On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers managed to shutout the New York Jets, winning 34-0 and improving to 3-1 on the season. The offense got off to a sluggish start, until they rolled out the read option (not the wildcat) with both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. There was a point in which they 49ers ran three or four option plays on one drive, plus a wide receiver reverse (with some tasty triple option thrown in), and it ended up netting them over 60 yards and a touchdown.
So now people are going wild over the read option, talking about what it means for the 49ers going forward and some other stuff about some kind of offensive resurgence. But first, let's take a step back while I answer some of your most pressing un-asked questions. Read on.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WILDCAT? - OK folks, it's time to put this misuse to bed. You can't just go around calling it something that it really is not, so let's get this straight. Until one of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, Bruce Miller, or Anthony Dixon take a direct snap with the option of throwing a pass or something along those lines, it's not a "Wildcat." When Colin Kaepernick is under center, he's generally running what is called the "Read Option." Get it right, children!
OK, SO WHAT'S WITH ALL THE "READ OPTION" THIS WEEK, SMART GUY? - It's nothing new for the 49ers. They've had all of those plays in the playbook since the beginning, this is just the first game that it made sense to really run. It's fun to say that the 49ers just wanted to out-Tebow the Jets, but really, it can be broken down into why it didn't make sense against each team:
- It wouldn't work against the Green Bay Packers because they're so active with their defensive backs. Secondary blitzes can absolutely wreck the read option if the read portion is less-than decisive. Charles Woodson and the rest of them blitzed on multiple occasions, and we would have seen Kaepernick and Co. planted firmly on their backs.
- It wouldn't work against the Detroit Lions because they don't care about the run at all and they're so aggressive. For San Francisco, it's fair to say that the primary option in the read option is to run the football, and while they certainly would net one or two big plays, Detroit is so good at swarming, that it's unlikely the offense would have been able to pop on multiple misdirections and things of that nature.
- It wouldn't work against the Minnesota Vikings because, much like the Lions, they're a swarming team. If the 49ers are forced to pass it more and more on the read option, it's not likely to end well. Neither Smith nor Kaepernick are the most decisive quarterbacks once the ball is snapped, and Jim Harbaugh's philosophy is all about playing to the team's strengths.
SO WHY WAS IT WORKING AGAINST THE JETS? - It was working against the Jets because they are, at their core, a poor run-defending team. Maybe it was a staple in years past, but teams showed through the first three weeks that the Jets don't move sideline-to-sideline very well, and that they haven't been decisive or strong tacklers.
SO IS THERE A QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY IN SAN FRANCISCO? - No, and that's really just a stupid question. Sure, the 49ers didn't trade up in the draft to bring in a guy to run their read option for anywhere from one to 10 plays per game, but Alex Smith really is a much better quarterback than we thought he was pre-draft. The best thing the 49ers can do is make sure that pick isn't wasted and get Kaepernick on the field, but he's not taking snaps from Smith so much as he is supplementing the offense.
BUT.. - No. There is literally no argument for taking Kaepernick over Smith at this point in their careers and the season. Stop it.
HOW MUCH WILD--.. READ OPTION IS TOO MUCH? - Once you bust it out four or five times on a single drive, you generally want to save it for a little while. You'll notice San Francisco started doing plays that were fake read options, where Smith made it look as though he were considering a run, or a handoff, or a pitch, but really had his eyes on his receivers. That's the proper way to handle it. San Francisco manages to keep it fresh thanks to the fact that they naturally boast personnel packages with plenty of moving parts, with or without the read option thrown in.
SHOULD WE EXPECT MORE OF IT GOING FORWARD? - It depends on what you mean by "more." Should we expect to see it that much in a single game going forward? Probably not, but as players like Kendall Hunter and Colin Kaepernick get more comfortable at the NFL level with the ball in their hands, the option will become a more reliable set of plays for San Francisco to use. Look for them to give the Buffalo Bills a healthy dose of it at home, but don't be surprised if Harbaugh and Greg Roman try and throw their opponents off by not running it at all.