On June 12, 2013 Jets fans accross the globe experienced a sudden bout of simultaneous déjà vu. Rex Ryan, a podium, and a conversation about a special package for an athletic quarterback. Tim Tebow is long gone but has new-kid-on-the-block, Geno Smith, has taken his place as a possible read-option/wildcat quarterback?
Ryan, during a mini camp press conference, was asked by a media member how Smith’s mobility would impact the offense. As a follow up question Ryan was asked wether the Jets would use Smith to run specialized plays as a back up. He began by reassuringly stating that he understood the obvious comparisons to the failed “Tebow Package” of 2012. However, Ryan proceded to cause mass hysteria when he said, “I certainly think that’s a possibility” in regards to a “Smith Package”.
Now, in context, it is evident that Ryan was only suggesting the possibility of a specialized package for Smith as a back up. This assumes that Smith loses the quarterback competition and is a back up at all. If Smith wins, he may operate some read-option plays as a starter (not uncommon in today’s NFL).
It is also important to remember Ryan’s well deserved reputation for bluster that never truly materializes. Ryan may well have stated the possibility of a “Smith Package” to keep defenses on their toes when playing the Jet’s offense. The defensive guru himself has cited sleepless nights created by opposing offenses’ read-option packages.
Finally, it is important to understand that the special package Ryan spoke of is not the dreaded wildcat, but the read-option. The two are fundamentally different.
The Wildcat is truly a gimmick play (albeit a moderately successful one) in an off balanced set. The running back lines up in the shotgun and the quarterback splits out wide. A slot receiver or second back motions into the backfield at the snap. The play is designed to disguise who the ball is being snapped to and where the ball carrier is headed. The Wildcat, primarily a running play with a limited passing threat, is difficult to audible out of and easy to defend by stacking the box.
The read-option can be run out of nearly any offensive formation that utilizes a running back. The quarterback reads the rush position on defense (4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker) after the snap. If the rusher is attacking the quarterback, he has the option to hand it off to the running back. If the rusher breaks into a contain or looks to pursue the running back, the quarterback can either throw the ball or run it himself. A read-option play runs through the quarterback and is dependent on his ability read the defense and run with the ball.
Many specific outcomes have to come to fruition in order for a read-option package to be a reality.
Hypothetically, if Smith loses the quarterback competition and Ryan’s “Smith Package” is installed, what would it look like and would it be successful? I believe the answers to these questions can be determined by three main factors: the success of other back ups in a similar package, Mornhinweg’s history with the read-option, and how Smith’s skill set would translate to such a package.
History of QBs in Option Package:
The most recent and apt possible comparison would be Colin Kaepernick’s early snaps in 2012. Kaepernick ran once for 17 yards against Green Bay in week one. After that, he returned to the field in week five against the Jets to run five times, for 50 yards and a touchdown. He just barely missed on his one deep pass to Randy Moss. Next week, Kaepernick ran another four times for 39 yards and a touchdown against the Bills. The “Wolf Pack” package saw three more snaps before the bye, resulting in less than 10 yards. By week 11, Kaepernick brought the read-option to the starting job and ran away with it.
Michael Vick also ran a read-option package as a back up to Donovan McNabb in 2009.
Most other comparisons are either mislabeled Wildcat packages (Tebow ’12 … as he was mostly given designed runs on offense) or starting quarterbacks running a read-option system (Michael Vick ’06, Vince Young ’07, Tim Tebow ’11, Robert Griffin III and Russel Wilson ’12).
The proliferation of the read-option offense in the NFL was mostly due to the success of the ultra talented few. Before 2012, it was mostly used as a wrinkle in the pros, to varying degrees of success, based on the offensive coordinator and ability of the player running the package.
Mornhinweg’s Use of Option:
Mornhinweg is known primarily for his aptitude at running the Bill Walsh style of West Coast offense. This offense relies on quick throws to receivers on horizontal routes in order to spread the defense wide. These quick releases doesn’t leave a lot of time for the quarterback to properly read the rusher and are therefore a poor set up for a read-option wrinkle.
However, Mornhinweg is not afraid to break from the traditional bonds of a West Coast offense in order to take a defense off guard or best utilize the available talent. Mornhinweg has some experience with installing a read-option package into his offense when the aforementioned Vick backed up McNabb in ’09. This package had moderate success with Vick running 24 times, good for 95 yards and a two touchdowns. He also threw six passes for 86 yards and a touchdown.
While the read-option isn’t Mornhinweg’s bread and butter, he has had experience installing such a package in the past.
Geno’s Fit as an Option QB:
The keys to being a successful read-option quarterback are intelligence, improvisation, field awareness, speed, elusiveness, vision. It is vital that the quarterback understand the situation he faces and his options to manage it. Does Geno Smith exhibit these qualities?
As a youngster Smith was considered “gifted” and has always showed dedication to working on his craft. He can clearly pass the ball and has shown enough football intelligence to believe that he would understand how to run such an offense. Smith exhibited, at both West Virginia and in Jets camps, an ability to break from the pocket and gain yardage. However, his running ability is more reminiscent of Aaron Rogers than Kaepernick or Griffin III. Smith’s speed is not ideal to run the read-option (4.59 40 yard dash). Smith’s first instinct is to maintain his poise in the pocket and adjust to the defense. If forced to run, he will and with good ability. Smith has a long stride, good field vison, and demonstrates excellent agility, body control and awareness.
Read-option packages have had only moderate success when used at the pro level. Mornhinweg has experience with installing a read-option package into his base offense. Smith displays many of the tangibles and intangibles necessary to be a successful read-option quarterback.
Considering all these factors, asking Smith to prepare for the possibility of a read-option package in 2013 may be a poor course of action. Smith barely ran any read-option in college. He also barely took any snaps from under center. It is, perhaps, more wise to ask the possible starting quarterback to learn a football fundamental before a complicated read-option package. Furthermore, the success rate of such a package in other offenses doesn’t warrant dedicating team resources to developing one of their own. Most importantly, it would be foolish to have Smith (the main competition for the most important position on the field) learn a handful of option plays when that time could be spent grooming him to take the reins at the most unstable position on the team.
It is vital that Smith learn the ins and outs of being a starting quarterback in the NFL before he is troubled with learning one of the most difficult pro offenses to conduct. This is not an indictment of Smith’s ability or intelligence, nor is it a shot a Mornhinweg’s tutelage. It is, instead, mindful of the fact that Smith may be the future at quarterback for the Jets and that he should be provided with every opportunity to succeed. Success at quarterback begins with the fundamentals, not the read-option.