So, they're going back to the classroom.
After being gutted for 579 yards by Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional playoffs, Packers coach Mike McCarthy announced on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine that he'll be sending his defensive coaches to Texas A&M to learn the finer points of the read-option and pistol schemes so expertly piloted by Kaepernick.
"Definitely there's a lot of conversation about the read option – rightfully so," McCarthy said. "579, that's a number that will stick in our focus as a defense throughout the offseason."
Along with a tutorial from A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, whose quarterback, Johnny Manziel, won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, McCarthy said he'd be bringing in a couple coaches from the college ranks to speak to his defensive staff.
McCarthy isn't the only coach taking large measures to devise ways to stop the latest offensive wrinkle. New Arizona coach Bruce Arians said he hired a coach, former Delaware defensive coordinator Nick Rapone, because of his experience facing the pistol and option schemes.
"Give them credit," Arians said of the offensive success of two of the Cardinals' NFC West rivals, the 49ers with Kaepernick and the Seahawks with Russell Wilson. "That will be the emphasis in everyone's defensive room in the offseason and (they will) do a big study. One of the things we did, I hired a defensive coordinator from college who's dealt with it. He's got some good ideas on it. I think everyone is going to be going to the colleges, rather than the colleges coming to the pros, as far as information on how to handle it."
The big question is whether the read-option scheme is here to stay. Opinions were mixed, but the prevailing sentiment indicates most coaches think it's more of a fad than the next big thing.
"Give the defensive coordinators of the NFL some credit," Arians said. "They will have some time to study this trend that is happening. I'm not a believer in putting my quarterback in harm's way. I believe a lot of harm will come to him. I'm more of a traditionalist."
On the other hand, new Chargers coach Mike McCoy was Denver's offensive coordinator when passing-impaired Tim Tebow led the Broncos to a playoff win over Pittsburgh. McCoy thinks the system could have staying power because clubs don't have the personnel on their scout teams to provide a proper look.
"It creates a lot of problems for the defense," McCoy said. "It's not something they see every day in practice. The teams that don't have those type of players, it causes them some issues on Sundays. You got to play disciplined football. As we did two years ago, if you get out of place, the guy reads it the wrong way, that's when you saw Tim make some big runs. Or they overplay Tim, you saw Willis McGahee going for 20 yards inside. The way guys are playing it right now, it's going to cause some headaches for time to come."
Standing somewhere in the middle was Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose defense couldn't stop the Seahawks or 49ers in the playoffs.
"I know that I vetted our coaching staff to make sure that we are going to spend a whole lot of time because it could be the wave of the future," he said. "I'm not saying that it will be, but that it could be. More and more college teams are running that style of offense and you're going to have to be prepared to play it."
For all of the success by Kaepernick and Wilson, new Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman pointed to this: 10 of the 12 teams in the playoffs this season featured true pocket passers at quarterback.
"At the end of the day, the quarterback has to make plays from the pocket," he said. "I think the read option is an option, exactly what you called it. But at the end of the day, your quarterback has got to make plays from the pocket and if he can't you're going to struggle."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he'd be running less option with Cam Newton because of his team's late-season success in a more traditional offense featuring power running and play-action passing.
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who has built a lasting defense with the Steelers, wasn't about to rethink his draft criteria in response to the option game.
"It obviously has been successful," he said. "Where it will go and how successful it will be, I can't say. Systems come and go and success of a system will dictate changes defensively. It may fade away, it may not, you can't really trend where it will stick. All I know is, it was successful this year. If we have to play a team that utilizes that system, we have to be prepared for it. But you don't necessarily draft, at least we won't, to play a particular scheme."
Even McCarthy sensed the read-option might be the flavor of the day after coordinators like Dom Capers get a few months to sink their teeth into it.
"I know when I go through experiences like this I remember a conversation with a coach I had great respect for, Jimmy Raye, (who) I think he's coached in this league for 100 years, played in the league," McCarthy said of the 45-year NFL veteran. "I remember he told me in 1993, ‘Football is a cycle. You're going to see things go in this league or out of this league and in college football.' It's very important to stay on the front side of that cycle. The teams that do, like San Francisco had the success this year, they obviously benefit from it. You stay true to your preparation."
For McCarthy, that preparation means learning from coaches who have seen the option for several years.
"It's about getting better, it's about improvement, and we need to do a better job stopping the read-option. That's definitely something we're focused on," McCarthy said.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.