Commentary

Options routes require smarts, instincts

Originally Published: October 30, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Analyzing the NFL is often about glamorizing the mundane and intellectualizing the simple. Sounds bad, but it's true.

Basic tasks that are executed correctly, like a running back's "vision" to find a hole -- isn't the ability to not run into other people a fundamental tenet of society, not just football? -- are celebrated. I'm guilty, I admit it. And so, describing one of this season's most unstoppable pass patterns -- the option route -- comes down to praising a receiver's ability to pick between these two incredibly difficult options:

Turn right.

Turn left.

That's all an option route is: The receiver, usually from the slot, runs upfield and has the option to cut in or out, depending where the defense is and isn't. You see it run every week. In theory, the benefit of the route is that the receiver is always open. After all, says Pats coach Bill Belichick, "You're not running to get covered."

Easy as it seems, it can get tricky. Option routes are typically run at short ranges, into an area occupied by linebackers and safeties. The best option route-runners -- New England's Wes Welker, Denver's Brandon Stokley, Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, Baltimore's Derrick Mason and Seattle's T.J. Houshmandzadeh, to name a few -- stretch that area to create extra space.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireThe ability to adjust on the fly makes Wes Welker one of the best at the option route.

That's why during a game option routes are never run the same way twice. Sometimes the receiver runs across the field. Sometimes he stops in a zone. Sometimes, he does the latter, then the former.

"When there's a hole," says Eagles receiver Jason Avant, "the best route is to just go get it."

The primary defense to stopping option routes is not blanketing every area but confusing the receiver. For instance, Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph messes with receivers by running a step or two with them in a zone coverage, making them think it's man-to-man. Or for a moment he covers the flat as if in a Cover 2, then backpedals to the deep third of the field in a Cover 3.

"If everyone in the secondary is on the same page," he says, "you can confuse receivers just enough."

But sometimes it doesn't matter. Against the Cowboys in 2007, Welker ran upfield and cut out as a setup to slice back inside. But when he cut, he noticed safety Ken Hamlin hustling from the secondary to cover the inside space -- to "bracket" Welker. So the wideout turned his option into a post, and was open by 10 yards when QB Tom Brady found him for a touchdown.

"Wes is such a smart player because he can do those types of things at full speed," Brady says.

There's not a lot of precision on that route. Quarterbacks have to react to what the receiver does. Problem is, timing still matters. The ball still has to be there as the receiver breaks. That's prompted a shift in how quarterbacks anticipate. For the past 30 years, the West Coast offense has groomed accurate passers by virtue of receivers being in specific places at specific times.

The repetition of defined throws turned average players like Matt Hasselbeck into stars, and gifted passers like Joe Montana and Brett Favre into Hall of Famers. But with receivers now running left or right rather than exact routes, quarterbacks have to find more creative hints telling them to throw.

For example, on Pittsburgh's option route -- called 2 Way Go -- Ward can break left or right at 4, 6, 8 or 14 yards. In the span of one-and-a-half to two seconds, how does Ben Roethlisberger know when Ward is going to cut?

"He waits for Hines' hips to drop," says offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

"Accuracy is all about technique and decisiveness," says Brady, who this year leads the NFL with 159 passes between 1-10 yards, according to Football Outsiders. "You have to use proper technique, and then have confidence that you and the receiver are seeing it the same way."

There aren't many options to forge that type of connection. Practice is the only way. That's why offseasons are packed with OTAs (organized team activities), passing camps, minicamps and every possible excuse to be on the field.

"You just have to rep this stuff over and over," says Falcons QB Matt Ryan. "That's really the only way."

Because -- hate to say it -- turning left or right isn't as easy as it looks.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.