The 5 Greatest Option Football Coaches of All Time

NFL | February 16, 2021

“Option” football, in which the QB keeps, gives, or pitches, was declared ineffective as recently as 2016. QBs Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, and Robert Griffin III had been ushered out of the NFL or were too hurt to play. Paul Johnson’s tenure in the ACC was in eclipse. Teams were utilizing simple “Read-Option” plays on Saturdays, but only Army and Navy remained slavish devotees to the tactic. Elitist NFL writers hoped the “fad” had gone away.

Then Lamar Jackson hit the national stage. And Jalen Hurts, and Trevor Lawrence, and Pat Mahomes. The brand-new breed of dual-threat QBs has arrived as coveted draft picks and NFL superstars. But who are the top coaches who’ve challenged the taboos, who’ve made Jackson and Hurts’ stardom possible in a league that rejected their skill-sets in ages past?

Scroll for’s take on the Top 5 Option Football Coaches of all time.

#5 – Tom Osbourne

Osbourne is only #5 for the same reason Barry Switzer doesn’t make the list. While the pair of Midwestern coaches are as decorated as anyone who’s ever coached option football, neither is a true pioneer of the Wishbone or Flexbone offense. In fact, Osbourne preferred the I-Formation at Nebraska, a formation used by traditional running and passing teams. But the coach knew how to recruit dual-threat QBs who were as dangerous on the ground as great NCAA tailbacks. Nebraska’s option-heavy scheme helped Osbourne win 13 league titles and three national championships.

#4 – Ken Niumatalolo

Navy’s head coach is not the most innovative option-football skipper, in fact, he inherited a purring Naval Academy offense from Flexbone guru Paul Johnson in 2007. Niumatalolo has nonetheless distinguished himself as an HC who can prod P5-level winning records and bowl victories from rosters of 2 and 3-star talent. Navy was expected to fail when the program joined a deep, tough AAC in 2015, but the Midshipmen have finished atop the conference’s West division three times while notching two 11-win seasons in six years.

#3 – John Harbaugh

Technically, other coaches were first to introduce option playbooks to the NFL, starting with the Chicago Bears in the 1960s. But the Baltimore Ravens are the first to buy-into the concept completely, with HC John Harbaugh taking the bold step of hiring Paul Johnson as advisor. Baltimore installed a “Sun Belt” playbook for speedy QB Lamar Jackson, who has set rushing records for NFL quarterbacks while earning an NFL MVP crown and two consecutive playoff appearances. One joyous day when NFL clubs run unique offenses, we’ll look back at Harbaugh’s Ravens as the team that helped pull the league out of a generic era.

#2 – Paul Johnson

The name “Paul Johnson” keeps haunting our list, and that’s because pigskin would look very different in many locales were it not for the cantankerous coach’s legacy. Johnson authored the “Flexbone” playbook that has become ubiquitous on prep gridirons and which helped Army, Navy, and Georgia Tech rekindle old glory in the modern era. CPJ’s 2014 offense at Georgia Tech, featuring the swift, rocket-armed QB Justin Thomas, was rated the most-efficient Division 1 college offense in the history of the sport.

#1 – Urban Meyer

Meyer’s iconic career reminds us that the option was once as frowned-upon by the Power-Five as the NFL. Few expected Meyer to successfully install an 11-on-11 ground game in the SEC  back in 2005, but the coach identified deadly new skill-sets in the QBs coming out of high school, and coached Tim Tebow to two national titles at Florida with a “Spread-Option” scheme that influenced a generation of NCAA teams. Meyer returned to the sidelines to win a CFP championship at Ohio State before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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Kurt Boyer

Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.

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