When the Cleveland Browns traded for quarterback Seneca Wallace in March, connoisseurs of option offenses at the NFL level started wondering what the Browns might be up to from a playbook perspective. Cleveland already has receiver/return man Josh Cribbs, a Kent State quarterback who became the most dominant special teams weapon in the game and was the pointman in the speed-option and reverse schemes the Browns called their "Flash" packages through the last few years. Wallace had been a true quarterback at Iowa State and had taken that designation to the NFL level, but there were those in the Seattle Seahawks' front office (including former head coach Mike Holmgren) who were so impressed with Wallace's athleticism, the thought was that Wallace could post double duty as a receiver and return man – not unlike Cribbs. When injuries to starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck made Wallace indispensable at his preferred position, the other ideas faded away. But now that Wallace is one of two hybrid offensive players on a team whose quarterback situation – both present and future – is very much in flux, it seems wise to expect different schematic creativity from a backfield that might feature Wallace and Cribbs at times.
Soon after the Miami Dolphins introduced the Wildcat to the NFL in early 2008, the Browns started using Cribbs more and more in thoise quick option looks. Ofcourse, this was nothing new – from the old single-wing to the Vick speed option in Atlanta, teams have used this kind of trickeration to set defenses on their heels and dominate the pace of the game. When the Browns upset the New York Giants, 35-14, in October of 2008, these option plays were very much in evidence.
With just under a minute elapsed in the second half and the ball at the New York 46, Derek Anderson played himself as the quarterback, with Cribbs as the sweeper from the left slot. Fullback Lawrence Vickers was lined up as the H-back, and running back Jerome Harrison lined up wide right. At the snap, Anderson handed off to Cribbs on the sweep, but then Cribbs pitched to Harrison, who was coming the other way, after taking a quick option read. As the G-Men pushed their defense in Cribbs' direction, thinking that they had the Wildcat foiled, Harrison had a clear enough path on the left sideline for a 33-yard gain, down to the Giants 13-yard line. That was a simple reverse, which could be expanded with what Wallace brings to the table. In Seattle last year, ex-offensive coordinator Greg Knapp tried to set up what he called "Senecat" packages to get Wallace involved in the types of plays Miami was using with great success. But what Knapp failed to understand is that the Wildcat requires great blocking (one reason that the Browns are pretty well set up to do it), and Seattle's offensive line had been decimated by injuries and bad personnel decisions. But there were a couple of examples in which Trick plays involving Wallace worked – one in the Seahawks' 2009 opener, and one in the season finale.
Against the St. Louis Rams in Week 1, the Seahawks lined up at their own 40-yard line with 3:55 left in the first quarter. Wallace took the shotgun snap on what looked like an offset pistol formation, with fullback Justin Griffith in motion and Hasselbeck split wide. Whenever you see a quarterback split wide, it's a good sign that a Wildcat derivative is coming. The Rams, acting very much like the 1-15 team they turned out to be, didn't adjust. They stayed in their base 4-3. At the snap, Hasselbeck took a couple steps back and caught a backward pass from Wallace. With the linebackers in their coverages, Hasselbeck threw back to Wallace, who was then able to dart outside for a 24-yard gain. This opens up defenses on the same misdirection principle that was used in Cleveland's successful reverse against the Giants, and I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar from the Cribbs/Wallace combo.
The Week 17 play came on first-and-10 with 11:28 left in the second quarter, and the Seahawks on the Tennessee 49. With the team at 5-10 and about to lose their eleventh game of the season, the Seahawks had little to loose and were experimenting with some empty backfield sets. This play was something you might see out of a mid-major trying to upset Alabama (which, from an overall talent perspective, wouldn't have been too far off the mark). This play had a few similar ingredients; the quarterbacks were just reversed. Both plays featured short shotgun sets, playside blocks in space form Griffith, and line pulls to help with the force defender. In this case, the empty backfield set the Titans in a 4-2 nickel, and receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh flew up the seam at the snap. This time, Wallace didn't pass the ball back as Hasselbeck did to him in the first play – he ran upfield to get free of the defense and hit Houshmandzadeh for a 17-yard gain.
The Browns already have the pieces in place for plays like these. If they want to split Lawrence Vickers wide and have him help in space, Vickers is one of the best blocking backs in the league. Eric Steinbach and Joe Thomas are each agile enough to get outside and help with the blocking. To match Wallace's speed with Cribbs' (Hasselbeck is more mobile in the traditional quarterback sense) is where the new wrinkles could come in. Under the right circumstances, certain plays could be almost impossible to defend. And that's what option plays are all about – getting your best players in situations that minimize personnel liabilities and allow for creative solutions. It will be very interesting to see what the Browns do with this.