By Kevin Braig
In a 17-10 win over Kansas City last Sunday, Denver quarterback Tim Tebow achieved one of the most amazing statistical days in NFL history.
Tebow posted a 102.6 passer rating on only two (yes, two
Was Tebow’s day a statistical aberration that should be dismissed? The QuantCoach would not do so. Tebow averaged more than 8 yards per pass attempt, threw a touchdown pass (an awesome 12.5 percent TD rate), and did not commit any turnovers. The quality
of Tebow’s play is accurately reflected in his passer rating.
What did Denver do on the 55 offensive plays it did not pass? The Broncos ran, of course. Frequently, Tebow ran a form of the triple option similar to the design he executed at the University of Florida.
The Chiefs had no answer for the option. “We had a Plan A, B, and C for how we were going to stop the run, because it’s a numbers issue, and no plans ended up working like we needed it to,” said Kansas City head coach Todd Haley
Can Tebow succeed in the NFL running the option?
“If nothing else, the rest of the Broncos’ season will be a fascinating controlled experiment in whether these types of [option] schemes can work in the NFL,” Chris Brown wrote in Slate
To understand why now
is the perfect
moment for Tebow, you have to understand the evolution of the triple option. The design, it turns out, evolved just like any other technology evolves, through hybridization that is the result of knowledge passing through an industry.
In 1941, Missouri coach Don Faurot created the split T offense
, so called because the offensive linemen were split apart rather than being packed closely together. The split T relied on only two basic plays, a handoff to a halfback diving into the line (dive) and an option play where depending upon what a defender decided, the quarterback made a counter-decision to keep the ball or pitch it backward to a trailing running back.
The option replaced a thing (a physical blocker) at the point of attack with an abstract idea: The decision of the defender which—no matter what he decided—“blocked” the defender and thereby nullified him as a threat to stop the play. Simply stated, the option gave Faurot’s Tigers leverage
In 1943, during World War II, Faurot coached the Iowa Pre-Flight School football team. At Iowa Pre-Flight, Faurot taught the split T option to Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson. When Tatum and Wilkinson took over Oklahoma in 1946, they installed the split T option. At Oklahoma, Wilkinson used the option to build a dynasty in the 1950s and taught the design to future Texas coach Darrell Royal.
In the 1960s, while Vince Lombardi’s conceptually related power sweep design and lead blockers were dominating the NFL, Bill Yeoman upgraded Faurot’s split T option at the University of Houston. Yeoman’s invention, known as the split-back veer, was the first true double-read, triple-option design.
“[W]e were cruising along at 1-5,” Yeoman sarcastically recalled of the 1965 season. “I called the squad together and I apologized to them for doing this but I said I wanted to see it this stuff is going to work. We went to it completely the next year, 1966, and we won the offensive championship that year and the next two years and that’s when I knew it was good.”
Like Faurot’s split T option, Yeoman’s triple option substituted the decision of the defenders for physical blockers. But rather than optioning just one defender, the quarterback in Yeoman’s design optioned both the defensive tackle and the defensive end. In other words, Yeoman’s design merged the plays upon which the split T option was based, the dive and the option.
Soon after Yeoman invented the veer triple option, Royal found himself on the hot seat at Texas when his team finished three straight years with a 6-4 record. In 1968, Royal unveiled a new design for running Yeoman’s triple option that had been invented by his assistant, Emory Bellard: The wishbone. Running the wishbone triple option, Texas won 30 straight games between 1968 and 1970.
“The best way to run the triple option is an alignment that had two backs deeper than the fullback for a good pitch path from the quarterback,” Bellard said. “That way, you can get the pitch man to the corner faster and have the lead blocker close to the pitch man.”
In other words, Royal’s and Bellard’s wishbone triple-option merged the dive, the option, and Lombardi’s power sweep (lead blocker) into one play.
Primarily from the wishbone, the triple option dominated college football like no other play design before or since as Oklahoma and Alabama soon copied the design. The most popular college defense of the day, the “Okie” 5-2 devised by Wilkinson to defend the split T option, was simply no match for the triple.
Triple option dominance finally came to an end around 1987 when Miami’s Jimmy Johnson demonstrated against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl that a professional 4-3 front that featured defensive tackles that had to be double-teamed and tremendous team defensive speed could stop the triple option almost in its tracks. From that time forward, sophisticated passing designs at Miami, Florida State, Florida, and other colleges began to displace the triple option as the favored design.
The year 1971 was a pivotal year for the triple option and the running quarterback. In the college game, both Nebraska and Oklahoma used the triple option to move the ball at will in the “Game of the Century,” which the Cornhuskers finally won, 35-31, with virtually the entire coaching profession watching on pre-Sports Center, national television on Thanksgiving Day.
That same year some in the NFL thought the Detroit Lions Greg Landry would revolutionize the professional game with his running ability and the triple option.
“You’re going to see a lot of big, running quarterbacks in the next few years,” then-Lions coach Joe Schmidt told Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule
. “The Wishbone is developing them, so there is going to be a supply.”
Schmidt was wrong for four reasons.
The first reason the NFL did not adopt the triple option is that college football did not develop the big, running quarterbacks that Schmidt envisioned. Rather, wishbone and veer quarterbacks tended to be small and quick, like Oklahoma’s Jack Mildren or Texas' James Street.
The second reason the NFL never adopted the triple option is that it was a very risky offense because any errant pitch or handoff was a fumble just waiting to become a turnover. For example, in Nebraska’s memorable 17-14 regular season upset of No. 1 Oklahoma in 1978
, Billy Sims and the Sooners lost six of the nine fumbles that they put on the ground.
What most people do not realize is that, from the production
perspective, the wishbone triple option and Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense have much in common.
“From [the wishbone], Bruce Weber wrote in his New York Times obituary of Bellard
, “the quarterback had three options: he could hand the ball to the fullback charging up the middle, or he could fake to the fullback and sprint out to one side or the other, then turn upfield with the ball himself or, if the defense closed in on him, pitch the ball wide to a tailback.”
Likewise, Walsh’s quarterback in the West Coast Offense usually had three designed options: a primary target, an alternate target, and an outlet target.
“I always felt … that it was important not to give the quarterback too much too handle,” Walsh said. “For example, the quarterback would basically use receivers only on one side of the field…. We found it to be much more effective for the quarterback to concentrate on three of his receivers operating to one side of the field.”
Like the wishbone triple option, the options that Walsh's West Coast Offense provided its quarterback created valuable production leverage.
Where Walsh’s design was far superior to the triple option was in risk management, not production. An incomplete pitch in Walsh’s design usually was a relatively harmless incomplete forward pass, not a back-breaking turnover. In Walsh’s offense, Joe Montana committed fewer turnovers per drop back than any other quarterback in NFL history who has already completed his career. Montana also was much more likely to stay healthy and out of harm's way throwing the ball downfield than he would have if he had repeatedly took off on runs.
The third reason the NFL never adopted the triple option was that by the time others began copying Royal’s and Bellard’s design, the knowledge necessary to stop the wishbone triple option already existed in the NFL in the form of Dallas coach Tom Landry’s 4-3 “Flex” defense.
Landry designed the 4-3 Flex, in part, to stop Lombardi’s power sweep. In the 4-3 Flex, the strong-side defensive end and the weak-side defensive tackle played slightly off the line of scrimmage, giving them the ability to pursue like Johnson’s Hurricanes a decade later.
The fourth and final reason the NFL never copied the triple option was that the cost in terms of human capital would have been too high. As veteran NFL offensive coordinator Al Saunders once observed, to run the triple option in the NFL, “you’d have to give me 15 quarterbacks because that’s how many I’d go through.”
Tebow appears to be precisely what Schmidt envisioned in 1971. He is a big, tough runner who does not turn the ball over, can use the option's leverage to exploit overly aggressive pass-rushing defenses, and can withstand the physical pounding that accompanies the life of any person brave enough to regularly run the ball in the NFL.
These facts have caught many, such as Slate’s
Brown, off guard.
“While many wondered whether Tebow might be the guy to bring the spread option to the NFL,” Brown wrote
, “few thought it would be because his team was terrible, his coaches were too scared to let him pass, and the organization didn’t believe in him enough to care whether he got beat up doing it.”
Actually, if you think about it a little, these are the only
conditions under which any organization in any sport would grudgingly grant a chance to succeed to an unconventional approach like Tebow’s approach. Innovation--including Yeoman's veer option, Royal's and Bellard's wishbone option, and Walsh's West Coast Offense--only gets a chance when everything else fails and an organization has absolutely nothing to lose by saying, "What the heck, go ahead and give your crazy idea a try."
If Bill Walsh were still alive, he undoubtedly would agree with the QuantCoach, as Walsh himself turned to the wishbone triple option on one dire occasion.
On October 5, 1987, in a game that until now there was little reason to recall, San Francisco met New York in the first Monday Night Football Game to feature expendable “replacement players” who were substituting for striking NFL players.
Though the NFL regulars were on strike, there was no certainty that one of the NFL’s biggest stars, Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor, would honor the strike. Walsh knew that it was hard enough to block Taylor with bona fide NFL blockers, and he had to have known that it would be impossible to block Taylor with replacement blockers.
According to Walsh’s own memoir, San Francisco prepared fully for the replacement games and “had a contingency for every logical scenario.” Thus, it is reasonable to speculate that Walsh calculated that if Taylor crossed the picket line and played in the game, then the only player on the field who would have been capable of blocking Lawrence Taylor would have been … Lawrence Taylor.
Because Walsh would have had no reasonable hope of blocking Taylor with a physical blocker, his only chance to block Taylor would have been with an abstract idea. The wishbone triple option would have been the perfect resource for meeting Walsh’s needs.
Though ultimately Taylor did not play against the 49ers, in the second half, Walsh put San Francisco in the wishbone and unleashed Mark Stevens, an obscure quarterback from the University of Utah. Stevens operated the triple option deftly and ran for a touchdown and passed for another as San Francisco clobbered the Giants, 41-21.
Two weeks after the 49ers’ victory, Mark Stevens’ NFL career came to an end when NFL regulars returned to action.
Tebow’s productive career might not last much longer than Mark Stevens’ career.
But the QuantCoach has seen enough in the last two weeks to predict that, using the leverage derived from his unconventional option, Tebow will deliver the 2011 AFC West title to Denver.