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Rethinking the backup quarterback: The Jets and the NFL should embrace the triple option

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NCAA Football: Army at Navy Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

At the early point of this football season, one team in college football caught my attention. Actually it would be more accurate to say they caught my attention again. I have respected the way this team and their coach for years.

I started thinking about their unique approach to football and how it might apply to the NFL.

The Leader

Army v Navy Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

This is Jeff Monken. Over the last few years I have come believe he is one of the best coaches on any level of football. When the Jets started searching for a new coach last winter I hoped the team would give him an interview. While the team showed interest in his cousin Todd, Jeff Monken never got an interview. That is a shame for Jets fans.

Monken is the head coach at Army. In 2017 he went 10-3. Last year he went 11-2.

Since the start of the 2018 season his Army team has gone on the road to Oklahoma and Michigan and taken both college football blue bloods to overtime.

None of this is easy. Monken is at a huge disadvantage. The players on his team are extraordinary individuals. They have been accepted to one of our nation’s service academies, and will dedicate years of their lives serving in the Armed Forces.

But few if any are football players skilled enough to eventually play in the NFL. Opponents like Oklahoma and Michigan have numerous players who will play on Sunday.

There are many ways he does it. One is by thinking differently. He runs a system different from most you see in big time college football.

There isn’t a ton of creativity in NFL offenses. You’ll frequently hear analysis about players adapting to new systems, but there really isn’t much adaptation required.

A simple Google search can quickly turn up a plethora of people in the league telling you that.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins on adapting to the Jets offense after being acquired during the 2016 season:

“Really in the NFL, they all run the same stuff just in different ways. It’s just about getting the terminology down and the verbiage right.”

Blake Bortles on his team’s new offense in 2015:

‘’It’s all the same stuff,’’ Bortles said. ‘’Everybody runs the same stuff. Some people call it apples. Some people call it oranges. So you’ve just got to learn the language. I think it’s kind of like, I guess you could say you know the words, you know the dictionary, now you’ve just got to figure out how to put sentences together.

Former Chargers coach Mike McCoy on NFL systems in 2013:

“Everyone’s running the same plays, and it’s a matter of some running one concept more than another team is. It all boils down to the same thing.”

If you are looking for creativity, you need to look to lower levels such as the college game. Even the most forward thinking offenses in the league such as Kansas City tend to be copying what they see on lower levels.

Monken has his own unique offense, and that has helped his team make up for some of its talent disadvantage.

If you are a fan of college basketball, you probably know how dangerous Syracuse’s team is during the NCAA Tournament. Even when the team is not rated among the best in the nation, they are typically a very difficult opponent. A lot of that is owed to a unique zone defense that they run. Few teams run a similar defensive system so opponents aren’t used to playing against it. The system forces opponents to alter their offensive approach, which takes players out of their comfort zones. Forcing your opponent to play an unfamiliar style tends to force mistakes and closes the talent gap.

The Offense

Army runs a triple option based offense out of the flexbone formation.

I don’t have enough time or space to do justice to how beautiful this offense is when it functions effectively.

It is an offense that heavily skews in the direction of running the football.

The bulk of plays are run out of the flexbone formation.

The flexbone makes use of two slotbacks at the end of the line of scrimmage. You can see the one running back behind the quarterback. You can see the two wide receivers. The slotbacks are the other two skill players. The best way I can describe these players is as a running back/wide receiver/tight end mix. Sometimes they rush the ball. Sometimes they block. Sometimes they run routes in the passing game.

The flexbone formation evolved out of the wishbone formation. The players who now line up at slotback used to line up in the back of the formation, making it look like a wishbone. This was once the dominant formation in college football.

The flexbone gives the offense more options, though. Since the slotbacks are in a position where they could theoretically run deep routes, the defense’s safeties have to respect that and can’t crowd the line of scrimmage. This makes the run game easier to operate.

The bulk of plays run by Army have multiple elements. One of the slotbacks typically goes into motion presnap.

If the numbers in the box are favorable, the quarterback can hand it off the back for a dive run.

If he sees the middle of the field is clogged, he can take the ball outside.

And if an outside defender bears down on him, he can pitch the ball to the slotback who went into motion.

You might be wondering now. How does Army get away with running the same play all game?

It’s simple. They don’t run the same play all game. The blocking schemes vary by play. Different defenders are the targets of blocks.

When Le’Veon Bell gets a handoff, the Jets aren’t running the same play every single time. Sometimes the play is inside zone. Sometimes it’s outside zone. Sometimes it’s power. Sometimes it’s counter. Sometimes it’s iso. These are all different plays that keep the defenders guessing by having different blocking assignments.

It’s not entirely different from what Army does. The triple option isn’t one play. It’s a mechanism that builds in extra ways to exploit the weakest area on the defense on a run play.

In the passing game the quarterback reads the defense and throws the ball to the area of the field that isn’t covered. Most run plays lack this flexibility. The back gets the ball, and hopefully his blockers clear a lane. In the triple option, the quarterback can read the field after the snap and make sure the run goes to the uncovered man in the uncovered area.

There are many things that make this attack so difficult to defend, but the biggest one might go to the aspect of taking opponents out of their comfort zone.

The defense of today is all about attacking. You beat your man, get into the backfield, and drop the guy with the ball for a loss. Make the big play that destroys the drive.

The triple option exploits this mentality. Because there are multiple places the ball can go, every defender doesn’t need to be blocked. The option is built off the unblocked defender. Reading him leads you to the correct option.

Being overly aggressive comes back to hurt.

Here a slotback goes into motion, but he won’t be the pitch guy this time.

The first option is the dive. The read is an unblocked interior lineman. Imagine leaving a big 300 pound lineman totally unblocked.

Again these linemen are trained to be aggressive. But against this offense you pay for it. Go attack the fullback getting the dive, and the quarterback will just pull the out. He’ll take it outside.

Being overly aggressive kills a defense against this scheme. The defender who was supposed to help contain the outside run was also unblocked and crashed down on the dive trying to make the big play.

The slotback who originally went in motion has cut back and is now a lead blocker.

Meanwhile the slotback from the other side who wasn’t in motion has a lot of room to run after he takes the pitch.

It’s the beauty of this system. You can try to drill into defensive players all week to stay disciplined and not overpursue when unblocked, but these players have been taught for years to be aggressive and go get your guy. It’s difficult to unlearn years of habits and instincts in just a few days of practice.

And the defense never knows where the ball is going to go. A different defender can be unblocked and targeted on each play. A slotback could go in motion on one play and be the option to take the pitch. On the next play, he could go into the same motion, reverse back, and be a blocker on a run to the other side.

And sometimes this all gets into the defender’s head. Being yelled at all week not to overpursue when unblocked and the misdirection makes him too tentative. A chance to make a tackle on a dive is missed, and it turns into a nice run.

What if the defense decides to load up the middle of the field and have everybody slowly flow to the outside to match the movement of the option? There might be a more conventional outside run dialed up.

This offense forces the defense not only take a new approach. It forces the defense to defend from sideline to sideline, stretching the field horizontally. The playcalls can take the ball anywhere at any time early or late after the snap.

Reddit user CursoryComb who coached using this system described it in the post a few years back.

A big issue that people are missing here is the fact that we’re talking about the triple option playbook, not the play the triple option. Paul George runs traps, power, zone, that all look like veer, midline, outside veer, speed option but they’ll block everyone up instead. Its not nearly as simple as “playing disciplined” for a defense. Every play the offense is optioning a different defender, interior linemen, de, lb, safety, force player, no one.

Not only do you have to be aware of the plays, but the formations. If you think what New England did was clever this past year with 4 linemen, true flexbone teams will blow your mind with unbalanced and multiple formations with lightning quick motion that doesn’t allow your defense to adjust fast enough.

But seriously, I can change my formation, I can run plays that look exactly like option that screw you if you play it like it and if you don’t have a perfect plan I can blow it open quick.

You can call option plays. You can call regular runs. You can call regular runs that look like options. There are so many looks. The defense has to diagnose it all rapidly. And when the defense starts selling out on the run, you can throw over the top.

Philosophically this offense varies wildly from most modern offenses. Football today is all about splash plays and lighting up the scoreboard.

Army has a different objective. They want to control the ball and keep it away from the other team. The 3 yard gain is a good outcome for a play. Playing up tempo isn’t the objective. It isn’t about lighting up the scoreboard. It’s about what is best for the team.

Keeping the ball means the other team doesn’t get it. Army held a high powered Oklahoma offense with Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and NFL talent all over to 21 points in regulation. How did they do it? Other coaches tried their best to outscheme Oklahoma and were unsuccessful. It wasn’t about defensive scheme. The other team can only score when it has the ball. Oklahoma’s offense only had the ball for 15:19. Army in executing its offense held the ball for 44:41. The best way to stop an explosive offense is to keep it on the bench.

Army’s defensive coordinator explained other benefits.

Ideally, Army wants to face 40-50 plays per game. Low exposure means Bateman doesn’t have to show his hand. Army wants to save defensive wrinkles for the second half of games, making it difficult for opponents to adjust. Also, Bateman can play Army’s best players more often.

“So you’re backup D-tackle who everybody else is playing 20 plays,” Bateman said. “I’m playing him five. Some games none.”

The longer your defense is on the field, the more frequently you have to put less skilled backups in to rest the starters. If the other team’s defense is on the field forever, their second teamers are getting a lot of snaps. If Army’s defense isn’t on the field much, their starters are playing the full game. Advantage: Army.

And as he mentioned, few defensive snaps means he doesn’t need to show the same play twice within the same game. Smart quarterbacks figure it out once you give them the same look twice.

This is the type of complementary football well-run teams play.

This is a very bare bones description of the system. If you came here for an in depth tutorial on this offense, you will probably walk away disappointed. I could go on for a long time, but the main point here is not to describe the system in intricate detail so we will move forward.

No NFL Usage

No NFL team plays this brand of football. Some teams with mobile quarterbacks incorporate option plays, but nobody commits fully to option football. A few teams in recent memory like Denver with Tim Tebow (with Adam Gase on the offensive coaching staff) and last year’s Baltimore team with Lamar Jackson have run very watered down versions, but it hasn’t lasted.

There are a couple of reasons for this. If you have a good pocket quarterback capable of running a regular offense, there is no reason to do so. When I suggested Monken as a Jets coaching candidate, I was not suggesting he was going to install a flexbone triple option attack with Sam Darnold. He surely would be smart enough to adapt.

Even teams with mobile quarterbacks stay away from option based attacks. This probably has a lot to do with quarterback contracts. If you are paying a player $30 million to throw, you probably don’t want to draw up a ton of plays where you know he’s going to get hit and possibly hurt. That can buy you a one way ticket to the unemployment line.

What I question is why teams don’t consider the option if their starting quarterback gets hurt. Few teams are capable of succeeding with a backup quarterback. You typically either need a hotshot youngster who was drafted early to succeed an aging veteran (Favre/Rodgers) or an incredible supporting cast to prop up a mediocre thrower like the team the Eagles put around Nick Foles. If you don’t have one of these things, your offense probably stinks with your backup. Why not try something different?

Nobody in the NFL runs an option offense so there is no market for college quarterbacks who can run the system effectively. At most the most athletic ones become conversion projects to positions like wide receiver. You can sign option quarterbacks for the league minimum.

Backup quarterbacks are generally speaking between the 33rd and 64th most talented players at their position in the league.

Why run something between the 33rd and 64th best version of one offense when you can run the best version of another?

Answering the Criticisms

I have heard a number of criticisms arguing that an option offense couldn’t work in the NFL. I’ll break them into three categories based on how valid I think they are

Invalid criticisms

It’s a gimmicky college system. It won’t work in the NFL.

I think we are past the point where this is a valid argument. Football is football. Other things that were called gimmicky college systems in the past were offenses run primarily from the shotgun, spread formations, and the run-pass option. Teams are now outdated if they don’t have these elements as staples of their system in the NFL.

Defenders in the NFL are too fast for the option to be effective.

Yes, defenders in the NFL are faster than those in college. You know who else is faster? The offensive players in the NFL. Shouldn’t that help eliminate the disparity?

In any event, this system is built to take on faster opponents. Oklahoma and Michigan had faster players than Army. The playcalls actually use the speed of defenders against them. The unblocked defender who makes the wrong read and overcommits just takes himself out of the play faster.

Stars like JJ Watt would destroy the system.

C’mon man. What kind of an argument is that? JJ Watt destroys every system he plays. Should NFL teams stop passing from the pocket because JJ Watt destroys that system? Seriously, get out of here with that nonsense.

It’s better to have a franchise quarterback and pass from the pocket.

You don’t get to choose between the two in this scenario. Obviously it would be better to have a great quarterback. The choice here is between a shaky backup and this.

You can’t win a Super Bowl playing this way.

Opposed to the great chance backups like Trevor Siemian and Luke Falk give you?

Criticisms that have some validity but fall short

It would be tough for others players on offense to totally change to a new offense midseason after a quarterback injury.

This isn’t a terrible argument, but I still don’t think it fully sticks.

First of all the choice is between retaining a system that your team can’t run effectively with a backup quarterback or putting in a different one that it might be able to execute.

Additionally when the backup quarterback goes in, the plays called frequently changes anyway.

Even with the starter the plays in the gameplan change on a week to week basis. You might have a play for a Week 15 game that your team hasn’t practiced since training camp.

And these are running plays where the blocking schemes aren’t THAT different from what you would run. The option, quarterback responsibilities, and philosophical aspects are the primary changes.

No matter what, your team would still know about running this system than your opponent would know about defending it. You could install the offense in training camp. Maybe use 5% of your practice time each week on base concepts just so your players kept some core knowledge. Your players would go in with some degree of understanding.

Compare that with NFL defenses that never face an attack like this. It would be an edge.

And after a few weeks with the backup quarterback, your players would have a high comfort level after practicing it all week. Your opponent still wouldn’t be comfortable playing against it.

Michigan’s defensive coordinator Don Brown noted that his team started preparing for Army’s offense months in advance because of the difficult defenses have in facing it. Most opponents won’t have that luxury.

Not every player is a fit for this offense.

This is another decent point. This scheme requires players to fit certain roles, offensive linemen in particular. The blocking assignments require linemen who are athletic.

With that said, there are conventional systems in the NFL that also work best with athletic linemen. You could mold your regular offense to create a desired skillset overlap.

The most valid criticism

NFL coaches don’t know how to run the triple option

This is the criticism that I think is the toughest to answer. NFL coaches tend to spend most of their careers in the NFL. That means they know how to implement only NFL systems.

Any offensive scheme has a thousand points of nuance. You need to understand how to teach reads and techniques for any situation, often in intricate ways. Few coaches have been exposed enough to this flexbone triple option system to understand how to implement it.

The Answer

Georgia Tech v Georgia Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

This is Paul Johnson. He is one of Monken’s mentors and an innovator of this scheme.

He put together a wildly successful coaching career. He won two Division I-AA National Championships as head coach of Georgia Southern. He went on to register a 45-29 record as head coach of Navy. Then he moved onto Georgia Tech where he won an ACC Championship in 2009 and the Orange Bowl in 2014.

Johnson retired at the end of last season.

Imagine he got a call offering him a nice retirement job where he could show his offense could work at the sport’s highest level.

Johnson knows everything there is to know about this system. He once remarked that he didn’t need a written playbook. All of the knowledge he needed was in his head.

A team thinking creatively could hire Johnson as a backup offensive coordinator. His job would be to install a backup offense in training camp. Then if anything happened to the starting quarterback, he would take control of the offense running the flexbone triple option with the number two quarterback.

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It’s easy to dismiss outside the box thinking, but consider what conventional thinking has gotten a team like the Jets. Running their regular offense got them 2.2 yards per play. What exactly are we risking here?

A different approach might have produced better results. And don’t discount the complementary football aspect. Do you have a good chance trying to trade touchdowns with Tom Brady when Brady can go after Darryl Roberts? Or is your chance to win better if you run an offense that controls the ball and keeps both Brady and Roberts on the bench?

I would argue there are some teams that might benefit from running the flexbone triple option as its first team offense. Remember the last two years when the Jaguars talked about building a team around the run game and defense? Then they still tried make Blake Bortles as a pocket passer happen. Would a totally undermanned team like the Dolphins be worse off trying something totally different from the rest of the league instead of wasting their time with Ryan Fitzpatrick?

At the very least I would argue that most teams would do well to rethink their approach to the backup quarterback. If you think your season is over once you lose your starting quarterback, maybe it is time to come up with a different plan for what will happen after he goes down.