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How the 1980 Falcons helped modernize the NFL passing game: June Jones on option routes

Most offensive football revolutions thrive at the college level for years before hitting the NFL. According to former Falcons coach and quarterback June Jones, Atlanta helped speed the introduction of the modern pro game.

June Jones, currently the head coach at SMU
June Jones, currently the head coach at SMU

In 1980, the Atlanta Falcons had a top-five offense in both points and yards after not ranking better than seventh in either category in previous franchise history.

Quarterback Steve Bartkowski, running back William Andrews, tight end Junior Miller, and wide receiver Alfred Jenkins all made their first Pro Bowls that year. The team won double-digit games for its first time ever and looked set to reach the Super Bowl before a fourth-quarter collapse against the Cowboys in the playoffs.

And in 1980, eventual Falcons head coach June Jones, a backup quarterback who didn't play at all that season, might have brought the innovation from college that helped change the NFL air game.

Before the '80s, receivers ran routes in the most literal sense. They had waypoints and destinations, and they were expected to follow them like robots. In the modern passing game, receivers must make adjustments both before and during the snap based on the defense, with quarterbacks expected to know what their receivers are seeing and adapting to. (Here's Football Outsiders on Julio Jones likely getting a broader branch of option routes in Year 3.)

Jones on what happened in Atlanta, via CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman:

BF: When did it change letting the wide receivers make sight adjustments and offense not be so rigid?

JJ: I know Don Coryell did some of it, but not as much as we did. When we went to Atlanta, we had a kid by the name of Junior Miller from Nebraska who could really run. I remember plain as day, I told the offensive coordinator, "When we ran the switch route, if they were in cover 2, we (should) post down the middle." We were all running hooks, everybody was -- tight end, the backs, the X and the Z, ran the hook. I said, "Junior, can you see if it's cover 2, and if it is, just go down the middle of the field."

Steve Bartkowski was accurate as heck, and so when we started reading that the curls went to post-corners and he went down the middle against cover 2 while playing with two backs and a tight end, we became the No. 1 offense in the National Football League. And so as coaches talked more and more at clinics, there was more and more reading going on.

Then there was the halfback option had been the biggest variation in 1977 that I could remember and that was the only route reading they ever did. If the backer's outside, break in. If the backer's inside, break out. And if there's two guys, hook it up.

Jones, who played for Run and Shoot innovator Mouse Davis at Portland State, would go on to bring that high-flying offense to the NFL with the Oilers and then with the Falcons, where his teams put up POINTS and YARDS despite being saddled with Jeff f#$%^! George.

As for verifying Jones' claims, which happen to make Jones look good, we have ... a fun highlights video, and that's about it. But it's still cool to hear a longtime coach argue the Falcons helped shape the NFL, since our team is very rarely mentioned in that sense.