Lost in Translation: The “Read-Option”

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

There has been much speculation about the Panthers plans for the ground game this season, and a chasm has grown between those who favor a return to a more traditional attack, and those who feel the “read-option” has gotten a bad rap. Today, I mean to bridge that gap…

In my family, we've always spent holidays and special events celebrating at my grandparents' house. No matter the occasion, the first half of the day always plays out the same:

Everyone arrives.

My brother turns on Sportscenter.

Everyone else proceeds to talk over the television.

Defeated, my brothers and I go outside and throw the football around.

Food is served.

I eat my body weight of the meat of the day.

Pain.

After dinner, with bellies bloated and appetites sated, most of us are usually too lazy to get up from the dinner table, so we just sit around and talk. Eventually, one of my kids will do something weird which sends my grandfather into hysterics. After drawing all of our attention to his laughing fit, Grandpa will inevitably launch into some grand tale about how my son's antics reminded him of some long-ago event, and that is when the fun begins. You see, my grandfather's version of events is always vastly different than my grandmother's, meaning that the story usually plays out something like this:

Grandpa (speaking to me): So we were driving down to Augusta to see your uncle Jerry...

Grandma: No we weren't, Honey, we were going to Boston to see Larry.

Grandpa: Were we? That's right; we stopped at that Taco Bell in Philly. Anyway, we were on Highway 273 up in Joysey...

Grandma: It was 276...

Grandpa: ...and your mama, uncle Jimmy and aunt Wendy...

Grandma: ...Linda...

Grandpa (glaring at Grandma): ...were sitting in the back seat with the windows down. Everything was going fine when BAM!!! Your aunt Linda starts screaming her head off because a bug flew in the window and hit her in the face!

Grandma (sighing): It wasn't a bug; you spit out the window and it got sucked back into...

Grandpa: NO I DID NOT THAT WAS YOUR DADDY FAYE AND IT WAS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TIME WILL YOU SHUT UP AND LET ME TELL THE STORY!?!?

Everyone except Grandpa, Grandma, and my uncle Jimmy: *side-splitting laughter ensues*

Grandpa (fuming): {words not fit for a family blog}

Uncle Jimmy (after looking thoroughly confused throughout the whole encounter): I wasn't even there. I don't know what you're talking about.

Grandpa (throwing his hands up dramatically): OH, FOR CRYIN' OUT LOUD. I'M LEAVING!!! *storms off to his man-cave*

Truth be told; I don't know if I have ever seen my grandfather finish a story. Now, while you may be mildly amused by my family's antics I am sure you are asking yourself what any of this has to do with the debate over the direction of Carolina's running strategy.

Well, the answer is simple:

In my mind, those fans and pundits who have been critical of the Panthers' "read-option" attack last year play the part of my grandfather. Those who have come out to defend the read-option with statistical analyses are my grandmother, and I am my uncle Jimmy, utterly confused at how there can possibly be so much back-and-forth when both sides are missing the point: I, Stevie Mercury haven't yet gotten in the last word.

It's all about the punchline.

The one thing that my grandmother has never been able to grasp in these situations is that Grandpa doesn't care about the details when telling his stories. Most of the tale is just fluff, meant to build the scene and enrich the characters as he works toward unleashing what he hopes will be a moment of hilarity unrivaled in the history of mankind. This is much like the "READ-OPTION SUX!!!" crowd. To them it is all about the broader point, which is that for much of last season the Panthers' running game was ugly due to the overuse of what they call the "read-option".

It's all about the details.

For whatever reason, my grandmother just can not abide mistakes in storytelling. Nobody cares what road they were traveling down, or what it was that hit Linda in the face, or even who they were going to visit. Our lack of interest in the details does not change the fact that Grandma may very well be right about every single one of them. This is much like the "READ-OPTION IS AWESOME!!!" crowd. These guys are purists. They know what the true read-option is, they know based on statistics that it was used successfully for us last year, and they are not going to let you forget it.

It's all about getting in the last word.

I think most of us can agree that watching Carolina's run game through the first half of last season was painful. Knowing the caliber (and price tag) of our running backs meant that we as fans were indignant, and we desperately needed something to lash out at. After watching one particular play, Chud's "read-option" became that something for me.

It was the Dallas game, and I recall watching as Cam took the snap out of the shotgun, put the ball in J-Stew's hands and then proceeded to run three yards out of the pocket beside Stewart before finally releasing the football. It was one of the slowest-developing and most awkward-looking plays I watched all year, and of course the rush was stopped for a loss by none other than the guy Cam was supposed to be reading, namely Demarcus Ware. I will freely admit; it was at that moment that I became one of the loudest "read-option" naysayers.

Unfortunately for me, Football Outsiders' advanced metrics proved that true read-option plays were actually run quite successfully by the Panthers in 2012, a fact that has been debated at length here on Cat Scratch Reader's comment threads. I will gladly concede the point. Why? Because it is inconsequential to the greater point I am trying to make today, which is that all of this amounts to an argument over semantics.

Under casual observation, a read-option play looks much like a delayed handoff. The only differences are where the quarterback's eyes are, and whether he is standing still or has begun to move forward. During the game we get to watch each play once, maybe two or three times with replays. We are often drinking beer, hanging out with the guys, barbecuing, dealing with the kids, being told what to do by the wife, or doing any number of other tasks. In other words, our attention is split. I think we can give ourselves some leeway on whether we correctly diagnose each and every handoff made. Football Outsiders goes over these plays with a fine-tooth comb on game film to determine exactly what is happening and what each player is doing on each play. On game day, we casual fans do not have that luxury.

Furthermore, in the interest of brevity and simplicity, speed-options, triple-options, and true read-options are all sometimes referred to as "the read-option" by everyday football fans. The speed-option occurs when the quarterback makes one read and either keeps the ball or pitches it to the back running outside. The triple-option occurs when the quarterback makes two reads and either keeps the ball, hands it off to one back or pitches it to another. The read-option occurs when the quarterback makes a read and either keeps it or hands it off to the back. The common theme in all of these play types is that the quarterback is making a "read" and then exercising an "option" of what to do with the ball. Voila. "Read-option".

My point is, and I will only speak for myself here, (even though I think I can safely assume many other "read-option haters" fall into this category) when I say I want us to get away from the "read-option", what I mean is that I want us to get away from using so many slow-developing running plays. Draws, options, delays, handoffs out of the shotgun; none of these plays allows our running backs to gather a head of steam before they get the ball in their hands and furthermore, rarely do we employ a lead-blocker to clear the way for them. Less blockers plus slower-developing plays clearly equals two running backs that until last year averaged 5.1 and 4.8 yards-per-carry respectively for their careers, averaging only 4.3 and 3.6 yards-per-carry in 2012.

So, what we have learned so far is that according to advanced charting, the read-option proponents are correct. The true read-option worked pretty well for us last year overall. We have also learned that the fact matters little, if most people are using the term "read-option" in a technically incorrect way to drive home the larger point that our entire running scheme was ill-suited to our strengths until we began to work in a more consistent "traditional" rushing attack. Ultimately, I think the question must be asked if it is worth arguing over semantics at the expense of missing the big punchline entirely.

I think if you asked my grandfather, he'd answer with a resounding "no"...

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