NEW ORLEANS Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick roomed together at the scouting combine in Indianapolis two years ago.
They didnt know each other well, and havent kept in close contact since. But the two are part of a wave of dual-threat quarterbacks running the zone-read option and taking the NFL by storm.
The zone read goes global Sunday when Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers roll out their version of the scheme against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Critics call it a gimmick offense that will go the way of the run-and-shoot.
But many of the coaches and analysts in New Orleans this week believe the zone read is here to stay at least among teams that have a quarterback athletic and tough enough to run it.
Sundays game features two quarterbacks with contrasting styles. While Kaepernick will set up in the Pistol like the shotgun formation, but with the quarterback positioned closer to the line of scrimmage and run the zone read, Baltimores Joe Flacco is a more traditional, drop-back passer.
With Kaepernick, Newton, Seattles Russell Wilson and Washingtons Robert Griffin III all making huge impacts the past two seasons, the NFLs quarterback blueprint might be changing.
In a copycat league, the zone read could spread like wildfire and college quarterbacks who can run it will get a longer look before the draft.
Kaepernick, who played at Nevada, was the sixth quarterback taken in 2011 behind Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. Kaepernick, 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, has started only seven regular-season games, the third-fewest for a Super Bowl quarterback.
Hes been impressive. Hes a good athlete. When they drop back and throw the ball hes been on the money, Flacco said. It will be interesting to see in the years to come how much those guys transition from being 50-50 in that type of run-pass game to a little bit more of a pass option. Im sure they will probably transition a little bit more to that so they dont get beat up quite as much.
There have been fast, athletic quarterbacks in the league for years, including Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Vince Evans. Young is one of two quarterbacks to win six NFL passing titles, and threw six touchdowns passes in the 49ers win against San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX.
But Steve Mariucci, Youngs coach in San Francisco, said Young could have run an option offense.
I was an option quarterback and I coached option in college. Would I have loved to do it? Absolutely, Mariucci said. But when you pay Steve Young $10 million a year to have some defensive lineman smack him in the face after he pitches the ball, I dont think I would risk that.
Mariucci, an NFL Network analyst, believes the rookie wage scale has made coaches more willing to use young quarterbacks in running packages. Still, there are risks.
These youngsters arent getting paid that (much) yet, Mariucci said. At some point I think owners are going to say, Listen, you know those hits my guys taking? Im paying him a lot of money. If he gets hurt, I will frown on that.
Like Redskins owner Dan Snyder.
Griffin, who had a terrific rookie season, underwent reconstructive knee surgery in January after falling awkwardly while throwing a pass in a playoff loss to Seattle. Griffin sprained the knee three weeks earlier on a scramble against Baltimore, and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan stuck with him against Seattle even when Griffin appeared to be hobbled.
Mariucci said an injury like Griffins is why the zone read will remain more of a wrinkle rather than a teams offensive identity.
Its not going to be every quarterback coming up, and its not going to be 15 carries a game for each quarterback. Its not going to be like that, Mariucci said. Because what happened to RGIII is the risk. Thats what can happen to a Kaepernick, a Russell Wilson, a Cam Newton, any quarterback.
But you have a better chance of protecting yourself when youre a pocket passer and getting out of the pocket and protecting yourself.
Newton, who became the first quarterback to lead his team in rushing in 12 years, has shown a knack for sliding at the end of runs to avoid big hits. It helps that Newton is 6-5 and 245 pounds.
Chris Ault, Kaepernicks coach at Nevada, created the Pistol offense. The formation creates more quick-hitting runs than a standard shotgun, while still putting the quarterback far enough from the line to survey the defense.
In the zone read, the quarterback rides the running back toward an unblocked defensive end or outside linebacker, reads how the defender is playing, and decides whether to keep the ball in the backs belly or run it himself.
Kaepernick, whose 56-yard touchdown on a zone-read keeper against Green Bay was one of the 49ers postseason highlights, said hes a little surprised the Pistol has transitioned to the NFL.
I thought it would work to some extent. I didnt think it was something you could run every play, Kaepernick said. There are too many good athletes on defense at this level. Not so much the speed, just the fact that everybody is good on defense.
NFL coordinators are looking at what colleges are doing with the zone read and then building on it. Former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski watched Newtons Auburn tapes, while San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman has added to the Pistol during the playoffs.
We tried to make everybody forget about it and think that we had scrapped it leading into the playoffs, said Roman, a former Panthers assistant. We felt like we could win our division the traditional way. We kept practicing it and just felt like it was something we could spring on whoever we played in the playoffs.
Chudzinski ran the zone read out of the shotgun with Newton, and even toyed with the triple option early in the season. After Mike Shula took over as coordinator when Chudzinski left to become Clevelands coach, one of the first things he was asked about was the zone read.
That seems to be an ongoing question, Shula said at a Senior Bowl practice last month. You have to look at what allows Cam to do what he does best. How we do it and how we get to it is something well look at in the offseason.
But Shula indicated the zone read will remain at least a part of the Panthers offense.
Less certain is whether it will be around in five years. Kaepernicks success or failure in the Super Bowl could help determine the answer.
No one knows. Time will have to tell and see when five years come, if Im blessed, if (Kaepernick) is blessed enough to have that opportunity, Newton said. Im just going to continuously play the game and try to evolve as much as I can to become a more consistent player.