By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
The offense of the future: On display in Sunday’s Super Bowl 47 will be the new breed of quarterback -- San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. The Baltimore Ravens haven't seen the likes of him in the AFC North Division.
The second-year thrower-runner from Nevada-Reno has only nine career NFL starts, making him greener than the outstanding 2012 class of rookie QBs who took their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin 3 and Russell Wilson got all the pub this year, but Kaepernick, who deposed starter Alex Smith in Week 10, is the last of the new breed standing.
After winning five of his seven starts, the lithe and lethal Kaepernick reached a higher level in the playoffs. In a 45-31 win over Green Bay, Kaepernick accounted for four touchdowns on 263 yards passing and an NFL playoff-record 181 yards running.
When Atlanta obsessed with stopping Kaepernick’s running in the NFC Championship Game by clamping down the perimeter, Kaepernick astutely handed off to back Frank Gore, who smash-mouthed it inside. Coordinator Greg Roman then played off Gore’s running for some efficient passing from Kaepernick in making up a 17-0 deficit in a 28-24 win to qualify for the Super Bowl.
The core of San Francisco’s brilliant offensive scheme is a physical offensive line. But Kaepernick’s ability to execute the zone read option – in which he plays off the defensive end’s lead to either hand off to Gore or run it outside himself – while also impaling receivers with accurately thrown BBs makes him the state-of-the-art quarterback.
Add in Kaepernick’s adeptness in the pistol formation – four yards behind center with one or two backs behind him – and you have a formidable challenge for the Baltimore defense.
Fad or trend?: Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the former Kent State head coach, was the guinea pig at the onset of the last great NFL offensive fad – the Wildcat. He was New England’s D-coordinator when the Miami Dolphins sprung the Wildcat on the Patriots in the third game of the 2008 season. The Dolphins used the formation – running back Ronnie Brown lining up as a shotguan quarterback with back Ricky Williams beside him -- for six plays and produced five touchdowns.
“That was fun,” Pees said to me, sardonically. “Then the next time, we played it great.”
The Wildcat flamed out in two years. The zone read option, operated out of the pistol, will have more staying power, Pees said.
“With the wildcat, eventually everybody figured out how to play the run because there really was no pass involved,” Pees said. “The difference now is the guy behind center can run it and can throw it. It’s a whole different deal.
“I think what’s happening, so many colleges are running (the zone read) so your top quarterbacks in the draft are guys that are coming from this offense. If that’s who you’re drafting, then you want to put them in the best spot to succeed.
“The problem now, you face these quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Kaepernick, these guys can throw, too. So you can’t just sit there and stack everybody against the run. He’ll throw it over your head. Plus he’s got (Michael) Crabtree, (Randy) Moss and (Vernon) Davis. Those guys can run down the field.”
The future: San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said, “It’s possible that (the zone read) is here to stay. I don’t make any predictions on that. I think that it’s been successful for us because of the players that we have executing it.”
The pistol formation allows Kaepernick enough room behind the line of scrimmage to read the defense and either hand the ball to the running back, run with it himself or pull up and throw.
“It’s a very complementary offense for him,” Pees said. “They have their running game and they’ve done a good job of putting the routes and concepts together. Basically off play-action, you get the linebackers to step up, he’s gonna hit one behind you. And he’s very accurate.”
The zone read out of the pistol formation helped RG3 and Wilson take their teams to the playoffs as rookies. Newton has thrived in it in two seasons under coordinator Rob Chudzinski, now the Browns coach.
Pees makes a few points. One is in order to run that style of offense, you need a quarterback who was schooled in it in college. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And the quarterback has to be equally adept at running and throwing.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is the antithesis of Kaepernick. Flacco is an old-school, dropback quarterback with a majestic arm that never goes out of vogue.
He’s not necessarily envious of Kaepernick’s ability to execute the read option.
“Eventually I think you’re going to see them become more of pocket passers, because that’s the only way they’re going to survive for a 10-plus year period of time in a 16-game season,” Flacco said to me. “I think over the long run you’re just gonna see guys getting beat up. (The zone read) will be just a switch up for them.
“There’s definitely an advantage of having a running quarterback that can also throw the ball. But at the end of the day, you need a quarterback. That means making decisions in the pocket, taking care of the football, and all of that. I think that’s probably what’s held up over time.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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