As the San Francisco 49ers make their quest for a sixth Super Bowl championship, legendary head coach Bill Walsh is probably smiling — and spinning — in his grave.
The 49ers can advance to Super Bowl XLVII with a win Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game. Walsh, who died in 2007, is widely renowned for developing the West Coast offense that relies on quick, short and horizontal passes that spread the ball across the width of the field.
Walsh developed his philosophy out of necessity because as an assistant of the Cincinnati Bengals, he saw that quarterback Virgil Carter lacked the arm strength to throw the ball vertically but had good mobility. Walsh later took his West Coast offense to the 49ers, where he coached them to three of their five Super Bowl titles.
These days, however, under current head coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are one of a handful of teams running a variation of option football, which is a philosophy that most people associate with high school and college.
Option offenses have traditionally relied heavily upon running plays, though modern option offenses now incorporate a large number of passing plays. Because they are run-based, option offenses are very effective in managing the game clock, giving the opposing team less time to score, and keeping the option team’s defense from tiring.
The downside, however, is that when the option team is losing near the end of the game, and needs to score quickly, it is at a disadvantage. These schemes rely on timing, deception and split-second decision-making under pressure, which in turn requires flawless execution and discipline. The option has evolved over the years with different formations, such as the wishbone, wing T, flex bone, I-formation, veer, pistol and spread option.
The 49ers have implemented forms of option football with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and, previously to a lesser extent, Alex Smith. In the 49ers’ 45-31 win over Green Bay last Saturday, Kaepernick set an NFL record with 181 yards rushing, most by a quarterback in a single game. He also threw for 268 yards.
Other NFL teams that have run variations of the option include Washington (Robert Griffin III), Denver (Tim Tebow), Seattle (Russell Wilson) and Carolina (Cam Newton).
Local coaches thrilled
Seeing the option unfold in the NFL has made high school and college fans alike do a double-take when watching games on Sunday. All six Napa Valley high schools (American Canyon, Justin-Siena, Napa, Vintage, St. Helena and Calistoga) either currently or previously ran variations of the option.
American Canyon, with quarterbacks Justin Corpus and Michael Rapacon in 2012, and Justin-Siena with Marcus Armstrong-Brown this past season, employ the Houston split-back veer. St. Helena, however, used the record-setting passing of Richard Hoppe to set up its rushing attack in 2012.
All six Napa Valley head coaches were asked how they felt about variations of option football being used in the NFL and if it will it have staying power, and three responded.
“I love watching option run plays at any level,” Justin-Siena head coach Rich Cotruvo said, “but I do not think they will last very long. The name of the game at that level is money. I cannot see a long-term change to an option attack in the NFL.”
Cotruvo was referring to the fact that Griffin III sustained a torn ACL in his knee that will require at least six months of rehabilitation.
“I think the owners were reminded of the risks of having an option run attack,” Cotruvo said. “Don Coryell, when coaching the Chargers years ago, had a running back option attack that I feel might be more appropriate for the NFL. It takes the quarterback out of the equation.”
Cotruvo was referring to what is known as halfback option passes, where a running back carries the ball to resemble a running play. If the defensive backs come up to try to tackle him, it leaves receivers wide open downfield. If the defensive backs stay with the receivers, the running back runs the ball.
Like Cotruvo, American Canyon head coach Ian MacMillan likes the idea of the option being implemented in the NFL but remains somewhat skeptical if it will have staying power.
“It is nice to see, but it is hard to run in the NFL,” MacMillan said. “With the rules the NFL has in place, it has turned into a pass-oriented league. Also, with how good, big, strong and fast defenses have become, it is really difficult to run in the NFL. The NFL is such a different game than high school and college. For example, look at Alabama and how dominant they have been the last four years in the run game. Can you find an NFL team the last four years that has been able to do what Alabama does?
Alabama has won three national titles the last four seasons — the first program to achieve such a feat since Nebraska (1994-1997), which did so by being an I-formation, option team.
NFL’s preparation time could discourage use of option
“The other point to have to look at is the defenses,” MacMillan said. “In high school and college, coaches prepare the players as much as we can, but they still have school, homework and tests to study for. When you make it to the NFL, football is your job. You will have players that watch film for hours a day.”
MacMillan was referring to the fact that defending option-oriented offenses is based on what coaches refer to as “assignment football.” The triple option typically features three components — a “dive” back, a “keep” back and “pitch” back.
In its most generic version, at the snap of the ball, the dive back attacks the line of scrimmage somewhere between the offensive tackles. He is often the first choice in the triple option. His goal is to quickly attack the interior of part of the line of scrimmage to either pick up yardage or freeze the defense to slow their pursuit to the outside.
The quarterback determines whether to hand the ball to the fullback by reading an outside defender — usually a defensive end. If the end does not try to tackle the running back, the quarterback will hand the ball off to him.
However, if the aforementioned 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 at the same time — commonly known as the “mesh” point.
The quarterback may run upfield for yardage or pitch the ball to another ball carrier — known as the pitch back. The quarterback determines whether or not to pitch the ball by reading another defender — usually a linebacker or defensive back.
What has also become commonplace in the NFL is that when a team drafts a quarterback who has great athleticism, teams are not as likely to try to change their game. For example, Washington head coach Mike Shanahan is a West Coast offense disciple but has not attempted to turn Griffin III into a dropback passer.
“I really think it depends on the player’s skill set,” MacMillan said. “If you look it up online, it says the average career of an NFL player is around four to six years. Everybody follows the superstars whose careers are longer, though. I know everybody looks at RG3 and says you can’t have your quarterback run in the NFL. However, I think it is different for the individual. Look at Cam Newton or go back to Randall Cunningham. I think you can do it, just not as much as you do it in college or in high school. With NFL teams spending so much money on quarterbacks, they do need to protect their investment.”
Calistoga head coach Paul Harrell, however, believes that the recent trend of option football in the NFL is reflective of how the game continues to evolve.
“With big tight ends catching the ball, teams need (defensive backs) that can tackle them,” Harrell said. “So the DBs have to evolve. NFL coaches are going to do what it takes to win. That does not mean it has not been done, but something that defenses and personnel have evolved away from. That evolution has brought forth those offenses’ success and it will be addressed by the evolution of the defense — and on and on. I love it.”