Don’t let the Harbaugh brothers divert your attention from a coaching matchup that will have a greater effect on the final outcome of Super Bowl XLVII — or, as we might eventually remember it, the first Super Bowl of the Quarterback Zone Read Era.
The quarterback zone-read option ascended to the NFL from the college ranks in 2011 and truly proliferated this season, becoming the league’s most impactful offensive trend. Those of us who closely watched Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s implementation of the concept can attest to that.
How fitting, then, that San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterback Colin Kaepernick will showcase the zone-read option on sport’s greatest stage against the once-vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense, coordinated by Dean Pees.
The concept’s staying power, though, doesn’t depend on how well it works in the Super Bowl. That already is established. The zone-read option might seem gimmicky to some, but isn’t going anywhere.
Not only is it effective at the highest level of NFL competition, as Kaepernick and 49ers running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James have proven in these playoffs, but it also increases the pool of potential quarterback prospects from which teams can choose.
The Redskins, who averaged a league-best 6.2 yards per play this season with the zone read as a fraction of their offense, are a fine starting point for any analysis. Shanahan’s quest last offseason to improve his unit amounted to a search for answers, he said. Whatever a defense tried to take away, he wanted a counterpunch.
The Redskins acquired Griffin, running back Alfred Morris and more talented receivers so they could diversify their attack. Shanahan built a successful running game that could respond to a defense that prioritized stopping the pass, and vice versa.
The zone-read option is a microcosm of that. The concept provides answers to a defense even as a play is developing.
In the most basic description, the zone-read option involves a quarterback, in the shotgun or pistol formation, handing off to a running back or keeping the ball to run. His choice depends on what the defensive end does.
If the end stays wide up the field, the quarterback should hand it off to the back running inside. If the end crashes down the line of scrimmage, the quarterback should keep it and run wide.
No matter what the defensive end does, the offense has an answer. And in the lightning-fast NFL, the hesitation, uncertainty and indecisiveness it causes defenders give offenses a significant advantage.
It has worked well for the 49ers in both of their playoff wins. Gore scored the NFC championship-winning touchdown last Sunday after Kaepernick read Atlanta defensive end John Abraham staying wide.
In San Francisco’s rout of Green Bay in the NFC divisional round, Kaepernick rushed for 56 of his record 181 yards on a zone-read keeper made possible by several defenders that incorrectly believed the running back had the ball.
Defensive coordinators — especially in the NFC, where Griffin, Kaepernick, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Carolina’s Cam Newton play — will spend this offseason devising adjustments. That will be difficult. When precisely executed, defenders end up accounting for — even pursuing — a player who doesn’t have the ball. It turns running plays into 11-on-11 instead of removing the quarterback from the play after the handoff.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinators and head coaches will scout college prospects with the potential to run it. The staying power of the zone-read option anchors even deeper because it provides a separate prototype for a successful NFL quarterback.
Suddenly, a team doesn’t need a 6-foot-4 passer with the accuracy of a laser and the arm strength of a cannon. Wilson is only 5-11. Griffin is 6-2. Kaepernick’s throwing mechanics are a bit awkward. All three run fast, though, and can throw well enough.
There still is a place for the dropback passer, such as Peyton Manning, but the zone-read option gives teams an alternative when searching for talent. And because so many college teams run it, prospects such as Griffin arrive in the NFL already schooled in the decision-making required.
That’s why Pees, Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, probably won’t sleep well before kickoff on Feb. 3.
His defense faced one zone-read team this season, the Redskins on Dec. 9, and surrendered 86 yards on 12 zone-read runs, an average of 7.2 yards per carry.
Griffin never kept the ball on a two-man zone-read option (although he did once on a triple-option play) because the Ravens’ outside linebackers were determined to stop him. They stayed wide and usually ran straight at the quarterback. That read prompted Griffin to hand off to backs Morris and Evan Royster.
Washington finished that 31-28 overtime win with 179 rushing yards on 35 carries. If the 49ers duplicate that production, we would add a Lombardi Trophy to the mounting evidence the zone-read option is here to stay.
• Rich Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.
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