Reading the Options

Owners of M.C. Hammer pants hopefully got wears out of them while they could, because Skidz aren’t going to return to fashion for awhile. Trends fall out of favor just as quickly in the NFL, as evolving defenses function as the equivalent of the fashion police. Take the read option, which is deceptive now but won’t remain so indefinitely. The Bills may want to cash in on the frenzy while they can, but only if it helps get the quarterback of tomorrow on the field today.

(Photo by Bill Wippert/AP)
(Photo by Bill Wippert/AP)

At the same time, this team needs to keep whoever starts against New England on the field, whether it be one of their rookies, an unlikely veteran, or a well-rested Joe Dufek lured from retirement. As for the eventual number one, every strategy should revolve around helping EJ Manuel both as a rookie and as a footballer with a healing knee. But the Bills should not have been planning to pass incessantly even before his procedure. Neither him nor that other rookie who might take Buffalo’s first snap this year should be placed in danger for the sake of misdirection.

Manuel doesn’t have to throw for 4,000 yards to have a successful rookie season, even presuming he plays 16 games. Nobody experienced will take his place on merit. Even after he recovers from his most recent concussion, the consensus is that Kevin Kolb’s last start while the Florida State man is healthy took place this summer against the Vikings. And Matt Leinart hopefully won’t be running the offense, much less the ball. Still, that doesn’t mean Manuel has to call his own number all the time, either, no matter when he returns. (Related: NFL.com – Buffalo Bills acquire Thaddeus Lewis from Detroit Lions)

Fans saw the read being run successfully a little bit through Manuel’s limited preseason snaps. The only more enticing prospect than EJ handing off to C.J. would be if defenders couldn’t be certain the former kept it. Skill paired with misdirection often equals points. Defenses focused on stopping the running back could give the quarterback a chance to wheel toward the line’s other side even if the Bills drafted him for his arm and not his legs.

But the inevitably transient nature of the new option makes leaning on it troublesome for a quarterback who also must worry about running on a recovering knee. That’s in addition to queasiness about Manuel not sliding in time to avoid being flattened by an opponent licking his chops at the prospect of putting a quarterback on the injury report.

The fear of getting hit like a tailback exists with every passer, and the apprehension just grows stronger for one recovering from surgery. If Jeff Tuel improbably and remarkably is the season-opening starter, coaches shouldn’t expose him to getting creamed by providing frequent chances to run, as this team has had enough quarterback injuries before the first real snap.

The eternal race to containment means it’s only matter of time before defenses make pulverizing a rushing passer the game plan’s focus. Opposing coordinators are going to start emphasizing positional discipline and either cheating the linebacker or safety toward the side where the quarterback may be sneaky. Enough bloodthirsty defenders hitting franchises’ most valuable players will end the fad. But offenses can still indulge in what’s presently considered swanky as long as they don’t think joining with the frenzy will make them look goofy in hindsight.

The only thing that could alleviate risk to quarterbacks is astute cautiousness, which is easier to call for than it is to execute. Asking driven players to avoid the type of brutal hits absorbed by someone like Robert Griffin III over his young career may be fruitless. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the face of the Redskins was battered in various scenarios.

A quarterback can of course get crushed in the pocket, too. But the naturally excessive eagerness to make a play while carrying the ball might hinder a team a lot more than a failed third down attempt.

Offensive strategists have fun exploiting defensive sloppiness, as seen last year when, sigh, the Dolphins exercised the option to attack Dave Wannstedt’s clueless alignment. The Redskins scored using the option last week, as well, if anyone needs a recent example of how the formation can at least be effective against a bland preseason defense. But the prospect of fooling opponents by not letting them know who will be the final ballcarrier must be weighed against the potential sidelining of a dashing quarterback. There’s not much more time to jump through the open window, anyway, as defenses inch closer to the line of scrimmage for deterrence.

In the meantime, the temptation to use any of this team’s passers as an active participant in the rushing attack must remain tempered. Pizza twice a month is a fun indulgence, while twice per week is going to risk one’s health. Nathaniel Hackett must be as judicious about calling it as Manuel is about running with it whenever the latter gets on field. Teams can’t stick with modish routines in perpetuity. But the upside of changing tastes is the lack of time this year’s team has to invest in preparing the wildcat.

About Anthony Bialy

Anthony Bialy recently moved back to Buffalo from New York City and acts like he never left. He thinks "Buffalo 66" is biographical and considers it a crime against mankind that Steve Tasker is not in the Hall of Fame. He likes getting Tim Hortons on the way to get Labatt Blue. Follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyBialy.