Option offense

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The option offense can be run out of various formations. Here, Morris Knolls High School of Denville, New Jersey is running the veer option. Knollsveer.jpeg
The option offense can be run out of various formations. Here, Morris Knolls High School of Denville, New Jersey is running the veer option.

An option offense is an American football offensive system in which a key player (usually the quarterback) has several "options" of how each play will proceed based upon the actions of the defense. Traditionally, option-based offenses rely on running plays, though most mix in forward passes from an option formation as a change of pace. A successful option-based offense can keep possession of the ball for long periods of time, giving the opposing offense fewer possessions and keeping the option team's defense rested. However, because passing is often not a strength of the system, it can be difficult for option-based offenses to come back from a large deficit or to score quickly when needed.


There are several types of option plays, with the common element being that the quarterback must decide which available option has the best chance of succeeding. This decision is usually made soon after the ball is snapped based upon the initial movements of one or two specific defensive players, called "keys" or "reads".

The most common option plays are as follows:

The roots of the option attack go back over a century to the earliest offensive systems of the modern game such as the T formation, Single-wing formation, and the Notre Dame Box, which were developed and widely utilized at all levels of play in the early 20th century. Option-based systems gradually lost favor in the college and pro game until the 1970s, when teams running the wishbone attack or its flexbone variant briefly dominated college football, spawning many imitators. Defenses had grown more accustomed to facing option attacks by the early 1980s, and the systems once again faded in popularity.

While many coaches at all levels include frequent RPOs and occasional read option plays in their offensive scheme, the triple option is a more specialized play that is almost exclusively run by teams employing an option-based system. Such systems have become rare in major college football and have not been used in the National Football League (NFL) for decades, mainly because of the risk of injury to a running quarterback. However, play concepts based on option-based systems are the foundation of the modern spread offense attack. [2] [3]


An option offense is any football scheme that relies on option running plays as its cornerstone. There are a variety of such schemes. Some of the most popular versions include:

The classic wishbone formation and the backfield set that gives it its name Wishbone Formation.svg
The classic wishbone formation and the backfield set that gives it its name
Wishbone option offense
The wishbone offense, whose introduction to Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) college football is credited to Emory Bellard, is named after its base formation of a quarterback, a fullback aligned four to five yards behind the quarterback, and two halfbacks aligned on each side of the fullback and one yard to two yards deeper. The result is a backfield alignment that resembles the shape of a wishbone. Also called the triple-option, this base formation allows three basic running options: the fullback receiving the handoff, the quarterback pitching to either halfback, or the quarterback running the ball himself. While the wishbone's success reached its zenith in the 1970s, it remains popular at the high school and small college level but is nearly extinct at major college programs. [4]
Wing T offense
The traditional "wing T" offense employs many of the concepts of the wishbone offense. It often employs three running back formations, especially in the Bay City version of the offense. The wing T helped change the game of football in its formative years, and changed the traditional role of the quarterback from a blocker much like a modern fullback in the classic "single wing", to the primary distributor of the ball. As the triple-option became prominent, the wing T quickly incorporated the veer into its arsenal. In conjunction, it tends to employ significantly more misdirection running plays. The traps, crosses, fakes, pulls, sweeps, and counters that characterize the wing T are often supplemented by a heavy dose of option runs—most notably the veer triple option. The veer is well suited to the wing T offense, especially the Delaware version. The Delaware version of the wing T, with its predominant two running back sets, gained significant prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was most notably employed by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Parseghian era. It continues to be employed by high schools and small college teams. [5]
Flexbone option offense
The typical flexbone formation. This variation of the wishbone adds spread-like qualities to the standard triple-option configuration and is popular amongst service academies. Flexbone Formation.svg
The typical flexbone formation. This variation of the wishbone adds spread-like qualities to the standard triple-option configuration and is popular amongst service academies.
The "Flexbone" was invented by Emory Bellard at Mississippi State in 1979. It was called the "Wingbone", a variation of the Wishbone Bellard originally invented. [6] A variant of the wishbone offense, the flexbone came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. The flexbone offense varies from the wishbone in a few fundamental ways. First, and most notably, the flexbone replaces the halfbacks that are aligned in the backfield of a wishbone with one or two "wingbacks" or "slot backs," that align off-tackle or off-end. These "hybrid" players are typically very quick and must be adept at running, blocking (particularly cut blocking), and receiving. Because of their positioning, they can more easily facilitate the passing game in the flexbone and serve to stretch the defensive alignment laterally prior to the snap. Teams that employ this scheme tend to amass consistently high rushing averages. The name "flexbone" is somewhat controversial and usually reflects the school of thought from which the offense was born. Some practitioners, such as Air Force's famed former head coach, Fisher DeBerry, welcomed the name flexbone because the offense was seen as a modification of the traditional wishbone. Still others, such as Paul Johnson reject the moniker, preferring instead to call their systems, the "spread offense". [7] To these practitioners, the offense is more related to spread schemes such as the run and shoot, and simply uses the triple-option as a foundation instead of a dynamic passing game. The offense was actually born in the latter school of practitioners, with its origins attributed to Paul Johnson while at Georgia Southern in the mid-80s. He brought the system briefly to Hawaiʻi in the late '80s and then returned to Georgia Southern, which won a record six Division I-AA national titles and eight conference titles while using this offense. As traditional wishbone coaches sought to make their offenses more dynamic, they began to mimic the alignments of this "spread offense" and re-dubbed it the flexbone. The name has since stuck, most likely in order to prevent confusion with other spread offenses. By the late '90s, the flexbone was adapted by all three NCAA Division I-A military academies, where it provided strong statistical results. After bringing Navy to its greatest run of success in decades, Johnson brought the offense with him to Georgia Tech, where it has achieved great success. [8]
I-option offense
Also known as the "Nebraska I-offense," this offense derives its name from its extensive use of the I formation with its vertical alignment of quarterback, fullback, and running back. Though balanced attacks from the I formation have been around for decades, the I-option gained extraordinary popularity with its employment by Tom Osborne at the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Using this offense, Osborne had outstanding success from the time of its introduction in 1980 until his retirement in 1997, including three national championships. [9] His successor, Frank Solich, continued to have success with the offense until his departure in 2003. The I-option offense offered a more traditional balanced attack. At its core, the offense relies on a devastating combination of power running, the option, and play-action passing, which are easily run from the I-formation and its variations. The concept of a balanced offensive attack combined with the big play potential of the option enticed vast numbers of top-level college teams to include some components of the Nebraska I.
Spread option offense
Emerging during the late 1990s and 2000s, the spread option is typically run from any variant of the shotgun formation, as in the example above. The "spread" allows teams to use speed and athleticism to exploit gaps created by the wide distribution of players. Shotgun Formation.svg
Emerging during the late 1990s and 2000s, the spread option is typically run from any variant of the shotgun formation, as in the example above. The "spread" allows teams to use speed and athleticism to exploit gaps created by the wide distribution of players.
The spread option offense is a variant of the more generic "spread offense". It has found success and widespread employment in college and high school football. Essentially a hybrid of the traditionally pass-oriented spread offense, the spread option is based on the concept of defensive isolation. The offense "spreads" the defense by aligning in three-to-five receiver sets, using two or fewer running backs in the backfield and often setting the quarterback in shotgun. This spread forces the defense to defend more of the field and isolates its players in space. To exploit this, the offense employs double or triple option plays which further mitigates the athleticism of the defense and forces it to play their assignments. When used in combination with a consistent passing game, the spread option offense can yield strong results. The means by which option plays are run from the spread option offense vary greatly. [11]

The most popular running play employed in the spread is the read option. This play is also known as the zone read, QB choice, or QB wrap. A type of double option, the read option is a relatively simple play during which the offensive line zone blocks in one direction, ignoring defensive personnel, while the quarterback makes a single read (usually of the backside defensive end or linebacker) and decides whether to keep the ball (if the backside defender crashes down) or to hand off to the back (if the defender indicates that he will cover the quarterback). Some spread offenses employ complicated pre-snap motion schemes that move wide receivers or tight ends into formations in which they can either become ball carriers or run pass routes, allowing for additional possible options.

Urban Meyer's spread offense at Florida with QB Tim Tebow Spread option uf vs ut.jpg
Urban Meyer's spread offense at Florida with QB Tim Tebow

Since the early 2000s, spread offenses have become very common, as they spread the defense to open running lanes for various option plays while also putting offensive players in favored matchups to allow for a prolific passing attack. The attack was initially developed in the college game, and Rich Rodriguez is generally credited with popularizing the zone read play run out of the shotgun formation while at West Virginia. Over the following seasons, other college coaches such as Urban Meyer (Utah, Florida, Ohio State), Bill Snyder (Kansas State), and Chip Kelly (Oregon, UCLA) developed formidable offenses based on spread option concepts. [12]

Option plays

A QB pitches the ball. Falcons on offense at New Mexico at Air Force 2008-10-23 1.jpg
A QB pitches the ball.

At the heart of all option offenses is the option run. This relatively complicated running play may take on many forms. All option runs, however, rely on two common principles: Whereas the traditional running play typically designates the ballcarrier prior to the snap, the ballcarrier in a true option running play is determined by reading the defensive alignment or the actions of defensive players. This may occur at the line of scrimmage or after the ball is snapped. The second principle of the option run is that it must include two or more potential ballcarriers. These individuals each perform a predetermined route, or "track" that poses a unique threat to a defense. By threatening to attack the defense in multiple ways during the play based on the defense's own actions/alignment, the option run forces the opponent to maintain extraordinary discipline. Defenders must focus on their assignments, which stresses the defense and often mitigates its speed, size and aggressiveness. Consequently, option offenses are excellent for undersized teams.

Option runs

Option running plays are as numerous as the schemes that employ them. However, nearly all option running plays can be characterized as either a double option or triple option. This is determined by the number of choices available during the play.

This read option has been a staple of the college game since the early 2000s and has been successfully utilized by many mobile quarterbacks, most notably national championship winning QBs Vince Young at Texas, Tim Tebow at Florida, and Cam Newton at Auburn, among many other quarterbacks who found team and individual success running a variation of the spread option offense with an emphasis on read option plays.
NFL coaches are generally disinclined to utilize option-based plays very often, as they can result in their valuable quarterback taking hard hits while running the ball. The read option is more often used as an occasional change of pace, particularly against an aggressive defense that is focused on stopping the running back. Only a handful of professional teams with durable and mobile quarterbacks make the play a regular part of their offense, most notably the Baltimore Ravens, which used option concepts to set an NFL team rushing record in 2019 behind league MVP Lamar Jackson, who also set a new season record for rushing yards by a QB (1,206). [13]

Run-Pass Option (RPO)

The RPO has become widely used in both college and professional football. While most previous option plays included several possible options for running the ball, most RPOs give the quarterback the possibility of handing off the ball, running it himself, or passing the ball. The "read" in an RPO is often based on the movement of a single defender, usually a linebacker or safety. [1] If the quarterback reads the targeted defender as defending the run, he will pass. If the read is the defender stays put or appears to be involved in pass defense, the quarterback can hand the ball to a running back or, in some versions, run the ball himself. The idea is to choose the option that gives the offense a numerical advantage.

Because the quarterback makes the decision to run or pass after the snap of the ball, the other offensive players' assignments are a mixture of those usually used during a run or pass play, with receivers going out on pass routes and the offensive line engaging in run blocking. However, because offensive linemen are not allowed to stray much beyond the line of scrimmage before a pass is thrown, the quarterback must quickly make a decision to throw or run before his team incurs a penalty.

Modern use

Option-based offenses are most frequently utilized in the high school and collegiate ranks. It is rarely used in the National Football League for several reasons, most importantly because quarterbacks often run with the ball themselves in option plays, resulting in frequent hits. Few professional coaches are willing to assume the increased risk of injury for the player who is usually the highest paid and most important player on the team.

Use in college football

Various option-based offenses were by far the most common in the early years of college football, and with several schools winning national championships with the new wishbone attack in the 1970s, the option offense enjoyed a renaissance during that decade and beyond. However, the wishbone's effectiveness waned as defensive schemes were designed to slow it down. By 2000, almost all major college programs had abandoned option attacks for "pro-style" offenses the utilized more passing and attract athletes who had aspirations to play in the NFL, where option offenses had fallen out of favor decades earlier.

While very few teams run pure option attacks, some option concepts and plays have been incorporated into newer offensive schemes in recent years. In the early 2000s, Urban Meyer and other coaches found success with the spread offense, which incorporates elements of an option-based running game while utilizing the shotgun formation and including much more of a passing game than a traditional option scheme. Meyer visited Kansas State University's Bill Snyder and learned the principles of his system. These combine elements of the West Coast offense and the single wing with sorted elements of the flexbone and the wishbone. Meyer used his spread option offense with great success at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, where he won two national titles, and at Ohio State, where he won an additional national championship.

Meyer's version is based on the spread attack developed by then-West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez earned "pioneer" status for incorporating wishbone principles, such as the zone-read and option pitches, into the primarily passing-oriented spread offense. However, it is unclear whether Rodriguez developed the system, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder developed the zone-read philosophy with QB Michael Bishop in the late 1990s, or whether the two coaches coincidentally developed the system at the same time. [14]

A lateral during an option play. US Navy 031108-N-9593R-011 Navy quarterback Craig Candeto pitches the ball out.jpg
A lateral during an option play.

The option remains popular at mid-major levels as well. The Appalachian State Mountaineers, who won three consecutive titles in Division I FCS from 2005 through 2007, rely on the spread option offense. Additionally, the Cal Poly Mustangs achieved success with its flexbone-style option offense under former head coach Rich Ellerson, who has since installed the offense at Army. Lenoir–Rhyne played for an NCAA DII National Championship in 2013 running the flexbone. Carson–Newman, Eastern New Mexico, and Harding have had a great deal of success running the triple option at the NCAA Division II level.

Option offenses are considered to be "equalizers" on the playing field – allowing less athletic teams to compete with larger and faster defenses, particularly since there are few teams that run the scheme and defensive players and coaches may not be adept at stopping it. Appalachian State proved this theory by defeating the heralded Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium during the 2007 NCAA season. In 2013 Georgia Southern (FCS at the time) defeated Florida and in 2015 Citadel (FCS) defeated South Carolina.

Option offenses remain very popular among the United States service academies, who do not always have the specialized personnel required to successfully run a pro-style offense against top college competition. The Navy Midshipmen, Army Black Knights, and Air Force Falcons each use option offenses. If run properly, an option offense should be able to gain 2-3 yards before the linebackers and defensive backs can identify who has the football and make a tackle. Due in part to this, Navy rarely punts the ball, which has led many Navy fans to jokingly refer to 4th down (normally a punting situation) as "just another down."[ citation needed ] Coach Paul Johnson was particularly effective using this offensive scheme, leading Navy to 43 victories between 2003 and 2007, and Navy led the nation in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2007. [15] He left Navy for Georgia Tech after the 2007 season, where he continued to successfully run the option until his retirement in 2018.

Former Army coach Bob Sutton joked that the Army–Navy Game could be played in an hour because the game clock rarely stopped due to both teams running option schemes. After Sutton's firing, Army went away from the option in favor of a Pro Style attack under new head coach Todd Berry. After eight years of poor performance on the field (with a record of 17-76 from 2000–2007 including the only 0-13 season in NCAA history), Army returned to a flexbone triple-option scheme in the 2008 season. [16] Many Army alumni pushed for a return to an option-based offense in hopes of regaining the success they saw under head coach Jim Young in the 1980s and early 1990s. [17] Under Young, from 1983–1990, the cadets went 51-39-1, including 3 bowl appearances. [16] With the beginning of spring practice 2008, Army coach Stan Brock closed practices to the fans and media in order to install the new offensive scheme. In mid-April, the Times-Herald Record broke the silence and eased alumni concerns by announcing that Brock and Army would return to the triple-option offense for the 2008 season. [18] Though Army improved statistically, they failed to achieve a winning season, and in December 2008, Army Athletic Director, Kevin Anderson announced Brock's dismissal after only two seasons. Later that month, the team welcomed famed Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson as the 36th head coach at West Point. In his first season (2009) on the banks of the Hudson, Ellerson implemented his version of the option and led the Cadets to a 5-7 season. The team showed a marked improvement from the previous 10 years, missing a bowl game by one game.

The United States Air Force Academy also ran the option successfully under coach Fisher DeBerry, often having a run offense near the top of the NCAA. Falcons option quarterback Dee Dowis was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1989, setting an NCAA record for rushing by a quarterback, with 3,612 yards. The option helped the team win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy 16 times, the most among the three major football-playing service academies.

Current Army head coach Jeff Monken has extensive experience running the option. Before taking over the Army program in December 2013 he served as head coach of Georgia Southern University. His experience working under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech made him an attractive choice for the position.

Use in professional football

Until recently, the option has made rare appearances in the NFL. An article on the option play in the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia discussed why the option was not used as much in the pros. While coaches agreed the option would work, the problem was the impact it would have on the quarterback. The quarterback would need to run more which means taking more hits, causing greater risk of injury. [19] Starting in 2004, Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T. J. Duckett ran the option with a degree of success not seen in the NFL before. [20] In a December 2007 game against the New England Patriots, the New York Jets ran the option with quarterback Brad Smith, substituting Smith for starter Chad Pennington.

In the 2008 AFC championship, Ravens QB Joe Flacco ran a QB option tucking the ball for a 5-yard gain and a first down on crucial third down. The Ravens offense was known for mixing up its game plan, and although Flacco is not known for his speed, the deception employed by Baltimore allowed for Flacco to mix up plays successfully despite an AFC championship game loss.

In the 2009 season, the New York Jets ran the option numerous times, with Brad Smith. Each play produced positive yards. [21] The Tennessee Titans also ran the option when Vince Young was re-installed as quarterback. [22] In addition, the option helped Chris Johnson rush for 2,000 yards. [20]

On October 9, 2011, the Carolina Panthers effectively ran the option twice against the New Orleans Saints. The first play was an option pitch from QB Cam Newton to RB DeAngelo Williams for a 67-yard touchdown. The second time, Cam Newton kept the ball and ran for 13 yards. [23]

A month later, the Denver Broncos ran seventeen plays with Tim Tebow as quarterback and Willis McGahee as running back totalling 298 yards on the ground. [24] The option was so effective that the Broncos played it almost exclusively in the fourth quarter of the 38-24 win over the Oakland Raiders, continued using it a week later in a 17-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and again employed it a week later in an overtime win over San Diego. In that win over San Diego, Tim Tebow set an NFL record 22 rushing attempts by a quarterback in one game. The 2011 Denver Broncos, with Tebow at quarterback, have been the most successful team in the NFL to run a read-option offense. [25]

The 2012 season saw more NFL teams adopt the option offense, the most prominent being the Washington Redskins, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. [26] [27] 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards (an NFL single game record for a QB) on 16 carries using the read option out of the pistol formation vs. the Green Bay Packers in a Divisional Playoff game on January 12, 2013. As a team, the San Francisco 49ers rushed for 323 yards on 43 carries. [28]

The 2013 season saw University of Oregon's head coach Chip Kelly move to the NFL to take the head coaching job for the Philadelphia Eagles. At the start of the season, Michael Vick was named the starting QB and the read option was used with Vick's athletic ability to take advantage of running situations for the quarterback. However, by the 6th week, Vick was injured and Nick Foles took over as starter. Even though Foles had less running ability than Vick, the read option was continued and used successfully. The theory that the read option can work even with pocket passers is that as long as the quarterback can get positive yardage, big gains are not necessary as it keeps the defense honest.

The Run-Pass Option (RPO) has become a more popular play used in the NFL. This adds the passing element to the option offense. After the snap, the quarterback can decide whether to hand off, keep, or pass.

No NFL team truly bases their offense on the option, but the zone read and RPO's have become a staple in almost every team's playbook.

Teams that have or currently run an option offense

Particularly dominant teams

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quarterback</span> Position in gridiron football

The quarterback, colloquially known as the "signal caller", is a position in gridiron football. Quarterbacks are members of the offensive platoon and mostly line up directly behind the offensive line. In modern American football, the quarterback is usually considered the leader of the offense, and is often responsible for calling the play in the huddle. The quarterback also touches the ball on almost every offensive play, and is almost always the offensive player that throws forward passes. When the QB is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, it is called a sack.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shotgun formation</span> American football offensive formation

The shotgun formation is a formation used by the offensive team in gridiron football mainly for passing plays, although some teams use it as their base formation. Instead of the quarterback receiving the snap from center at the line of scrimmage, in the shotgun he stands farther back, often five to seven yards off the line. Sometimes the quarterback will have a back on one or both sides before the snap, while other times he will be the lone player in the backfield with everyone spread out as receivers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wide receiver</span> Offensive position in American and Canadian football

A wide receiver (WR), also referred to as a wideout, and historically known as a split end (SE) or flanker (FL), is an eligible receiver in gridiron football. A key skill position of the offense, WR gets its name from the player being split out "wide", farthest away from the rest of the offensive formation.

In American and Canadian football, a single-wing formation was a precursor to the modern spread or shotgun formation. The term usually connotes formations in which the snap is tossed rather than handed—formations with one wingback and a handed snap are commonly called "wing T" or "winged T".

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">American football rules</span>

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The wishbone formation, also known simply as the bone, is an offensive formation in American football. The style of attack to which it gives rise is known as the wishbone offense. Like the spread offense in the 2000s to the present, the wishbone was considered to be the most productive and innovative offensive scheme in college football during the 1970s and 1980s.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">T formation</span> Formation used in American football by the offensive team

In American football, a T formation is a formation used by the offensive team in which three running backs line up in a row about five yards behind the quarterback, forming the shape of a "T".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Flexbone formation</span> American football formation

The flexbone formation is an offensive formation in American football that includes a quarterback, five offensive linemen, three running backs, and varying numbers of tight ends and wide receivers. The flexbone formation is derived from the wishbone formation and features a quarterback under center with a fullback lined up directly behind the quarterback. There are two smaller running backs called slotbacks aligned behind the line of scrimmage on each side of the offensive line. The slotbacks are sometimes incorrectly referred to as wingbacks. But in order to be a wingback, there must be a guard, tackle and tight end all on one side of the center on the line of scrimmage and then the wingback off the line of scrimmage.

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In American football, Air Coryell is the offensive scheme and philosophy developed by former San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell. The offensive philosophy has been also called the "Coryell offense" or the "vertical offense".

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wildcat formation</span> American football offensive formation

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Run-pass option</span> Option play in gridiron football

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