Colin Kaepernick, the Read-Option, and Stigmas

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Colin Kaepernick, the Read-Option, and Stigmas

By Derrik Klassen

Colin Kaepernick is not a bad quarterback. I’m not the first or only person with that opinion, and I won’t be the last to express it. The conversation about Kaepernick delves beyond his quality of play, though. Tucked into the discussions about Kaepernick being a starting quality player is that he would require a complete scheme overhaul because he is a “read-option” quarterback. Sure, Kaepernick is more than comfortable with that being part of the offense and he has the athletic ability to execute the read-option at a high level, but the read-option is not a scheme, nor was it apart of Kaepernick’s arsenal in a way that it wasn’t for other athletic quarterbacks.

In 2012, the NFL saw a resurgence of the read-option. Colin Kaepernick, in his second year, and Robert Griffin III, a rookie, spearheaded the movement. Both quarterbacks were athletic, strong-armed quarterbacks who had a propensity for making plays and an underappreciated knack for protecting the ball. With Kaepernick grabbing headlines for replacing Alex Smith and Griffin parading toward the Rookie of the Year award, the two young quarterbacks became the “face” of the read-option.

They weren’t the only quarterbacks running it, though. Teams all around the league were using, and still use, the read-option. The read-option’s birth and death in the NFL is often directly tied to Kaepernick and Griffin, despite it preceding them and seemingly outlasting them. Likewise, the “rise” of mobile quarterbacks was pinned on those two and their faded careers marked the “fall” of mobile quarterbacks. Neither narrative is true.

The read-option, as well as various other quarterback-centered running plays, came well before Kaepernick and Griffin. Before either entered the league, there was Michael Vick. Vick didn’t run the read-option at the rate Kaepernick and Griffin did, but Vick’s Falcons team did not waste his athleticism. Instead of giving Vick the option at a mesh point, the Falcons put Vick on the move immediately and allowed him to make plays from outside the pocket.

In the same way that a traditional inside zone play and the read-option can look similar at first, Vick’s sweep and sweep-pass looked the same. The first play is a true sweep play, while the second play gives Vick the option to rear up and deliver a pass. The difference is the backside tackle and the playside receiver. In the first play, the backside tackles follows the play and the receiver cracks the linebacker, but on the second play, the tackle swings back around to pass protect and the receiver runs a route. Vick ended up scrambling on the second play, but that the Falcons could create a run-pass conflict with a couple of tweaks was devastating considering Vick’s athleticism.

When Vick returned to the league in 2009 as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles and later seized the starting quarterback job in 2010, then head coach Andy Reid mixed in the read-option to their zone rushing attack in an effort to take advantage of Vick’s athletic ability. Vick rushed for 676 yards on 100 carries (a league-leading 6.8 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns in an MVP-worthy season that was stifled by none other than Tom Brady.

Even now, the read-option and other quarterback-centered run plays are common in offenses around the league. Cam Newton (2015 NFL MVP) and Russell Wilson (2013 Super Bowl Champion) play in offenses that feature the quarterback as a part of the running game. Newton runs more power concepts than Wilson, but both are legitimate cogs in the running game.

Newton and Wilson, not unlike Kaepernick and Griffin did, win in part due to their ability as runners. They can substitute short passing with designed runs and options, forcing defenses to do more to respect the run and negates the risk of a pass play falling incomplete to stop the clock. That a quarterback can spice up the running game and create the same opportunity for yardage that a short passing play would should be viewed as a positive, but when it comes to quarterbacks who don’t have clear, inarguable, sustained success, the ability to thrive as a designed runner somehow becomes a blemish.

The idea is that “read-option quarterbacks” are only successful because of the read-option. Never mind that Russell Wilson tied Peyton Manning’s rookie touchdown passing record. Never mind that Robert Griffin III won Rookie of the Year with league-best marks in interception rate (1.3%) and yards per attempt (8.1 yards per attempt). Never mind that Colin Kaepernick came only a couple plays short of a Super Bowl ring in 2012 and the shot at another in 2013 while maintaining one of the league’s best interception rates over that span. Never mind that Cam Newton is one of only two players to play the first six years of their career averaging 30-plus touchdowns. Nevermind that fourth-round pick Dak Prescott just won the most unlikely Rookie of the Year award in a campaign of incredible passing efficiency.

Quarterbacks like Kaepernick and Griffin faded away after a couple of years and their demises are linked to the fact that they can run the ball. That isn’t fair. When a vertical passer doesn’t meet expectations, nobody clamors for teams to stop drafting and paying vertical passers. This is something that is only done to running quarterbacks, an idea that completely disregards the fact that quarterbacks of all shapes, sizes, and styles fail. The problem is not so much the “read-option quarterbacks,” it is that our understanding of who is and is not that type of quarterback is skewed, and the relatively new fetish with that style of quarterback lends to a small sample size that makes it easy to remember the failures.

Furthermore, the notion that those quarterbacks are the only guys using the read-option is silly. While it may not be at the same rate, teams all over the league use the read-option as a wrinkle to their running game.

Nobody is calling Alex Smith and Andy Dalton “read-option quarterbacks.” Blaine Gabbert, who had 40 rushing attempts in five starts last year for the same team Kaepernick played for, doesn’t get the label, either. Any quarterback with some semblance of athleticism has the read-option in their offense, as they should. It’s not a complicated install considering, at its core, it is inside zone without blocking the backside tackle.

There is no such thing as a “read-option quarterback.” Like any other concept, there are quarterbacks who are better at it and should have it be more integral to their arsenal, but that alone does not define them as quarterbacks. You won’t hear Jon Gruden calling Philip Rivers a “Y-cross quarterback” or Jameis Winston a “Four Verticals quarterback.” It doesn’t make sense to only do it for this one specific play, yet here we are.

The read-option wasn’t invented in 2012, and it won’t die now that Kaepernick and Griffin have lost their careers. Teams will continue to make the best use of their quarterbacks and the read-option is not exempt from being used now that the perceived “faces” of the concept are gone. Quarterbacks who can run the ball aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We, as a community, need to be as vigilant in praising the successes of running quarterbacks as we are in pointing out their failures. Running quarterbacks and the read-option aren’t a phase, nor a gimmick, and we need to stop treating them as such.