Variations of the option have long been dismissed as gimmicks incapable of translating to the speed of the professional game. Kaepernick’s success running it after being inserted into the 49er staring lineup midway through the season helped dispel some of the myths perpetuated for years. On Sunday, he had one of his best performances and on the sport’s biggest stage.
Kaepernick led the 49ers just shy of a rally from down three touchdowns, scoring on a pass and a rush. His 15-yard end zone jaunt was the longest rush — touchdown or otherwise — from a quarterback in Super Bowl history, and a chunk of his 62 overall yards gained on the ground. With another 302 yards via the pass, Kaepernick had one of the best total yardage performances in the Super Bowl’s history.
It was a fitting showing to cap the Season of the Option. Kaepernick was not alone finding success in the system: Cam Newton overcame a slow start to finish strong, nearly matching his historic rookie year statistics. Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson’s sensational debut campaigns add to the spreading sensation that has been running wild in college football for years.
New Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd in an interview last Thursday that the zone-read option would be rendered obsolete after defensive coordinators had an off-season to study and plan for it.
A key to the zone-read’s success is a quarterback with the instincts and ability to read (hence the name) defensive coverage in an instant. While other fads have come and gone through the NFL with regularity — remember the Wildcat, or single-wing formation that was hotter than Hansel circa 2008? — what gives the zone-read option legs is the multifaceted options (again, it’s there in the name) available out of the formation.
It’s not a simple gimmick that exploits lack of preparedness. The element of surprise isn’t in the look itself, as was the case for the Wildcat. Once that surprise dissipated, the formation was easily covered because it offered no variety. The surprise in the zone-read changes from play to play. A particularly adept option quarterback isn’t just a rusher, though the threat makes his ability to draw blitzing defenders away from the running back a must.
No, the most effective zone-read option quarterback will keep defenses guessing with his arm. Kaepernick proved his ability to spread opponents out with laser beam passes and an accurate touch. Such is the defining trait most separating the current incarnation of option quarterbacks from those in the past denied the opportunity to play in the NFL. It’s the ultimate in keeping a defense guessing.
The true determiner in the zone-read’s staying power might come less from how defensive coordinators adjust to it, but rather how quarterbacks’ longevity. Mounting hits came to the forefront of assessments of Griffin’s season, as the Redskin rookie and former Baylor Bear was sidelined with injury. Learning fight-or-flight at the college level — when to take a slide instead of a tackle — takes on new significance for the next crop of quarterbacks.
And that next Colin Kaepernick is perfecting the art in college, as more teams employ the system around the NCAA. Johnny Manziel became the third quarterback from a version of the option offense to win the Heisman Trophy. Others like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller have qualities that translate to the old way of NFL thinking, but with experience in the new style.