Fans today may not realize, but Jim Brown, the greatest player of all time according to many, was a fullback. In his time, that position was one of the most important on each team, sometimes even more important than quarterback. In those days (50 years ago), the running game was the backbone of each offense, with the occasional pass (mostly deep pass) thrown in to keep the defense honest. Compare that to how pro football is played today. It’s practically a different sport. However, the point is not to compare two versions of football, but to illustrate that football is constantly evolving, and over time the evolution is such that the game is completely transformed.
So where next? How will football change in the future? We can imagine one possible direction by looking at how it’s changing today. In college, finding athletes is far easier than finding polished passers, so many college teams run option based offenses, where reads are simplified, and a naturally gifted quarterback can make up for any mental shortcomings by using his athleticism. That style is trickling into the pro game, with RPOs (Run-Pass-Option) being incorporated in many teams’ offensive playbooks.
Since RPOs are such an effective way of using athletic less-cerebral players, it’s fair to wonder how one can maximize the value of players who are both athletic and cerebral. The RPO concept already involves surprise, as defenders have to make a split-second decision on whether the ball is going to the running back or whether the qb is keeping it, and if the qb keeps it, whether he’s going to throw it or run with it. A quarterback who is at least competent at running the ball is a key component of a successful RPO-heavy offensive scheme.
But what would happen if the running back was also competent at throwing? If a backfield had two Lamar Jacksons, Deshaun Watsons or Josh Allens? If regardless of who ends up getting the ball, the pass option is still on the table? If RPOs are already confusing for defenses, such a concept would drive them absolutely nuts.
However, installing such an offense would also pose its own challenges. Plays would have to be completely redesigned, receivers would need to learn that there are two possible players who might throw the ball (this is already the case in some plays, but they’re few and far in between “trick plays”) and the offensive operation during a game would have to be changed. Furthermore, it would take a very special type of player to run such a system, most QBs can’t take the pounding a primary ballcarrier does. But imagine Cam Newton and Josh Allen in the same backfield getting 10-15 carries per game each. Finally, the traditional structure of an offense usually has the QB as the unquestioned leader and most QBs have the alpha personality that matches that role. Would two of them be able to share the leadership role, or would a 1a and 1b type of leadership structure have to be established? And what if 1b was playing better than 1a? Like every innovation this novel approach would need to provide answers to many questions. But if someone can make it work, it could take offenses to the next level.
Is it likely to happen anytime soon? Not really, and certainly not in the NFL where a “play it safe” mentality seems to be prevalent among coaches. Even Sean McVay, the poster child for offensive innovation and creativity in the NFL is a rather conservative game manager. No, if it happens, the innovation will probably come from the lower levels. But if and when it does it will be but the latest step in an evolution process that began when people first started playing football and will continue as long as the game is played.