Like all things, the NFL is constantly evolving. At its core remains the conventional philosophy that it is a league dominated by accurate pocket-passing, but over the last decade or so, strange variations of the running game, variations the collective football community initially associated closer to the college game, have seeped into the professional ranks and have officially become trendy.
It only makes sense that the read-option would find its way into the NFL. Thanks to the pervasive coaching of the spread offense in high-school and college, the emphasis has rightly been on speed. At first, it seemed designed to get quick receivers into open space, but naturally speedy quarterbacks began to see the field open up and allow for easy rushing totals. Once defenses keyed on quarterbacks leaving the pocket in spread formations, the running back was freed up on the delay hand-off, utilizing the overzealous pursuit of frustrated linemen.
Now RGIII has bloomed into the perfected model of the quarterback mutation, able to run and pass on a seemingly elite level. He capitalized on that moment's hesitation by defenders as he shoved the ball into Alfred Morris' gut, leaving the opposition to guess which one would end up with it in the end. It made for a terrific rookie season for Robert Griffin III, made Morris into a surprising Pro-Bowl player, and got the Skins into the Playoffs.
Others, of course, have cropped up along with Griffin as read-option threats. Colin Kaepernick rolled the Niners to the Super Bowl last year, Russel Wilson led his team to great success, and while Cam Newton had a trying year, he remains one of the most gifted athletes in the league. Even the Bears have expressed an interest to see Jay Cutler run it next season.
The Cincinnati Bengals are typically ones to take a more struthious approach and do their best to ignore all trends. Yet this season, they allowed their backup quarterback to return to his native Pittsburgh and found a replacement full of wonder and intrigue. Josh Johnson in many ways, is a rather prototypical read-option QB. He has excellent maneuverability, is shifty in the open field,has good size and a rocket arm. He adds an unusual dynamic for defenses and seems unlike almost any other Bengals quarterback I can think of.
On the other hand, he is a backup for a reason.
Johnson has only started five games and has never won any. After his old college coach, Jim Harbaugh, cut him last preseason in San Francisco, he went football-less until the Browns signed him Week 17 once Weeden and McCoy were both hurt. Even then, Cleveland opted to start someone named Thaddeus Lewis instead, and Johnson recorded no stats in the 2012 season.
He is generally inefficient in the passing game. Most of his drawbacks are standard problems for inexperienced signal-callers and are correctable errors: he telegraphs his passes, does not direct traffic well before the snap, lets the play clock run down too often, has trouble going through his progression in the pocket, throws sloppy off of his back foot in the face of pressure, tries to make too much out of a play when there is nothing there, lacks touch on the ball, his receivers drop a lot of his passes, and there are often a lot of tipped balls at the line of scrimmage.
Jay Gruden knows Johnson from the year they shared in Tampa in 2008 and probably has a good handle of what the guy can and can't do. Gruden has already talked about using him in the read-option too.
"We ran it maybe one or two times last year," Gruden told Geoff Hobson from Bengals.com. "We'll see how it goes and where everyone is, but you could definitely see Josh doing some of that. The zone read certainly gets the numbers in favor of the offense. It's good to be able to show something a little different if he was your No. 2 and he had to go into the game. The big thing he has to do is get the basics of what we do first, and then it may be kind of fun to look at."
Gruden is not one to shy away from gadgetry in regards to his playcalling and having a "fun" package for Johnson sounds cutting edge, damn exciting, and atypically Bengal. If this actually ever happens is perhaps another story (or no story at all, I guess), because we all know Marvin Lewis ultimately controls the reigns on all of his horses, but if it's working other places, there's no reason to think it won't work here. Or is there?
Having the appropriate quarterback for the read-option is great, but like Rob Base once said, it takes two to make a thing go right, and the other member involved in the play is the running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a serviceable back whose greatest strength is reliability. He surprised myself and others by busting some longer runs in the middle of the season, but by and large, explosive is rarely listed on his scouted report. There was lots of assumption that the Bengals would bring in another veteran tailback to at least compliment the Law Firm if not challenge for a starting spot outright, but the team clearly has other plans and merely sniffed at a few candidates in free agency. As it is, Green-Ellis hardly seems like the right fit for a read-option scheme as it requires field vision and patience when running to the outside; skills not found in his own set. If a back with these qualities is added in the draft, the playbook could really spread out and include a variety of looks. Oh, the possibilities!
Another key component to the success of the play is the quarterback's ability to recognize when to keep it and when to handoff-the word "read" is not included by accident. Any hesitation or mental breakdown could easily lead to a disastrous turnover. There are definitely concerns in regards to Johnson's comfort with the pro game and while he has flashed his upside on many occasions when he's had the chance, he also shows how tenuous the position can be as he is prone to irreparable catastrophe-plays.
For just a backup quarterback, Johnson has a ton of interesting qualities and the idea of mixing him into game plans each week sounds exciting, but if Andy Dalton where to go down and force Johnson in as the starter for any meaningful stretch, that same excitement would become nervousness and anxiety. The football world watched Joe Webb quietly implode in the Wild-Card game in Green Bay as he was unable to get any true passing attack in order. So while Johnson seems like an upgrade to Bruce Gradkowski and can be a sleek new toy for Gruden to play with, Andy Dalton remains the smart money and as long as Marvin is in charge, he will always favor the smart money. Look for Johnson to make his appearances, but expect them to be rare.