It's Good to be Mobile

By Kyle Rowland on January 25, 2013 at 10:00a

Rarely does pro football emulate the college game. But that’s exactly what’s taking place in the NFL. The home of the West Coast offense and pocket-passing quarterbacks is giving way to the zone-read option and mobile signal-callers. 

Chris Ault recently stepped down at Nevada, but not before pioneering an offenseChirs Ault, the godfather of the pistol offense.

The spread read option was previously only seen in bits and pieces in the NFL. But shifty quarterbacks were all the rage during the 2012 NFL season. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton have put an end to the age-old question, 'Is there a place for mobile quarterbacks in the NFL?’ And they’ve done so emphatically.

But the tour de force behind the movement is Colin Kaepernick. A lightly regarded three-star recruit, Kaepernick accepted the lone Division I scholarship offer he had – Nevada. It was in Reno that head coach Chris Ault discovered Kaepernick was the perfect quarterback to head his new pistol offense.

Ault had come up with the then-radical idea in 2005. The Wolf Pack were mired in a stretch of mediocrity and he believed the way out was through a new revolutionary offensive system. The idea would prove to be ingenious.

Running the football is central to any team’s success. Ault was aware of that and he also like having quarterbacks line up in the shotgun. Voila, he thought. The quarterback and running back could line up side-by-side. This would put the ball into the running back’s hands quicker or allow the quarterback to keep the ball based on what he saw defensively. No matter what, the offense would have the advantage and function more efficiently. Defenses would be indecisive and that slight hesitation could be the difference between a two-yard gain and a touchdown.

When Ault first presented the idea to fellow coaches around the country and his own staff, he said the reaction was one of bewilderment. His assistants thought it could be a career killer.

“I said, ‘Here’s what I want to do. Here’s what I want to do all spring. I want to try to reinvent something to give us our own identity,’” Ault said on The Herd on ESPN Radio. “I’m pretty sure when that meeting was over, they all went and got their resumes ready because they thought they weren’t going to be working here next year. It was that far out.”

Then spring practice came and the results didn’t exactly strike confidence into anyone.

“It was ugly,” Ault said. “The ball’s all over the place. The kids are thinking, ‘Oh, my God, hang on.’ But we never took a step backward. I never said we’re going back, because I felt we had to make a statement for our university to try to get its own identity. If it didn’t work, I’d step aside and say get back to the other stuff.”

There was no need for a new coaching staff, not after Nevada went 9-3 and won the WAC and the Hawaii Bowl during the 2005 season. Over the next eight seasons, after the change to the pistol, Nevada went 65-39, won two conference titles and went to a bowl game every season. The high point was a 13-1 record and No. 11 final ranking in 2010.

Urban Meyer surveys the wreckage his zone read offense createdMeyer has used the zone read to rack up wins.

During Kaepernick’s four-year reign of terror, he was twice named WAC offensive player of the year. He also became the first – and still only – FBS quarterback to throw for over 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 yards in a career. Kaepernick also is the lone quarterback to pass for over 2,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season three times in a career.

It was those numbers and the extreme athleticism Kaepernick possesses that attracted Jim Harbaugh to him. During the 2011 NFL Draft, San Francisco traded up in the second round, giving Denver three draft picks, just to get Kaepernick. 

It’s a decision the 49ers haven’t regretted.

The returns on Kaepernick were not immediate. He played well in a wildcat role during his rookie season, but the 49ers used him sparingly. The re-emergence of Alex Smith put Kaepernick’s development on the backburner. The offseason courting of Peyton Manning made it look like Kaepernick’s career would take more years to get off the ground. But Manning opted for the Broncos and a midseason concussion sidelined Smith, giving Kaepernick his first NFL start. He’s started every game since and will do so again when San Francisco plays Baltimore in the Super Bowl next Sunday.

Kaepernick is 7-2 as a starter, but what really got people’s attention was his performance in the playoffs against Green Bay. He rushed for a quarterback playoff-record 181 yards and two touchdowns and added 17 completions for 263 yards and two more scores. All told, the 49ers' offense, headed by Kaepernick, rolled up 579 yards of offense.

NFL defenses, chock full of some of the world’s best athletes, have been completely dumbfounded by Kaepernick’s (and RGIII) ability to execute the zone-read option. Defensive linemen that weigh as much as dump trucks and linebackers than run 4.4 40s are the first lines of defense. But arithmetic still applies in the NFL, and read plays re-order that arithmetic back towards the offense. For that, they can thank the likes of Ault and Urban Meyer.

“There’s times where you look at things and think if you should have done something, but no regrets on that,” Ault said. “It was fun taking (Nevada) to where we are and creating the pistol, and seeing that go to the NFL is really a special thrill.”

Ironically, fundamentals betray NFL teams in limiting the effectiveness of the zone read. Linebackers are taught to crash the line of scrimmage, which works wonderfully against a traditional offense. But against the zone read, it makes them vulnerable to being out of position and missing tackles. Tyler Replogle understands the nuances of slowing down the pistol and zone read; Clay Matthews does not.

In the NFL’s history, the term "running quarterback" wasn’t always in a literal sense. Steve Young and Michael Vick are pass-first quarterbacks that scrambled from time to time. Kaepernick, RGIII, Wilson and Newton run frequently – and it is often by design. Kaepernick has the 49ers positioned for a sixth Super Bowl title, Griffin led the Redskins’ offense to a league-best 6.2 yards per play this season, Wilson and the Seahawks were this close to being in the NFC Championship Game, and Newton had one of the best rookie seasons ever in 2011.

The evolution of the quarterback has steered the direction of football since the sport’s founding sevenscore and four years ago. It is easy to forget that every NFL team ran the 'single wing.' The ball was directly snapped to the tailback who would run or throw.  The 'quarterback' position was little more than a blocking back (hence the use of the term 'quarter'--they were closer to the line of scrimmage). But that all changed in the 1940 NFL championship, when Sid Luckman and the Chicago Bears unveiled the 'T' formation in a 73-0 demolishing of the Washington Redskins. Ever since then, the NFL generally put their quarterbacks under center, where their role was to pass or hand off.

College football has a more schematically varied past. It evolved during the age of the option and wishbone before giving way to pass heavy offenses, until finally the age of the dual-threat quarterback emerged. The grand showcase for the new age quarterback is Super Bowl XLVII. That Baltimore is the defense faced with slowing the attack is appropriate. For more than a decade, the Ravens have been the gold standard of barricades.

For the next week, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh will try his darndest to understand how brother Jim makes his offense go. In Columbus, Ohio, Meyer will be doing the same. But he doesn’t want to learn how to stop it. For the next seven months, like he often does, Meyer will be searching for any wrinkle he can find to stay ahead of and catch the competition.

“I haven’t watched much pro football,” said Meyer, on a recent addition of the Dan Patrick Show. “I saw some highlights that looked exactly like the stuff we run. It’s phenomenal. It’s pure spread offense. That means you’re reading one defender, and the quarterback is, in essence, a ball-carrier if the defender reacts a certain way.”

Some new offensive variations also sprung up as Meyer tuned in to NFL games. One such wrinkle was used by San Francisco, where the h-back blocking across the line of scrimmage would also read the defensive end and either kick him out or avoid him, depending on his actions. Meyer said the Buckeyes would be doing the same thing in the fall.

Meyer owes much of his success to high-powered offenses. In both national championship seasons at Florida, the zone read resulted in flustered defenses. The same can be said for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller in Year 1 under Meyer. The Big Ten’s offensive player of the year could run, pass or handoff. Regardless of what he did, opponents were largely confused. Miller finished the season with nearly 1,300 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.

The most effective defenses were at slowing Miller was when he suffered injuries. Therein lies the rub with having mobile quarterbacks. RGIII’s injury in the playoffs is the most high-profile case yet. He suffered a serious knee injury and could miss part of next season.

“How long can you go taking shots like that?” Meyer said. “That will be the question with how long you can use that style offense.”

The answer: until defenses stop it.


Comments Show All Comments

input4u's picture

Kaepernick is a Stud.  How many NFL GM's are banging thier head in a wall for passing on him.  Kudos to San Fran for trading up and taking a shot on a guy.  And He dind't even get this chance until injury to Alex Smith. 
I am looking forward to wtaching the San Fran Offense and to see what the Ravens and thier "D" can do to stop them on the final leg of the Ray Lewis farewell tour.  The SuperBowl should be intersesting this year.
Could the new formula in the NFL be to have this type of QB and due to possible injury have a backup of same type of skill set to get through the year.  It used to be top tier QB's could last a long time while the runnning backs shelf life is about 3-4 years.  Look at how many RB's Peyton Manning has had by his side.  What will be the shelf life of this new style QB ?!?!

Buckeyejason's picture

I'm a Niner fan so I'm loving all this obviously! 
All this evolution of the athletic QB's in the NFL is only raising Braxton Millers value to the well as guys like Manziel, Boyd, etc.


nvbuckeye's picture

Agreed that Colin Kaepernick is a stud read-option QB.  Who would have thought that being a Buckeye for almost 60 years and a Nevada season ticket holder for 30 years that I would read a feature article on Chris Ault (the father of Nevada football) here?  If Braxton Miller can emulate what Kap did in his final 2 seasons at Nevada then Buckeye fans will be singing his praises for decades to come.  Miller is a better runner than Kap and maybe a better passer, too (based on my watching Kap live and Brax on TV).  With the O talent Miller has to use tOSU should be unstoppable this year and next.  Go Buckeyes!!!

Yenots11's picture

Miller certainly won't reach the 10,000 yard passing plateau, but he is poised to join Kaep as the only other QB to pass for 2,000 & run for 1,000 in 3 seasons. I'll take that all day.

Go Bucks!! 

"Aut viam inveniam aut faciam!"

Earle's picture

Let's allow this to play out over the next couple of years and see how many NFL QB's go out stretchers.  Even great athletes like RGIII and Kaepernick can take only so many hits from 250-lb LB's who run 4.5's.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

kalabuckzoo's picture

Thing is RGIII is kind of a string bean and Kaepernick and Cam are really big dudes.  Not sure who's in charge of strength and conditioning for the Niners but...well done.

Earle's picture

Agreed, but even big dudes have hard skulls and soft brains.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

kalabuckzoo's picture

Oh no doubt.  I agree time will tell here on how well these guys hold up.  When it comes to head shots and concussions though pocket passers are just as susceptible.  I think running style  and qb size are the two important factors. Mike Vick or even go back to Steve Young who had concussion issues are smaller guys and more likely to take a head shot in the open field.  The way Kaep and Cam run upright I think concussions are less likely for those guys and I think they have a shot at holding up.  RGIII seems to run a bit wildly and I'd bet that Russell Wilson's size will play a factor for him down the road, although he seems good at avoiding contact.

yrro's picture

NFL read option doesn't have to make the QB get hit more. The difference is in using it as a counter, rather than as your primary preference or option. It's there to slow down the defensive end and give you a blocking advantage inside more than it is to get 180 yards running out of your quarterback. Think of it more like a screen pass - you don't want to run it as your base play, but you do need the defense to respect that it can happen.
Look at the game against Atlanta. Atlanta played to take away the QB run - which is exactly what the 49ers *want* you to do! Their running backs got 130 yards out of the deal. This isn't Meyer's offense where you have Tebow plowing up the center of the field 5 yards at a time and 20 carries a game.
Look at how effective Hyde was at the end of the year - this is exactly what they are going for. When you combine that with an actual passing threat (unlike OSU's this year, but hopefully like OSU's next year), you don't actually have to run the quarterback except for when the defense is giving you such an easy time of it that it would be foolish not to. Which, they already have that option on pass plays to scramble. Just get the first down and get out of bounds - I'm pretty sure Kaepernick had over 100 yards before Green Bay even laid a finger on him.

kalabuckzoo's picture

Yes!  This is exactly it.  The big factor for the NFL to make this work is the ability for the QB to throw the ball (very ironic I suppose).  I don't see the read option/pistol "taking over" the NFL as a new rage for the simple reason that there just won't be enough skilled dual threat qb's. 

Earle's picture

I agree that the QB keep can be effective as a constraint play, but defenses will figure it out if the QB is largely a decoy, and even if he gives the ball up 90% of the time, he is still going to take more hits because he is a threat to run whether he keeps it or not.  They can't legislate that out of the game the way they have hits in the pocket (well I suppose they could, but then they might as well put the QB's in a plastic bubble).
Oh, and I have no idea what GB was doing on defense.  It was as if they never saw SF play before.  "Wait--Kaepernick's running!  We didn't know he could do that!"

Snarkies gonna snark. 

BrewstersMillions's picture

What amazed me more last Sunday was Kaepernick's ability in the pocket. The Zone read in the NFL is going to get phased out because NFL defenses adapt. The Zone works consistently at the collegiate level because the talent gap is generally immense. On even your best NCAA defenses, you have guys who won't be NFL players. Its over simplistic but on every NFL defense you have NFL defenders. Plus, QB's are making so much money and are such a big part of every franchise's long term plans that very few GM's and Owners will want to see their multi million dollar cornerstones take an additional 10-15 hits per game. Wilson, RGIII, and Kaepernick aren't going to usher in a 'new era' of football but the offenses they are running are tailored to their specific set of skills. I am very interested to see the secondary adjustment these players make when NFL defenses adjust to them. Cam hasn't made it, Mike Vick never made it. Those were both guys that were supposed to change the face of QB play. Kaepernick at least appears to be a guy just at home in the pocket as out of it and that's what should have NFL teams scared. If he can be a consistent passer (as it appears so far he can be), he will be a nightmare because the threat to run is always there. I'm not saying that the Peyton\Brady type will always be the better bet-NFL teams LOVE athletes at QB. Look at Aaron Rodgers-he's the new mold QB. A dynamite thrower with incredible feet. RGIII, Wilson, and Kaepernick will have to counter the next counter, believe me-its coming. The league is littered with guys who were supposed to revolutionize a position. Not to say they won't be long term successes but there's no guarantee they will all repeat this years successes with consistency.

kalabuckzoo's picture

I agree with everything you said except its a bit early to say that Cam hasn't made it in the NFL.

BrewstersMillions's picture

You misunderstand me. I'm saying he hasn't made the adjustment to people adjusting to him. His rookie year can be divided up into two halves. He came into the league and took the world by storm, and a lot of people thought he was the next NFL QB. Then NFL defenses adapted to him. Now he has to adapt to them and he hasn't done that yet. That's what I meant. By no means am I saying he's a bust.
From year 1 to year 2, he threw less, completed less, scored less and turned the ball over more. NFL defenses have a book on him, he now has to show NFL defenses he can adjust. The same will be done to this years Rookie\first year starter class and they'll need to show they can adjust too.

kalabuckzoo's picture

I just don't quite agree with that analysis.  He only threw 32 less passes, his comp % dropped by 3pts, he ran the same amount and his turnovers actually decreased.  He scored less rushing TDs but I'm not sure what the goaline attempts were from yr 1 to yr 2 as Tolbert came in this year and had 7td on just 50 carries.  He hasn't led them to a winning season yet so that's the only knock on him for me.  Statistically he has been phenominal for a 2nd yr qb.

BrewstersMillions's picture

Correction. I'm basing fumbles as a turnover when in reality they may not be. In each season he's had 22 INT\Fumbles so there is no change there. Don't let the number fool you-3 points isn't good-he also dropped below 60 percent which is bare minimum for good QB play. He hasn't been bad but this was a guy who came into the league with with 3 300 yard games in his first 4 (two of which were 400 yarders) and then didn't throw for 300 or more the rest of his rookie season. His second year he hit 300 yards 3 times, first, 8th, and 12th games of the year. He's also had 3 of the 5 lowest QBR games of his career in year 2.
He started out like a house of fire and was probably a victim of his own success because 400 yard games are not sustainable but to go over 300 yards 3 times in your first four games, then 3 times over your next 28? Not great.
I'm saying he hasn't progressed, he's regressed. The numbers would indicate that is the case-now its my theory-and only that-that its because NFL defenses are no longer shocked or surprised by his unique skill set.

kalabuckzoo's picture

This quickly became a Cam Newton debate and for that I am sorry.  Unless he's ever on my fantasy team in the future I honestly don't care too much about his success.  My basis is simply that the sample size (2 yrs) is far too small to say he has regressed or that defenses have figured him out.  And b/c I'm stubborn when it comes to stats
yr1 - 17 int,  2 fmb lost
yr2 - 12 int, 5(espn) 4( 3(cbs) fmb lost
whatever source is correct its still technically a drop in turnovers.  Sorry, I know this really doesn't matter.
What I really want to see is an improvement in Braxton's passing game and to see his improved success for OSU.  Go Buckeyes!

BrewstersMillions's picture

No need to apologize my man. I stand corrected on the turnover stat. I lazily assumed all fumbles as turnovers. You and I are parting on essentially the same point. You feel that its too soon to say he regressed, I don't think it is. With that said, you make a valid case for why it might be too soon.
Now, if Braxton Miller ends up completing %68 or more of his passes, we'll both be doing cart wheels!

kalabuckzoo's picture

Cart wheels indeed!

Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

I'm looking forward to Urban and the staff implementing the diamond formation.  I think this could be very tough to defend with Braxton, Hyde, Hall, and Zeke/Marshall in the backfield.  I look for the diamond formation to open up some of the passing game too.  I understand there are only 2 WR's on the field in the formation, but it will force safeties to come up and the playaction should be open downfield.  A lot of good possibilities to come for the The Ohio State University!

nickma71's picture

The 49ers could run and were physical from the get-go with Harbaugh at the helm. He knows to control the trenches. John Elways best years were winning the Superbowl twice by handing off to Terrel Davis and passing. That made the team two dimensional instead of one.
And as pointed out....yesterday?....Braxton for all his mobility isn't good at the scramble. Hopefully that improves.

tennbuckeye19's picture

It's hard to believe the Pistol offense has only been around since 2005. It seems like it's been longer than that.

scc8t's picture

Interesting that the bengals took dalton with the pick right before kap and the browns had the pick right after kap. You have to wonder if San Fran thought the browns would take him. Would have been a great pick for the browns. Good move by San Fran/hardbaugh who got a tip about him from Andrew luck who met him at a camp..

MediBuck's picture

It makes me so happy that Coach Urbs is considering incorporating the pistol and diamond formations more into the Buckeye playbook. I've always felt that a team like OSU which can establish a powerful downhill running game but has also had mobile signal callers as of late (Miller, Troy, Pryor) could really benefit from running such an offense. We got a taste of the effectiveness of the formation last year despite the pure and utter incompetence of the offensive coaching staff without Coach Tress.
Of course it doesn't hurt that I lived in Nevada for a good chunk of my adult life and have seen the pistol running in person. UNR in Kaepernick's final season upset an elite Boise State team, demolished ranked Cal and BYU sqads, lost only one game, and grabbed a WAC title en route to a #11 final ranking. Now imagine what that offense could do with a stable of running backs, the best running QB in the nation, a MENSA coaching staff, and the Silver Bullets in backup. *shudders* 

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes