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Football 101:The Shotgun, The Pistol And The Cowboys 2014 Offense

An evolving offense, too? The shotgun mostly, and the pistol ever increasingly, are becoming the common alignment for the QB in today's NFL. No longer are we seeing the QB under the center for the majority of the snaps. Will this trend continue and perhaps even expand? Will Scott Linehan add some new things to this already successful offense?

The Shotgun and Pistol snap
The Shotgun and Pistol snap
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Tom Landry has been given credit for a lot of things, but one thing he doesn't get enough credit for is bringing back the shotgun formation. He did not invent it but he is the major reason it is so popular now.

While Red Hickey of the San Francisco 49er's was the one credited for bringing it to the NFL in 1960, he also is credited for it being retired again in October of 1961 after he felt it was exposed by the Bears in a 31-0 defeat.

The 49ers, with their three-quarterback shotgun offense, got off to a quick 4-1 start that included 49-0 and 35-0 wins over the Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Rams. However, in a game against the Chicago Bears on October 22, the shotgun misfired. Bears linebacker Bill George found a weakness. Instead of lining up in his usual linebacker spot, George moved up to the line of scrimmage. With his added presence, the Bears were able to penetrate by attacking the center and getting through to the quarterback. After harassing 49er quarterbacks all afternoon, the Bears clobbered San Francisco 31-0.

Soon after that game, Hickey figured the shotgun was dead and retired the formation. However, several years later, the formation returned when Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys added a refined version to their offensive strategy.

However, Tom Landry saw that it just needed tweaking and he began using it often just a few years later. It was slow to catch on, but the momentum was there and continued. Some of the Dallas coaches since Landry liked it and some didn't. One of the things that I didn't like about Bill Parcells philosophy was his disdain of the shotgun. He felt that you could not run as much from that formation so he discouraged its use. Thank God Sean Payton, Jason Garrett and Tony Romo loved it, and used it a lot.

Let's look at the dynamics of that wonderful formation.


The concept was and is to give the QB an easier read of the defense without having to back-pedal while trying to do it. And when you're seven yards deep, you can see over the linemen easier than you can when you're just backing out from center.

Now, the thing that is often not emphasized enough is the two really bad things that can happen to the QB while he is backing up.

The first is something that happened to Troy Aikman occasionally: a linebacker blitzing up the A gap could time his leap or stunt to get to Aikman just as he got the ball from the center.

Next, when the QB is backing up he turns his shoulder and twists his body towards the sideline which creates what the experts call a "Blind Side." For a right-handed QB the blind side is to his left and hence the extra importance of the left tackle, and the left-handed QB is just the opposite.

Think about it, with the shotgun the QB is not only already back there, but he has no blind side! He is nearly always square to the line of scrimmage until he starts his throwing motion and then he may have a blind side for a very short time. These two things are huge in my opinion. Since 2011, the supposed problem with the run in the shotgun has been seen for what it is, just a lack of forward thinking in how to do it. The use is on the rise. Read here.

The last couple of years I was watching how such immobile QB's as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady seldom got sacked, and it obviously had something to do with their terrific offensive line play, but maybe that is because the line looks so good because the QB is in the shotgun. He is then able to read the defense better, and get rid of the ball quicker when he is able to see the blitzer coming at him because he essentially has no blind side.


The direction for the future may be with the pistol and we may see this trend continue because it solves the major complaint from guys like Parcells that it is harder (less plays to choose from) to run from the shotgun. Although I always felt that you could come up with enough running plays out of the shotgun if you just put your mind to it. Again, see the link above.

The pistol lines the QB up five yards deep instead of the normal seven, and in this case the running backs can be lined up behind the QB which is a more advantageous position to execute running plays and yet the QB is not under center.

Even Peyton Manning has been using the pistol depth (Note I said pistol depth, not formation).


Notice that Peyton still has a clear view of both defensive ends which again means no blind side. This is one of the big reasons he seldom gets sacked in my opinion.


The days where you will see the QB drop back and do a lazy fake hand off are thankfully on their way out (at least to the teams that are awake and not stuck in a rut).

The purpose of the fake hand off is to keep the linebackers from dropping into the zone that is behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. You want the fake hand off to freeze the linebackers so they don't drop back into that in-between zone by making them think for a short time that the play is a run. The defense has several keys or reads that they watch for to give them a good idea if it is a run or pass.

First is the hi-hat, low-hat read. This means if the offensive linemen raise up (hats/helmets go up), then it says it might be a pass because linemen will raise up to start their pass protection techniques from the upright position. If it is a run play, then they will keep their hats/helmets down low and usually fire out at the defensive linemen. If they don't go more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, then the quarterback can still pass the ball, but if they go beyond that then the old "illegal man down field" penalty will usually be called.

If the offensive coordinator wants to confuse the keys or reads of the defense, he might have the linemen do a high-hat but use the zone blocking scheme run/pass where they are moving toward one sideline or the other to make sure they don't get called for the dreaded illegal man down field penalty and can still run or pass out of that play or formation. The defense has to hesitate and look to see if the quarterback actually hands the ball off.

The quarterback needs to actually do a really good sales job of putting the ball in the running back's stomach and then wait as long as he can before bringing it back out and throwing the pass.

Improvements in the fake hand off can be seen in the new "zone read" option plays that Chip Kelly runs, where instead of just making a semi-effort to put the ball in the stomach of the running back, or in other words, just "show the ball in front of the back's stomach", Kelly teaches to actually put the ball in their stomach for a second and then sometimes have the running back go with it, and then other times pull it back out after the running back has taken a step or two towards the line of scrimmage with the ball in his hands.

This new approach has been very successful for even the non-pistol quarterbacks. Let me see, I had better take a moment to explain the difference between the pistol offense and the pistol formation and the quarterback at pistol depth. The pistol offense is really a running offense that also utilizes the running skills of the quarterback to add to the number of skill positions the defense has to account for.

There are 11 players on offense and 11 players on defense. Of the 11 on offense, five are linemen, one is the quarterback, and the remaining five are the tight ends, running backs and wide receivers. We often refer to these five players as the skill position players. Typically the defense only has to account for the five skill position players as far as being able to run or catch the ball. But, in the pistol offense, the quarterback becomes the sixth player the defense has to account for.

The reason this is a problem is that all offseason and all season these defenses have been trained and coached how to account for the five skill position players and now when the pistol offense or even a running quarterback is encountered, it can make the defense very nervous. Most importantly it changes the amount of time they can spend on practicing against what they normally go against and have to spend a significant amount of time preparing for that extra sixth skill position player and it means also putting into the game plan how to try to account for him.

What you will hear from coaches if you listen carefully is that the pistol offense or the zone-read does not have to be the main part or even a significant part of your offense, just run it a few times each game and the defense will have to spend a lot of time preparing for it.


I mention all that mainly to say that I believe we will see more and more of the pistol depth, not the pistol offense or lots of pistol zone reads or option reads around the NFL this year, to be able to do the new fake hand off that is so successful. I am sure I saw Romo do it last year some, and I expect to see him do it more this year. The thing about Scott Linehan is he is very scheme flexible, he uses a lot of different schemes to maximize the talent he has on the team. If he has a DeMarco Murray that he feels has lots of different skills he can exploit, he will do it. And if he thinks the pistol depth can give us an advantage as we briefly saw last year, I believe he will take advantage of that as well.

Another thing to watch for is that if Linehan thinks that Romo has real skills at going deep, then he will put that in the offense as well. I remember Kurt Warner saying that what made the Rams offense so good was the philosophy that you normally get an average of 12 possessions and 60 snaps of the ball on offense each game and that it was imperative that you get eight great shots over 20 yards down field per game. If the defense knows that you are going to do this, then they will be thinking on every play that "this play could be one of those eight" and it opens up the running plays like nothing else does.

I have often thought that teams should experiment with moving the shotgun back a few more yards, say from the normal seven yards to 10 yards, and see if that didn't improve even more on the time the QB has to get rid of the ball, and the extra distance giving him even more vision over the linemen and finally allowing even more room to step up into the pocket.

But, the NFL is a copy cat league and coaches are not normally ones to think outside the box since they only have so many plays that they are comfortable with, and they know they can't fail with unknown experiments - or as Jerry Glanville used to say about what NFL stood for: Not....For....Long.

Well there you have it, another Football 101 post with X and O stuff. Hope you liked it.

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