KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s a big game, but a small world. When Chip Kelly was integrating the read-option into Oregon’s offensive playbook some six years ago, he had Geoff Schwartz and the rest of the Ducks’ offensive line sit down and study film of — get this — Alex Smith. This was old-school Alex, back when Smith was the trigger man for coach Urban Meyer’s spread system at the University of Utah.
“So I watched a lot of (Smith’s) film in college, doing all that stuff,” Schwartz, the new Kansas City Chiefs lineman, said of Smith, who also just happens to be his new quarterback. “He can run. He can run. Smart quarterback.
“And sometimes, it’s not so much about the speed of the quarterback as it is making the right read. In an option type of offense, of course it would be nice to get 30 yards, but if you make the right read and get 15, you end up doing the same thing.”
The Chiefs are talking about option football this week, real honest-to-wishbone option football, and not in the dismissive and snooty tones (“Flavor of the month,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told USA Today in March) shared by some of their AFC peers. In something of a surprise salvo, the club even announced Monday that it had hired former Nevada coach Chris Ault, the godfather of the Pistol formation, as a consultant, in order to better diversify their approach.
Because as flavors go, this one keeps picking up steam. The Niners began frequenting the Pistol formation — in layman’s terms, a shortened shotgun, usually with the tailback lined up behind the quarterback in a stretched ‘I’ look — last fall, handed the keys over to signal-caller Colin Kaepernick, and rumbled all the way to the Super Bowl. The second part of the equation is the read-option, a staple of most college and prep playbooks, in which a quarterback “reads” a specific defender or defenders (usually a pass-rushing end), and decides to either hand off, tuck and run, or throw.
San Francisco and Washington, which possesses a similar pass-run threat under center in Robert Griffin III, melded both ideas to great acclaim, while Seattle lifted some of Kelly’s read-option principles, turned new quarterback Russell Wilson loose with them, and clinched a Wild Card berth. So now that he’s here, the whole Ault thing raises two very big questions along Lancer Lane:
1. Are the Chiefs serious?
2. And, if so, is this really a good idea?
As to the first query, well, the short answer is yes. How serious, of course, remains to be seen.
While some have speculated Ault’s presence is more or less a crutch for the defense, that notion doesn’t necessarily float — the Chiefs only play three teams in the regular season that use (or plan to use) some kind of option look: Philadelphia, Tennessee and Washington. New coach Andy Reid is a sharp cookie, and he saw firsthand with the Eagles what kind of havoc RG III could wreak with two good legs underneath him. That said, it’s likely to be more of a change-up deal, a wrinkle thrown in just enough times to give defensive coordinators something else to think about.
“Well it is an option, literally,” Reid allowed earlier this week. “We’re not featuring that. But we mess around with a little bit of everything.”
So they tinker. Tinkering is good. Wrinkles are good. As Reid explained it, Ault plans to remain in Reno, where he’ll be sent “projects” by the staff in Kansas City, while also partnering with Brad Childress on concepts and the like. The longtime Wolf Pack coach — who tutored Kaepnerick in college — apparently visited the team a few weeks back, to glowing reviews. Plus, as Schwartz noted, Smith has run this type of stuff before, both with the Niners and as a collegian; it’s not as if you’re suddenly asking Peyton Manning to channel his inner Vick.
“I think it’s viable (to) run it 4-5 times a game,” Schwartz said. “The defense has to spend time on film to study it. And mean, it’s a big-play opportunity, and I think that’s why a lot of teams are looking at it, because you can get chunks (of yards). Throwing in a pistol play every 15, you get a ‘chunk’ play.
“I think that as a rule changes — they’re allowing quarterbacks to get hit a little bit more now — I think you might see less of it.”
And we very well might, which brings us back to the second question. Despite its frequency and popularity at every other level of football, the NFL has always eschewed the option game, mainly because of the damage it does to quarterbacks. You’re playing more games; you’re playing more games against faster/stronger defenders, the head-hunting elite; and your starting signal-caller is, theoretically, the franchise’s most prized investment, not some pitch man for Jamaal Charles.
“It really, honestly, depends on (the) quarterback’s health,” Schwartz continued. “You’re not going to run it if you’re going to put your quarterback at risk. That’s what it comes down to. If a quarterback can stay healthy, teams will keep running it.
“You look at a team like Washington, what do they do now? Are they going to run it with Kirk Cousins, or are they going to run it less with RG III? In college, it’s easier. You have more players, you rotate them, you can play at a faster tempo than you do in the NFL. But it’s fun to watch. I like scheming, I like that type of deal. It’s fun to watch.”
Less fun, mind you, are the potential bodily costs. RG III’s right knee basically had to be stitched back together over the winter. Kaepernick is 6-foot-4 and runs like a gazelle, but nobody’s sure how well he’ll hold up during a full season of getting knocked around like a pinball.
“You never know,” noted wideout Dexter McCluster, a former college tailback. “The game of football is (about) contact. You can get hurt on any play, whether it’s an option or a straight handoff to the running back. But I think the option is something that’s going to stay for a while.”
Cycles come. Cycles go. For every NFL innovation or adopted innovation — the run-and-shoot, the zone blitz — there’s an equal and opposite reaction on the other side of the ball. A new innovation emerges, eventually someone figures how to counter it, and then someone else comes up with another innovation to counter the counter. Because of the read-option, for example, rosters are trending toward faster linebackers who can get from sideline to sideline in a hurry — former Kansas State stopper Arthur Brown, now with the Ravens, is one prototype — or linebacker/safety hybrids.
The other counter measure is obvious. Also, kind of brutal.
“Just hitting the quarterback,” Schwartz chuckled. “If you look at the Super Bowl, the Ravens really just went and hit Kaepernick a bunch of times. And I think that’s the trend you’re going to see. Maybe that’ll help to stop it.”
Maybe. Still, if the choice is joining the revolution or burying your head in the sand, rolling with Ault is by far the smarter option. No pun intended.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org