Read option is back in NFL and better than ever

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The Panthers have dialed down their use of the option to simplify things for Newton, and the 49ers are giving opponents a new wrinkle to prepare for by using some pistol formations like the ones Kaepernick ran at the University of Nevada.

The Panthers added several new twists in the playbook during the offseason figuring opposing defenses would be better prepared to stop Newton, last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. But midway through the season, with Newton struggling to produce, coach Ron Rivera and his staff decided to scale back the playbook.

One of the things the Panthers did to help Newton was reduce the number of zone read option plays _ ones where Newton has to make a split-second decision on whether to run or handoff. It’s paid off in better performances over the last month.

“These last few weeks he has played like the guy that we believe he can become,” Rivera said.

Broncos coach John Fox, who’s enjoying watching the precise passer he now has in Peyton Manning, said quarterbacks are coming out of college bigger, faster and more athletic than ever before.

NFL teams will find ways to capitalize on all those attributes from scramblers too athletic to get hemmed in the pocket _ at least while they’re young, because eventually they’re all forced to rely more on their arm as age and ailments catch up.

“Most people don’t count on the quarterback being a viable option,” Fox said. “When you have that ability, it opens your run game. How long it will stay around, how long it will be? It’s legit. It creates problems.”

One problem for teams with the versatile quarterback, however, is that they are exposing $100 million investments and the most valuable player on their teams in the run game, where all protections for the passer are nullified. Once the QB commits to the run, opponents are free to smack him in the head, dive at his knees, throw him to the ground.

Fox said that doesn’t necessarily mean the read-option is more hazardous to their health.

“I can’t really say that because you expose the quarterback in the pocket passing probably more than any time,” Fox said, “because his eyes are down the field, he’s watching routes progress. So, remind people that that can expose a quarterback pretty heavily, as well. You just look at the numbers of quarterbacks lost through time in the pocket.”

Not just anyone can run the option, though.

“There’s no doubt when you’re asking him to run the ball he’d better be real fast or big enough to take hits,” Fox said. “That’s the fine line.”

In his last game as a Bronco, a 45-10 playoff loss at New England, Tebow played through rib, lung and chest injuries he sustained on a third-quarter tackle. (He’s recently been sidelined with broken ribs but said he’s not sure when he got hurt, only that it happened on offense and not in his role as a personal punt protector.)

Griffin, who’s listed at 217 pounds _ 28 pounds lighter than Newton _ took a beating earlier this season, and one reason was that he’s so good at pretending he still has the ball after handing it off, giving defenders freedom to clobber him. There were plays, said left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, that Griffin looked sprawled “like a question mark” on the field after a tackle.

The solution was to tone down the trickery, stop extending the fake after handing off and have him put his hands in the air instead. While that advice goes against years of coaching that says a quarterback should sell deception as long as possible, it’s helped reduce the number of hard hits the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has taken.

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