An option offense is an older American football offensive system in which a key player (usually the quarterback) has several "options" of how each play will proceed based upon the actions of the defense. Traditionally, option-based offenses rely on running plays, though most mix in forward passes from an option formation as a change of pace.
In a typical option play, the quarterback can hand the ball to a running back who attempts to run up the middle (dive), fake a handoff and run the ball himself (keep), or pitch the ball to a trailing running back who runs towards the sideline (pitch). It is the quarterback who has the responsibility of deciding which option has the best chance of succeeding, which he does based on the initial reactions of one or two specific players on the defense (keys). A more recent wrinkle to the option offense are run-pass option plays (RPOs), in which the quarterback has the additional option of throwing a quick pass, again depending on the movement of a key defensive player.
Because they are predominately run-based, teams that utilize option offenses can keep possession of the ball for long periods of game time, giving the opposing team less time to score and keeping the option team's defense well rested. However, because passing the ball is not a strength of the system, it can be difficult for option-based teams to score quickly or to come back from a large deficit.
The origins of the option attack go back over a century to the earliest offensive systems of the modern game, such as the T formation, Single-wing formation, and the Notre Dame Box. In the 1970s, the option was the foundation of the Wishbone offense, which dominated college football for over a decade along with its Flexbone variant. Though few college teams and no professional teams currently employ the option as their primary offensive system, elements of the scheme are used in the modern spread offense and in the run-pass option and read option plays which many coaches at all levels have incorporated into their playbooks.
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 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 a relatively simple play during which the offensive line zone blocks in one direction, ignoring defensive personnel, while the quarterback makes a single read (usually of the backside defensive end or linebacker) and decides whether to keep the ball (if the backside defender crashes down) or to hand off to the back (if the defender indicates that he will cover the quarterback).
Others have found even more innovative ways to run the option from spread formations. Creative use of motioning schemes has enabled wide receivers and even tight ends to become ball carriers as evidenced by Wake Forest's version of the spread employed during the mid-2000s. Rich Rodriguez is credited with inventing the zone read play run out of the shotgun formation. Other pioneers include Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, and UCLA coach Chip Kelly.
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 poses 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 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.
The RPO has become widely used in both college and professional football. While most previous option plays included several possible options for running the ball, most RPOs give the quarterback the possibility of handing off the ball, running it himself, or passing the ball. The "read" in an RPO is often based on the movement of a single defender, usually a linebacker or safety. If the quarterback reads the targeted defender as defending the run, he will pass. If the read is the defender stays put or appears to be involved in pass defense, the quarterback can hand the ball to a running back or, in some versions, run the ball himself. The idea is to choose the option that gives the offense a numerical advantage.
Because the quarterback makes the decision to run or pass after the snap of the ball, the other offensive players' assignments are a mixture of those usually used during a run or pass play, with receivers going out on pass routes and the offensive line engaging in run blocking. However, because offensive linemen are not allowed to stray much beyond the line of scrimmage before a pass is thrown, the quarterback must quickly make a decision to throw or run before his team incurs a penalty.
Option-based offenses are most frequently utilized in the high school and collegiate ranks. It is rarely used in the National Football League for several reasons, most importantly because quarterbacks often run with the ball themselves in option plays, resulting in frequent hits. Few professional coaches are willing to assume the increased risk of injury for the player who is usually the highest paid and most important player on the team.
Various option-based offenses were by far the most common in the early years of college football, and with several schools winning national championships with the new wishbone attack in the 1970s, the option offense enjoyed a renaissance during that decade and beyond. However, the wishbone's effectiveness waned as defensive schemes were designed to slow it down. By 2000, almost all major college programs had abandoned option attacks for "pro-style" offenses the utilized more passing and attract athletes who had aspirations to play in the NFL, where option offenses had fallen out of favor decades earlier.
While very few teams run pure option attacks, some option concepts and plays have been incorporated into newer offensive schemes in recent years. In the early 2000s, Urban Meyer and other coaches found success with the spread offense, which incorporates elements of an option-based running game while utilizing the shotgun formation and including much more of a passing game than a traditional option scheme. Meyer visited Kansas State University's Bill Snyder and learned the principles of his system. 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 Florida, where he won two national titles, and at Ohio State, where he won an additional national championship.
Meyer's version is based on the spread attack developed by then-West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez earned "pioneer" status for incorporating wishbone principles, such as the zone-read and option pitches, into the primarily passing-oriented spread offense. However, it is unclear whether Rodriguez developed the system, 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.
The option remains popular at mid-major levels as well. The Appalachian State Mountaineers, who won three consecutive titles in Division I FCS from 2005 through 2007, rely on the spread option offense. Additionally, the Cal Poly Mustangs achieved success with its flexbone-style option offense under former head coach Rich Ellerson, who has since installed the offense at Army. Lenoir–Rhyne played for an NCAA DII National Championship in 2013 running the flexbone. Carson–Newman, Eastern New Mexico, and Harding have had a great deal of success running the triple option at the NCAA Division II level.
Option offenses are considered to be "equalizers" on the playing field – allowing less athletic teams to compete with larger and faster defenses, particularly since there are few teams that run the scheme and defensive players and coaches may not be adept at stopping it. Appalachian State proved this theory by defeating the heralded Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium during the 2007 NCAA season. In 2013 Georgia Southern (FCS at the time) defeated Florida and in 2015 Citadel (FCS) defeated South Carolina.
Option offenses remain very popular among the United States service academies, who do not always have the specialized personnel required to successfully run a pro-style offense against top college competition. 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." 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. He left Navy for Georgia Tech after the 2007 season, where he continued to successfully run the option until his retirement in 2018.
Former Army coach Bob Sutton joked that the Army–Navy Game could be played in an hour because the game clock rarely stopped due to both teams running option schemes. After Sutton's firing, Army went away from the option in favor of a Pro Style attack under new 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. 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. Under Young, from 1983–1990, the cadets went 51-39-1, including 3 bowl appearances. 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 alumni concerns by announcing that Brock and Army would return to the triple-option offense for the 2008 season. 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.
Current Army head coach Jeff Monken has extensive experience running the option. Before taking over the Army program in December 2013 he served as head coach of Georgia Southern University. His experience working under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech made him an attractive choice for the position.
Until recently, the option has made rare appearances in the NFL. An article on the option play in the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia discussed why the option was not used as much in the pros. While coaches agreed the option would work, the problem was the impact it would have on the quarterback. The quarterback would need to run more which means taking more hits, causing greater risk of injury. Starting in 2004, Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T. J. Duckett 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 an 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. The Tennessee Titans also ran the option when Vince Young was re-installed as quarterback. In addition, the option helped Chris Johnson rush for 2,000 yards.
On October 9, 2011, the Carolina Panthers effectively ran the option twice against the New Orleans Saints. The first play was an option pitch from QB Cam Newton to RB DeAngelo Williams for a 67-yard touchdown. The second time, Cam Newton kept the ball and ran for 13 yards.
A month later, the Denver Broncos ran seventeen plays with Tim Tebow as quarterback and Willis McGahee as running back totalling 298 yards on the ground. The option was so effective that the Broncos played it almost exclusively in the fourth quarter of the 38-24 win over the Oakland Raiders, continued using it a week later in a 17-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and again employed it a week later in an overtime win over San Diego. In that win over San Diego, Tim Tebow set an NFL record 22 rushing attempts by a quarterback in one game. The 2011 Denver Broncos, with Tebow at quarterback, have been the most successful team in the NFL to run a read-option offense.
The 2012 season saw more NFL teams adopt the option offense, the most prominent being the Washington Redskins, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards (an NFL single game record for a QB) on 16 carries using the read option out of the pistol formation vs. the Green Bay Packers in a Divisional Playoff game on January 12, 2013. As a team, the San Francisco 49ers rushed for 323 yards on 43 carries.
The 2013 season saw University of Oregon's head coach Chip Kelly move to the NFL to take the head coaching job for the Philadelphia Eagles. At the start of the season, Michael Vick was named the starting QB and the read option was used with Vick's athletic ability to take advantage of running situations for the quarterback. However, by the 6th week, Vick was injured and Nick Foles took over as starter. Even though Foles had less running ability than Vick, the read option was continued and used successfully. The theory that the read option can work even with pocket passers is that as long as the quarterback can get positive yardage, big gains are not necessary as it keeps the defense honest.
The Run-Pass Option (RPO) has become a more popular play used in the NFL. This adds the passing element to the option offense. After the snap, the quarterback can decide whether to hand off, keep, or pass.
No NFL team truly bases their offense on the option, but the zone read and RPO's have become a staple in almost every team's playbook.