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Requiem For A Triple Option

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It's been inevitable for years, but the day of reckoning approaches quietly now on the triple option, skulking in on the evasive word of new Air Force coach Troy Calhoun in the Falcons' Spring prospectus:

Calhoun inherits a proud program, but one that has fallen uncharacteristically on hard times. The Falcons are coming off three straight losing seasons for the first time in over 20 years. Calhoun is excited about returning Air Force to its customary winning ways. The burning question, will you still run the option which has become a staple of the Academy program?

"You have to be a strong running team and you have to be good on the defensive side of the bal to be able to stop the running game," Calhoun said. "In this day and age of football, you have to have some balance. You have to be able to run the ball well, but you also have to be very effective in the passing game. We want the defense to have to defend the entire field and we want to take tremendous pride in a physical approach to football."

Totally sweet.
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And thus descends the curtain on one of the college game's vintage pleasures. Archival footage confirms most teams ran a version of the wishbone from roughly 1972-88, with a few Big Eight holdovers into the early nineties. The era retreats steadiily with its practitioners in the face of pro-style generics. Army scrapped its modified, "flexbone" version of the veer option five years ago, followed by Nebraska forsaking its insanely successful I-based triple option for the West Coast stylings of NFL refugee Bill Callahan. The wishbone left Rice with Ken Hatfield, replaced last year by the ubiquitous 21st Centruy talent-masker, the spread. Now it takes its leave of its staunchest bastion, Air Force, leaving the Naval Academy alone to execute the bone-based option's subtle, nostalgic thrills: deception, timing, teamwork and sweet, sweet angles opening up as if on command, abstract design coming to precise fruition, occasionally culminating in football's most lethally unfolding, maliciously satisfying, dead sexiest tactic, the option pass.

In the eternal cycle of strategic push and pull, of course, nothing ever just goes away. It only takes on different forms. Navy's flexbone - which despite abandonment amidst diminished results everywhere else still produced more rushing yards per game last year than any team since Nebraska in 2000 -  is a slightly different animal than what Emory Ballard concocted for Texas 40 years ago, and the spread version of the option en vogue at Northwestern and West Virginia and just about everywhere else, on occasion, still requires reading the end and forcing the defense to account for the quarterback as a ball carrier. Most teams will still send the quarterback down the line on occasion with every intent to pitch outside of the fire-breathing end immediately crashing down in his face. It will still be effective on NCAA Football. But it's not your father's option, with its footwork for opening up and sticking the ball in the fullback's belly and taking it on a death-defying jaunt past the end of the line, the set of split-second decisions and cause-and-effect my father taught for 20 years to high school kids and used to draw up for me on napkins. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just different is all, and more power to Rich Rodriguez. When the local news shows footage of a beginner's camp for kids, they're practicing handoffs out of the shotgun, because that's a fundamental these days.

But if Alabama's alleged overtures to Paul Johnson last winter are any indication, he's not very likely to hang on at Navy for much longer, and all recent experience indicates the triple option will go with him. And it will be at that point, for all intents and purposes, extinct as a system, relegated to a gimmicky relic. So it goes.

It doesn't make the original any less sweet, though. So, here, the best way I know how, an excessive tribute to a few of the late, great triple option's all-time greatest hits:

The Bear offers a fitting summation in that last one, twice, when he says "There goes the end," and then "I can watch that all night." Keep it real, triple option. We’ll never forget the good times.