Falcons study colleges to learn option attacks

Blasphemy. Heresy. Preposterous.

These are words that come to mind when pondering the idea of NFL offensive coaches giving their defensive counterparts a seminar on how their schemes work.

Put simply, it would never happen.

But college coaches giving NFL coaches seminars on the same topics, now that’s more feasible. In fact, the give-and-take of ideas appears to be going on more than ever, with the NFL looking for innovative concepts, where the college game tends to provide more fertile experimental ground.

Last year, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick went to Oregon to learn Chip Kelly’s up-tempo running offense. The Patriots baffled opponents with the scheme last season, and now Kelly is an NFL coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Atlanta Falcons are no different, looking for any edge when it comes to stopping the read-option and Pistol formation. The idea of San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whose 49ers beat the Falcons in the NFC championship game in January, helping Atlanta coaches seems laughable. Especially since the two NFC powers meet again in 2013.

So the Falcons did the next best thing. They used the transitive property. According to SI.com, last year Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris went out to the University of Nevada to learn the Pistol from its inventor, Chris Ault, who coached the Wolf Pack for 28 years until resigning after last season.

Morris wanted to implement some Pistol concepts into Clemson’s offense for quarterback Tajh Boyd, the prototypical read-option quarterback. On Monday, with his team in the middle of spring practices, head coach Dabo Swinney spoke about a visit by Falcons defensive coaches to his campus.

“The meetings with the Falcons staff were very helpful,” said Swinney, according to the Anderson Independent Mail. “They met with both our offensive guys and defensive guys, trying to learn more about what we do and how to defend what we do. And we were able to take a lot from them, as well.”

So both sides benefited from an exchange of ideas. But there’s another dynamic going on here. Football coaches are consummate networkers. Look at how often a head coach will get fired and an entire staff will have to look for work elsewhere. It’s good to have friends in high places — or sometimes any places at all.

Coaches constantly move from college to the pros and vice-versa, and it’s not just the high-profile Kellys and Jim Harbaughs who go as head coaches. Todd Grantham went from being a defensive line coach with the Dallas Cowboys to defensive coordinator at Georgia and was rumored to be a candidate for an NFL defensive coordinator job this past season (Saints).

Count former Georgia, Auburn and Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder as another who has gone back and forth.

But more specifically when it comes to the Falcons, they need to figure out a way to stop this scheme — as does almost every other defense in the NFL.

“I think the read-option is the flavor of the month,” Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said at the recent NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “We’ll see whether it’s the flavor of the year. A few years ago, people were talking wildly about the Wildcat. It’s less of a discussion now.

“I think there are coaches in rooms preparing themselves to defend it, there are coaches in rooms also preparing to run it. I think it’s going to sort out on the grass.”

Falcons head coach Mike Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his staff would spend “a whole lot of time” studying the read-option this offseason. With good reason. The Seahawks and 49ers offenses gave them fits in the playoffs. NFC South foe Carolina also flustered Atlanta with it twice last year, and the Redskins were performing admirably against the Falcons last year … before quarterback Robert Griffin III left the game with a concussion.

In short, the Falcons only lost four games last season, including the playoffs, and two were to read-option teams, not to mention a number of close calls. This coming season, at least five Falcons’ opponents — almost one-third of the schedule — will run some sort of read-option. More could be on the horizon.

“I’d be surprised if there’s a team in the NFL that hasn’t gone and spent time with some college guys during the offseason,” Swinney said. “A lot of people are studying the Pistol, and I’d be surprised if all NFL teams don’t spend more time preparing for that, just because you’re starting to see it in the league. …

“We don’t have all the answers here — we’re far from that. But football coaches borrow and steal from whoever they can. It’s not like people come here and we just give them information. We learn as much from them as they do from us.”

The Falcons hope that they learn just enough.