The Fact-Based Truth About The Redskins' 2012 Offense
The Redskins’ 2012 offense was one of the most remarkable in team history. The Skins led the NFL in yards per play (6.17) and rushing yards per game (169.3), had a rookie quarterback in Robert Griffin III who led the league in yards per pass attempt (8.14) and yards per rush (6.8) and had a rookie running back in Alfred Morris who set a new single-season franchise rushing record (1,613 yards). And oh yeah, the Skins went from 3-6 to 10-6 and won their first NFC East title since 1999.
But there remains a lot of confusion and inaccuracy when it comes to discussion of the Skins’ 2012 offense, which made groundbreaking use of zone-read option plays out of the pistol formation. Below are five reminders regarding the Redskins’ 2012 offense:
1. Know your definitions and history.
The pistol is a formation in which the running back lines up four yards behind the quarterback, not beside him as is the case in the shotgun.
The pistol was created by then-Nevada head coach Chris Ault in 2004. He named the formation the pistol because a pistol is shorter than a shotgun. Quarterbacks who thrived in the pistol under Ault at Nevada included Colin Kaepernick, who put up monster numbers from 2007-10 and now is starring for the San Francisco 49ers.
The zone-read option offense 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 his “read,” which hinges 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 comes down the line of scrimmage, the quarterback should keep the ball and run wide. The “zone” in “zone-read” has to do with the offensive line zone blocking in one direction.
Rich Rodriguez is widely considered the inventor of the zone-read option offense. He developed it in 1991 while serving as the head coach of Glenville State, an NAIA school in West Virginia. Rodriguez then brought the offense to the FBS while serving as head coach Tommy Bowden’s offensive coordinator at Tulane (1997-98) and Clemson (1999-2000). The offense soon gained widespread use in college football.
2. The Skins didn’t just run zone-read-option plays out of the pistol.
The Skins ran the zone-read-option out of the pistol, but they also ran just about everything else out of the pistol, including the stretch-run plays that head coach Mike Shanahan is so famous for.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Skins in the 2012 regular season ran an NFL-high 82 percent of their option plays out of the pistol and an NFL-high 25 percent of their non-option plays out of the pistol, serving to disguise the tactic. This was the beauty of the pistol: the Skins could run just about anything out of it, and just the mere threat of RGIII as a runner became as significant as the running itself, especially on zone-read-option play-action passes (think the second-quarter 68-yard touchdown bomb to receiver Aldrick Robinson in the Thanksgiving win at Dallas).
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Skins had 128 option rushes out of the pistol during the 2012 regular season. The Skins totaled 519 rushes and 442 pass attempts, so you can see that the Skins’ offense was about much more than just the option in 2012.
3. What the Skins were doing wasn’t triple-option or spread-option football.
The Skins did run triple-option on occasion (most notably during the Week 3 loss to Cincinnati), but by no means was the triple-option a significant component of the Skins’ offense. That could change in 2013 if the Skins have a speedy running back to compliment Morris’ punishing style (remember, Roy Helu Jr. was placed on season-ending injured reserve last Sept. 26., and Evan Royster was not used much in 2012).
Spread-option, which involves spreading the field with three-to-five receivers, was used a lot by Seattle (which ran its zone-read almost exclusively out of the shotgun) but not the Skins (who ran their zone-read mostly out of the pistol with their base personnel). More from ESPN Stats & Information: 40 of the Seahawks’ 55 option rushes during the 2012 regular season came with three or more receivers on the field, the highest percentage in the NFL (minimum 30 plays). The Skins ran just 48 percent of their option plays with three or more receivers.
4. The Skins did not bring option offense to the NFL.
Option plays were used in the NFL on rare occasion for decades until 2011, when we saw option plays at sizable rates from Carolina (with then-rookie quarterback Cam Newton) and Denver (with then-second-year quarterback Tim Tebow).
The Skins lost at the Panthers, 33-20, in Oct. 2011. Skins head coach Mike Shanahan during his postgame press conference: “I gotta do a better job of getting these guys ready to play.” Shanahan during his interview with us on The Official Redskins Postgame Show on ESPN 980: “I told them I gotta do a better job of preparing them.” The comments seemed in reference to the Panthers’ option plays, including a third-quarter 16-yard zone-read-option touchdown run by Newton. I’ve often wondered how much this game influenced Shanahan to do what he did with RGIII.
The Skins did take option offense to another level in 2012. Off showing very little during the preseason, they hit the ground running with a number of zone-read option plays out of the pistol in a Week 1 win at New Orleans. The offense was so successful that the 49ers (with Kaepernick) and the Seahawks (with then-rookie quarterback Russell Wilson) made in-season modifications and began running option plays with extreme frequency.
5. The notion that the zone-read option puts a quarterback at greater risk is more debatable than many think.
If the quarterback doesn’t understand the basic concepts of the zone-read and is reckless and/or not smart, then, yes, that quarterback is going to get pummeled.
But if the quarterback is fast, consistently makes the proper reads in the zone-read and avoids hits by running out of bounds as soon as defenders near, then that quarterback should be able to avoid damaging hits.
RGIII’s two major injuries from the 2012 regular season (concussion in the Week 5 loss to Atlanta and Grade 1 sprain of the right LCL in the Week 14 overtime win over Baltimore) were suffered on scrambles on which he didn’t get out of bounds, not on option runs. After struggling in terms of taking hits on option plays early in the season, he was just fine after the Week 3 loss to the Bengals.
Additionally, you could argue RGIII’s safest pockets were those generated from the pistol off zone-read play-action, which on frequent occasion yielded wide-open pass catchers.
According to John Keim of The Washington Post in an article published on July 18, 2013, RGIII during the 2012 season "was hit 49 times out of 70 plays designed to use his ability to run - either zone-read options or quarterback keepers. Compare that with 18 hits on 50 scrambles beyond the line of scrimmage on passing plays and 85 hits on 423 plays when he was in the pocket or behind the line of scrimmage." What the article did not distinguish was the quality of these hits.
Prior to the 49ers’ 34-31 loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl 47, an ESPN “Numbers Never Lie” segment narrated by Michael Smith included the following: “Kaepernick’s only been touched six times on 55 option calls since becoming the starter…that includes zero hits on the 41 times he’s handed…off.”