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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Shotgun, The 'Gun, and the Shotgun Spread Offense

Ferment is abroad in football. The possibilities widen; new ideas are accepted and implemented within hours of conception. People are interested now in not just who their favorite players are, but what are these fascinating schemes. With the internet comes accessibility: now your high school runs what your favorite college team is not sophisticated enough to do. The ideas come from everywhere. The innovators are born on disparate staffs and the ideas ebb, flow, and crash together constantly, daily, hourly. Now even the big, famous schools must wade into the waters to hire those comfortable with its movements: Rodriguez to Michigan, Tony Franklin hired by Auburn.

This ferment is ideal. A decade ago ideas were stagnant. Football was only for the purists, and if you failed to replicate the Platonic ideals, then you hadn't been schooled properly. Five years later, the beginnings of the ferment - turbulent, muddy, a vigorous undercurrent. Ten years later - today, now - the waters are flooding, spilling onto that once sacred ground.

Rich Rodriguez, the Johnny Appleseed of the Spread, has been hired by Michigan. The Pundits talk of the "the Spread," the "Gun Spread," the "Gun Option," the "Airraid," the "Zone Read," and the "Pistol." The coaches talk of these too, but they also talk of the "Gun Jets Sweep," and the "Gun Jets," the "Gun Veer," and the "Gun Triple."

The ideas stir. They stir football itself. This reexamination of all that came before - restless, relentless. The search for good ideas, new ideas, ideas never before dreamed of. This - the ferment - is not a fad. It cannot be. It is football itself: there's been a synthesis.

The 'Gun and its history.

The shotgun itself, the perceived center of all of this "newness," has its roots in the beginning of football, however.
Most commentators, of course, seem to deify the "shotgun" itself as an entire offense rather than what it is - a particular way to align your quarterback and perform the center-exchange. Ironically, however, they also take a restricted view of the gun’s presence in football history, presuming it was invented, alternative, in the 60s (Red Hickey), the 70s (Tom Landry), the 80s (pick somebody), the 90s (pick somebody), or the 2000s (whoever they root for, or often Urban Meyer or some passing coach). Regardless, it's somewhat silly.

The point of this article is to show that (a) the shotgun itself has ancient roots, and is not some passing fad, (b) and, thus by inference, the ferment and change I spoke of in the introductory paragraphs is not as limited as how you align your Quarterback.

Indeed, I imagine that the shotgun's history would surprise many such commentators. The “gun” was in many ways the standard back in the early days of football. Especially consider that the under-center snap was not invented until at least a decade or so after football itself was invented, if not longer. In fact, in the fairly early days, players had to actually short-kick the ball with their heel (don’t ask me!) back as a form of snap. Also, the gun and the pass have been around since 1908-1910 or so, since the forward pass was legalized and encouraged by rule changes due to the “brutal” nature of football at a time when the “single-wing” and almost all offenses involved shotgun type snaps which lead to melees resulting from attempts to advance the ball.

To demonstrate the trends, I think there are four good “watershed” type games that either were representative for the time or helped us get where we are today, though there are surely others.

1. Notre Dame vs. Army Part I

In 1913, Notre Dame traveled to West Point to face the heavily favored Army. Final score: 35-13, Notre Dame. Knute Rockne, the famous future coach but then little-known end, caught an array of passes from one Gus Dorais, who that day nearly revolutionized the position. The legend grows larger over time, and the forward pass had been legal for roughly eight years, but that day Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns. Dorais even completed a pass to Rockne that, at the time, was the longest pass play ever. But more importantly, this game was the coming out party for the forward pass. Although this story might be collateral to the shotgun story – indeed Dorais was already operating out of the “gun” – but few would question that the forward pass still defines football today.

2. Notre Dame vs. Army Part II

By 1925, Rockne was Notre Dame’s coach. We all have heard these famous lines:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.

The four horsemen were four backfield mates who played for now-coach Knute Rockne. Most people forget the next few lines from that paragraph:

They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

Notre Dame won 13-7. To our story, this game was not so much a watershed as it was representative of the time: Notre Dame ran an all-shotgun offense known as the “Notre Dame Box.” The “box” was a shotgun formation where the center could snap to any one of four guys, depending how they lined up. So, the most famous galloping backfield of all time played in the Gun, however bizarre it would appear by today’s standards.

This should serve as a firm rebuttal to the argument that the shotgun is currently new or (more popularly) was invented only to pass. This is flatly wrong. From the beginning of football, the shotgun was about running the football and faking. Indeed, it was even about power. Just ask the Four Horsemen.

3. Chicago Bears vs. Washington Redskins – The day the shotgun died.

In 1940 Bears Coach George Halas unleashed his under center offense on the Redskins on the way to a modest 73-0 victory. The Bears utilized the then-fairly rare “Tee Formation,” where the Quarterback (remember, he was originally so named because of how far back he aligned - the term was a rugby term before it was a football term) would in line up under center with three backs behind him in a straight “Tee.” Using this formation, along with a series of fakes, counters, traps, bootlegs, and other deception Halas’s Bears crushed the Redskins to win the NFL title. Note that the Redskins had beaten the Bears earlier that season.

For the next thirty to forty years, the unequivocal primary method for hiking the ball was the under center snap. This game is also important because it shows that faking, deception, and using multiple ball carriers is not new, nor is it exclusive to the shotgun. It is simply a distinct concept.

After this game the shotgun made a few appearances, most famously with Red Hickey with the 49ers and Tom Landry with the Cowboys. And in the 80s and later in the 90s teams as disparate as the Miami Dolphins with Marino, Purdue with Joe Tiller and Drew Brees, and the Hal Mumme Kentucky Wildcats (with the support of Mike Leach) set quite a number of passing records in the gun. But this modern revolution came about, I believe, because people had to see how you could throw and run from the shotgun.

Although Rich Rodriguez probably deserve smore credit than anyone for spreading the concepts themselves, it was Northwestern’s late-coach Randy Walker who I think turned the football coaching world on its head one blue-skied afternoon in November, 2000.

4. Northwestern vs. Michigan – The Modern Era Dawns.

Northwestern defeats Michigan 54-51. This is shocking enough. Northwestern scored fifty-four points against a Michigan team known for great defense and great defensive talent. Doubly shocking. Quarterback Zak Kustok threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Not so shocking from a spread QB in victory. Don’t they always have to throw for this much to win? That’s why they get in the gun, right?

But wait, there’s another stat.

Northwestern Rushing: 332 Yards; 6.64 average per carry. 332 yards.

What? Three-Hundred and Thirty Yards rushing?

How did they do that? Yes their running back had a huge day, but the yards that also made everyone sit up and take notice were the 55 yards from Northwestern’s quarterback, Zak Kustok – hardly Vince Young or Pat White in raw athleticism. But the light went off across the country. If Zak Kustok can do it, maybe my guy can too. And even if he’s not Vince Young, just the threat that he can make the defense pay if they over pursue by getting me eight yards, then let’s do it.

Obviously, not everyone running the spread now saw this game. Even Gun Guru Urban Meyer didn’t start running this offense until his Bowling Green days sometime after this game, and he admittedly went out to others to learn the offense. The shotgun run-game didn’t bubble up inside anyone like a well-spring. But this was the game that changed the landscape.

Where we are are now.

So Randy Walker and Rich Rodriguez blew the doors off. The gun is now fully part of the arsenal for nearly every team, and the sky is the limit on what you can do. The all-eleven offense, the pistol, and the single-wing itself are all part of the calculus. Who knows, maybe we’ll see a major team running the Notre Dame box.

I thought I’d provide a quick summary of some of the factors in the calculus for when you want to use the gun. Observe that many of the factors come from Coach Homer Smith, so I can’t too much credit.

Advantages of the Shotgun

- The QB can get deeper in a given amount of time (whether the 3 yard “pistol” snap or a 7-8 gun for passing)

- Lateral play faking (but not drop back style play action, at least so easily) can be achieved

- Relatedly, the zone-read is a kind of “bootleg-plus” in that instead of calling a blind bootleg, you make the backside defensive end wrong every time)

- Some QB's can see better (i.e. wider field of vision)

- The depth of the QB often forces the defense to expose its pressure plans more clearly

- The RB might be able to pick up a blitz better (i.e. no dropping QB to bump into)

- It does not need a snap count and helps mitigate crowd noise factors (though many still use a snap count)

Disadvantages of the Shotgun

- The QB has to take his eyes off the pass defense and has to watch the ball into his hands. This effect also somewhat reduces the QB’s ability to see the coverage and read changes (Cover 2 to 1, etc.) until after the snap. This is particularly acute for 3-step passes, where you have to catch and throw almost immediately. The read becomes almost exclusively pre-snap.

- The Shotgun alignment makes some lead-plays more difficult. I also would argue that the “gun-option,” as such, is not completely structurally sound in the way other veer plays are. Some gun teams have tried to develop the veer from the gun. Time will tell whether they are successful. (This requires more discussion than I have space for.)

- It becomes a crutch for the QB and an easy way to avoid improving footwork and play faking. I think this is an underrated problem. Footwork in the gun is (a) easier, because it is less, but is (b) prone to getting very, very sloppy. If there is any knock against “spread gun” QBs who go to the Pros, this one of the few viable ones, but can be simply overcome with good coaching.

- It retards the notion of a power run game and shifts more towards deception based delays, options, or draw type run plays. This is not a bad thing, though true.

- It can amplify your QB’s athletic skills, in either direction. If they are very athletic, it can improve their ability to make plays, but if they are not athletic many traditional QB plays – bootlegs, play action, and certain lead-option type run plays - are almost entirely out of the question.

- The footwork of the QB changes as does timing for pass plays. The "mesh" point for hand-offs to the RB change as well. Now Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen says this is one reason they run shotgun almost exclusively, so they can practice just one thing and get good at it.

So there are pros and cons. What this mostly counsels is a commitment to what you do, an organized, systematic approach to your offense, and an acknowledgment of where your weaknesses are as well as your strengths. The great shotgun teams work on this consistently, the haphazard teams will consistently both live and die by their sword-of-the-moment.


Carl said...

Great stuff, as usual. One nitpick: I'm pretty sure the term "quarterback" originated from how _far_ back he played, not what percent of the time he was in the backfield. Quarterback, halfback, and fullback were all rugby terms long before they were football terms: the quarterback lined up a quarter of the way back, the halfback half-way back, and the fullback the whole way back.

Chris said...

Corrected. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

There's some more insight to where the sotgun is at in these times and how it was assimilated within the vaunted 'West Coast Offense' that has dominated the sport.

Then there a new way to add two unique concepts out there together for a new look, coaches here use or have seen the system.

In my opinion, adding to it with this can take the new schemes to an entirely new level.

We'll discuss that in depth soon also...

Anonymous said...

The shotgun met the West Coast Offense when two great players were given the formation in their pro careers.

John Elway had the shotgun and spread as his main scheme with Dan Reeves. He made Super Bowl appearances and Championship appearances. His team lacked other items and could not get over the hump, so coming coaching changes along with personnel led to the integration of his schemes.

Mike Shanahan came back after a several years with the West Coast Offense that his coaching tree made famous with the San Francisco 49ers.

He had some things already established that he could build on as an assistant(quarterback coach) to Denver during some Elway years. Elway had amazing stats and efficiency with the shotgun, and playoff wins. This could be used to develop the timed routes of the WCO Shanahan had with his Niners experience as OC for three seasons. All of the timing and sets could be implemented with his WCO items and made into deeper reads and progressions, Elway's arm and mobility helped that even more.

The scripted offense, using deeper sets and the same timing urgency famous for the WCO, made his team the best first quarter scorer in its heyday.

His running game is quite celebrated, using the cut block to slow backside pursuit so additional lanes develop to give a single set back multiple keys.

Without a lead block to key teams can or may over pursue, the line technique prevents the penetration that a one back set should be susceptible to, as linemen hesitate when knee level blocks are used.

The zone set makes it a bit easier to sell some play action, a back can hit the hole quicker and the short set for those three step routes works right with it.

That comes from under center.
Just about the time you'd expect a defense to feel this kind of tactic the shotgun gets used. Now the QB can get the snap and set up or back on three counts and still hit the timed route.

Then DB who watches the backfield too much can get sold the slant-go. They're used to slants and quick outs, hooks to move the chains that have room to work from the big arm Elway could display.
The foe gets caught looking in, the passer will take it over from there.

From the shotgun run a back can still run zone reads in similar ways. Talented halfbacks can use the jump step to reset their feet in combination with an explosive cross step. The run and shoot Oilers and K Gun Bills used that best. The deeper set from snap sells the screen much easier.
A deeper handoff gives the angle to allow skill adjustment, provided the ball gets secured instantly. It develops like a draw play, and causes defensive hesitation.

The other coach who used the shotgun to add with what the WCO does is Mike Holmgren. Like Shanahan, he believed in a big running game, using explosive Dorsey Levens when his team was at its peak output in terms of balance.

His quarterback Bret Favre is on his way to the Hall of Fame, a gifted and gritty athlete. Put a wideout on his team, they can become a name player or develop signature moves because of Favre's arm, some quick completions, and the protection key with deeper shotgun sets for accurate timed routes.

Original WCO routes seemed to get out of breaks quicker, going the three to five yard break, passes could then stay in the air less time and get to the target's hands fast so yards after catch could win the game.

With the strong armed QB using the shotgun, the timed route could get a bit deeper and this meant that spacing could work to greater advantage. Isolation routes to one side could be used and the front side could still be a variety of crossing routes and clearouts.

The best item to use for helping pre snap reads today is the hand signal for a snap. The QB needs to be really demonstrative on two and three signal fakes to try and determine what the rotation could do. Before and after motion could only help that as well out of some sets, preferably no huddle or scripted starts where there' time to do it.

So three and five step sets still work for timing from the shotgun. The release point is different.

I've seen Favre use a seven step set once off the shotgun, it resulted in an incompletion but arguably could of had an interference flag thrown. He used about 60 yards of air on the pass as well. His WR couldn't hold on, and he was hit while throwing by a DB who was spying the back.

The line was looking for big guys who could take a QB out to block and the back staying in just missed the guy or assumed the ball was gone. Sherman was coach at the time. Had the back made his block Favre could have perhaps put even more on the ball to get it there, to lead the man more, though no waiting on the ball was involved.

It was deemed too risky, I've not seen it sued since. Only a few arms could even make such an item usable.

So if you prefer quick routes, rubs, kickscreens, set the shotgun shallow or step up off the snap.

Medium reads under zones three and five sets on down and distance, screens can work good with either read and teams screen well behind blitzes as a favorite counter(IMO something the pistol needs to implement more).

Deep seven step sets can be used, only to the screen or deepest route(787,all go,etc.) combinations and the most powerful arms, or to sell screens vs. teams with poor awareness on edge. I've sent suggestions to call plays in that way at prior times to friends, but including the protection concerns with it they appear to have become scared of its use.

More on the pistol and how to better its use it on the weekend, enjoy the Bowl Games this season.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned the 2000 Northwestern team that put up 54 points against Michigan, how did Northwestern do against Nebraska that year in the Alamo Bowl? 66-17 Nebraska.

Chris said...


And how does that change what Northwestern did against Michigan? Would it be an effective article if I wrote that the triple-option was completely ineffective because Nebraska got crushed by Miami in the National Championship game? Of course not.

Anonymous said...

Great article! I'm a former triple option coach. Tony DeMeo . currently head coach at University of Charleston in West Virginia started as a Triple Option coach in the Wishbone, was one of the early Flexbone coaches and about 8 years ago(?)went to Shotgun and ran Veer from it. Very good if not great offensive coach with his belief in a balance between Triple Option running game and the passing game. Hed would be a great source for your research on the Veer and the Shotgun.

Anonymous said...

A lot of teams run from a shotgun the very first time they show it in a game these days at pro and college levels.

Rock Throwing Peasant said...

I always I think Nevada runs an interesting shotgun formation. The RB is three yards or so behind the QB. Gives a certain amount of flexibility. I always want to sit down and watch it. Never get the chance, though.

Anyone else have the chance to see/study it?

Rock Throwing Peasant said...

Sorry if that looks jumbled.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, this was a great article. I don't know about other people here, but it made me wonder about the origins of the triple option and the option game in general.

Anonymous said...

The pistol offense is one I faced.

It works better from two back, I'll tell you that much.

We still got to it a lot, I won't discuss much of how at this time.

Had they used better passing tree progressions it could have been rectified for the most part.

Establish a slant early so the passes get out fast and the edge blitz can be limited.

Several pro and college games this past week teams showed a heavy A gap blitz if the QB stayed under center. The solution was to check into a shotgun. Don't let it be the sole way to respond, but do develop effective groupings and formations around that concept.

Force their guys best fit for blitzing and running to stay in coverage, then that downhill pistol concept can work wonders if your halfback can develop a sense of acceleration and get that handoff down pat from a quick gun.

That's why the Pistol works better from two backs IMO. You can change the direction of a run on the go, if both backs read straight ahead their first step and the QB has command of his ability to improvise.

The concept is the structure, the player is the intangible factor.

The team we faced didn't have a great running QB, but he was very tough and I thought the two back pistol could work provided they found early and effective counters to an aggressive D like ours.

They ran a deep I pistol, we stopped it. Teams began to copy our style.

What is crucial to developing success is emphasis upon fakes and blocking. They can't see where the ball is if you do it right. Think of a veer initial read.

Then the depth of the pistol back gives you a way to widen out to the flat around the edge rusher going after the snap catch point.

Since you have two backs the spread can still work its magic effectively in terms of protecting the passer, or you can go slot and force the coverage to declare quicker in similar fashion, and still set up big plays on the traditional slow draw I lead to the strong side if they get over the a bit too end quick like we did and your lead blocker is solid like theirs was. It was never run on us effectively or even really tried, the pass rush never let them establish a need to play in coverage to sell the draw.

Passing weapon at TE, spread it out, split him off the formation, or go to a base look and basically h-back the te. Even better with a slash at slot, you can motion him under C and run the straight full I option.

Run TE, read his side of the field like a solid downhill run, set up the backside a crossbuck off one of the two backs(front back on the run for two tight or an interior dive/trap similar to veer plays, deep pistol on the classic stretch/iso read where he simply keys a free shoulder or turned blocker backside.

Then you develop true play action. Off a trapping look on a blocking H back, run block TE, or iso lead off the TE standing up five yards off the T.

You can still widen one of those backs out, max protect both, or develop screens off the good spacing a deep back provides.

The pistol's best item is that it can catch certain DB into a lull state of watching the backfield too much. We tried to press that from an initial point on top of the route with good success.

Other teams would get caught at that more often, but that relied upon establishing the run. It's quite easy to slide protect or kick out with a true lead I blocker. The offset pistol I works wonders there, we were able to get to the handoff point so much it gave them trouble but if you truly set a formation all strong and go that way it can work.

Develop your slide and protections, your run blocking on down looks off tackle and straight on man blocking ahead. Perhaps line up your best pull blocker where he can work best off that overload/offset I pistol so he can counter the weak rush. That's how we killed the pistol, blitz off the edge especially weakside. Having a great trap blocker who can even lead out screens, it can really limit that backside pursuit.

A good 2 te, 2 back set can work that pistol if you have true big time WR who requires constant double teams. And with 2 TE you can match your run TE to one side and your split TE/h-back to the other.

Motion tends to make pistol success more effective from what I've seen of Nevada's one back set. Use it with greater run emphasis in an I offset pistol.

There's still another set of concepts to work in off a classic formation with the pistol. Very similar to the T and classic shotgun post you've shown in the article.

The pistol concept can really higlight a great playmaker at QB. A management/distributive type of QB can also work it in if you arm them with protections, counters, and screens. The spacing of the formation is a big part of the concept. Learn ways to limit the other's team's ability to play in space past the line of scrimmage to your side. Develop effective ways to burn their most aggressive moves. Once they play on skates a management QB can pick and choose and nickle-dime teams death.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Green Bay used that Rockne shotgun look at times. Favre had a TE motion to the backfield to lead as a short FB to the offset side.

It was a different look and it seems to set up some items, that extra shallow blocker was killing line stunts on the interior so the T could really widen and set up a pocket for deep sets.

Anonymous said...

The Chargers used the old fashioned shotgun today in their playoff game. Gates lined up shallow off G or behind him.

I see why in game time. When he's at TE the line can shift over or the LB to take away the strong lead he provides.

On the inside behind the G he can lead the run to the inside or outside. So the D can't do the most common tactic for stopping the strong lead(slant) and if they commit inside the TE can still lead out wide like a pulling G.

Having a G stay inside and the TE lead can make the ILB/MIKE stay home or commit inside.

A nice wrinkle to use, on occasion, it was really effective to the short side since it gives you two run gaps to choose a lead from.

Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,
Very nice work, did you consider Dutch Meyer(TCU - late 40's/early 50's) or Howard Fletcher (Northern Illinois early 60's)as part of your spread history ?

Ted Seay said...

Chris: Some comments and tidbits.

First, Pop Warner's 1906 innovation, the direct-snap single wing, took some ideas he had been using even earlier and adapted them to the new rules promulgated in 1905. Direct snap football was, as you point out, about power and deception first, but soon embraced passing as a potent part of the attack.

Next, there have been some great innovators in the direct-snap passing game -- Ray Morrison at SMU, Leo "Dutch" Meyer at TCU, and an extremely neglected one, Gene Ronzani with the early 1950's Green Bay Packers:

Finally, a link to the shotgun version of my Wild Bunch offense which I've been working on recently -- I've married an innovative play series from semi-spread single wing, Dr. John Ward's half-spin counter series, with the Fly Sweep series from shotgun: