The route you can't defend: Inside the Y Option

Jason Witten made a career on running the Y Option route. Why was it so unstoppable? Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of my career, I caught 1,152 passes. But no joke, I bet 500 of them came on the same route:

Y Option.

It's the most underrated route in football. It's not sexy, and really, it's tough to make an 8- to 10-yard route look sexy. You won't see it replayed, a zoomed-in shot on the route, with the announcer saying, "Watch what he does to the defender here!" But it was, and is, dangerous because if it is executed properly, it is nearly impossible to defend.

The genesis of Y Option started in Bill Parcells' offense in my first three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. We called it 62 Winston. It was a 12-yard hook route. You went inside or outside, depending on the defender's leverage. I don't know why we called it that, but we were in a word-based offensive system at the time. When Jason Garrett came in as the playcaller, he was in a number-based system, so we called it 595 Y option.

Some people might see the result as a fairly simple play, but I can't tell you the hours Tony Romo and I spent in the film room going over a way to make it impossible to defend. Whichever way a defender went, he could only guess wrong.

There are four important aspects to Y Option. It ain't that technical, so hang in.

Knowing the coverage

You can almost always tell before the snap what kind of coverage you are getting through the film work you did during the week. This isn't some brag about great preparation; it's just showing up. The challenge is knowing the defender's responsibility. If you're running Y Option off the middle linebacker in Cover 3, you know he is responsible for anything between the hashmarks, so you have to get him to believe you are running across his face in order to turn his hips. If you are running Y Option off what we call 3 Buzz, like what the Seattle Seahawks run, you know the safety has the outside curl. You have to bend that route a little to the outside to create space to the inside. In short: Make outside help believe you're going inside, and vice versa.

The stem

What is it?

It's how you are attacking the defender.

I had to make sure I threatened him immediately with my first step. We are taught from a young age that if we cross over our feet, whether as a route runner or a blocker, you're in a bad position; but when I crossed over coming off the ball, I found I got the defender on his heels. It made him think I might not be running Y Option, even if the 80,000 people in the stands knew on third-and-8 I was running Y Option.

Come downhill out of the cut

You have one, two, three. But it's the fourth step of the route that was so critical. You have to threaten the defender with a powerful step and good body lean, but then you have to come back to the line of scrimmage to give the quarterback an avenue to throw the ball. You have to give up ground to gain ground. You can't round it off at second base, as I call it. If you do, the defender can come underneath the route and either knock down a pass or get an interception. Easiest way I can say it: By coming "downhill," you make the defender have to come through you to get the ball. The downhill motion creates a passing lane to an exact spot on the field that gives the quarterback a lot of confidence to deliver a strike. He can see me, and I'm coming back to the ball. Try to take that away and it's probably interference.

Build that chemistry

The quarterback has to trust you, and you have to trust the quarterback. That comes from the film room and the hours on the practice field. You run it over and over against different looks. You talk about different scenarios. Pretty soon you have this unspoken bond where the quarterback can read your body language. The tough part for the quarterback was he has to stick with you just a little longer, and it cuts down his options elsewhere. But if he knows he can get a completion at a critical moment, then he will live with the time needed. Romo and then Dak Prescott would trust me to be where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there.

Y Option isn't just a tight end route, although Zach Ertz and Jordan Reed are two of the better guys running it these days. Wide receiver Julian Edelman and Tom Brady have been doing it for years. We are seeing Cooper Kupp and Jared Goff work it the past two years with the Los Angeles Rams. Randall Cobb and Aaron Rodgers have that feel in Green Bay.

Those guys don't have the fastest timed speed, but they play fast. They are pure route runners. Their head is over their shoulders. Their shoulders are over their knees. Their knees are over their toes. They know how to get separation.

Quickness is more important than actual speed on an option route.

When it works

My favorite catch of my career came in the 2014 wild-card round of the playoffs against Detroit. It was fourth-and-6 at the Lions' 42-yard line with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. We were down three points. Coach Garrett put his trust in us to make a play.

We called Y Option.

Detroit lined up in Cover-2, which puts two deep safeties over the top to make sure they double-covered Dez Bryant and played the linebackers in press man coverage. Textbook Cover-2 Man.

The safety, James Ihedigbo, standing right in my face, took the place of a linebacker right over the top of me at the snap. As I got to the top of my route, Ihedigbo was trailing me just on the inside, I felt him sitting on my inside hip, exactly the way it is taught. Inside leverage should dictate an out cut. I turned my head like I was running outside as I slowed down. I could feel that Ihedigbo anticipated that Y Option was my route and was beginning to break on the cut. At that split second, I decided to activate the "option" and made the choice to turn in. As he made his break outside, I came back to the inside. Romo hit me perfectly for a gain of 21 yards. Six plays later, Terrance Williams scored the game-winning touchdown.

I don't know how Romo knew what I was doing. We did not talk about that before the snap. We just had a feel.

The most underrated route in football is not one that will show up in Chris Berman's highlight reel, but it moves the chains. A big reason for the offensive dominance of the New England Patriots over the years is that they had some of the finest option route runners the game has ever seen in Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. I couldn't run the way Jimmy Graham runs. I couldn't overpower defenders like Rob Gronkowski. I didn't go up and over people like Tony Gonzalez. But when it came to Y Option, I knew I'd win. It was everything that made me, me. Technical. Precise. Efficient.

The Y Option looks simple, but it is not easy.