There was a lot of talk among the coaches and general managers in attendance for the 2013 version of the NFL Scouting Combine about whether the read-option offense would have a shelf life longer than the run-and-shoot or the wildcat. Naturally, there was no consensus, but there also was no scoffing at the suggestion, either.
Problem is, for a team thinking it might care to dip its toe into the read-option pool, there are few prospects to consider among the quarterbacks to be available starting on April 25. Maybe Syracuse's Ryan Nassib or Florida State's E.J. Manuel possess some portions of the skill-set Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, or Robert Griffin III added to the NFL during the 2012 season, but that bar has been set pretty high.
"I don't think I have to be Colin Kaepernick. I don't have to be Russell Wilson," said Manuel. "I can be E.J. Manuel."
"I'm not much of a runner by trade like some other guys," said Nassib, "but I feel like I can make some good decisions, get some yards when I have to, and hand the ball off as much as I can."
Pocket passers can seem almost quaint now, because even though the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl with statuesque Joe Flacco at quarterback, the enduring image of the recently concluded NFL postseason is of Kaepernick or Wilson or Griffin III torturing opponents with their feet every bit as much as their arms.
"Definitely there's a lot of conversation about the read-option, and rightfully so," said Green Bay Coach Mike McCarthy. "Five hundred seventy-nine, that's a number that will stick in our focus as a defense throughout the offseason. We're studying the read option, the teams that are doing it in the NFL. We're even going to the college ranks. We'll have a couple college coaches come in, spend some time with our staff. Actually, our defensive staff is
going to take a trip to Texas A&M, because Coach Kevin Sumlin is someone I have great respect for, and he has the ability to share his experience in the read-option from both the offensive side and the defensive side. It's something from an education and preparation standpoint where we will grow as a staff and be better prepared in the future."
The number McCarthy referenced – 579 – represented the total offense amassed by the 49ers in their win over the Packers in the NFC Playoffs, and even though his team employs a consummate pocket passer like Aaron Rodgers, the offseason in Green Bay will be devoted to stopping the read-option because it's not going away anytime soon and the Packers compete for the same slot in the Super Bowl as the 49ers, Seahawks, Panthers, and Redskins.
"People are going to look hard and long at it," said Carolina Coach Ron Rivera, whose Panthers have Cam Newton as the starting quarterback. "NFL coaches are going to talk to the college coaches and try to get their feedback and ideas on how to stop it, and what they think. That's one of the nice things about where we are. We started it out with (the read-option offense), so we as a defense got to practice against it a lot."
But unless you're the Seahawks or the 49ers or the Redskins or the Panthers, unless you're the Eagles and plan on a competition between Mike Vick and Dennis Dixon, unless your team already has somebody under contract with the bonafides to operate the read-option offense, your chances of switching to that scheme during this offseason don't look promising based on the style of quarterbacks available in this draft.
Typically, the top quarterback talents in this upcoming draft are identified as West Virginia's Geno Smith, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, USC's Matt Barkley, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Tennessee's Tyler Bray, and North Carolina State's Mike Glennon. None of those guys is a statue, but not a single one has the kind of movement/running ability to cause an NFL defensive coordinator any sleepless nights.
"I think in the NFL you're always going to have to be a passer," said Barkley. "It's a passing game. As much as the read-option
is successful, the Super Bowl winning quarterback is similar (in style) to how I play. That style, that tradition, I don't think that'll ever fade. And yeah, I'm a traditional dropback quarterback, a passing quarterback."
Mike Tomlin believes the popularity of read-option offense is a phase the NFL happens to be going through right now. It will be utilized as long as it's successful and then replaced by the next big thing when it's not so much. Right now, it's successful and so defenses, especially ones having to face Newton or Kaepernick or Wilson or Griffin III on a regular basis, are going into the laboratory to seek an antidote.
"I think the first thing you look at when you're building your team and building your roster is how you want to be able to compete
in the division," said Atlanta Coach Mike Smith, who shares a division with Newton and is in the same NFC as the other three.
"You've got to win in the division first and we face a team that has a very good quarterback. With the success of the five or six teams running some version of the read-option, I think there will be a lot of defensive coaches spending time on it this offseason. I know that I vetted our coaching staff to make sure we are going to spend a whole lot of time, because it could be the wave of the future. I'm not saying that it will be, but that it could be. More and more college teams are running that style of offense and you're going to have to be prepared to play it. (The NFC South) is playing the NFC West this year, and we face it twice in our division. It's something that we want to make sure that we have a very good understanding of."
In Pittsburgh, any interest in the read-option offense would come from a defensive standpoint because Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime, and Tomlin always has said the Steelers defense has rules set up to account for whatever the opponent might present.
"For us, we're a rules-oriented, fundamentalist group on defense," said Tomlin. "More than anything, the read-option allows us an opportunity to reinforce some of the support-unit rules and things that our defense is built on."
Despite General Manager Kevin Colbert saying the Steelers are open to picking any position on any round in the upcoming draft, the team's most likely interest in quarterbacks in the first round this year would be how many get picked before the 17th overall turn. A couple of quarterbacks drafted early would mean a couple of players pushed down closer to where the Steelers will be making their first-round selection.
"(Geno) Smith will be in the first round somewhere," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "We're all off Barkley right now because he kind of disappeared (the week of the Combine), but when it's all said and done, people will go back and watch his junior tape and put him up on the board and see what kind of football mind he has, and then he'll end up somewhere in the first round. If history tells us anything lately, it's that somebody else is going to rise."
Who that somebody might be, and how many of these anybodies get picked before the Steelers' turn at No. 17 is nothing but a guess right now.
"There is just nothing amongst this group of quarterbacks," said Mayock, "where you can bang the table and say, 'I love this kid, and this is the quarterback of the future for my team.'"
Especially if that team believes it's future is the read-option.