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Critics already burying read-option? Packers and others know better

PHOENIX -- Perhaps, as several coaches have suggested during the just-concluded NFL's owners meetings this week, the read-option is a fad about to expire. Could be they are right.

But when Packers coach Mike McCarthy thinks about read-option football, he sees anything but an ineffective gimmick about to be expunged. McCarthy is still haunted by visions of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gouging his defense with his legs and his arm, making season-changing plays out of the read-option seemingly at will. He sees something that, no matter what the future may hold, is very much a problem for Green Bay in the here and now, and something he and his staff will invest considerable time and resources studying this offseason.

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"I wouldn't say it's here for years to come -- I don't have a crystal ball," McCarthy said during the NFC coaches breakfast with the media Wednesday morning in Arizona. "But I know we're going to see it early and often."

McCarthy, whose dream of hoisting another Lombardi Trophy was derailed by the 49ers and the read option in the divisional round of the playoffs -- with San Francisco amassing nearly 600 yards of offense -- said it would be naive to expect opponents not to pour over that game film and try to replicate those results against his defense. So while others may be dismissive of read-option football, McCarthy's entire defensive staff recently spent a day at Texas A&M immersed in the concepts.

His defensive coaches headed to the airport and piled in a van to pick the brain of Aggies innovative head coach Kevin Sumlin, who confounded college football with his version of the offense with Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.

"Coach Sumlin and his staff were very gracious," McCarthy said, in engaging in a back and forth with his defensive staff, trading concepts and philosophies (expect NFL teams to be hot and heavy for Sumlin come January, if not sooner).

McCarthy is still blaming himself for his team at times lacking the requisite fundamentals and confidence in its attempts to defend the read option in the postseason. Once Kaepernick turned the edge and galloped 56 yards for a memorable touchdown in the third quarter, McCarthy began to fear the worst. And indeed that play altered the landscape of the rest of the game.

"I could see we weren't playing with proper leverage," he said. "Our confidence wasn't there. ... When they hit the big plays on us, I could see we were on our heels."

Kaepernick, in his first playoff start, led San Francisco to a record 579 yards -- he accounted for 181 of their 322 yards on the ground. Not even Green Bay's quick-strike offense could pretend to keep pace.

Suffice to say, the Packers don't think this style of football is suddenly going to go out of style.

In fact, the tone NFC coaches took toward the formation today was decidedly different from what their peers in the AFC were uttering publicly, or under their breath, when they met the media Tuesday. Part of it could be a bit more of a defensive-minded framework from some successful AFC coaches -- five of the playoff coaches in that conference (Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, John Fox, Marvin Lewis and Super Bowl champ John Harbaugh have defensive backgrounds) -- and it's also very much a matter of personnel.

So while Tomlin calls it a "flavor of the week," he doesn't have to look at a schedule that for the foreseeable future is loaded up with the 49ers (Kaepernick), Seahawks (Russell Wilson), Redskins (Robert Griffin III), Panthers (Cam Newton) and, with the arrival of Chip Kelly to Philadelphia via Oregon, one of the innovators of read-option concepts now in that conference as well.

New Bears coach Marc Trestman revealed at this same coaches breakfast that he will be adopting elements of the offense, which now means at least one team in every NFC division will be experimenting with some variation of the offense. (The Bucs, with a big, athletic quarterback as well, in Josh Freeman, could always play around with it more as well).

Saints coach Sean Payton, always at the vanguard of offensive football, had plenty of time to watch games last season while serving his one-year suspension for the "bounty" case. Like McCarthy, himself a quarterback guru, Payton is hesitant to vouch for the longevity of the read-option -- it could be defenses catch up to it as they did with the wildcat -- but he has seen how effective it can be with the right personnel and real team.

"It's of no concern to me whether we have to deal with it in 20 years," Payton said. "But I know it's here now. That's factual. ... We have to play teams like Carolina and San Francisco and Washington and Seattle. It is in the NFC, and we have to play those things."

Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, a former quarterback, generally reveals nothing, but I did get him to concede that there are still more wrinkles within read-option football yet to be exposed. And it stands to reason that with Kaepernick now established as the starter, and virtually all first-team reps, that his rapid development should only be hastened by the upcoming OTAs and training camp.

"Option football has been around a long time," Harbaugh said. "The first football I really started watching as a kid at Michigan was option football. ... It's really been around a long time."

Harbaugh seems to be hinting that perhaps some of this is here to stay, though obviously with the massive quarterback contracts and huge stakes in the pro game, the question will remain as to what impact the physical toll and injury-risk passers incur in this system will lead to its rapid demise in the NFL game.

No one absorbed more criticism for running plays in the pistol, and watching his quarterback get pummeled than Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. Griffin's rookie-of-the-year season came with its share of blows to the head and knee injuries and ended with a second ACL repair of his brief football career (including college). But Shanahan isn't apologizing -- although he is imploring his dynamic quarterback to learn to slide sooner -- and he certainly isn't backing away from using read-option plays whenever RG3 gets back into live game action.

"I love that type of talk," Shanahan said, when asked about the comments other coaches have made about this brand of football being on the verge of extinction.

He loves the fact that, even if he only plans to run, say, three read-option plays in a game, the opponent is forced to devote valuable, and limited (in this new CBA), practice time to trying to stop it.

"It takes away from game preparation," Shanahan said.

It also forces defensive coordinators to "change your defense to stop it," which in and of itself gets an opponent out of its base formations and into looks they can't possibly spend as much time honing and perfecting.

"It slows defenses down," Shanahan said, and forces them to deploy safeties differently, which opens up other quadrants of the field."

No one has adopted this up-tempo, spread approach to the levels that Kelly did when in college, and now there is a tremendous amount of intrigue league-wide into how prevalent those concepts will be in Philadelphia and whether or not it will work (or how long it might take to click). Kelly has stressed above all else that he won't force anything -- there has to be the proper marriage between scheme and personnel -- but it's hard to imagine he is going to break away entirely from his brainchild.

He was at first seemingly dismissive of the theory that defenses will figure this thing out this offseason -- "I say they could be right; anybody can say whatever they want" -- and, like McCarthy he made clear that he's no Miss Cleo, and lacks that same crystal ball, before giving a salient lesson in football history.

It wasn't all that long ago that "3 yards and a cloud of dust" was all the rage, and had someone 20 years ago suggested that offensive success in the modern game would become defined by throwing the ball 60 to 65 percent of time, "they would have said that's a recipe for disaster."

"The game is always evolving," Kelly pointed out, and as you watched these 16 coaches holding court at various tables in a conference room today, there was no doubt that there would be more scheming, and read-option machinations to come, once they got back home.

It might not be here forever, but it will remain something for defenses to cope with in 2013.

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