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Pistol, read-option schemes challenge defenses

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers turns

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers turns to hand the ball off to Frank Gore in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens during Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. (Feb. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty

The location of the meetings will remain a secret, as will the details of what was discussed. Perry Fewell won't even acknowledge who participated, other than himself.

About the only thing the Giants' defensive coordinator would confirm was that discussions took place with college coaches during the offseason and that yes, they talked about how to cope with the burgeoning use of the "read option'' and "pistol'' formations.

As for the X's-and-O's of the discussion, forget it.

"I'm not getting into that,'' Fewell said. "I'm not telling you what we talked about.''

Typical NFL secrecy bordering on paranoia? Perhaps. But like every other defensive coordinator trying to come to grips with the increased use of these schemes, Fewell believes it's in his best interests to guard the information he gleaned as if they were state secrets.

"I think everyone's trying to get a handle on how to deal with it,'' he said. "Teams are using it more and more, and we've got to figure out a way to be more effective with it.''

Fewell knows firsthand about the perils of defending the pistol and read option. It may have cost the Giants a playoff berth last season.

In a critical matchup on Dec. 3, with the Giants holding a two-game lead in the NFC East, the Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III consistently fooled the Giants and eked out a 17-16 win at FedEx Field. Washington went on to win the division at 10-6. The Giants finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

"I don't think there's any question we need to do a better job in this area,'' Fewell said.

He's not alone.

With the increased use of the read option and pistol, many defensive coordinators came out on the losing end of these strategic battles. The Packers were helpless against Colin Kaepernick in last season's divisional playoff; the 49ers quarterback ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns and passed for two TDs in a 45-31 win.

Kaepernick, Griffin and fellow rookie Russell Wilson of the Seahawks each led his team to the playoffs using the recently introduced strategy in which the quarterback becomes a runner on many plays. All three bring unique skill sets to the NFL, and having run similar versions of the read option in college -- Kaepernick already was an expert in the pistol under former Nevada coach Chris Ault -- their expertise went a long way toward producing winning seasons.

Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl and nearly pulled off a dramatic second-half comeback against the Ravens before losing, 34-31, coming up short in the final seconds after a controversial non-call on a throw to the end zone.

Factor in the addition of Eagles first-year coach Chip Kelly -- whose up-tempo offense at Oregon was a model for some NFL teams, including the Patriots and pocket passer extraordinaire Tom Brady -- and you see an even greater emphasis on less traditional offense.

The read option often is run out of the pistol formation, but the use of the pistol formation does not imply that a team is running the read option. For instance, a quarterback can line up in the pistol and simply hand the ball off to the running back or drop back to pass.

With the kind of success we saw last season, and with Kelly's arrival in the league, and with so many defenses still trying to figure out ways to counter the unique offenses, it appears the pistol and read option may be here for good.

Or are they? Talk to people around the NFL, and a difference of opinion has emerged about whether these offenses will -- or even should -- continue.

"That's the million-dollar question,'' said former Raiders and Bucs coach Jon Gruden, now the Monday Night Football analyst for ESPN. "I don't think college football is penetrating the NFL, I think college football is in the NFL, and I think it's here to stay. I see a lot of high school football. The game of high school football is different. Players are playing it differently, wide open, no huddle, spread systems, and that's what's in college football. That's how we're training coaches and players. It's a big part of the National Football League.''

But another school of thought casts some doubt about whether the offensive style can survive long term in the NFL, particularly because of the vulnerabilities of the very players who direct it: the quarterbacks. With the pistol and read option alignments, the quarterback becomes a potential runner -- and thus a target -- on most plays, leaving him susceptible to the hits and punishment usually reserved for running backs.

On the read option, for instance, a quarterback takes the snap, runs to either his left or right and reads which way the outside defender (usually an end or linebacker) is running and whether he is blocked. The quarterback then decides whether to run upfield himself, throw a pass as he moves laterally or pitch the ball back to the running back. Either way, it leaves him exposed because he is well outside the pocket.

"If I'm paying a quarterback 15 or 20 million dollars, do I really want to expose him when you run that zone read scheme?'' former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe asked rhetorically. "When he's a runner, I get to tee off on him like he's Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster. Quarterbacks aren't built to take that kind of punishment.''

In the traditional shotgun alignment, the quarterback lines up 6 to 7 yards behind the center and takes a direct snap. Because he doesn't have to drop back, he has added time to scan the defense. But in the pistol, because he lines up about 4 yards behind the center, the quarterback has a split-second less time to make his reads. It also means defenders can get to him a split-second more quickly.

"Those hits take their toll,'' said Sharpe, an NFL analyst at CBS. "I think what you're going to start seeing is defensive coordinators saying, 'Look, punish that guy. Hit him every chance you get.'

"If you put enough dents in a car, it's going to shut down sooner or later no matter how good the engine is.''

Case in point: Griffin. Last season he attempted 393 passes and ran a whopping 120 times. Not surprisingly, he suffered a late-season knee injury that required reconstructive surgery. The Redskins believe he will be ready for the opener Monday night against the Eagles.

"You're taking advantage of all his assets, but you're shortening his career by putting him in harm's way,'' Sharpe said. "He got sacked [30] times and carried the ball another 100-plus times. You're asking a quarterback to take 150, 160 shots in a season? There's no way he can hold up for a 10-year career taking those kind of shots.''

For that reason, former Giant Phil Simms, a pocket passer during his NFL career, suggests there could be less emphasis on the read option because of the injury risk. That and the fact that today's more successful read-option quarterbacks still are young and need to adapt their style to enjoy long careers.

"Unless you're running 4.4 or maybe 4.5 [in the 40-yard dash], you might be able to do it for a few years,'' said Simms, the lead analyst for CBS. "But with quarterbacks, the No. 1 thing that they do is slow down in the NFL. They're never going to be in better physical running shape than their rookie year or second year. From there, they're going to work on being a quarterback. They're not going to train the way they did earlier in their career. One, because of age, and two, because it's too hard. So there are a lot of issues there.''

Simms also suggests that college defenses are catching up to read-option quarterbacks, a trend that eventually might translate to the NFL.

"I looked at many colleges [on tape] this offseason to watch all the quarterbacks,'' he said, "and I remember thinking, 'College [defenses] are killing the running quarterback. It was a non-factor.' So if colleges can stop it, I know the pros can.''

But can't a college coach such as Kelly, who enjoyed repeated success at Oregon, make it work in the NFL?

"How many times did Oregon line up against someone as good as them last year?'' Simms said. "Maybe once . . . maybe. It's just not as easy in the NFL.''

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