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An option offense is a style of offense in American football that is predominantly based on a running play. However, instead of a specific play in mind, the offense has several "options" of how to proceed. Based on the defense, the quarterback may hand off to a full back up the middle (dive), hold on to the ball and run himself to either side of the field (keep), or pitch the ball to a trailing running back (pitch). Option offenses have traditionally relied heavily upon running plays, though modern option offenses now incorporate some passing plays called the Run-Pass Option or RPOs. 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. However, this also means 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, require precise execution and discipline.
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 classic wishbone formation and the backfield set that gives it its name
Wishbone option offense
The wishbone offense, whose introduction to Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) college football is credited to Emory Bellard, is named after its base formation of a quarterback, a fullback aligned four to five yards behind the quarterback, and two halfbacks aligned on each side of the fullback and one yard to two yards deeper. The result is a backfield alignment that resembles the shape of a wishbone. Also called the triple-option, this base formation allows three basic running options: the fullback receiving the handoff, the quarterback pitching to either halfback, or the quarterback running the ball himself. While the wishbone's success reached its zenith in the 1970s, it remains popular at the high school and small college level but is nearly extinct at major college programs.
Wing T offense
The traditional "wing T" offense employs many of the concepts of the wishbone offense. It often employs three running back formations, especially in the Bay City version of the offense. The wing T helped change the game of football in its formative years, and changed the traditional role of the quarterback from a blocker much like a modern fullback in the classic "single wing", to the primary distributor of the ball. As the triple-option became prominent, the wing T quickly incorporated the veer into its arsenal. In conjunction, it tends to employ significantly more misdirection running plays. The traps, crosses, fakes, pulls, sweeps, and counters that characterize the wing T are often supplemented by a heavy dose of option runs--most notably the veer triple option. The veer is well suited to the wing T offense, especially the Delaware version. The Delaware version of the wing T, with its predominant two running back sets, gained significant prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was most notably employed by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Parseghian era. It continues to be employed by high schools and small college teams.
Flexbone option offense
The typical flexbone formation. This variation of the wishbone adds spread-like qualities to the standard triple-option configuration and is popular amongst service academies.
The "Flexbone" was invented by Emory Bellard at Mississippi State in 1979. It was called the "Wingbone", a variation of the Wishbone Bellard originally invented. A variant of the wishbone offense, the flexbone came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. The flexbone offense varies from the wishbone in a few fundamental ways. First, and most notably, the flexbone replaces the halfbacks that are aligned in the backfield of a wishbone with one or two "wingbacks" or "slot backs," that align off-tackle or off-end. These "hybrid" players are typically very quick and must be adept at running, blocking (particularly cut blocking), and receiving. Because of their positioning, they can more easily facilitate the passing game in the flexbone and serve to stretch the defensive alignment laterally prior to the snap. Teams that employ this scheme tend to amass consistently high rushing averages. The name "flexbone" is somewhat controversial and usually reflects the school of thought from which the offense was born. Some practitioners, such as Air Force's famed former head coach, Fisher DeBerry, welcomed the name flexbone because the offense was seen as a modification of the traditional wishbone. Still others, such as Paul Johnson reject the moniker, preferring instead to call their systems, the "spread offense". To these practitioners, the offense is more related to spread schemes such as the run and shoot, and simply uses the triple-option as a foundation instead of a dynamic passing game. The offense was actually born in the latter school of practitioners, with its origins attributed to Paul Johnson while at Georgia Southern in the mid-80s. He brought the system briefly to Hawai?i in the late '80s and then returned to Georgia Southern, which won a record six Division I-AA national titles and eight conference titles while using this offense. As traditional wishbone coaches sought to make their offenses more dynamic, they began to mimic the alignments of this "spread offense" and re-dubbed it the flexbone. The name has since stuck, most likely in order to prevent confusion with other spread offenses. By the late '90s, the flexbone was adapted by all three NCAA Division I-A military academies, where it provided strong statistical results. After bringing Navy to its greatest run of success in decades, Johnson brought the offense with him to Georgia Tech, where it has achieved great success.
Also known as the "Nebraska I-offense," this offense derives its name from its extensive use of the I formation with its vertical alignment of quarterback, fullback, and running back. Though balanced attacks from the I formation have been around for decades, the I-option gained extraordinary popularity with its employment by Tom Osborne at the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Using this offense, Osborne had outstanding success from the time of its introduction in 1980 until his retirement in 1997, including three national championships. His successor, Frank Solich, continued to have success with the offense until his departure in 2003. The I-option offense offered a more traditional balanced attack. At its core, the offense relies on a devastating combination of power running, the option, and play-action passing, which are easily run from the I-formation and its variations. The concept of a balanced offensive attack combined with the big play potential of the option enticed vast numbers of top-level college teams to include some components of the Nebraska I.
Spread option offense
Emerging during the late 1990s and 2000s, the spread option is typically run from any variant of the shotgun formation, as in the example above. The "spread" allows teams to use speed  and athleticism to exploit gaps created by the wide distribution of players.
The spread option offense is a variant of the more generic "spread offense". It has found success and widespread employment in college and high school football. Essentially a hybrid of the traditionally pass-oriented spread offense, the spread option is based on the concept of defensive isolation. The offense "spreads" the defense by aligning in three-to-five receiver sets, using two or fewer running backs in the backfield and often setting the quarterback in shotgun. This spread forces the defense to defend more of the field and isolates its players in space. To exploit this, the offense employs double or triple option plays which further mitigates the athleticism of the defense and forces it to play their assignments. When used in combination with a consistent passing game, the spread option offense can yield strong results. The means by which option plays are run from the spread option offense vary greatly.
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.
A QB pitches the ball.
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.
In these highly complex running plays, three potential ballcarriers are available. The triple option typically features three components: a "dive" track, a "keep" track and "pitch" track. In its most generic version, the inside/outside veer, the dive track is typically carried out by a running back. At the snap of the ball, this player attacks the line of scrimmage somewhere between the offensive tackles (or end in the outside veer) as designated by the type of triple option play. This player is often the first choice in the triple option. His goal is to quickly attack the defensive interior in order to either pick up yardage or freeze the defense and prevent their pursuit to the outside. This quick surge into the interior of the defense is traditionally called a "dive". The quarterback determines whether to hand the ball to the fullback by reading a "dive key" - usually a defensive end. If the dive key does not try to tackle the running back the quarterback will hand the ball off to him. Alternatively, if the 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 in an intricate exchange called the "mesh". On the keep track, the quarterback may run upfield for yardage or pitch the ball to another ballcarrier on the "pitch" track. This player is called the "pitch back" and the quarterback determines whether or not to pitch the ball by reading the "pitch key" - usually a linebacker or defensive back.
The double option is an effective cousin of the triple option. As the name indicates, the double option provides only two potential ballcarriers instead of three. Yet it often relies on speed, or misdirection to compensate for the reduction.
The RPO has become widely used in both college and professional football. The quarterback makes the decision whether to hand off, keep, or pass the ball 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 defend the pass, the quarterback hands the ball off. The idea is to have one fewer defender defending a run or pass play. Receivers will still run routes, not blocking for the runner, and the offensive line will still block like it is a running play, not pass protecting, regardless of the quarterback's ultimate decision.
The option offense is most frequently utilized in the high school and collegiate ranks. It is rarely used in the National Football League for several reasons. First, the speed and athleticism of NFL defenders negate the advantages of an option offense. Second, option quarterbacks are hit and tackled frequently. Few professional teams, whose quarterbacks have multimillion-dollar contracts, are willing to assume this increased risk of injury.
There has been a resurgence of option offenses in major college football. When implemented properly, option offensive schemes can be very successful, as demonstrated by the success of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Oklahoma Sooners, Georgia Southern Eagles, and Syracuse Orange in the 1970s through the early 2000s. Despite its success, though, many teams favor more "pro-style" offenses that attract athletes who may want to play in the NFL, where option offenses are less popularized.
Recently Urban Meyer and other coaches have developed extraordinarily competitive schemes using an option attack out of the shotgun formation. 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 Division I FBS national titles, and at Ohio State, where he won the 2014 College Football Playoff 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.
Option offenses are considered to be "equalizers" on the playing field - allowing less athletic teams to compete with larger and faster defenses. 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. 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.
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.
Use in professional football
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.
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 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.
Teams that have or currently run an option offense