Cosell Talks: The Option, Tebow and Cam

Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Greg Cosell, Inside the Game, Ramblings and Rants

This season, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton have inspired me to think a little differently about the infinite possibilities of an NFL offense. Though the sample of their NFL work is far too small to draw any definitive conclusions – despite, in Tebow’s case, the media frenzy to the contrary – these two players’ performances compel new consideration of offensive concepts and quarterback play.

Before Tebow made his first 2011 start back in late October, the Panthers, with Newton, had already incorporated option elements into their offense. Against the Saints on the season’s fourth Sunday, DeAngelo Williams ran 69 yards for a touchdown on an option play. Two weeks later, against Washington, Newton scored on a 16 yard read-option run that clearly deceived the Redskins defense.

Watching these plays on tape, I was struck by two aspects of the option: the number of dimensions it provided an offense, and, the stress and pressure it put on a defense. “Dimensions” is the critical word. NFL coaches know that a multi-dimensional attack is difficult for the opposition to prepare for and defend, so generally, in preparing their own offensive schemes, most coaches strive for variety. That is, a diverse run game, and a complete pass game with short, intermediate and vertical capabilities.

What the option and its many permutations add to the equation is a healthy dose of deception, by prompting the need to defend the quarterback as a potential runner. The deception element creates constant conflict for defenders, who when they don’t trust what they’re seeing, hesitate, become tentative, and fall a step behind the offense.

This deficiency of reaction time is especially glaring right now while there is still a novelty element to the option in the NFL. That’s important when measuring the early success of Tebow and Newton. The concepts these two quarterbacks are executing are new to defenses, which are adjusting even as they play Carolina and Denver. Certainly as they see more option, defensive coaches will amend their schemes. But then Broncos’ offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Panthers’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski will respond with more wrinkles and variations. The tactical chess match will continue to evolve.

With this evolution in mind, the long term NFL viability of the option becomes the question. First consider that consistent high level quarterback play in the NFL has always demanded particular physical and mental attributes: accuracy from the pocket; the ability to throw with timing and anticipation, to pull the trigger before the receiver comes out of his break; the poise to make throws with bodies around you in what we call a “muddied” pocket; the ability to move within the pocket and maintain downfield focus and then deliver the football; the willingness to make stick throws into tight windows, especially in critical long yardage situations. In today’s advanced game, with multiple personnel groupings and hybrid defensive alignments and blitz concepts, the pre snap phase has also become increasingly vital in consistently playing the position well.

Are these traits that have conventionally distinguished high level quarterback play less necessary for option quarterbacks? And as a corollary, will the burdens that option attacks place on defenses create less demanding throws for those option quarterbacks? My years of film study tell me the answers are: no, and once in a while.

The option will not dramatically change the quarterback position in the NFL. Certainly new concepts and ideas, as evidenced presently by this season’s wide array of option elements, will always find a place in the league. But throwing the ball from the pocket will remain the decisive barometer by which to evaluate quarterbacks. The hypothesis that you can play top level quarterback in the NFL unconventionally — that is, in the absence of specific necessary passing skills — is, at its core, flawed.

It follows then, that Tebow will not overcome his deficiencies as a passer to become a consistent, top flight NFL quarterback (and he’s not close to that level now) simply because he’s a determined, single-minded competitor who’s driven to win. Those attributes sound nice on Twitter and Facebook. The reality is he must further develop the physical attributes and skills that define his position in order to become a dependable and consistent quarterback.

To his credit, Tebow has thrown much more effectively from the pocket in his last two games – wins over Minnesota and Chicago – than he had previously. And not only did he exhibit some of the necessary passing attributes discussed above, he did so in critical game situations. What he essentially did was supplement his abilities as a runner out of the option with more elements of conventional quarterback play, the only kind that enables a quarterback to succeed consistently in the NFL.

The careers of Tebow and Newton have just begun. Right now, Newton is a far more advanced NFL quarterback than Tebow, but the road for both will have many more turns and detours before any kind of final judgment can be rendered. All that’s certain is that both quarterbacks will continue to give their own teams many options and force opposing defenses to expand their thinking.

Editor’s Note: NFL Films’ Greg Cosell is the Executive Producer of NFL Matchup, which premieres a new episode every Sunday morning on ESPN (7:30 am) and ESPN2 (8:30 am).

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