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A high school team running an option offense

The option offense is a generic term that is used to describe a wide variety of offensive systems in American football. Option offenses are characterized as such due to the predominance of option running plays employed in these schemes. Option offenses have traditionally relied heavily upon running plays, though modern option offenses now incorporate a large quantity of passing plays. Because it is a run-based offense, option offenses are very effective at managing the game clock. These schemes rely on timing, deception, and split-second decision-making under pressure, which, in turn, requires flawless execution and discipline.


Types of option offenses

An option offense is any football scheme that relies on option running plays as its cornerstone. There are a variety of such schemes. Some of the most popular versions include:

The classic wishbone formation and the backfield set that gives it its name
  • Wishbone Option Offense. The wishbone offense is named after its basic formation which includes a quarterback with a fullback aligned four to five yards behind him. Two halfbacks are traditionally aligned on each side of the fullback and a yard to two yards deeper. The result is a backfield alignment that resembles the shape of a "wishbone." This formation and its variants provide extraordinary platforms for running the veer. While the Wishbone's popularity reached its zenith in the 1970s at all levels of college football, it remains popular at the high school and small college level but is nearly extinct at major programs. Most attribute the offense's demise to its run-heavy schemes and poor passing potential.
  • Wing T Offense. The traditional "Wing T" offense employs many of the concepts of the wishbone offense. It often employs three running back formations, especially in the Bay City version of the offense. The Wing T helped changed the game of football in its formative years, and changed the traditional role of the quarterback from a blocker much like a modern fullback in the classic "single wing," to the primary distributor of the ball. As the triple-option became prominent, the Wing T quickly incorporated the veer into its arsenal. In conjunction, it tends to employ a significantly larger amount of misdirection running plays as the basis of its offense. The traps, crosses, fakes, pulls, sweeps and counters that characterize the Wing T is often supplemented by a heavy dose of option runs – most notably the veer triple option. The veer is well suited to the wing T offense, especially the Delaware version. The Delaware version of the Wing T, with its predominance of two running back sets, gained significant prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s and must notably employed by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Parseghian era. It continues to be employed by high schools and small college teams.
The typical flexbone formation. This variation of the wishbone adds spread-like qualities to the standard triple-option configuration and is popular amongst service academies
  • Flexbone Option Offense. A variant of the wishbone offense, the flexbone came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. The flexbone offense varies from the wishbone in a few fundamental ways. First, and most notably, the flexbone replaces the halfbacks that are aligned in the backfield of a wishbone with one or two “wingbacks” or “slot backs,” that align off-tackle or off-end. These “hybrid” players are typically very quick and must be adept at running, blocking (particularly cut blocking) and receiving. Due to their positioning, they can more easily facilitate the passing game in the flexbone and serve to stretch the defensive alignment laterally prior to the snap. Teams that employ this scheme tend to amass consistently high rushing averages. The name "flexbone" is somewhat controversial and usually reflects the school of thought from which the offense was born. Some practitioners, such as Air Force's famed former head coach, Fisher DeBerry, welcomed the name flexbone because the offense was seen as a modification of the traditional wishbone. Still others, such as Paul Johnson reject the moniker, preferring instead to call their systems, the "spread offense." To these practitioners, the offense is more related to spread schemes such as the run and shoot, and simply uses the triple-option as a foundation instead of a dynamic passing game. The offense was actually born in the latter school of practitioners, with its origins attributed to Paul Johnson while at Georgia Southern in the mid-80s. He brought the system briefly to Hawaiʻi in the late '80s and then returned to Georgia Southern, which won a record six Division I-AA national titles and eight conference titles while using this offense. As traditional wishbone coaches sought to make their offenses more dynamic, they began to mimick the alignments of this "spread offense" and re-dubbed it the flexbone. The name has since stuck, most likely in order to prevent confusion with other spread offenses. By the late '90s, the flexbone was adapted by all three NCAA Division I-A military academies, where it provided strong statistical results. After bringing Navy to its greatest run of success in decades, Johnson brought the offense with him to Georgia Tech, where it has achieved great success.
  • “I-Option” Offense. Also known as the “Nebraska I-offense.” The offense derives its name from its extensive use of the I formation with its vertical alignment of quarterback, fullback, and running back. Though balanced attacks from the I formation have been around for decades, the “I-Option” gained extraordinary popularity with its employment by Tom Osborne at the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Using this offense, Osborne had outstanding success from the time of its introduction in 1980 until his retirement in 1997, including three national championships. His successor, Frank Solich, continued to have success with the offense until his departure in 2003. The I-Option offense offered a more traditional balanced attack. At its core, the offense relies on a devastating combination of power running, the option, and play-action passing, which are easily run from the I-formation and its variations. The concept of a balanced offensive attack combined with the big play potential of the option enticed vast numbers of top-level college teams to include some components of the Nebraska I.
Emerging during the late 1990's and 2000's the spread option is typically run from any variant of the shotgun formation such as the example above. The "spread" allows teams to use speed and athleticism to exploit gaps created by the wide distribution of players.
  • Spread Option Offense. The spread option offense is a variant of the more generic “spread offense.” It has found unprecedented success and widespread employment in college and high school football. Essentially a hybrid of the traditionally pass-oriented spread offense, the spread option is based on the concept of defensive isolation. The offense "spreads" the defense by aligning in three-to-five receiver sets, using two or fewer running backs in the backfield and often setting the quarterback in shotgun. This “spread” forces the defense to defend more of the field and isolates its players in “space”. To exploit this, the offense employs double or triple option plays which further mitigates the athleticism of the defense and forces it to play their assignments. When used in combination with a consistent passing game, the spread option offense can yield strong results. The means by which option plays are run from the spread option offense vary greatly. The most popular running play employed in the spread is the read option. This play is also known as the zone-read, QB Choice, or QB Wrap. A type of double option, the read option is relatively simple play during which the quarterback makes a single read (usually of the backside defensive end or linebacker) and decides whether or not to hand the ball to a running back on a dive or slant track. Others have found even more innovative ways to run the option from spread formations. Creative use of motioning schemes have enabled wide receivers and even tight ends to become ballcarriers as evidenced by Wake Forest's version of the spread employed during the mid-2000s. Urban Meyer helped to innovate the option attack out of the shotgun formation. Other pioneers include University of Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, Kansas State University Coach Bill Snyder, Oregon coach Chip Kelly and others.

Option plays

At the heart of all option offenses is the option run. This relatively complicated running play may take on many forms. All option runs, however, rely on two common principles: Whereas the traditional running play typically designates the ballcarrier prior to the snap, the ballcarrier in a true option running play is determined by reading the defensive alignment or the actions of defensive players. This may occur at the line of scrimmage or after the ball is snapped. The second principle of the option run is that it must include two or more potential ballcarriers. These individuals each perform a predetermined route, or "track" that pose a unique threat to a defense. By threatening to attack the defense in multiple ways during the play based on the defense's own actions/alignment, the option run forces the opponent to maintain extraordinary discipline. Defenders must focus on their assignments, which stresses the defense and often mitigates its speed, size and aggressiveness. Consequently, option offenses are excellent for undersized teams.


Option runs

Option running plays are as numerous as the schemes that employ them. However, nearly all option running plays can be characterized as either a double option or triple option. This is determined by the number of choices available during the play.

  • Triple option. In these highly complex running plays, three potential ballcarriers are available. The triple option typically features three components: a "dive" track, a "keep" track and "pitch" track. In its most generic version, the inside/outside veer, the dive track is typically carried out by a running back. At the snap of the ball, this player attacks the line of scrimmage somewhere between the offensive tackles (or end in the outside veer) as designated by the type of triple option play. This player is often the first choice in the triple option. His goal is to quickly attack the defensive interior in order to either pick up yardage or freeze the defense and prevent their pursuit to the outside. This quick surge into the interior of the defense is traditionally called a "dive." The quarterback determines whether to hand the ball to the fullback by reading a "dive key" - usually a defensive end. If the dive key does not try to tackle the running back the quarterback will hand the ball off to him. Alternatively, if the defender attempts to tackle the running back, the quarterback will keep the ball himself. This decision usually takes place while both the dive back and the quarterback are holding the football in an intricate exchange called the "mesh." On the keep track, the quarterback may run upfield for yardage or pitch the ball to another ball carrier on the "pitch" track. This player is called the "pitch back" and the quarterback determines whether or not to pitch the ball by reading the "pitch key" - usually a linebacker or defensive back.
  • Double Option. The double option is an effective cousin of the triple option. As the name indicates, the double option only provides only two potential ballcarriers instead of three. Yet it often relies on speed, or misdirection to compensate for the loss. A very popular type of double option is the read option. It is typically run out of the shotgun formation. The quarterback reads the defensive end on the side in which the play is designed to take the running back. If the defensive end is playing inside the tackle after the snap of the ball, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back. If the defensive end is playing outside of the tackle after the snap, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs counter to the blocking scheme. This scheme has been successfully utilized by former Texas Longhorn quarterback Vince Young, Chase Daniel of Missouri, Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of the Florida Gators, West Virginia Mountaineers quarterback Patrick White and running back Steve Slaton, as well as the Oregon Ducks' Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart.

Modern use

The option offense is most frequently utilized in the high school and collegiate ranks. It is rarely used in the National Football League for several reasons. First, the speed and athleticism of NFL defenders (in comparison to the large, relatively immobile offensive linemen who are primarily trained to pass block) negates the advantages of an option offense. Second, option quarterbacks are hit and tackled frequently, which increases their risk of injury. Few professional teams, whose quarterbacks have multi-million dollar contracts, are willing to assume this increased risk of injury.

Use in college football

Some colleges, such as the University of Florida, run a spread offense that utilizes portions of the option, dubbed the spread option.

There has been a resurgence of option offenses in major college football. When implemented properly, option offensive schemes can be very successful, as demonstrated by the success of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Oklahoma Sooners, Georgia Southern Eagles, and Syracuse Orange in the 1970s through the early 2000s. Despite its success, many teams favor more "professional style" offenses that athletes who may want to play in the NFL (where option offenses are non-existent.)

Recently Urban Meyer, and other coaches, have developed extraordinarily competitive schemes using an option attack out of the shotgun formation. These combine elements of the West Coast offense and the single wing with sorted elements of the flexbone and the wishbone. Meyer used his spread option offense with great success at Bowling Green, Utah, and most recently at Florida, where he has won the 2006 and 2008 Division I FBS national titles.

Urban Meyer's version is based on the spread offense developed by University of Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez earned "pioneer" status for incorporating wishbone-like running principles (e.g., the QB zone-read, option pitches) into the primarily passing "spread offense." However, it is unclear whether Rich Rodriguez developed the system, or whether Kansas State coach Bill Snyder developed the zone-read philosophy with QB Michael Bishop in the late 1990s, or whether the two coaches coincidentally developed the system at the same time.[1]  The option remains popular at mid-major levels as well. The Appalachian State Mountaineers, who won an unprecedented three consecutive titles in Division I FCS from 2005 through 2007, rely on the spread option offense. Additionally, the Cal Poly Mustangs achieved unprecedented success with its flexbone-style option offense under former head coach Rich Ellerson.

Option offenses are considered to be "equalizers" on the playing field – allowing less athletic teams to compete with larger and faster defenses. Appalachian State proved this theory by defeating the heralded Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium during the 2007 NCAA season. Still, some critics label option offenses "gimmicky." This is most likely due to the lack of acceptance of the schemes at the professional level.

Option offenses remain very popular among the United States service academies. The Navy Midshipmen, Army Black Knights, and Air Force Falcons each use option offenses. If run properly, an option offense should be able to gain 2-3 yards before the linebackers and defensive backs can identify who has the football and make a tackle. Due in part to this, Navy rarely punts the ball, which has led many Navy fans to jokingly refer to 4th down (normally a punting situation) as "just another down."[citation needed] Coach Paul Johnson was particularly effective using this offensive scheme, leading Navy to 43 victories between 2003 and 2007, and Navy led the nation in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2007.[2] He left Navy for Georgia Tech after the 2007 season, where he continues to successfully run the option.

Former Army coach Bob Sutton joked that the Army–Navy Game could be played in an hour (because the game clock rarely stopped). Army went away from the option offense in 2000 in favor of a Pro Style, under head coach Todd Berry. After eight years of poor performance on the field (with a record of 17-76 from 2000-2007 including the only 0-13 season in NCAA history), Army returned to a flexbone triple-option scheme in the 2008 season.[3] Many Army alumni pushed for a return to an option-based offense in hopes of regaining the success they saw under head coach Jim Young in the 1980s and early 1990s.[4] Under Young, from 1983-1990, the cadets went 51-39-1, including 3 bowl appearances.[5] With the beginning of spring practice 2008, Army coach Stan Brock closed practices to the fans and media in order to install the new offensive scheme. In mid-April, the Times-Herald Record broke the silence and eased the alumni's concerns, by announcing that Brock and Army would return to the triple-option offense for the 2008 college football season.[6] Though Army improved statistically, they failed to achieve a winning season, and in December 2008, Army Athletic Director, Kevin Anderson announced Brock's dismissal after only two seasons. Later that month, the team welcomed famed Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson as the 36th head coach at West Point. In his first season (2009) on the banks of the Hudson, Ellerson implemented his version of the option and led the Cadets to a 5-7 season. The team showed a marked improvement from the previous 10 years, missing a bowl game by one game.

The United States Air Force Academy also ran the option successfully under coach Fisher DeBerry, often having a run offense near the top of the NCAA. Falcons option quarterback Dee Dowis was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1989, setting an NCAA record for rushing by a quarterback, with 3,612 yards. The option helped the team win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy 16 times, the most among the three major football-playing service academies.

For the most part, NFL coaches and pundits scoff that the option offense is obsolete for the NFL. The claim is made that NFL defensive players are that much better at stopping the offense than college players. However, this remains to be seen because all NFL offenses run the pro-set family of formations. NFL coaches who vehemently oppose option football often have the least experience running and stopping it. Some also argue that the high salaries received by NFL quarterbacks, discourage professional teams from using these players as primary ball-carriers (a requirement in option offenses) due to fear of injury. The "wildcat" offense, popularized at the college level by former Arkansas offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn and David Lee in the early 2000s and on the professional level with Lee's current employer, the Miami Dolphins, in the 2008 NFL season owes some of its design to the option offense.

Use in professional football

The option has made rare appearances in the NFL. In the 2006 season Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn ran the option with a degree of success not seen in the NFL before. In a December 2007 game against the New England Patriots, the New York Jets ran the option with quarterback Brad Smith, substituting Smith for starter Chad Pennington.

In the 2008 AFC championship, Ravens QB Joe Flacco ran a QB option tucking the ball for a 5 yard gain and a first down on crucial third down. The Ravens offense was known for mixing up its game plan, and although Flacco is not known for his speed, the deception employed by Baltimore allowed for Flacco to mix up plays successfully despite a AFC championship game loss.

In the 2009 season, the New York Jets ran the option numerous times, with Brad Smith. Each play produced positive yards. [7]


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