And it’s not all about running. The other reason – maybe the major reason – the NFL is now catching on is that they now see the effect these schemes can have on passing. When the quarterback is a threat to run, defenses must stack the line of scrimmage, opening up passing lanes and one-on-one matchups for wide receivers outside. “You do read-option, read-option, read-option and then get them to play seven or eight in the box and you’ve got so many variations of plays and passes you can run off that,” Cam Newton said recently [source]. Indeed, Mike Shanahan thinks that play-action which fakes a zone-read, whether from the pistol or other shotgun sets, is actually better than traditional under-center play-action because of the increased influence it has on linebackers and safeties looking for the run. “Not a little bit more,” said Shanahan. “A lot more.” [source]
There was, however, one more argument against these ideas ever taking hold in the NFL; Griffin was injured and didn’t finish the Baltimore game referenced above (though his injury came on a scramble on a pass play, not a zone read). Critics argue that these attacks create an increased risk of injury to quarterbacks. That is a real concern, and if anything can short circuit these changes to the NFL game, it is this.
I don’t have a firm rebuttal, and to my knowledge there have been no comprehensive studies done at any level of football that measures the risk to quarterbacks in the concepts, so we’re left with anecdotes to judge by. Yet even if it is true – no, especially if it is true – the issue is not really about these spread concepts at all. All quarterbacks – and all NFL players, really – are constantly at risk of gruesome injury. Pocket passers like Carson Palmer, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have missed entire seasons because of injuries sustained while standing in the pocket, and quarterbacks are constantly hit while or just after releasing the ball, a far more vulnerable position than being hit while sliding following a 5-yard gain behind a lead blocker. If the argument is that the scheme is too dangerous to risk injury to Robert Griffin III, then the real argument isn’t to abolish these offenses, it’s to abolish football. That’s another discussion, but if that’s the actual concern then we have much bigger problems than the Pistol Zone Bluff.
Doug and I had an interesting discussion today after reading this excellent story. Where does Brock Osweiler fit into this, post-Brady, post-Manning future? Although Osweiler ran the pistol extensively in college and he's pretty mobile for a guy 6-8, he's not on the same level when it comes to running the football as, say Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, RG3, Cam Newton, or even our guilty little pleasure, Tim Tebow. Or will the next great pocket passer (Andrew Luck perhaps) always trump the others? Will there ever be another great pocket passer in the traditional sense?
Stay tuned. The next few years should determine the answer. As Brown notes in the story, if Griffin and the rest prove durable, change is here to stay.