PHOENIX: Browns coach Rob Chudzinski introduced the read-option offense to the NFL, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if he’s reluctant to completely abandon his brainchild.
The scheme, after all, helped the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks earn playoff berths last season with young, inexperienced quarterbacks, and it played a significant role in Colin Kaepernick leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Although some dismiss it as a fad, Chudzinski believes in its staying power. But does he hope to incorporate it into the system he and offensive coordinator Norv Turner are bringing to the Browns or will he be forced to put it on the shelf and watch it collect dust?
“I’m not sure who the quarterback will be in Cleveland, but if he doesn’t have the running ability, you can believe they’re not going to do it,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who worked with Chudzinski the past four seasons, said Wednesday at the NFL owners meeting before it wrapped up. “Whereas if they do get a guy that has that kind of ability, then you can almost predict they’re going to do it.”
The Browns will hold a quarterback competition this offseason, and incumbent starter Brandon Weeden is the clear favorite at this point. The organization has yet to add to the position via free agency, and CEO Joe Banner insists the team’s brass is not focused on selecting a quarterback with the sixth overall pick in next month’s draft.
West Virginia University’s Geno Smith, though, will get a chance to sway the Browns when he conducts a private workout for them. Smith, the top-rated quarterback in the draft, is primarily labeled as a pocket passer, though he believes he has the ability to run the read option.
“I think that’s something I’ve always been capable of,” Smith said last month at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I think I have the skill set that fits any offense. I can play within the pocket, but I’m athletic enough to run that style of offense.”
Zone-read plays, though, certainly wouldn’t be the Browns’ bread and butter if Weeden emerges as the starter like they were when Chudzinski unveiled them in 2011 after the Panthers drafted quarterback Cam Newton first overall.
“Cam probably opened the doors for other guys and made people think it was feasible to run that offense and be able to do it and succeed in the NFL,” Chudzinski said.
The Panthers’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons, Chudzinski infused elements of Auburn University’s offense into his playbook, catering to Newton’s strengths and comfort zone during an offseason virtually wiped out by the NFL lockout. The innovative approach grabbed the attention of Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam as they searched for a coach in January.
“We were able to find the quarterback in Cam Newton that has that kind of ability, and I think part of it also is that having coaches with enough foresight to say: ‘Hey, we have a special talent here. Let’s play to his talents and abilities,’ ” said Rivera, who also worked with Chudzinski when they coached the San Diego Chargers. “And that was some of the things we did because when you go back you look at his tape from Auburn, and you see the things that he did and did well, it only made sense to do that.”
Chudzinski said he never thought about running zone read before Newton came along.
“Here’s a guy like a lot of college guys now, in the spread system, and haven’t been in pro-style systems, and there would be a time that they would need to be able to convert,” Chudzinski said. “If you want to get them on the field and get experience, you would have to transition them to be your standard pro-style quarterback. So there was a need to blend these offenses together so you can transition them. It hadn’t been done before.”
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is among those who believe the read option will fade as NFL defenses adjust.
“I think the read option is the flavor of the month,” Tomlin said. “We’ll see whether it’s the flavor of the year. A few years ago, people were talking wildly about the Wildcat. It’s less of a discussion now.
“I always take a skeptical approach. We’ll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit because when you run the read option, obviously they are runners and there’s something that’s associated with that.”
However, Chudzinski points out that it’s also dangerous for a quarterback to routinely drop back in the pocket and absorb hits. He’s a staunch defender of the read option, insists Turner would be receptive to using it because “he loves the innovative aspect of the game,” and is convinced it’s not some gimmick with an expiration date.
But is any discussion about the Browns and the read option a moot point as long as they have the same quarterbacks they have now?
“We’ll have to see,” Chudzinski said with a smile.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.