coin in one hand, put both of my hands behind my back, then asked you to guess which hand it's in. Immediately after you guess, I switch it and reveal that you made the wrong choice. That's how frustrating the Wildcat formation was when it first came to power in the NFL.

At first, it seemed like the Wildcat was unstoppable. Then suddenly, it was gone. The problem here was pretty obvious; running backs are not quarterbacks. The defense decided to allocate all resources to stopping the run, which forced every Wildcat play into a passing play. At this point, you play the odds that the RB won't complete the pass every time. By running some kind of basic Man Zero coverage (one man on one man, nobody in zones), the defense could get their numerical advantage up front again. A QB can take a shot in a one-on-one situation, a RB should not. In the following meeting between the Dolphins and the Patriots, New England limited Miami's Wildcat attack to just 27 yards.

The Read-Option

How do you fix the Wildcat offense? You make the running threat able to throw. The Wildcat's core principle was the idea of two RBs with the capability, but not necessarily the ability, to throw. This is where the read-option succeeded.

Teaching a QB how to run is a lot easier than teaching a RB to throw. When guys like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III burst onto the scene, it was because of the read-option. Both players had enough athleticism and vision as a runner to torment defenses with the threat of an extended ground-game on every single play. Their respective offensive coordinators took advantage of their skills by running Wildcat-style option plays, but with a legitimate throwing element.

The defense used a numbers advantage to shut down the Wildcat. This changed. With the read-option, it could no longer afford to play one-on-one coverage and the offense kept the 50-50 split-decision part of the play upfront designed to take another defensive player out of the game. At the snap, the QB gets the ball and holds it out for the RB to take it. The offensive line leaves one player unblocked to pursue into the backfield, at which point, they're met with the possibility of either the QB or RB keeping the ball. If he chooses the QB, then the ball is given to the RB. If he chooses the RB, the QB pulls the ball back and runs. If they stand at the line and do nothing, the ball is given to the RB who takes it and executes a standard running play with the benefit of an extra blocker.

There are two main schools of thought with regards to defending the read-option. The first is the "scrape technique." This is a two-man defensive attack principle in which the unblocked player up front generates a look for the QB to keep it, and an inside linebacker runs to the edge where he catches an unsuspecting QB. The defense makes it two-on-two where the only escape is for the QB to run it straight up the middle. QBs don't want to do that.

The second idea is similar to the first. A linebacker and an edge player both still play the read-option backfield, but rather than the linebacker covering the QB on the back side in a scrape, he blitzes up the middle. The defensive end plays soft pursuit on the outside, much like how a 3-4 edge player's job is occupy blockers rather than blaze past them. The QB can't give it to the RB on an inside handoff because the linebacker is charging, but the read from the outside isn't saying keep it either. This forces indecision, and it's a really difficult thing for the defensive end to pull off. Many teams will play a safety close to the line for clean-up should the DE not bring down the QB in the open field, because the linebacker who would normally have this job has committed to the inside blitz.

There is a third concept and it's a bit easier. You run right at the QB and hit him as hard as possible regardless of if he has the ball or not. If the offense wants the QB to look like a runner to the defense, they also have to let him look like a runner to the referees. Aside from the fact that not every team has access to a mobile QB, the major problem standing between every franchise and the read-option is money. QBs are one of the most overpaid positions in all of sports, and NFL teams cannot afford to give one guy a $100 million contract only for him to end up on injured-reserve after the defense smacked him around play-after-play on opening day.

Package Plays

Getting your QB killed is a sure fire way to lose games. Read-option football as it existed a few years ago was never going to be a long-term thing, and a lot of teams knew that. Secondary contracts for players like Kaepernick had high-upside with a very cautious year-by-year structure. Nobody except Washington fully bought in to the scheme. One year of success was undone by career-altering injuries and now Kirk Cousins takes the snaps in D.C. while former No. 2 overall draft pick Griffin attempts to rebuild the Cleveland Browns. And then there's Tim Tebow, who needs no introduction, but certainly requires further explanation. His success came in the brief window of the read-option alongside a Top 5 defense and whole lot of luck. Yes, he was good at what he did for the Denver Broncos, but once he caught on with his subsequent teams, defenses had pretty much figured out how to stop the scheme. His success was real, but the longevity of it was hampered by scrape techniques and accuracy issues.

There's one guy I haven't talked about yet. That's Russell Wilson. He arrived on the scene alongside the other big names in the mobile QB movement, but has seen considerable more success than his counterparts. People often point to him as the reason behind why running QBs are a good thing and not a bad thing. The problem with that analogy is that Russell Wilson's athleticism is used to enhance his traditional QB play rather than avoid it.

The read-option and the Wildcat are 'Get Out Of Jail Free' cards. They're jokers. You still need a QB who can throw with timing and accuracy, and Wilson is that guy. He's a QB who can run rather than a running QB, and the Seattle Seahawks are fortunate, because it allows them to get the absolute most out of a new style of offense called "package plays."

Package plays are the new trend in the NFL, and you may not realize it, but pretty much every team is running them right now. They are a simple advancement of the read-option to the run-pass-option (RPO) offense which is extremely popular in college and fast-break playbooks like those of Chip Kelly.

The idea is to carry out a standard read-option play but rather than having the receivers act as blockers or sell dummy routes on the outside, they run actual routes. The offensive line, the QB and the RB all execute a run play. The receivers play the pass. This adds another crucial layer to read-option. The ability to option, run, then pass opens the game up entirely.

The QB doesn't have to be mobile to use this, but the added threat is obviously beneficial. The RB needs to be able to sell the fake and follow his blocks regardless of if he has the ball or not. The offensive line blocks for a running play, but has to be careful not to progress too far vertically in case they trigger an ineligible receiver downfield penalty.

Many people criticize Kelly as an abject failure in Philadelphia, but most don't understand it was the "What" not the "How" that brought him down. His concepts were fine, and were adopted by many around the league, but the content he provided within those concepts was poor. His advanced ideas were backed up with poor fundamentals. Many of his route concepts didn't make sense. He forced personnel fits, preferring players who "bought in" to his system rather than those who were actually good at it. And of course, he was too arrogant to understand that his college success was predicated on the benefits of a mobile QB, yet started guys like Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles.

In a genuine literal sense, package plays are three-dimensional (RB run, QB run, QB pass). The read-option is two-dimensional, and that lack of depth was quickly exposed by opposing defenses. You can use RPO plays in the NFL now not only because they're still fresh, but because they cause a high rate of glitches on defense. How many times have you seen players seemingly have Wilson trapped in the backfield, but with a flick and a turn, it turns into a 30-yard completion? It's frustrating, because the offense gets to run multiple plays on one snap, whereas the defense is forced into reading and reacting with a single coverage.

Here is an example of a simple package play. Let's run it four times in a row and see what we can get away with. On the inside, we can see that it's a standard shotgun spread look. The QB and the RB have a read-option possibility here. On the first run, the QB hands it off to the RB. We don't huddle and line up the exact same way again. This time, the defense shows a different look and the QB keeps it. On the third run, the defense successfully uses a scrape, but it's no use because our QB hits a WR on an easy completion in the vacant area caused by the inside linebacker jumping up the middle. Again, no huddle. Let's go. On our fourth attempt, we use the three receivers set up on one side to hit a quick screen. That's the same play four different times with four different outcomes.

Package plays are becoming common on every team. They're especially useful for hurry-up offenses because it allows change-up without needing to communicate. Everyone is doing the same thing on every play except the QB, which begs the question, what's the flaw? Well, I don't know. If they're currently being used, it means that there isn't a real answer to it yet, but it also means that defensive coordinators are working on it. It's impossible to have a numerical advantage in every section of the field, so it'll take some trickery, but I have no doubt they'll get there someday soon. In the meantime, watch everyone from the Chicago Bears to the Baltimore Ravens operate package plays with massive success. Even minimal mobility will add a lot to the concept.

Talking points:

Do you think the New York Giants should operate package plays next year?

Does Eli Manning meet the requirements of "minimal mobility" given that he can throw if pressed upon by a defender?

Is new head coach Ben McAdoo going to really push his machine past the limitations of his former boss, Tom Coughlin?

In the case of an injury to Manning, do you think the RPO would be the easiest way to get Ryan Nassib into a functioning offense?

Further reading:

'Packaged Plays and the Newest Form of Option Football' by Chris B. Brown - Grantland

'Evolving the Option' by Ian Boyd - SB Nation

'NFL 101: Breaking Down the Basics of Packaged Plays' by Matt Bowen - Bleacher Report

'The NCAA May Have Just Killed the Run-Pass Option' by Jared Kalmus - SBN Underdog Dynasty