In a copycat league, Rob Chudzinski was responsible for bringing the read option to the NFL.
Before San Francisco made it famous with Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl and Washington made it controversial with Robert Griffin III’s knee injury, Chudzinski unveiled the zone read after the Panthers drafted Cam Newton in 2011.
Chudzinski, the Panthers’ former offensive coordinator, has moved on to Cleveland as the Browns’ new coach. But he left behind a playbook that features a large chunk of zone read plays, which opposing defenses are still trying to figure out.
Mike Shula, Chudzinski’s successor, has indicated he plans to keep the zone read as part of his scheme.
Whether the zone read goes the way of the Wildcat or becomes a staple in NFL offenses, the man known as “Chud” will always be linked to Newton as the coach and player who imported the read option from the college game.
“Cam probably opened the doors for other guys and made people think it was feasible to run that offense and be able to succeed and do it in the NFL,” Chudzinski said Tuesday at the league meetings at the Arizona Biltmore.
Before the Panthers drafted Newton with the No. 1 pick two years ago, Chudzinski was part of a Carolina contingent that traveled to Auburn to learn more about the spread offense the Tigers ran with Newton, their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
The knock on Newton was he lacked passing polish because he had not played in a pro-style system. With the Panthers zeroing in on Newton as the top pick, Chudzinski wanted to design a scheme Newton would be familiar with, while introducing him to the more traditional elements of Chudzinski’s vertical-stretch passing attack.
“The thing it came down to with Cam was just knowing, here’s a guy like a lot of college guys are now in a spread system that run some of these things and haven’t been in pro-style systems,” Chudzinski said. “If you wanted to get them on the field to get experience, you would need to transition them to be able to be a standard, pro-style quarterback. So there was a need to blend these offenses together so that you could transition them. It hadn’t been done really before.”
Chudzinski met with Gus Malzahn, then Auburn’s offensive coordinator and now the Tigers’ head coach. A couple of the Panthers’ assistant coaches had experience with running packages for quarterbacks, although not as extensive as the read option.
“Some of those things were going on in the Wildcat,” Chudzinski said. “I didn’t invent any of that stuff.”
In the early stages of installation, the Panthers’ staff learned on the go while deciding how often to run Newton and which plays were most effective.
“A lot of those things we actually worked through over the course of the two years,” Chudzinski said. “Going forward, the thing is how long can he keep running as he gets older and as he progresses in his career? It’s one thing to have a college guy doing it. But when a guy’s in his seventh year or eighth year, you want to have transitioned by that time.”
Newton, 23, had 126 carries as a rookie, finishing with 706 rushing yards to become the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for at least 500 yards in a season. His 14 rushing touchdowns were the most by a quarterback in league history.
Newton’s rushing totals were nearly identical in 2012, when he ran 127 times for 741 yards. He was the first quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Donovan McNabb in 2000.
Newton is the only quarterback to rush for 500 yards in each of his first two seasons, and he set a team record last season by averaging 5.83 yards per carry.
But Chudzinski said the challenge was deciding how much was too much for the 6-5, 245-pound Newton, who has missed only a handful of snaps because of injury his first two seasons.
“I wasn’t as concerned about how many times we called those plays as how many times the quarterback was running it. Then it got to, well, how many times is the quarterback getting hit?” he said.
Chudzinski said Newton’s good field vision helps him avoid hits downfield.
“If you drop them back 40 times a game, you’re putting them at risk, as well,” Chudzinski said. “I think actually the times Cam in the last two years was hurt the most was when he was dropping back to pass.”
First-year general manager Dave Gettleman said last month the read option would remain that for the Panthers – an option, and not the focal point of the offense. As productive as Newton is as a runner, Chudzinski said he’s coming into his own as a passer.
“He wants to be a great quarterback. So labeling him a running quarterback – he wanted to be labeled as a great quarterback,” Chudzinski said. “He’s hungry. He works hard at it.
“I think he’s come a long way as a passer and his understanding of defenses. It’s amazing what he’s done to this point for a guy that really didn’t have much of a background in a passing offense.”