No matter how successful the Read option seems to be or how many big plays it produces, even its staunchest supporters (and I consider myself one of them) feel a little uneasy about how much of an injury risk it poses on the quarterback.
Along those same lines, the Read Option puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback's shoulders: Now in addition to managing the passing game, he is also responsible for the success of the running game. After a horrid start to the 2012 season, the Panthers coaching staff decided to put less pressure on Newton to spur the offense, as head coach Ron Rivera shared with CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco:
"We put too much on the quarterback," Rivera said. "I did a self-scout after our five games, and pulled five games from the previous year and found out we put the ball in the quarterback's hands 33 percent more of the time. So we put more on him. We put more focus and attention on him and got away from the core of what we did the year before. We changed some of the ideas and attitude after that and got back on track."
To get back on track, the Panthers reduced their use of the Read Option. At least, that's what the popular narrative has been throughout the off-season, but that's not necessarily accurate. Yes, Carolina cut their use of the "traditional" Read Option that football fans have become familiar with over the last couple of years, where a defender is left unblocked and the quarterback pulls the ball and takes off if an unblocked defender crashes toward the running back; but they replaced those plays with an evolved version of the Read Option that replaces Newton's option to run with an option to pass.
(Last week, Grantland's Chris Brown wrote an excellent piece on these packaged plays that are starting to make their way into the pro game. It's worth a read.)
The Panthers started packaging a zone run with a slant-flat route combination to the back-side of the play. To illustrate the design, here's an example from the Panthers' Week 14 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers come out in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) in a shotgun formation. The Falcons counter with their base 4-3 defense.
The Panthers' right tackle, Byron Bell, will pass block as the rest of the line and the second tight end will zone block for a run to the left.
If Witherspoon vacates the box to cover Olsen, Newton hands it off to Williams; if he remains in the box, Newton throws.
In this instance, Witherspoon remains in the box and Newton hits Olsen for four yards. But a drive later, the Panthers run a similar play design with Mike Tolbert lined up just off the Bell. Witherspoon covers Tolbert, and Newton hands the ball off to Williams for a 13-yard gain.