The Shanahans Mistake The Read-Option As RGIII Health Insurance

Created on Jun. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EST

A couple months ago Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan touted the read-option scheme, counter to popular belief, as an offensive approach that actually protects the quarterback. Its sleight of hand with the football keeps defenses on their heels and that, he contended, makes defenders less lethal. Shanahan must have been attempting some sort of Jedi mind trick. First, doesn’t RGIII’s athleticism, in and of itself, give pass rushers pause? And my eyes tell me that the read-option could and inevitably will, per the defense’s reaction, compel the quarterback to tuck the ball under his arm and venture out into harm’s way. That’s safer? Really, Mike?

With all due respect to the two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, in his three years in Washington, I’ve learned to put as much faith in his words as I do in the politicians working within the same zip code. Then Kyle Shanahan, Mike’s son and offensive coordinator, reiterated dad’s points in a recent press conference. Geez, whatever happened to little father-son discord? If I ever wanted the ‘Skins to experience a Dallas Cowboys level of disagreement between the head coach and offensive coordinator, it would be now. Instead, big and little Shanahan remain on message: the read-option, behind only a stellar offensive line, is the best way to make RGIII a bubble boy. In fact, Kyle’s point, because he is the game day play-caller, may carry greater weight than Mike’s take and be more indicative of how RGIII will be utilized in 2013 (and it sounds similarly to 2012). Apparently no one suppresses the image of a potentially career threatening and franchise altering injury like the Shanahans.

Admittedly, father and son Shanahan aren’t completely full of the stinky stuff. While overstated, their fundamental point that the read-option takes defenses out of attack and puts them in react mode is valid. Further, I can buy that those moments of hesitation make a defensive front less of a quarterback’s health risk than they otherwise would be. After that simple acknowledgement, though, it gets complicated. What I don’t buy is that it is “safer” for a quarterback to be running downfield eight to 10 times per game. Yes, the read-option should freeze defensive lineman, but if the position of their statues forces the quarterback to retain the ball, he becomes a running back and the object of the remaining defenders’ bad intentions. Is that better or worse than being a sitting duck in the pocket? The Shanahans say yes; I say maybe — and it doesn’t matter anyway. 

Here’s a broader thought: a quarterback’s health has little to do with the offensive scheme. I’m not convinced that any of the 32 starting quarterbacks are inherently safer than the rest. The fact of the matter is there’s no safe place on a professional football field. However, the quarterbacks who survive consistently are adept at discerning that razor thin line between fight-or-flight on a play-by-play basis — regardless of whether they are pocket dwellers or read-option roamers. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees rarely leave the confines of the pocket, yet all have remained mostly available to their teams. Conversely, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick showed last season that a quarterback could remain relatively clean running the read-option. Why? They have precise accounting of time and space and a sense (pride aside) of when it’s worth pushing the limits of individual plays and when it is not. 

The problem facing the Shanahan’s isn’t the chosen offensive system or even the play calling; it is the man running that system and executing those plays. While I am not one to give the arrogant and disingenuous Shanahan’s a pass, the primary responsibility for RGIII’s health now resides with RGIII. Despite their faith in the read-option, the Shanahan’s need to be more judicious in deploying their prized quarterback outside of the pocket. But, ultimately, RGIII must make peace with his hero-complex and realize his availability is the only thing that separates a contending ‘Skins team from an irrelevant one. RGIII needs to understand that he will earn the respect of coaches, teammates and peers as much by playing 16 games as he will by salvaging an improbable and high-risk touchdown from a play that’s enveloped in flames.

With a full year of RGIII on-field data filed away, I’m not optimistic he can grasp that concept and, even if he does, that he can do anything about. RGIII’s capacity to play quarterback in the NFL certainly passes the eye test, but his desire and ability to acquire the necessary skills of self-preservation are in doubt. If you watch “Super 10” run the read-option then watch Kaepernick and Wilson run it, you’ll observe two physically different experiences. The latter two quarterbacks get it: they glide out of bounds just before impact and regularly utilize the NFL’s quarterback-protecting hook slide rule to immediately end plays. At the other end of the read-option and scrambling quarterback spectrum, RGIII displays no familiarity with a hook slide (did he ever play baseball?) and consistently lingers in bounds just long enough to be sent flailing into the bench.

The Shanahan’s go-to argument to support their read-option theory is that the two regular season plays where RGIII was injured — the concussion against Atlanta and the original knee injury against Baltimore — weren’t sustained on designed running plays. True, but those plays are a microcosm of the problem with RGIII outside of the pocket (regardless of how he gets there). He was concussed against Atlanta because he was trying to do too much and kept the play alive beyond any reasonable limit, and the knee injury happened because he dove head first — an act that left him and his airborne right knee as a live target. Proper discretion against Atlanta and a timely hook slide against Baltimore would have avoided this entire discussion. Unfortunately, RGIII isn’t naturally inclined to abort plays before the pileup and his next hook slide will be his first.

And therein lies the problem with the Shanahan brain trust: these inconvenient aspects of RGIII’s game undermine Mike’s and Kyle’s mostly accurate safety assessment of the read-option. The scheme is likely safer for quarterbacks, but it presently isn’t safer for RGIII — the only franchise quarterback under their care.

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