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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Simple Approach to the Run and Shoot - Part 1

The most famous game that involved a team running the run and shoot offense was one where that team lost: the infamous "greatest playoff comeback of all-time," where the Buffalo Bills came back from 35-3 down to beat the Houston Oilers in overtime. The storyline was, to many, that the Oilers' four-wide offense couldn't control the clock and gave up the lead. Maybe so. But something had to go right for them to get the 35-3 lead (and score 38 for the game to send it into overtime). Maybe the offense failed to prepare the defense -- that was a common meme for years, but seems to have receded when spread offense teams like the Florida Gators or the New England Patriots comebine great offenses and defenses.

And it's true, no NFL team runs the pure 'shoot anymore (though some high school and small colleges do, and of course June Jones does at SMU). But the concepts live on, and the "spread 'em and shred 'em" philosophy the 'shoot engendered has found more and more converts over the last two decades. But the offense is not particularly well understood; it is still considered an outlaw approach. And true, the dedication the offense requires to be run well also requires something approaching exclusivity: not much time is left to devote to doing other things.

But, I am a big believer that the 'shoot both can be a very viable offense in and of itself (hello June Jones!), and, even more than that, I think that understanding the offense is one of the best ways to really understand passing offense generally. This is evidenced by the fact that the offense's concepts live on in the playbooks of every NFL team and a great swath of college and high school ones.

So, this offseason I am starting a multi-part series on a "Simple Approach to the Run and Shoot." The series' purpose a few-fold: (1) to explain what makes the Run and Shoot distinct from the larger umbrella of "spread offenses" (including Mike Leach's Airraid, with which it is often compared and confused with); (2) to explain the offense's core tenets in a way could provide insight into all passing offenses; and (3) to provide a possible real-world system that distills the run and shoot's major points (and combines them with some of the best of the modern passing game) into something that could be used at the high school or small college level.

In this introduction, I will begin with some of the offense's core philosophy. In future posts I will address some of the specifics.

Philosophy and tenets

There are four major points that make the 'shoot the 'shoot, and then a few ancillary ones that have come into play over the years.

  • Pass-first offense. Not all spread offenses are pass-first, and not all teams that use run and shoot concepts are pass-first, but if you're going to commit to the offense, you begin with the past (and often end there too). When the Hawai'i coaching staff under Junes Jones gave a clinic talk to other coaches at the AFCA convention a few years back, they named their talk "For those who like to throw the ball." One of the major reasons for this is just practice time: you can only do so many things well. By specializing as pass-happy team they get an incredible amount of repetitions doing the things they do over and over and doing them well.

  • Four wide-receiver commitment. Now there's much debate within coaching circles if you can be a "run and shoot" team without being a four-wide receiver team. (Ironically, the Bills who beat the Oilers in that game and helped drive out the pure shoot were themselves a team that used primarily run and shoot concepts but with a tight-end, hence their nickname, the "K-Gun.") Moreover, run and shoot teams are actually far less multiple by formation than the typical spread team. They typically use a two-by-two spread look or a "trips" spread look with a single backside receiver and three to the other side. And they rarely go five-wides. There are many reasons for this -- including specialization of players -- but a big motivator is that their receivers and quarterback do so much reading after the snap they want to keep it simple before it; they want to see where the defense lines up and attack that. If you have fixed assignments, you are more concerned with moving the defense around to open those up; if you can adjust on the fly, that doesn't matter as much.

  • Receivers read the defense on the fly. This is probably the biggest difference between the modern "spread" and the 'shoot. Some of that distinction is a matter of shades of gray, but in other cases it is quite dramatic. The point about formations was made above, but the basic theory behind the offense goes back to the originator, Tiger Ellison. As the story goes, he wanted an offense that emulated what was most natural, so he observed playground and backyard football. He said you didn't see highly formalized lines and alignments or wedge plays and all that. Instead you saw a kid, on the run, tossing passes to receivers who would keep moving until they found open spots. To Ellison, if you didn't coach the kids too much they began "run and shooting" on their own, so he thought this was how people really want to play. Hence, his receivers would read and react on the fly to get open.

    As Mouse Davis, who did as much to develop the modern 'shoot as any human could, has explained: "We are always going to adjust on the run to the defensive coverage," he said. "If the defense sets in one look, we are going to make one route adjustment. If the defense sets in another look, we are going to make another route adjustment."

  • There are a few ancillary points that have been part of the offense, but to a varying degree. For my purpose in this series they are important but not imperative.

  • Quarterback movement. In Ellison's original shoot and the versions used by Mouse Davis and in the NFL, the quarterback always began with a "half-roll" or semi-"sprint out," where he moved the pocket and attacked the corner. If you watch the video below of Portland State (now coached by run and shoot veterans Jerry Glanville and Mouse Davis; Portland State is in white and black), you'll clearly see what this looks like. This comported with Ellison's original vision of the run and shoot, and the fact that pass defenders had to contend with the threat of the quarterback running at them distorted the coverage. Nevertheless, some teams now have evolved to more of a dropback look, and June Jones now at SMU uses something of a hybrid. Moreover, what pass protection schemes you want to use will influence how you have your quarterback drop back.

  • Motion. This is probably one of the bigger changes with the 'shoot. In the original days, the idea was to have motion on every play, constantly moving from twins to balanced and back and forth. Now, however, defenses are better at disguising their reactions to motion and not giving away whether they are man or zone, so most teams have just disregarded it and just chosen to play. Nevertheless it is still a good tool to reveal certain techniques, and never underestimate how much it can affect a defense to change the strength of a formation.

  • Wrap-up

    This is enough for now. In future parts of the series I will address topics like adjusting pass patterns on the fly, the basic run and shoot concepts like "switch," "go," and "choice," pass protection, marrying other pass concepts with the shoots, and quick passes and screens. Below are a few more run and shoot clips.


    Anonymous said...

    Great stuff Chris. I'm looking forward to the rest of this series. The RnS really is a fascinating philosophy.

    Doc said...

    I would like to see the clear distinction made with the Air Raid. I assume the reads are different and its not just that the space and seams created by the alignment?

    Ted Seay said...

    Outstanding, Chris -- and I second the call for making as clear a distinction between R&S and Air Raid as possible at some point (perhaps toward the end of your series).

    BTW, an NAIA program started spring practice on Monday installing the Wild Bunch.

    Anonymous said...


    Great format and precise explanation of the run and shoot. I particularly like your incorporation of Mouse Davis' thoughts on moving the pocket and giving receivers the opportunity to adjust and read the defensive coverage. I think this is one reason why the R&S is so effective if run well.

    Anonymous said...

    Its a great start. You left me wanting more. I cant wait for the next installment.

    Anonymous said...

    If possible, I'd like to see in future posts the strategic changes Mouse Davis / June Jones used when they ran the R&S in Detroit with Barry Sanders. It seemed that the 1991 Lions offense was almost a perfect R&S with semi-mobile qb's (Peete & young Kramer) both smurf and stretching tall WR's (incl Willie Green and Herman Moore) and a relatively mobile line with Glover, Brown, etc.

    Anonymous said...

    And just remember what the immortal Wayne Fontes said after firing Mouse Davis/June Jones and bringing in Dan Henning when asked why he was changing from the run & Shoot-

    "We scored too fast"

    I miss Wayne Fontes.

    Anonymous said...

    Great article Chris.

    Couple of thoughts, motion used with R and S and now utilized with Jet Sweep, Zone Read Option and Speed option out of the gun is an interesting mix of offenses.

    Chris said...

    coachorr: One of the later posts in this series will address some options for marrying the R&S passing game with different run game philosophies. The jet stuff will definitely be among them.

    Griffin Caprio said...

    Great article.

    This may be a minor point, but mentioned "four major points in the R&S and a few ancillary ones". However, I only counted 3 major point before you got to the Quarterback movement ancillary point. Did you miss one or am I miscounting?