Last month, CBS Sports' Pete Prisco wrote that the pistol formation, read-option fad that took the NFL by storm last year is just that, a fad. Personally, I agree with him. The pistol-read option is little more than a gimmick at the NFL level.
I don't think there is anything "wrong" with the read-option or the pistol formation, but I've watched enough NFL football over the years to know that - using both as a base offense - is not sustainable if your team's intention is to keep their $100 million dollar franchise quarterback healthy. When new Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton told the media recently that the team would be implementing more read-option in the offense, my ears perked up, and not because I was excited at the prospect.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was sacked 43 times last year. The goal in 2013 must be to limit hits on him, not increase them.
Chris Brown, the fine author of Smart Football and a HUGE proponent of the pistol formation-read option, thinks that if the NFL is too dangerous for QBs to run the pistol-read, then there is something fundamentally wrong with NFL football:
If the argument is that the scheme is too dangerous to risk injury to Robert Griffin III, then the real argument isn’t to abolish these offenses, it’s to abolish football. That’s another discussion, but if that’s the actual concern then we have much bigger problems than the Pistol Zone Bluff.
Well, the argument to effectively abolish football is already being made, filed in both the courts and in the public mind when Hall of Fame players like Junior Seau started killing themselves because of undiagnosed post-concussion syndrome.
The reality is that football is a game of attrition more so than a game of strategy. Chris seems to align himself on the strategy side, and he does a great job arguing for that (he's a lawyer after all). Strategy is critical, but all the Xs and Os in the world aren't going to help you if the players you rely on to execute the plan are taken out of a game because the opponent is simply more brutal.
It's a tired quote, but it seems appropriate in the context of strategy v. attrition in the NFL, and it comes from former boxer Mike Tyson:
Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.
Dynasties like the Steelers, or memorable franchises like the Raiders of the '60s and '70s, were built on the premise of doing everything possible to physically DESTROY the opponent. It is this basic element that makes football so very popular in American culture. Fans like seeing creative plans annihilated by big, physical, bruising teams that value brutality over creativity.
The old adage is that it is far easier to destroy something than it is to create it, and that rule is a bedrock of the NFL. Just as the Tampa-2 defensive scheme nearly made the Bill Walsh West Coast Offense useless in the late-1990s and much of the 2000s by deploying the safety as a "head hunter" for receivers running underneath routes, defenses will do the same to quarterbacks in the read-option.
Interesting note: In today's game, with new rules making it illegal for safeties to head hunt, the Tampa-2 as a base defense is all but extinct in the NFL.
Look no further than quarterback Robert Griffin III's concussion and two knee injuries during the 2012 season as evidence to sway you from the read-option. Two of those three injuries came on running plays, and the second knee injury was simply re-injuring the same knee. Griffin was sacked 30 times in 2012 and hit god knows how many more. Hits add up, and they eventually result in the recipient's body breaking down.
Again, this is a game of attrition. Creative strategy is a distant second.
Former Colts president and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian seems to agree with this, but that's not because he specifically said he did. It's just an impression I get from Polian, especially when you look back on some of his more paranoid tactics at limiting injuries while working in Indianapolis (resting starters in Week 16 in 2009 being the most extreme example).
Polian's thoughts on football attrition come into greater focus when you see him discussing ways to stop the read-option.
Recently, Polian told ESPN analyst Dan Dakich that stopping the read-option involves punishing the quarterback early, often, and to the point where he literally tells his head coach to stop calling read-option plays.
Here's Polian as a guest on Dakich's Indianapolis radio show last week:
I think the way to stop [read-option] is to hit the quarterback on every play, and, after a while, he's gonna get tired of being hit. And, he's gonna say to the coach, don't call that anymore.
As they get older, they say NO MAS! I don't wanna it anymore.
Polian also referenced a quote from former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon: "There are no old, mobile quarterbacks."
Meaning, only young rookies and second-year guys run around in read-option offenses. As they get older and accumulate hits, the running stops.
Strategy like the read-option is only as good as the people executing it, and a good way to defeat any plan it to remove the key people from the equation. That plan of attrition is, in itself, a strategy, and unlike the pistol-read option, it is much older and much more ingrained into the soul of professional football at the NFL level.