The conventional wisdom says that you cannot thrive over time in the NFL with an option quarterback. The speed of the defenses and the violence of the game make it unlikely an option quarterback could survive. And the quarterback position represents too big an investment for NFL teams to put at that kind of risk.
Well, sometimes the conventional wisdom is right. And sometimes it is flat out wrong. The Dallas Cowboys got beaten, and pretty soundly, by a Washington Redskins running a brutally effective read option. A Redskins team that is also the hottest franchise in the league, riding a seven game winning streak into their wildcard game against the Seattle Seahawks. And if they make a deep run in the playoffs, there could be a lot of teams thinking about whether this is something to imitate. The NFL is, after all, a league where imitation far outweighs innovation.
And there may be a combination of factors coming along that could make this more than just a brief trend, like the now largely forgotten wildcat. First, there are a whole bunch of coaching changes going on, with seven teams having already canned the head man, and the possibility of a couple more. If rationality prevails and the teams with vacancies avoid irrational moves like bringing Jon Gruden back into the league, there could well be some college coaches stepping up who are much more comfortable with the idea of running an option. Should the Redskins pull off much of a run the next few weeks, the resistance to the idea will not be as great. And some experienced NFL head coaches may also be open to the idea. After all, Mike Shanahan is hardly a novice.
Another factor is the availability of talent to run this kind of attack. While this is not a great year for quarterbacks in the draft, there are usually a few good option QBs who come out each year. Robert Griffin III brought such a great skill set, not only a great runner but also a legitimate NFL arm, that Shanahan apparently saw the option as the best way to maximize the enormous investment the Redskins made in acquiring him. And he is not the last player with that combination, by a long shot. Collin Klein out of Kansas State has very good passing and rushing stats this year and could probably do a fair job running the same offense for whoever drafts him. He was after all third in the Heisman voting this year. And speaking of that, in two or three years there is a certain Johnny Manziel who will come out of Texas A&M with both dazzling running ability and some truly NFL caliber passes in his resume. While both have the arms to become traditional NFL passers, do you really want to put so much of their skill set on the shelf? The option game certainly is thriving at the college level, which would indicate a steady supply of future prospects for the NFL who have been coached in this kind of game.
And there is also one Tim Tebow. Someone may just be crazy enough to sign him and go with an option game. He certainly fits the bill of running an offense that puts up nearly 300 yards on the ground and only 100 yards passing, like Washington did against Dallas.
Meanwhile, the rookie starting quarterback is no longer the desperation move it once was in the NFL. Twenty five percent of the playoff teams this year are helmed by first year players. In addition to Washington, the Seahawks with Russell Wilson and the Indianapolis Colts with Andrew Luck made it to postseason with players fresh out of the NCAA. And three more teams, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Minnesota Vikings, and the San Francisco 49ers, are coming to the playoffs with second year quarterbacks. That's half the playoff field with a first or second year player calling signals. I don't know that this has ever happened before.
This youth movement makes the idea of using a running quarterback much more realistic. Under the current CBA, teams no longer get locked into ridiculous rookie contracts, ever for the first pick in the draft. Instead, they get a much more affordable deal of reasonable length. The team is no longer at nearly as much financial risk if the quarterback gets broken in half running against NFL defenses. And the prospect of being able to find another player to run things in the next draft seem to be on the rise. We might see the quarterback become much more like running backs, where teams draft them, put them in, use them up, and then move on to another player, while not having to pay them all that much. No more paying players like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady astronomical contracts into their thirties. Ditch those big paychecks and move on. It is enough to send a tingle down John Mara's leg.
The NFL has been evolving more and more to a passing league for decades now. It happened because the passing game has always been more exciting than the old "three yards and a cloud of dust" from the early days of the NFL. And as the quarterback has become increasing valuable, the rules favored the pass more and more while giving the passer more and more protection, to the point that even former quarterbacks like Troy Aikman speak somewhat derisively of how the rules seek to shield them.
But the option game can be just as exciting. Look at the Redskins this year. Or find some Johnny Manziel highlights. Not only is that kind of play just as electrifying as passers putting up 400 yards, it is also more, well, like "real" football as some would define it. And with the likelihood of more players with these skills coming out of the college ranks, maybe this is just an evolution whose time has come in the NFL. It may never be the predominant offense - after all, Griffin is a rare talent - but it could become the style of a significant minority of NFL teams in the next few years. Something a little different, and that fans can debate as to which is really better. It could increase interest, and get fans more involved. It might mean fewer big paydays, but it could bring a larger number of players onto the NFL stage, if for shorter careers.
It will be interesting to see how the Redskins do in the playoffs. If they are one and done, then the option may fade away fairly quickly. But if they make a run - which seems to happen with NFC East teams lately - they may be the leading edge of the next wave of NFL football.