Introduction: Flexbone Option Offense
This first series of articles I will be writing will be more college oriented and go over one of my favorite offenses, the flexbone option or what many people refer to as “the triple option.” This offense is the direct decendent of the wishbone that ran rampant across college football in the 70’s and early 80’s. The flexbone is really the exact same offense, but the halfbacks are now aligned as slot-backs, which give the offense four vertical passing threats, a spread element, and more misdirection opportunities. Many will tell you the offense is specifically designed for smaller and weaker players, especially on the O-line. That may be so, but there is nothing stopping a team with NFL caliber linemen and All American backs from running it either. It can be viable with just about any group of players as long as it is properly installed, coached, and executed.
The current ambassador of the offense is no doubt Paul Johnson, the head coach at Georgia Tech, but many credit Fisher DeBerry (Air Force head coach from 1984-2006), as the pioneer of the offense. Today, the most notable teams running the offense are Georgia Tech, Army, and Navy, who are all under the Paul Johnson coaching tree. For simplicity and easy use of terminology, this series will focus on the Paul Johnson version of the offense. I have a link to one of his playbooks from when he was coaching Georgia Southern linked below.
This offense revolves around the inside veer (triple option). Additional plays are designed to compliment or mirror the inside veer and to attack where the inside veer cannot. The goal is to use minimal formations and plays and to have multiple adjustments to the few plays they run. There are six core plays in this offense: Inside veer, midline, zone dive, rocket toss, counter option, and veer pass. Each play attacks a different area of the field. If one play isn’t successfully attacking an area, teams do not search for a new play to attack that area. They just tweak and adjust the current one. Military-like discipline and stubbornness is required for this offense. Many says it is because the offense is easier for smaller players, but it’s the strict disciplinary style of this offense that really allows it to fit in with the military academies so well. There are two quotes I like that sum up this offense’s philosophy: “Fear the Veer!” and “Four or more.” The second quote means that as long as the offense can get four yards per play, they don’t have to worry about fourth down and they’ll always score.
Formation and alignment
The base formation utilizes a balanced double slot/double wing formation. This is so the defense cannot dictate a strong or weak-side, and gives the offense the potential to run all plays in either direction. The base formation, or what Paul Johnson terms as his “spread” formation consists of two split ends, two slot-backs, known as A-backs, and a fullback, known as the B-back who lines up 4-4.5 yards behind the QB.
The offensive line sets up in a way that isn’t really seen in the NFL. The splits are three feet wide (most of your NFL teams use one to two foot splits). There are many reasons for this. First, the wide splits put defenders that are reads/keys on options farther from the QB, giving him more time to read. Second, the wide splits create hard angles so that offensive linemen can block down on defenders easier to seal them inside. Third, the splits help to push backside defenders farther from the play so they cannot chase the play down as easily. The offensive line is also farther back from the line than most other offenses; about as far back as a lineman can legally be. The rule is ear-hole of helmets should be even with the center’s hips. This makes it harder for defenses to stunt (because they unwind in front of the O-line), and it helps linemen trying to get to the linebacker level by allowing them more space to arc or step inside of defensive linemen that may be covering them.
I like to think of this offense more like a four-WR offense than a three back offense. While it is indeed a three back offense, the slot-backs are more similar to wide receivers or small scat backs or slot receivers than true tailbacks. The best NFL examples I can think of to play slot-back are Darren Sproles and Wes Welker. The B-back is the featured running back in this offense. An Adrian Peterson or Eddie Lacy would probably play this position. If this offense cannot get the B-back yards, the entire offense tends to struggle. The split ends tend to be larger and slower receivers, but have great hands that the QB can rely on in a third and long situation. Demaryius Thomas is a prototypical WR for this offense, and of course he played for Johnson at Georgia Tech. If I were to compile a dream-team for this offense though, my pick for split end would definitely be Calvin Johnson.
A mistake many people make is thinking that you need a track star at QB. That couldn’t be farther form the truth. The only thing you lose without a fast QB is being able to outrun the defense on long runs when the QB keeps the ball. What is needed athletically is more on the shifty side rather than the fast side. Outside of that, toughness and willingness to hit are the #1 natural abilities a QB for this offense needs. Brains comes next, because even though they aren’t dissecting coverages like Peyton Manning does, they need to be able to make very fast split-second decisions on the fly that will almost certainly result in them getting hit or not. The offense is heavily reliant on audibles as well, and QB’s in this offense often have a lot of freedom with changing plays and making calls. If I had to pick any NFL QB today to run this offense, it’d be Russell Wilson. I like him because of his shorter stature and his calmness. Very tall and lanky QB’s tend to not fit this system really well, regardless of their speed.
In an NFL system, or in a more conventional offense, your tackles are the biggest and the strongest players on the line and protect the QB. Then your guards are smaller and quicker for run blocking, pulling, etc. In the flexbone, the roles are opposite. You want smaller and faster tackles because they often have to slip by defensive ends and reach linebackers and defensive backs. The guards need to be big and strong, because most of the time they have to drive block and double team on defensive tackles. The center can has more wiggle room in terms of size and strength but he must be extremely explosive coming off the line, since he’s often climbing to linebackers or cutting a nose guard. He, like in any system, also has to be extremely smart because he has to make a lot of the O-line’s calls. This is one of the few systems where you’ll see offensive linemen using four point stances as well. The explosiveness off the line on run plays is key for this offense, so most of the time the linemen have a heavy forward lean. On pass plays, they often cut block or slide rather than retreat to help compensate for this.
For play-calling, Paul Johnson uses an if-then method. If the defense does this, he will call that. If the defense does that, he will call this. It’s a very simple system especially with only around 6-10 plays in the core arsenal. Play callers in this system usually don’t even have play cards or call sheets. After this series is completed, an article on the if-then method will follow putting all of the core plays together to see how they make a complete system.
The Count System
Before this offense can start, especially the inside veer, the offense must identify what the defense is doing. Paul Johnson uses a count system that starts with the first man on/outside the offensive tackles. The first defender that is heads up or outside of a tackle is #1. The next defender outside is #2, then #3, then #4. #3 and #4 are almost always defensive backs while #1 and #2 are usually defensive ends and linebackers. This count system helps to determine who will block who. This also helps to eliminate the need for assigning blocks by man, such as “you have the OLB, and you have the safety, and you have the defensive end.” That approach can get confusing when a defense gives multiple fronts and looks, so by simply doing a count system, regardless of which defender they are, the assignments stay consistent.
The Flexbone Option Passing Game
By philosophy, most flexbone option offenses are very run heavy, but the offense has great potential as a passing offense too. The passing game revolves around two ideas. First, the routes on play action passes are designed to mirror the blocking schemes used by the receivers and slot backs. Second, the passing game, including those play action routes are derived from the classic Run ‘n’ Shoot! If you were to read up on the Run ‘n’ Shoot, you’d also be reading up on the flexbone option’s passing game. Go, X-choice, levels, switch, four verticals, they’re all in Johnson’s playbook. Teams that use Johnson’s system even use the half-sprint drop-back that is the most recognizable feature of the Run ‘n’ Shoot. Ever since June Jones left SMU, if you want to see the original Run ‘n’ Shoot in action, your best bet is to watch Army, Navy, or Georgia Tech. Another neat thing that ties the two offenses is that the Run ‘n’ Shoot essentially started off in a flexbone formation. As Paul Johnson says in the first video of the article, the offense is really a marriage of the wishbone option and the Run ‘n’ Shoot.
This sums up the introduction to the flexbone option offense. There will be more articles coming to break down the offense further. The next two articles will focus on the core play, the inside veer. The first article will cover the inside veer, and the following articles together will cover all six core plays in this offense. Stay tuned!