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Lions’ Cunningham: Read-option QBs are going to get hurt

Gunther Cunningham

Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham yells at the team after the Lions gave up a touchdown in the second quarter of an NFL football game against the New York Jets at Ford Field in Detroit, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)


Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham says it’s not defensive coaches who need to be worried about the read-option that’s spreading across the NFL. Instead, Cunningham says the quarterbacks who run the ball in the read-option need to be worried that they won’t hold up for 16 games against NFL defenses.

“The problem is for those quarterbacks, one of these days one of them is not going to walk off,” Cunningham told the Lions’ website. “It’s a lot of pressure on him to physically do that.”

Cunningham has been a defensive assistant in the NFL for 30 years, but he also coached in college football in the 1970s and spent a season as a Canadian Football League assistant, and he says he knows about stopping running quarterbacks and wide-open offenses.

“I think we all understand what the issues are and how to play it,” Cunningham said. “I reflect back on my college days and it wasn’t that hard to remember all that stuff because it put a lot of pressure on me in those days and it does in this league too.”

That’s not to say Cunningham thinks the read-option is just some gimmick that’s easy to figure out. Cunningham said that when the Dolphins ran the Wildcat in 2008, they were running a fundamentally sound offense, and other teams have learned from what the Dolphins said. But the Dolphins were snapping the ball directly to running backs, and Cunningham doesn’t believe any running back can throw the ball well enough to threaten an NFL defense.

“The key is you need extra people to stop the run because they spread you out,” Cunningham said. “So, you end up playing some man-to-man or shorten your safeties down and if the quarterback can really throw the ball, that’s where we get into trouble. Miami couldn’t do that with Ricky [Williams] and the other kid that was running the option [Ronnie Brown]. But their design was as good as I’ve ever seen in my life and then it got away from them for whatever reason. Bill Belichick can tell you they killed them in the first game.”

But snapping the ball to a running back in the Wildcat is different from having the quarterback run the read-option. And Cunningham believes that in the long run, in a read-option offense, it’s the quarterback who’s going to get killed.