After another tough defeat at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys dropped their record to an exasperating 1-5 mark last season, the Carolina Panthers and head coach Ron Rivera found themselves under fire. What started out as a season full of promise had fizzled into another year of mediocrity for the franchise.
After the 2011 season, in which the Panthers offense bamboozled the league with its Read Option attack led by rookie Cam Newton, the media and fans were searching for answers as to why the offense had lost its potency. Naturally, they pointed to the unknown -- in this case, the Read Option. The same concept that had revitalized a sterile offense the year before had caused its downfall the next. Rivera and his offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, agreed: The Panthers had to get back to a more traditional running game.
After that declaration, the Panthers went 6-4. It seemed as if the decision to scrap the Read Option had worked, a traditional running game was the only way to win in the NFL (despite all the evidence to the contrary going on in Seattle, Washington and San Francisco), and Rivera had done enough to keep his job.
During every broadcast of Panthers games in December, the commentators would talk about the team's move back to a more traditional running scheme and how it sparked Carolina's late-season turnaround. And the talk hasn't subsided during this off-season, with analysts, including CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco and ESPN.com's NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, agreeing that a traditional running game will improve the team's offense and help Newton develop into a better quarterback.
Rivera and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula have gotten on board and talked about continuing to favor the more traditional running scheme in 2013, a decision that has been lauded by fans and analysts alike.
Though we've heard a lot about the shortcomings of the Panthers' Read Option since the team's 1-5 start in 2012, there's been a shortage of statistics to back up the claims. Even CSR's analysis titled "Why the Panthers struggle with the Read Option" fails to put a number on those "struggles."
So I decided to go back to the coaches' tape provided by NFL Rewind to chart every Read Option the Panthers ran in 2012 to see just how bad the team was when running the play. I reviewed every shotgun run by the team, and charted those that included an unblocked defender that was "read" by Newton.
The numbers were staggering, but not in the way you would think. The Panthers ran 104 Read Option plays* and gained 765 yards on those plays for a 7.4 yards-per-carry average. Across the board, Panthers runners were better when running the Read Option; in fact, Carolina was better than division winners San Francisco and Washington on such plays.
*I've seen other studies put that number in the 140s, but there were plenty of shotgun runs where Newton looked as if he was reading the defense, but there was no "read" defender, so there was never an option for Newton to keep it on those plays. It looked more like a cosmetic design to slow down the defense on a regular run scheme rather than an actual Read Option call. Even when including those plays, the Panthers trailed only Seattle on yards-per-carry on those plays.
And contrary to the popular narrative, the Panthers were a better team when they featured it in the gameplan. In the seven games the team ran more than five Read Options, Carolina went 4-3 while scoring over 25 points a game. In the other nine contests, the team went 3-6 while putting up a measly 19.7 points-per-game.
The coaches have to know how well the offense is performing on these plays, so why would they go away from what's working? Well, it's easier to defend the use of a "new-age" tactic when you're winning (see: Washington and San Francisco) than it is when you're 1-5. The Panthers staff needed a scape goat, and the Read Option was it.
A lot of the aversion to the Read Option has to do with people classifying it as a gimmick play like the Wildcat. That classification is unfair. All the Read Option does is give the offense one less player to block. If the Panthers line up with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WR), they have six blockers (the TE and five offensive linemen).
The defense has three options:
1. It can put out a nickel defense to match up against the three wide outs. But that leaves only six defenders in the box against six blockers and two possible ball carriers. That allows the free blocker (usually tight end Greg Olsen) to line up in the back field to provide a lead block for Newton if he keeps the ball.
2. It could keep a third linebacker in the box, but a safety would have to come down to take the slot receiver. The Panthers still have an eight-to-seven advantage in the box, and now Steve Smith has a one-on-one on the outside if Newton checks to a pass.
3. Or the defense can bring a safety down into the box to even up the numbers, but that opens up a three-on-one for the receivers, which is why the Panthers built in a bubble screen into all of their Read Options. In the example below, Newton doesn't throw the bubble, which was wide open -- that was Newton's failure, not the play designer's.
No matter what the defense does, the offense has a numerical advantage, whether it's running or passing. The Wildcat did the same thing, but without a quarterback on the field, defenses didn't have to account for the pass like they do against Read Option teams. It was a gimmick that was eventually stamped out by defenses; the Read Option, on the other hand, isn't going anywhere.
Along with the basic Zone Read Option, the Panthers experimented with some advanced Read Option techniques early in the season and a little bit later on, as well. Like the Redskins and 49ers, Carolina used the Pistol formation to great effect (as well as the Diamond formation made famous by West Virginia head coach Dana Holgerson) with Triple Options. The following video is a cut-up of every Read Option the team ran out of those looks.
The team also looked to Newton's college days to draw inspiration in the form of the Inverted Veer. Instead of Newton reading the backside end, like in the basic Zone Read plays, he reads the front side end. The Panthers will run this with a pulling guard on occasion, but mostly go with a zone blocking scheme.
Some will argue the Panthers' second-half surge happened only after the team went to a more traditional running game. But that ignores the fact that the strong finish also coincided with Newton taking better care of the ball. The second-year quarterback's second-half improvement probably had more to do with the Panthers' 5-1 finish than the team getting rid of a play that worked so well for them all season. Imagine what the offense would have done with Newton firing in the passing game and the Read Option tearing up defenses on the ground.
Instead of ditching the Read Option, the Panthers should embrace it. When you have a talent like Cam Newton, why would you relegate him to a traditional role as a quarterback? He was drafted first overall because of his athleticism and versatility, not because of his pocket passing. Keeping Newton in the pocket lowers his ceiling considerably. What's so special about a big arm quarterback with questionable accuracy? Haven't we seen this movie before in the form of Michael Vick, who flourished most when the Falcons ran the Read Option during the end of his tenure in Atlanta?
Of course limiting the number of hits Newton takes will prolong his career, but it will also detract from it. Would you rather have eight more years of the dynamic Newton ripping off long runs or 13 years of a good-but-not-great pocket passing Cam Newton?
And the claim that scraping the Option play will allow him to develop makes little sense. How do a couple of runs here and there -- Newton carried the ball on less than 30 percent of the Read Option plays Carolina ran in 2012 -- affect Newton's ability to read a defense and make more accurate throws? The threat of the play opens up the passing game because the defense has to commit eight defenders in the box to account for Newton's running ability.
If the off-season talk is true, and the Panthers are going away from the Read Option, expect another year of inconsistent offense. If it's just subterfuge to throw opposing defensive coordinators off the scent, the Panthers have a chance at playing meaningful football late in the season for the first time in five years.