Jim Harbaugh Colin Kaepernick black no. 7 jerseyThe read-option.

It’s taken the NFL world by storm in the last year, with experts everywhere questioning both how to defend it and how to sustain it. The offensive philosophy has fascinated analysts and fans alike, and while it’s perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of football today, you can’t talk about the newest crop of star quarterbacks without mentioning the read-option.

Colin Kaepernick is right in the center of it all. He came off of the bench to replace Alex Smith in Week 10 of the 2012 season and never surrendered the starting job, leaving defenses in his wake while he led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl berth in 18 years. His combination of passing ability and untouchable speed have defensive coordinators sweating. Now, the question is:

“Will defenses be able to stop Colin Kaepernick, the pistol formation and the read-option?”

Truth be told, this should be two separate questions. Analysts have trouble seeing the forest for the trees, and there isn’t a single fallacy in the NFL greater than attaching Colin Kaepernick’s abilities as a quarterback with the success of the read-option. I went through every touchdown the 49ers scored from the moment Kaepernick stepped on the field in Week 10 (including his two rushing touchdowns in spot appearances early in the season). The final numbers may surprise you:

Read-option rushing touchdowns by Kaepernick from the pistol formation: 4

  • Week 5 vs. Bills, fourth quarter — play-action fake, 15 yards around left end
  • Week 10 vs. Rams, fourth quarter – play-action fake, 7 yards around right end
  • Week 14 vs. Dolphins, fourth quarter – play-action fake, 50 yards around left end
  • Divisional Round vs. Packers, third quarter – play-action fake, 56 yards around right end

Read-option rushing touchdowns by Kaepernick from other formations: 1

  • Week 12 at Saints, first quarter – Shotgun (single back), read-option play-action fake, 7 yards around left end

Read-option passing touchdowns from all formations: none

Read-option rushing touchdowns by running backs: 4

  • Week 11 vs. Bears, second quarter – Pistol, Kendall Hunter up the middle for 14 yards
  • NFC Championship at Falcons, second quarter – Shotgun (single back), LaMichael James off right tackle for 15 yards
  • NFC Championship at Falcons, third quarter – Pistol, Gore off right tackle for 5 yards
  • NFC Championship at Falcons, fourth quarter – Pistol, Gore off right tackle 9 yards

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Passing touchdowns (non read-option): 14

  • Week 11 vs. Bears, first quarter – I-formation motioned to offset-I, play-action to Gore, 3-yard pass to Vernon Davis in the right corner of the endzone
  • Week 11 vs. Bears, third quarter – Single-back set, 10-yard pass to Michael Crabtree
  • Week 12 at Saints, third quarter – Single-back set, play-action fake to Gore, roll out to 1-yard pass to Gore, 5 yards after catch.
  • Week 15 at Patriots, first quarter – Shotgun (single-back), deep pass 24 yards to Randy Moss
  • Week 15 at Patriots, second quarter – Audibled from shotgun read-option into offset-I. Stepped into pocket, deep pass 34 yards to Delanie Walker
  • Week 15 at Patriots, third quarter – Shotgun (single-back), deep pass 27 yards to Crabtree
  • Week 15 at Patriots, fourth quarter – Shotgun (single-back), short pass to Crabtree, 38 yards after catch
  • Week 16 at Seahawks, fourth quarter – Shotgun (single-back), stepped into pocket threatening to scramble, 18-yard pass to Delanie Walker
  • Week 17 vs. Cardinals, second quarter – Single-back set, stepped into pocket threatening to scramble, 49-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree
  • Week 17 vs. Cardinals, third quarter – Single-back set, short drop quick pass to Crabtree 4 yards down field. Crabtree in from 3 yards out
  • Divisional Round vs. Packers, second quarter – Shotgun (empty backfield), pass to Michael Crabtree over the middle 12 yards
  • Divisional Round vs. Packers, second quarter – Shotgun (single-back), quick pass to Michael Crabtree 20 yards
  • NFC Championship at Falcons, second quarter – I-formation, play-action fake to Gore, roll out, 4-yard pass to Vernon Davis
  • Super Bowl vs. Ravens, third quarter – Offset-I, play-action fake quick pass, play-action fake handoff, 16-yard pass to Crabtree, 15 yards to endzone

Rushing touchdowns by Kaepernick (non read-option): 3

  • Week 4 vs. Jets, second quarter — Shotgun (single-back), designed run around left end seven yards
  • Divisional Round vs. Packers, first quarter – Shotgun (empty backfield), drop back, scramble into pocket, 20 yards to the left
  • Super Bowl vs. Ravens, fourth quarter – Shotgun (single back), pocket broke down, scramble around left end 15 yards

Rushing touchdowns by running backs (non read-option): 7

  • Week 13 at Rams, first quarter – I-formation, Gore up the middle 1 yard
  • Week 14 vs. Dolphins, fourth quarter – I-formation, Anthony Dixon up the middle 1 yard
  • Week 15 at Patriots, third quarter – Offset-I, Kaepernick fumbles snap, picked up by Gore, run 9 total yards
  • Week 17 vs. Cardinals, fourth quarter – Offset-I, Gore up the middle 2 yards
  • Divisional Round vs. Packers, fourth quarter – I-formation, Gore off right tackle for 2 yards
  • Divisional Round vs. Packers, fourth quarter – I-formation, Anthony Dixon off right tackle for 2 yards
  • Super Bowl vs. Ravens, third quarter – Shotgun (single back), fake run left, handoff to Gore right 6 yards

The amount of scoring production the 49ers got from the read-option was actually quite balanced between the running backs and their quarterback. Kaepernick scored five touchdowns rushing from the read-option while Gore, Hunter and James combined to score four. It’s interesting to note: the Falcons were so focused on Kaepernick in the NFC Championship Game that he was able to exploit it by giving the ball to his running backs out of the pistol. It resulted in three late touchdowns.

What also stands out is Kaepernick’s rushing touchdowns based on offense. His most iconic run was the 56-yard score against the Packers, but he scored three times by simply escaping the pocket and scrambling. No design necessary.

The most glaring fact to come from this study is how little the 49ers actually produced using the read-option and the pistol formation. The pistol formation itself only netted seven touchdowns, while the read-option only produced nine touchdowns.

They were all rushing scores. Kaepernick didn’t throw a single touchdown out of the read-option.

In reality, the 49ers’ bread was still buttered by heavy run sets and traditional shotgun formations. They scored 24 touchdowns from more traditional offensive formations, and all 14 of Kaepernick’s passing touchdowns came from basic offensive philosophies.

With so much focus on the read-option this year, don’t be surprised to see the 49ers utilize it sparingly. After all, they didn’t use it nearly as much as they were perceived to have been using it last year, and as Kaepernick continues to progress as a passer, the 49ers will likely turn to it even less.