By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
Professional sports are a breeding ground for myths, but the NFL tends to harvest them deeper than the other leagues. Maybe it’s just the shorter season at work, but that makes it easier for someone to collect the facts and crush that myth into the ground.
When you spend five months of the offseason listening to the same myths over and over, you can get as angry as Peter Finch in Network and want to yell “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
This week we have a quartet of NFL myths that may not all be brand spanking new, but they reared their ugly heads often during 2012 and want us to believe they are going to have an impact on the upcoming 2013 season.
Don’t believe the hype. The truth comes from the facts.
Myth No. 1: The Read-Option Was Responsible for the Carolina Panthers’ 7-9 Record
The 2012 Carolina Panthers were supposed to be in the playoff race in year two of the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era. Instead, it was nearly a repeat of the 2011 season with a poor start (2-8 in both years) and strong finish to get to 7-9.
Rather than point to a regressed offense with sophomore quarterback Cam Newton failing to improve, the blame went on using too much read-option early in the season when the team started 1-5 for the second straight year.
From the Charlotte Observer, new general manager Dave Gettleman said “I think a read option is an option. But at the end of the day your quarterback has to make plays from the pocket. And if he can’t, you’re going to struggle.”
Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has left to coach the Browns, leaving Mike Shula as the new man in charge of the offense, which is expected to deemphasize the read-option in 2013. After all, didn’t the team finish 5-1 by getting back to downhill running?
“The offense that you saw at the end of the year is going to be where we're at. The team closed awful strong,” said Gettleman, a former Giants pro personnel director. “Once they got back to the downhill run game with DeAngelo and throwing vertical, play-action, I think that's what you're going to see. It's basically similar to what we did in New York.”
Right. Dump the read-option and the wins will come, just like last year.
You are buying fool’s gold if you think Carolina’s finish is indicative of what we will see in 2013. This one shouldn’t pass the sniff test on just the significance of the read-option alone.
One could argue the biggest NFL myth of 2012 was how often teams actually used the read-option/zone-read/option pitch/triple-option/other name offense.
Based on the hype, you’d think teams like the Seahawks, Redskins, Panthers and 49ers used it as their base offense, yet no one came even close to that. ESPN’s Mike Sando had a very informative article on the topic that showed a total of 457 plays using the zone-read/option/option pitch in 2012. That’s just 1.4 percent of all plays in the NFL. Only 18 teams called it at least once.
It does appear these numbers are only for running plays, as the pass is likely just counted as a play-action pass.
San Francisco and Seattle, two NFC favorites now, only used it 44 and 55 times, respectively. Washington was second in the league with 129 plays (13.0 percent), but even that is a lot less than advertised.
No team used it more than the Panthers, but even then it was 147 plays (14.9 percent of their plays). That number is debatable as these things are not always clear, especially when it comes to the shotgun handoffs.
Many of the runs look no different than what a quarterback like Tom Brady does when handing off in the shotgun. The key is at the mesh point where the quarterback and running back meet and the quarterback must read the unblocked defender (usually the edge defender) and decide to hand it off or keep the ball and run it himself.
Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth presents the option data from Football Outsiders in great detail here. His sample includes 463 option plays in 2012, which is very similar to the ESPN data.
However, he has the Panthers with 132 option plays compared to 136 for the Redskins. He also has the Panthers averaging 6.21 yards per play on the option compared to all other teams averaging 5.85 yards per play.
That’s right. Carolina was very successful at the option, though it was helped out by some long runs. Still, those long runs helped the team win some games.
Tanier also looked at play-action passing out of the shotgun, which can be helped by an offense running a lot of read-option. Sure enough, the Panthers were way above the league average in how often they used it and also in how effective it was.
On play-action shotgun passes, Carolina averaged 11.54 yards per attempt and had a 110.7 passer rating. For the entire season Newton averaged 7.98 yards per attempt and had an 86.2 passer rating. His numbers clearly were improved by these play-action attempts.
Looking at every rushing play for the 2012 Panthers, I found 161 read-option runs, or 14 more than ESPN. Either way, it’s a small part of the offense and it was part of the team’s success, not failure:
2012 Panthers - Rushing Attack
Non-QB Read-option Runs
Cam Newton Read-option Runs
Total Read-Option Runs
Other Running Plays
Sure, there were many mistakes on the read-option with Newton being too indecisive at the mesh and the play losing yards. Here was a particularly bad example against DeMarcus Ware and Dallas:
Sure, Newton’s 72-yard touchdown run against Atlanta and DeAngelo Williams’ 54-yard score in New Orleans boost the read-option numbers, but those were still important plays in what became close wins.
The read-option was used 77 times by Carolina during the 1-5 start. It was used most by in Week 2 against New Orleans (22 times). I particularly liked the “inverted veer” which Chris Brown details here. On this play Newton is actually reading the defensive tackle and could even throw a block as he did a few times last season on this run. However, it’s not like you want your quarterback blocking interior linemen that often.
The notion that Carolina was dumping the read-option started with the Chicago game where it was barely used. The running backs still couldn’t get it going and the Panthers lost, falling to 1-6 and becoming an afterthought in the NFC.
When the team finished 5-1, it averaged roughly 8.4 option runs per game. So while it was deemphasized, it was still in use. Newton in particular had 3.0 zone-read runs per game in the last six games compared to 2.4 in the first 10. So he was using it more at the end of the season.
If you want to know why Newton and Carolina really finished 5-1, look no further than the competition:
- Philadelphia was in the middle of “The Todd Bowles Movement” when it allowed 32.5 PPG, 76.3 percent completions, 9.99 YPA, 16 TD, 0 INT, 142.4 passer rating during a six-game stretch.
- Carolina still lost to the Chiefs, who went 2-14 with the league’s worst scoring differential (-214 points) and a 99.9 defensive passer rating.
- Atlanta barely got by the Panthers the first time. This time in Carolina, Newton had that 72-yard touchdown on the zone-read option in a 30-20 win.
- San Diego was on a 2-7 slump heading into the Week 15 game where Carolina went up 21-0 in the first quarter.
- Oakland was a very poor 4-12 team (swept Kansas City), though it’s not like Newton played that well in a 17-6 win at home here.
- The Saints were the first defense in NFL history to allow over 7,000 yards and were swept by Carolina. This was another game where Newton was not particularly sharp, but Williams rushed for 210 yards.
Note: When backup quarterback Derek Anderson came into the Week 17 game, his first snap was a read-option play.
Carolina will have to find ways to beat some quality teams this season. In November alone the Panthers take on Atlanta, (at) San Francisco and New England in consecutive weeks.
The read-option did not stop them from beating good teams last year. It even aided them in several of their wins.
You can’t blame what was a small and often successful part of your overall offense for the bigger problems at hand.
Those problems remain a team incapable of closing games in historic fashion. Newton is 2-15 (.118) at game-winning drive opportunities; the worst of any active player and one of the worst records in history. The defense rarely finds a fourth-quarter lead it doesn’t want to blow, and the offense is terrible at making those leads hold up.
Don’t blame the read-option for scoring 10 points in Tampa Bay in Week 1. Don’t blame it for Newton fumbling the ball on a game-clinching run that would have knocked off the Falcons in Week 4. Instead Carolina punted and Matt Ryan did his thing. Don’t blame it for Newton’s horrific short-hop throw to a wide-open receiver in the end zone against Seattle. That would have been a go-ahead touchdown pass.
In Chicago, which is the game where Carolina started to use less of the read-option, the Panthers gagged on a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter. Newton threw a pick six to Tim Jennings after Steve Smith slipped. That wasn’t due to the read-option.
If Carolina can ever close out some games late, this could be a playoff team. The fact that so little changed in offensive personnel from 2011 to 2012 is why it’s not surprising the results were so eerily similar.
All 11 offensive starters return in 2013 too. You can change coordinators, talk about dumping the read-option, but if your quarterback doesn’t start making progress and elevating the play of those around him like a No. 1 pick should, then it’s going to be the same results again in 2013. Another season with 6-7 wins until they find ways to close games properly to reach the next tier.
If things go according to plan, at least Newton won’t have the “it’s the read-option!” excuse to fall back on this year. Though if Rivera’s staff looks back over the numbers and ignores the noise, they’ll know the read-option was not the reason they were a disappointment.
If anything, it made them a better offense.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.