John C. Dvorak Super Bowl Tech: Kaepernick, Expendable QBs and NFL Futures

Written by John C. Dvorak’s co-founder John C. Dvorak Super Bowl tech commentary. The quarterback should be expendable, he says, and John has a ton of advice for why changing the role of the quarterback will revolutionize the NFL. John C. Dvorak Super Bowl 47 deep dive on the tech and strategy he says should be in play. Now and forever more. — John C. Dvorak Super Bowl 47 advice and analysis: Make the quarterback expendable and revolutionize the NFL in the process. Here’s why it’s radical — and why that Dvorak Super Bowl strategy and others he explains below are so key.

Whenever there are changes in rules, such as the recent head-to-head contact violations and leading-with-the-head violations, things change.

The NFL is now ready to adopt a totally-new style of NFL quarterback as epitomized by Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers. It was no coincidence that 49er Head Coach Jim Harbaugh was fresh out of the college ranks where he saw the burgeoning era of the running QB stemming from the pistol and spread offense schemes. The irony is that, while at Stanford, Harbaugh also bred what could be one of the last of the old school pocket passers — namely Andrew Luck.

It was Harbaugh who benched pocket passer Alex W. Smith for Kaepernick with the idea that the team would exploit the league-wide defensive weakness, exposing a QB by running a read-option, pistol or spread option with a running QB.

If Harbaugh is successful with Kaepernick it could well revolutionize the NFL. And that would change the QB schema and QB expectations for years to come.

Kaepernick is interesting and special in that he runs and passes so well. Michael Vick would have been such a QB, way in advance of Kaepernick if the coaches had not forced this guy into being just a normal pocket passer.

The worry with a guy like Vick was that he’d get injured. So they protect the investment but sacrifice the championship in the process.

The only way this works is if you make the QB expendable. Run this offense right into the Super Bowl until you can’t run it anymore. Then just get another running QB a couple of years down the road.

The problem that nobody wants to discuss is the possibility that Kaepernick might become a one-hit wonder. This sort of offense gives the life expectancy of the QB about the same span as that of the running backs. That means about half as long as a conservative pocket passer.

Some of these types will probably have an even-shorter lifespan.

The best I’ve ever seen running a spread was Armanti Edwards of Appalachian State. He took the team to two of its three-in-a-row NCAA 1-AA championships. That includes one over Delaware, quarterbacked by now Ravens QB Joe Flacco. Scroll below the fold to check out videos and images of some of the games, strategies and spreads I mention here. (Ed: ASU versus Delaware with Armanti Edwards video is embedded at the end of this piece.)

Now, Edwards was far better than Flacco in both passing and running. It was not uncommon to see Edwards rush for 200 yards and pass for 300 yards game after game after game.

In Superbowl XLVII 2013, Flacco is once again confronted by this type of QB.

Oregon used this same idea and style with Chip Kelly as coach. Kelly added a twist by running plays off at a rapid pace, usually less than 20 seconds between plays. The idea was still the spread offense and lots of QB runs.

Now Chip Kelly is in the NFL to attempt this same magical style.

The unknown here is whether the fat players in the NFL can maintain such a pace. They’re bulky and fast, but maintaining won’t be easy.

The New England Patriots employ a so-called hurry-up offense during its games but it never does a complete game using it.

This sort of Chip Kelly offense stems from the two-minute drills that better teams are able to run pretty effectively. This is a high-tempo, rushed-no-huddle offense that often has the QB rushing for a first down every so often — although a QB will generally slide down rather than get tackled.

It was only a matter of time before someone asked themselves this: If the two-minute offense worked so well for some teams, why not run it the whole game and see what happens?

Chip Kelly essentially did this. The drawback for Kelly when he took one of these teams to the National Championship game was that the televised game had so many commercial interruptions that it killed the pace. It slowed it down to such an extreme that it could never get the other team as pooped out as it could during the regular season.

This is a flaw that will conceivably appear in other NFL situations.

Kaepernick and the 49ers run a modified pistol offense — and also an offense they call the read-option. This takes a skilled offensive line to work with perfection and the 49ers have exactly that. Kaepernick ran the pistol at the University of Nevada, where it was perfected with great success.

I’ve watched these running plays and, unlike many of the plays with other running QB schemes, Kaepernick does not often get hit.

This should minimize injury and add to his life as this sort of QB. In his last season on the Appalachian State Mountaineers team, the slight-of-build Armanti Edwards was not himself at all. He seemed beat up. He is now a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. While in college during his three-year stint at App State, he became the first quarterback to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in a career.

This guy was phenomenal and he probably could still run this sort of offense.

The 49ers have the ideal situation for this sort of experiment. Jim Harbaugh developed Alex Smith into a near-great conservative and cautious QB who could easily maintain the team at a high level. If something happens to Kaepernick, there is no real drop off except for the style of play.

In other words, the team may not win a Super Bowl. But it will win a lot of games with Smith.

I’d like to see the following idea employed. Let a pure pocket passer run the offense through week nine and then replace him with the run-option QB from week ten. Coincidentally, that is just what happened with the 49ers.

This adds an interesting twist to the whole idea. Why beat up the running QB all year? Put him in with six games left and through the playoffs — the role is kind of like the one a relief pitcher plays in baseball.

The idea of the modern relief pitcher works well mainly because when a batter has seen a starter more than once he begins to get the hang of the pitches and is more likely to hit him during the third at bat. So change the pitcher.

The NFL could adopt this strategy if they could afford to have two starting QBs like the two with the 49ers. Purists will criticize any team for attempting this style of “pulling the starting pitcher.” But it makes sense to do it.

The never-ending pounding of a whole season of game-day football takes a toll on anyone. Cutting the damage in half has to help.

Of course nobody will do this because it’s too radical and risky. When Harbaugh did not put Smith back in after he recovered from his week-nine injury, it caused a huge commotion in the San Francisco Bay area. Talk shows were abuzz. People discussed the decision incessantly at bars and at the office. The controversy ended, though, after the team beat down the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rogers in the playoffs.

Can the 49ers now win the Super Bowl with this guy at the helm?

People often forget that, over the years and long before the 49ers five Superbowl victories, the team has always had unique experiments that baffled the competition. This included platooning quarterbacks during the 1960s. Platooning quarterbacks is the term for using multiple quarterbacks in the same game.

And before that, there was a tactic that employed the use of a basketball player to catch an oddly lobbed pass called the “alley-oop” — Y.A. Title tossed this alley-oop to R.C. Owens.

The most-baffling invention though, was the shotgun formation. Though some claim it is a mere variation of the 1930s double-wing formation, it was actually devised by Red Hickey, coach of the 49ers in 1960 and run effectively by John Brodie and that team’s platoon. When it first appeared, there was no defense to it and the 49ers won a series of games in late 1960 and early in the 1961 season. Finally the Chicago Bears figured out the proper defense for this. And that was the end of it being unstoppable.

Another San Francisco innovation — the West Coast Offense, an offensive strategy that is more about passing than running — is still employed by many teams.

The spread formationread-option (aka the QB wrap) and the relatively-new pistol offense are run all over college fields these days. And there are plenty of defenses suited to stopping Kaepernick.

The effectiveness of the current read-option and pistol offense, though, has more to do with ball handling, misdirection and sleight of hand. One false move by the defense and Kaepernick runs for 30 yards.

And even if Kaepernick cannot run he has a great group of running backs and receivers with talent to spare. This makes him a new kind of quarterback who is dangerous in many ways.

When we first saw Michael Vick arrive on the scene, most football fans were hoping some new sort of offense would emerge to use his special skills. It never happened. And Vick just became a pocket passer with scrambling ability not much different than Fran Tarkington, Steve Young or even Aaron Rogers when all is said and done.

With the emergence of Kaepernick and next year’s debut of Chip Kelly at Philadelphia, it looks like we’re in for a change. Let’s hope so anyway.

For, it’s John C. Dvorak Super Bowl advice at your service. Find all Super Bowl team records here.

Here’s the ASU vs. Delaware Blue Hens FCS Championship game played on December 14, 2007. Scroll below for more videos and images from the games, plays and strategies I mentioned above.

Video source: GoAppState1989 YouTube Channel

Here’s a pic of a spread offense as employed by the Wake Forest Demon Deacons — they are lined up in a four-receiver spread in a 2012 game against Boston College.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a shot of the Kansas City Chiefs lining up in a pistol formation against the New Orleans Saints at a November 16, 2008 game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Below is a diagram of Chris Ault’s pistol formation. He developed it in 2004, when he was head coach at the University of Nevada.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons



  • My predication! Kaepernick gets injured early and they bring Smith back in, who then proceeds to lead them to the Title. Then we can have an entire offseason of QB controversy By the ‘Bay!

    Also, pretty good article. ‘In the Morning!

    • It’s nice to have a seasoned QB waiting in the wings especially after the Ravens game planned for Kaepernick. But the game would be a lot more boring.

      • So now if Kaepernick leads San Francisco to a Super Bowl win, the running QB / spread / pistol craze will be all the rage and the NFL win want to draft Johnny Manziel after next season

        You can’t have him yet NFL. He is too short for you. Plus he needs to win us a National Championship first

  • You are sooooo wrong in one aspect. It does not make the QB expendable. If you see how Kaepernick runs the Pistol/read option he doesn’t get hit. He avoids the hit. He takes what the defense gives him, nothing more. Kaepernick did not miss a single down in college running this offense and there is a reason for that. He took some hits but Harbaugh has told him very clearly, DO NOT TAKE THE HIT. The blocking schemes are so complex and hard to manage for a defense that D ends and rushers have no idea where the ball is going to be. With the new rules on QBs they are even more hesitant to hit the QB when he doesn’t have the ball. This past week Kaepernick got hit once running the read option and once as a pocket passer. Why? Because the hand-off is so quick that the D rusher doesn’t have time to hit the QB. If you know how to run the pistol or read option in the NFL you can do it for years . . . it is all about threat and assignment football.

    • it was clearly mentioned in the article that Kaep does not normally get hit a lot. But the style overall invites plenty of pounding. That was the point.

  • It’s a little surprising to see SF running zone read stuff out of a pistol formation, considering how old school the O was at Stanford. But looking at their personnel, I expect SF will look more like Oregon (but in a pistol rather than shotgun) next year than Philly will.

    As Chip Kelly has said many times, to run the zone-read-spread-thing, you need a QB who can run (if the D lets him) — an RB who can throw a little won’t work. So I’m not sure how expendable these guys will be.

    Another thing — NFL rosters are smaller than in college, you’ll kill your D running Kelly’s Oregon tempo in the NFL. Kelly said as much recently.

  • SF has a really good QB in Kaepernick. I’m seriously of the mind that a championship team is built around a QB that can be solid and a defense that stops the opposition when they MUST.

    Even the teams Joe Montana QB’d for in SF had really good defensive statistics. Every champion NFL team has a defense to be reckoned with.

    -RAP, II

    • it helps if you can keep them off the field as long as possible. That takes some decent offense.

  • Forty-one years ago a great American proposed a change to football that would have won universal appeal if implemented. But nobody took Albert Brooks seriously about replacing the National Anthem.

  • Good article, John. Obviously you are a 49er fan, but I won’t hold that against you.
    Kaep, Fran Tarkenton, Doug Flutie, Vick, RGIII and other QBs then and now are the reasons why college football is more exciting than the pro game, which has become very predictable and quite boring, to use your words. NFL teams that use the run-option offense are not only entertaining, but more effective when it comes to confusing the defenses. I read recently that the newest trend in the pros is having a front-line backup QB to take over if and when the starter gets sidelined. Look for this trend to manifest itself in future drafts. Always a fan of yours.

  • It is a question of when, not if, Kaepernick goes down. It has happened to every running QB including Vick and RG3 and also pocket QBs like Brady and Manning. You play in the NFL and sooner or later you are going to get hit in the mouth. The problem is most teams don’t have replacement QBs that can come in like Alex Smith, so teams will be wary to risk their QBs. In the “old” days teams used to insert the backup to get some reps, but in today’s game – regardless of the blow out score the starter stays in. Then the team cries that they have to use a backup who has only had one snap all season. Who’s fault is that???

  • “Can the 49ers now win the Super Bowl with this guy at the helm?” is where I would have ended this. I learned that from you, John.

    Terrific article, though – appreciation from someone who no longer watches American football.

  • While the NFL is a copycat league, time has shown that defenses eventually catch up with the new and quirky offense du jour. The Pistol is just a modified wing-T updated for today’s era. As soon as defensive coordinators eschew the complexities of cover-twos and cover-threes and go back to basics, it will easily solve the pistol. Then, offensive coordinators will adjust with yet another offense that has its seeds in an offense from an earlier innovative offense (my guess will be yet another ‘west coast’ variation) that will be exclaimed as “revolutionary.”

    • I kind of agree. I remember some years back (15? 20?) when the Raiders were down some receivers and ran the old fashioned T-formation and pounded the crap out of the Kansas City Chiefs who apparently had nobody on the team who recalled the simple defense that was needed to stop it. It was a hilarious game.

  • Jeez, after listening to NA and your other podcasts all these years, I knew you were a football fan but not to this extent. I love it. Nice work! I wonder if ProFootballTalk would post this!

  • I’m a total NA nerd but really enjoyed reading this article. Your talent continues to impress me. It’s quite remarkable that whether it’s tech, business or now sports, I can totally hear your unique expressive style of writing. #ITM #littlegirlyeah

  • Kaepernick’s interesting, but he’s got to learn to make better reads if he’s going to have a long career. He’s beating people with his legs and he has a strong, accurate arm, but he doesn’t have the ability to look through his array of receivers like Russell Wilson does. Kaepernick rarely gets past the first read.

  • You also need to point out that the O-Line w/TE turn the read option to essentially Power Run when he hands off the ball. You have a spy on the QB means you are asking a DB to make a one on one stop against Gore/James meaning they have already given up at least 4yds. Wilson and Kap seem to be the best examples of a QBs with high mobility and ability to avoid hits. Looks like the NFC West is going to be a killer division for a while.

    Also, I would point out that the Buffalo Bills employed no-huddle/hurry up offense a majority of the tenure of Jim Kelly at QB. It took them to 4 SBs and a lot of playoff berths. Like you said in your article, you need to have the personnel to support the system otherwise it will not work.

  • Dvorak rocks. You made some Interesting points.

    The question of the day is: will the Pistol Offense and the Shotgun Formation receive the proper political endorsement from the NRA?

    Interestingly, some of the most unique ideas come from terrains with better climates?

  • Surprised you didn’t mention the original pass-run threat, who followed a sterling college career with a record-breaking pro career. He broke records for running and passing as a QB, leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl Championship after a dominant year in 1994. He was then forced to retire after numerous concussions. Watching Steve Young in college and the pros was exciting – he literally couldn’t be stopped most of the time, and often had his way with defenses. And that was in the days before they designed offenses around a dual-threat QB!

  • The most interesting idea was for a coach to run a pocket quarterback for most of the regular season, then a running quarterback for the rest of the games and (hopefully) the playoffs. Let’s see which teams try it this fall.

  • Even with Hall of Famer Bart Starr, Lombardi ran the power sweep into the ground for a decade in the 60s.. Four yards of dust. It made for a short highlight reel and a few championships.So instead of Starr handing off to Hornung, he would keep it to himself and sweep right? Didn’t Miami find some success with this against New England 3 years ago?

    Vick ran forward. Tarkington ran around. Both made for excellent highlight reels.

  • John, Stick to tech.

    The best ever was Vince Young from Texas, he thrived, wait he didn’t

    There have been multiple NFl Teams trying to run a spread with a read option, it doesn’t work. The Packers screwed up on Defense and the amazing runs did not take place in the Falcon’s game. Give more credit to the 49’ers D

    • You mean the 49ers D that gave up 477 yards and 27 first downs against Atlanta and nearly blew the game? That’s the D you are talking about? Credit for what? They sucked balls in that game. One sack? Geez, what game were you watching?

  • John, nice article. Very interesting. Something else caught my eye though: did you actually write “below the fold…”?? That’s so last century! ;)

  • Please please please NFL leave Johnny Manziel in college at least two more years…