Long Live the Triple Option
Today Army and Navy renew one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports.
Interestingly the two teams run a similar offensive system. That is no accident. Both Army head coach Jeff Monken and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo worked as assistants under former Georgia Southern, Navy, and Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson. They have adopted key elements of Johnson’s unique offensive scheme.
Most football teams have a far more simplistic run offense than their passing game. On a passing play, the quarterback typically doesn’t know to whom the ball will be thrown before the snap. That is only determined after he reads the coverage and/or goes through his progressions. On the other hand, most run plays are going to a predetermined player. The defensive alignment might force the runner to adjust which hole he runs through, but there isn't a lot of mystery or complexity. Indeed most offensive systems have only a handful of simple run concepts.
Army and Navy execute their offenses differently. On many run plays the player who ultimately gets the ball is only determined after the ball is snapped. In doing so, their systems help to solve one of the fundamental challenges teams have running the game.
Your typical run play presents the offense with a numbers problem. There are eleven defenders who can tackle the ball carrier but only nine players to block them. The ball carrier cannot block. It’s also rare to see the quarterback block after handing the ball off.
In practice it isn’t really nine against eleven. The defense will typically have one safety deep who doesn’t need to be blocked. There are also wide receivers who draw defenders away from the play. Still there remains a numbers disadvantage. Unless the defense drops a second safety deep to play very conservatively, there will be seven defenders against six blockers in formations with three wide receivers, eight defenders against seven blockers against formations with two wide receivers, and nine defenders against eight blockers in formations with one wide receiver.
Offenses find numerous ways to try and cope with this advantage. Sometimes the play is designed to leave the defender furthest away from where the ball is to be run unblocked. He might get there, but forcing him to travel the longest possible distance reduces his odds of success. On other plays, a wide receiver will come in to block the extra otherwise unblocked safety. This typically brings a cornerback into the formation who himself is unblocked, but cornerbacks typically aren’t as adept at safeties in open field tackling against the run. If somebody has to be unblocked, a cornerback might be the best option for the offense.
Army and Navy take a different approach. They play option football. The quarterback is a running option, which adds an extra number for the offense.
More importantly, they design their plays to ensure the defenders they leave unblocked are always in the wrong place.
Option football has been part of the college game for decades. In the last ten years or so it has become more prevalent in the NFL as teams have been more willing to involve their quarterbacks in the run game.
An option play leaves a defender with two assignments where it is impossible for him to execute both. The ball goes to the place he isn’t. In the college game and the NFL, the recent rise of the run-pass option has added a different dimension. On each play, a defender typically has a run assignment and a passing assignment. The RPO calls for the quarterback to throw if a specific defender plays the run and run if he plays the pass.
The options which Army and Navy run tend to be more pure run options. However, instead of leaving a single defender unblocked, they leave two defenders unblocked. There are three potential ball carriers on a given play.
Things begin with the teams’ base formation, the flexbone.
Prior to the snap the quarterback (yellow) lines up under center. He has a fullback (red) behind him. At the end of the line of scrimmage and behind the line are two players known as slotbacks (orange). Any of these four players could theoretically get the ball before the snap.
Now some of you might think this looks familiar to the old wishbone formation. You would be right. This is a slight modification. The wishbone placed two backs behind the fullback to either side. The change to the flexbone occurred because placing the slotbacks at the end of the line makes them more of a theoretical threat to go out on passing routes.
The first option is simply to hand it off on a fullback dive. It might seem utterly crazy to leave a defensive tackle unblocked on a potential inside handoff, but that’s what happens on this play.
The quarterback is a threat to break outside with a slotback to take a potential pitch, and sometimes that draws the attention of the interior defender, leaving a big hole for the dive play to work.
On plays where the defense plays the dive effectively, the quarterback breaks outside with one of the slotbacks.
In space one unblocked defender is isolated, if he plays the quarterback, the quarterback can pitch the ball to the slotback.
If the defender plays the pitch, the quarterback can cut up the field for a nice gain.
This is a unique approach to offense. It is difficult to defend on a number of levels. Part of it is simply due to the aforementioned uniqueness. Defenses don’t see schemes like this every week. They aren’t used to having this many options to defend in the run game. They also aren’t used to the ball carrier in the run game being determined after the snap. Front seven players, especially defensive tackles aren’t usually unblocked by design. If they are, generally they are trained to hesitate because something unusual like a screen is coming. Here hesitation means the fullback is past you on the dive before you realized what has happened.
Beyond that, there are layers of complexity adding to the challenge. The same players won’t necessarily be unblocked every single play. The read players on the option can change from snap to snap so you can’t get used to what they are doing.
Beyond that, Army and Navy have more conventional run plays in their playbook so you can’t sit back and expect to face the triple option on every snap. And with the quarterback an option to run and three other ball carriers in the formation, there are plenty of ways to put window dressing on these runs with presnap motion and fakes. Once the defense sells out on the run, that’s when play action and the passing game can open up.
Despite having perhaps more recruiting challenges than any other FBS schools, Niumatalolo and Monkey are both well over .500. Their systems have given them an edge.
Part of this is playing to their strengths. There are only a handful of big-time pocket passer prospects available each year. Army and Navy have a difficult time attracting them. There are many more athletic players available capable of learning how to run the triple option out of the flexbone effectively.
The two schools face other disadvantages as well. Because of the requirements of the service academies, their offensive linemen can’t be 330 pounds. Since the triple option frequently leaves defensive linemen unblocked, offensive linemen are required to be nimble and get to the second level quickly to get to linebackers. Army and Navy can find and develop these types of linemen.
Monken and Niumatalolo have thought outside the box to give their teams an advantage. Sadly, though, their own success and forward thinking might be standing in the way of their career advancement.
You would think coaches who have had success in such challenging jobs would be in demand, but the source of their success has amazingly made bigger programs weary of hiring them.
Take the following from Banner Society when Monken was being considered for the Kansas job last spring.
The first thing I heard about the Kansas football coaching search was, down to the specific words, exactly what I expected to hear:
“A lot of their influential people don’t want to run the triple option.”
At Kansas, Monken is about to face the problem Niumatalolo did with Arizona in 2018. Then-star quarterback Khalil Tate purposefully attacked Arizona’s interest in Niumatalolo, and the school ended up hiring Kevin Sumlin instead. Tate, whose success to that point had come as a mobile quarterback in Rich Rodriguez’s offense (another scheme with heavy option influence), would go on to languish in Sumlin’s Air Raid, but the damage to both Niumatalolo and any coach working in the triple was done.
You will see all sorts of theories as to why schools don’t want to install the triple option. Many of them have to do with the perception the system is outdated. Teams want shotgun offense with run-pass options.
A lot of this thinking underestimates what Monken and Niumatalolo do. What I have written above is an extremely simplistic view of this offense and the staple play. They are constantly evolving and tweaking their offenses with new wrinkles. You will see plenty plenty of formations other than the flexbone if you watch today’s game, and you will see plenty of plays other than the triple option.
Many of the elements of today’s designer modern offenses are based on what Army and Navy do. They are packaged a little differently. Still, the perception remains these offenses are boring and low scoring.
I think people might underestimate the extent to which this is by design. Again, remember that Army and Navy are typically at a talent disadvantage on the football field. Their players’ primary training is to serve the nation in the armed forces. Football is secondary. Their opponents are training players specifically to maximize their football ability.
Part of the strategy of this offense, especially against powerhouse schools the service academies have played in recent years like Notre Dame, Michigan, and Oklahoma has been to run the ball effectively, gain moderate yardage, keep the clock running, and leave the opposing offense on the sideline.
This strategy makes sense when a team is undermanned. In a game where each team gets the ball twelve times, superior talent will eventually shine through. If you can limit the possessions to something like six on each side, it can be an equalizer. The less opportunities a more talented opponent has, the more opportunity some lucky break like a player slipping or a bad call can swing a game.
Some of the great misconceptions about the triple option, however, are that it inherently produces modest gains and a slow pace. The offense can be played at a faster tempo, and with better athletes produce more explosive results.
It is difficult to make apples to apples comparisons with college football offenses. The quality of opponent can vary wildly relative to the NFL, and have an outsized impact on production.
Football Outsiders does its best to weed out these factors so we can contextualize them. It is worth noting the results when Monken’s and Niumatalolo’s mentor Paul Johnson coached at the ACC with Georgia Tech and had access to power conference talent.
Out of 120 or so FBS schools, Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams finished 33rd or better in Football Outsiders’ Offensive FEI in nine of his eleven seasons. This includes five seasons in the top twenty and a pair when they finished second. The offense can be very prolific.
Niumatalolo himself has indicated his adherence to the triple option is partly based on necessity. He has stated that he would be open to different concepts if he was at a different school with access to different types of players.
This style is a mechanism allowing these teams to play to their strengths and create challenges for their opponent.
I myself have wondered aloud why NFL teams aren’t more receptive to the triple option. Quarterbacks who have run the system successfully in college are readily available since no team in the NFL has use for them. In a league starved for quality backup quarterback play, why not run the best version of a different offense than the 33rd or worse best version of the offense everybody is running?
On top of that, would a team like the Houston Texans that entered the season without much talent or hope be better served trying to do a lousy imitation of everybody else, or running something unique to try and create problems for the opponent?
I don’t hold out much hope for the pros doing anything as outside the box as adopting this method of play. I have faintly more hope for major colleges.
But today you can enjoy two teams expertly run this beautiful offense.