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Chris B. Brown | December 27, 2012

The future is already here

How the Pistol Offense is changing the NFL

I watched a good football game the other day. One team built a big lead over the other with a dizzying array of strategies: shifts, motions, multiple formations, and even read-option plays, where the quarterback decided whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself based on the defense’s movement. With the score 31-3, I nearly stopped watching.

Then the trailing team sprang to life, scoring four touchdowns in less than a quarter, tying the game 31-31, by throwing the ball 65 times using three, four and five receiver sets and a frenetic no-huddle pace. The comeback failed, however, as the team that once led by 28 points responded with a quick touchdown of their own, and won 41-34. It was a good game, but an odd one.

What was not strange were the teams’ tactics. In high school and college, football has been rapidly changing. New variations on the read-option, no-huddle and all manner of other new offensive strategies seem to pop up every year. There, change is normal. But I wasn’t watching two high schools, or even two teams from the Mid-American Conference or the Big 12. No, what made the game odd was that I was watching the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots in the National Football League.

A new class of young, multitalented quarterbacks is dragging the NFL to its future

After years of being resistant to change, the NFL is suddenly using the newest and best ideas all over. Three of the NFL's top 10 offenses in yards and four of the top 10 in yards per play all rely to some extent on these innovative schemes [source]. So why is the NFL changing now? For the same reason change in football always happens: because football is in a moment, a moment when new kinds of ideas meet a new kind of talent. A new class of young, multitalented quarterbacks who can throw and run – not just one or the other – is dragging the NFL to its future.

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About three years ago, Greg Roman, then offensive coordinator at Stanford University, traveled to Reno, Nev., to visit with Nevada Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault to learn about his “Pistol Offense.” Before the 2005 season, Ault, unhappy with his offense, presented his staff with a new idea – a shotgun formation with the running back aligned directly behind the quarterback. “They thought I’d lost my marbles,” Ault recently recalled [source]. But with the “Pistol” Nevada went from near the bottom to the top of its conference in offensive production and over the next few years slowly added additional components to the attack to make it even more effective.

The potency of Ault’s offense peaked during the 2009 season when they finished the season with three 1,000-yard rushers – two running backs as well as lanky junior quarterback, a Colin Kaepernick, who added another 2,000 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. The following offseason Roman – along with many other coaches from across the country – visited Ault. He wanted to learn how to add some Pistol looks to the pro-style offense he ran at Stanford under head coach Jim Harbaugh. During their visit, Ault was, according to Roman, “very accommodating and it was very interesting as a coach to go really learn something totally new,” he said, adding, “That was very valuable time spent.”

The next season Stanford added a few such new looks, but did not focus on it. But, as fate would have it, Roman, now the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator, still under Harbaugh, coaches Kaepernick, the 49ers’ second-round draft pick in 2011. These days he finds himself going back to his notes from those few days he spent in Reno [source].

NFL coaches began to realize Ault’s ideas might be the next big thing

Still, even with his inside knowledge of Ault’s attack, and Kaepernick on the 49ers’ roster, Roman and Harbaugh didn’t immediately decide to turn things over to their young quarterback. Instead, and despite the off-and-on success teams like the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos had dabbling in these concepts with quarterbacks Cam Newton and Tim Tebow in 2011, it was not until this season, when Robert Griffin III entered the NFL and emerged as the Washington Redskins’ starting quarterback, that many other NFL coaches began to realize Ault’s ideas might be the next big thing. “The Redskins do it more than anybody,” said Roman. “We’re just starting to tap into it now.”

Griffin, the second-overall pick in the 2012 draft, is a preternaturally gifted player with a beautiful throwing motion and a knack for making good decisions on the football field – and he also just happens to have track-star speed. In college at Baylor, Griffin operated Art Briles’s offense, a no-huddle, fast paced spread-‘em-out-attack which aligned receivers as wide as possible without putting them in the bleachers [source] . Yet while Griffin often ran the ball at Baylor, they rarely used the Pistol look.

In the NFL, however, under the direction of head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and with Griffin at quarterback, the Redskins have made extensive use of Ault’s creation. When Mike Shanahan was head coach of the Denver Broncos, he melded the West Coast offense he’d used to win a Super Bowl with the zone blocking schemes offensive line coach Alex Gibbs brought from the San Francisco 49ers [source].Those schemes remain the foundation of the Shanahan-Redskins attack today. The Shanahans, in search of some way to mesh Griffin’s special talents with the zone blocking schemes they’d made famous nearly 20 years earlier, settled on the Pistol attack created by Ault as the centerpiece of their offense.

It's worked. Although the Redskins’ leaky defense and a few close losses have them at 8-6, they have arguably the most efficient offense in the NFL, fourth in total yards and leading the league with 6.2 yards per play. Another rookie, sixth-round draft choice Alfred Morris, is third in the league in rushing, while Griffin is second in the league in passing rating, a remarkable performance by a rookie quarterback. Although Pistol offense schemes are a big part of the Redskins’ identity, it’s not all they do. Their key to success has been that the Shanahans have found a way to blend the new schemes with what they’ve had success with for many years in the NFL, creating something that is a perfect fit for their uniquely talented rookie quarterback.

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“There are no gimmicks in our offense,” Nevada head coach Chris Ault recently explained. [source]. “When the shotgun offenses came out, I enjoyed watching those teams move the football. The thing I did not like was the idea of a running back getting the ball running east and west,” he said. “We have always been a north and south running game offense.”

The entire premise of Ault’s pistol attack is to combine the best of the shotgun spread offenses, like Chip Kelly’s attack at Oregon [source], with the traditional, north-south power attack Ault had coached for more than 20 years. The Pistol alignment is merely the means by which to do it; the “Pistol Offense” is this blend of old and new.

It is easy to see why Ault’s vision had more appeal to the NFL mindset than the “east-west” schemes of Chip Kelly or the other spread offense gurus. The NFL is a league concerned with its image, and, despite the efficacy of those offenses, for the NFL to adopt something as its own it must appeal both to the ego and the mind.

When Ault installs his offense every spring and fall, he begins with the same basic, downhill, inside zone running play that every NFL team uses. (Zone blocking is a method for determining who the offensive line will block one-on-one, who will be double-team, and which linemen will block linebackers). Inside zone is essentially a straight ahead play, and “zone” simply means each lineman has rules that may vary in regard to who he blocks. Initially, at least, there are no reads for the quarterback to make—he just makes a hand-off. [source]. Typically, when Ault calls the inside zone with no quarterback read, he calls “Slice,” a term which tells the fullback or tight-end to seal the backside defensive end, a block that will, hopefully, create a cutback lane for the ball carrier. That is basic football, from the Pistol formation – but not the offense itself.

Then it gets interesting. After “Slice,” Ault installs “Bluff” – another scheme NFL teams are now using. Bluff is Ault’s take on the zone read. Ault has his quarterback and running back turn away from where the base run play is going, so the quarterback can read the defensive end to the backside, who is not blocked, to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself. The running back also begins away from the side the play is going. His job is to open his arms, and take the hand-off only if the quarterback decides to give it to him, and then bend his path to the play side.

The other element Ault adds is the “arc” block. The fullback or tight-end loops around the defensive end that the quarterback is reading – making it look the same as Slice – but instead of sealing him off, the blocker bypasses him to take on the first defender in the alley, typically an outside linebacker. Not only is this effective deception, it is also designed to defeat most common defensive responses to the zone read [source].

Here is what happened when Ault’s plays are put in action in the NFL: On the first play of the game against the Baltimore Ravens a few weeks back, the Redskins lined up in the most traditional of all sets – two wide receivers, one tight-end, a fullback, and a tailback. It was the same alignment that has been used for the last 50 years, with one significant wrinkle: Robert Griffin III, and Alfred Morris, the Redskins’ tailback, were lined up in the Pistol.

The play was the inside zone read to the right – Zone Bluff, in Ault’s terminology – with the fullback on the arc path back to the left. Griffin’s job was to read the defensive end to his left. That defender’s movement would determine whether Griffin would hand off to Morris or keep it himself, following his fullback. The Ravens are not entirely unaware that this is coming; indeed, they’ve actually brought a safety, Bernard Pollard, close to the line to be an additional run-stopping defender. But it doesn’t matter.

Just after the snap, as the defensive end stays put in wait for Griffin, Griffin makes the correct read (an underrated aspect of Griffin’s game, as he almost always makes the right read) and hands off to Morris. This is often the best a defense can hope for against the zone read. While the read may take the defensive end out of the play, other defenders still have a shot to stop the run play by matching even numbers; all they have lost is the extra defender who is “blocked” by the quarterback’s read. But because both Griffin and Morris opened up to the left, away from where the inside run play was really going, the Ravens defense over-pursued. In response, Morris scooted to the right and ripped off a 21-yard gain. Although it looked like a cutback, it was actually where the play was designed for Morris to run.

The scheme is both sound and explosive. This was shown on Dec. 9, when the San Francisco 49ers, trying to ice a victory over the Miami Dolphins, called this same play, with one more wrinkle.

The 49ers also lined up in the Pistol set, with Frank Gore behind Colin Kaepernick, but instead of just one fullback they used two, one on either side of the quarterback. (These were actually tight-ends, but they played the role of fullbacks.) This is the “Diamond formation,” which first became popular during the 2010 season when Oklahoma State used it with great success [source] (though their quarterback, Brandon Weeden, was no running threat), and has since been picked up elsewhere. Against the Dolphins, the 49ers used the exact same concept as the Redskins, but with two “arcing” lead blockers instead of only one.

Kaepernick and Gore both opened to their left, with Kaepernick reading the Dolphins’ backside defensive end. But, unlike the Ravens, who keyed on Griffin, the Dolphins defense was almost entirely focused on Frank Gore plunging into the line. Kaepernick kept the ball himself, and darted away to find nothing but green grass and a wide open field. The result was a 50-yard touchdown run and, more importantly, a win for the 49ers.

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There was never any doubt these concepts would eventually be adopted by NFL coaches as a useful tool in a larger arsenal, but many resisted the notion of ever making the concepts the centerpiece of a team’s offense. The most common reason cited for such resistance was NFL defenses were simply too fast, too strong, too complex and too good for it to be successful. Yet that always got the point backwards. Those factors – while all true – also made it inevitable that the NFL would eventually adopt these concepts: Ault’s Pistol zone read attack, Chip Kelly’s no-huddle spread option, and other variants mathematically tip the scales back to the offense’s favor. It’s basic arithmetic.

“As I’ve tried to explain to people, whenever the guy who takes the snap is a threat to run, it changes all the math of defenses,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano said last March [source]. “That’s really what defense is, it’s getting your troops to where the ball is going to be. And when that guy holding it is a threat to run, it changes the numbers – minus-one.”

And it’s not all about running. The other reason – maybe the major reason – the NFL is now catching on is that they now see the effect these schemes can have on passing. When the quarterback is a threat to run, defenses must stack the line of scrimmage, opening up passing lanes and one-on-one matchups for wide receivers outside. “You do read-option, read-option, read-option and then get them to play seven or eight in the box and you've got so many variations of plays and passes you can run off that,” Cam Newton said recently [source]. Indeed, Mike Shanahan thinks that play-action which fakes a zone-read, whether from the pistol or other shotgun sets, is actually better than traditional under-center play-action because of the increased influence it has on linebackers and safeties looking for the run. “Not a little bit more,” said Shanahan. “A lot more.” [source]

Critics argue that these attacks create an increased risk of injury to quarterbacks

There was, however, one more argument against these ideas ever taking hold in the NFL; Griffin was injured and didn’t finish the Baltimore game referenced above (though his injury came on a scramble on a pass play, not a zone read). Critics argue that these attacks create an increased risk of injury to quarterbacks. That is a real concern, and if anything can short circuit these changes to the NFL game, it is this.

I don’t have a firm rebuttal, and to my knowledge there have been no comprehensive studies done at any level of football that measures the risk to quarterbacks in the concepts, so we’re left with anecdotes to judge by. Yet even if it is true – no, especially if it is true – the issue is not really about these spread concepts at all. All quarterbacks – and all NFL players, really – are constantly at risk of gruesome injury. Pocket passers like Carson Palmer, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have missed entire seasons because of injuries sustained while standing in the pocket, and quarterbacks are constantly hit while or just after releasing the ball, a far more vulnerable position than being hit while sliding following a 5-yard gain behind a lead blocker. If the argument is that the scheme is too dangerous to risk injury to Robert Griffin III, then the real argument isn’t to abolish these offenses, it’s to abolish football. That’s another discussion, but if that’s the actual concern then we have much bigger problems than the Pistol Zone Bluff.

The other rebuttal is simply to look and see what other teams are doing around the league. The clear trend is that more and more teams are adopting these concepts. Just as Roman and Harbaugh have embraced the trend to take better advantage of Colin Kaepernick’s skills, Seattle Seahawk head coach Pete Carroll has tapped into the best read option concepts as a spark for his offense led by his own dynamic rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson. Following a 19-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams, Carroll watched film of Griffin’s Redskins attack and saw something he didn't necessarily expect: an NFL team successfully using the very concepts he’d had to deal with when he was head coach at Southern Cal and faced Chip Kelly’s Oregon team [source].

“They’re way ahead of everybody else in terms of their commitment to a really college style of offense,” Carroll said of the Redskins. “And it’s been very effective.” [source]. While the Seahawks have not used the Pistol much this year, they have increasingly adopted the zone read and other college-style schemes. “It just opens you up to the possibility of some things to do,” Carroll explained. “It was a good move for me and it’s helped us a little bit. I was influenced a little bit more than I thought when I first looked at it. You see some of our stuff coming to life and it’s helping us.”

Unlike Kaepernick or Griffin, Russell Wilson rarely ran these plays in college, even though he had the skills to do so. He used the zone read sparingly at NC State, and I can’t recall him running it a single time in his final season at Wisconsin, which used what everyone understood to be a “pro-style” attack. Yet in Week 15, against the Bills, Wilson tied the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a game, with two of his three scores coming on the zone read. Russell Wilson had to go to the NFL to run a college-style system.

The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet

The common motivation for change in the NFL is not the genius of the coaches, or a desire to be revolutionary, or any kind of special tactical wisdom unforeseen by anyone before. In the NFL, change is not driven so much by the ideas themselves as by the skills of its players. In this instance it is the need to find a way that best takes advantage of the dynamic talent of young quarterbacks like Griffin, Kaepernick and Wilson. As long as more quarterbacks with their skills keep coming into the league, the NFL will continue to adapt. As William Gibson is supposed to have said [source], “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

About the Author

Chris B. Brown writes and edits and is a featured contributor to Grantland/ESPN. He has also contributed to The New York Times, Yahoo! Sports, and Slate. He lives in New York City.