Smart Links – Chris Ault’s Pistol, Chip Kelly’s Non-Pistol, 3-4 vs 4-3, Chappelle Show, Next Wave of Dual-Threat QBs – 1/23/2013

Former Nevada coach and Pistol Offense auteur Chris Ault has been on a bit of a media blitz recently; check out interesting interviews he’s done with the New York Times and the NFL Network. And in his interview with Mercury-News’ Jerry McDonald, Ault highlighted the fact that it’s myopic to think of this stuff as just the read and specifically the quarterback keep. Instead, what makes it all work — and potentially viable for the future in the NFL — is it’s just one piece of the puzzle but it actually bolsters the rest of what you do.


Where it always begins

Q: Seems like common sense to take advantage of the athletic skills these quarterbacks have . . .

Ault: Absolutely. I’m not here to tell you that the 49ers should run the read 16, 17 times a game. You can’t do that in the NFL. But I think by running the read play, it’s in your offensive system and you’re going to run it five times, nine times a game, it’s one more thing you’ve got to defend. And then when you throw the play-action pass off it, that’s another thing. So it’s not just one dimension that you’ve got to look at, it’s a couple of things. You see Kaep run that 56-yard touchdown, and you say, great, that’s the read option. And it is great. But I think one of the things that set that up was a couple of the play-action passes out of the pistol.

Q: Atlanta saw to it that Russell Wilson did not carry the ball on the read option based on how they deployed their linebackers . . . Kapernick’s running on the read option can be taken away, correct? And in so doing, do you relinquish the middle?

Ault: That’s exactly right and that’s what happened in college. They would load the outside and take Kaep away, and that’s why it’s the read. You give the ball off. We really designed our pistol offense, where we want the running back to carry the football. That is first and foremost in our thinking. But all of a sudden, you just fall asleep, just like Green Bay, you’re handing it, and handing it and handing it, and he might’ve been able to pull it a couple of other times, but he waited until the right time. No question, they might just say, ‘We’re not going to let this Kaepernick run the ball.’ And we had that in college. Then, it gives you an opportunity to run the read and the play-action pass.

This was fairly prophetic by Ault, as Atlanta ended up trying to take away Kaepernick and in the process gave up over 125 yards and 3 touchdowns to Frank Gore and LaMichael James, as well as some big play-action passes. (Though not all of this was from the Pistol; LaMichael James’s touchdown came on the inverted veer.)

One of the persistent myths repeated in the otherwise very good New York Times piece mentioned above is that Chip Kelly ran the pistol at Oregon. This is, as I’ve mentioned before, incorrect, as Chip himself has explained:

Q. One of the recent trends in the NFL is more pistol formation. People are tracing that back to you. Your thoughts on what seems to be a melding of the NFL and college games.

COACH KELLY: Don’t know. Haven’t been there. Don’t run the pistol offense. That’s not what we do.

Chris Ault at Nevada invented the pistol offense. Just retired. Great football coach out there. There’s a lot of ways to play football. Pistol, don’t know that very well. We’re more of a spread run team.

Trends go one way and the other. I said this a long time ago, if you weren’t in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne when they invented this game, you stole it from somebody else. Any coach is going to learn from other people and see how they can implement it in their system. Anything you do has to be personnel driven. You have to adapt to the personnel you have. There’s a lot of great offenses out there, but does it fit with the personnel you have? The key is making sure what you’re doing is giving your people a chance to be successful.

As Chip observes, whether or not these kinds of schemes will be sustainable in the NFL will depend in a large degree on personnel — the supply of multi-talented quarterbacks. As Matt Hinton points out, while this year’s NFL draft class has few true dual threat candidates (and few quarterback candidates to get very excited about at all, though there are some potential sleepers), there is another wave of dual threat guys working their way up through the college ranks right now.

Bill Barnwell on Matt Ryan and Tom Brady.

A battle for the best skit from the Chappelle show.

“You have CTE.” Scary stuff.

Tim Layden on sportswriting after the Te’o mess.

– Vic Koenning, on the effect of the NFL playoffs on perception of what college defensive coordinators are up against:

“Look at the NFL scores from last week’s playoff games,” Koenning said on the radio show. “That will wake everybody up to what us college defensive coaches have been facing for the last few years now.”

“If (offensive coordinators) know what you are in, they have answers to stuff,” Koenning said. “The old days of lining up in the I formation and saying our Jimmys are better than your Joeys, and we want to beat you into submission, nobody wants to do that anymore. Everything is about space. If you have guys that can’t compete in space then you’re going to be struggling.”

He also noted that the traditional 4-3 look might not be built to keep up, meaning more of a move to a 3-4 or some kind of hybrid look (as North Carolina uses). Indeed, it’s worth noting that both teams in the Super Bowl are base 3-4 teams (though they use lots of fronts.)

“I am not saying that teams that play a traditional 4-3 can’t be successful, but I will tell you that it puts stresses on a lot of different positions with what today’s college football offensively has become,” he said. “I kind of think it forces you to look at what you have personnel-wise and scheme-wise.”

Gear up: Make sure to keep checking the Smart Football store, as I will be adding new stuff over the coming days.

  • Miles_Ellison

    “The old days of lining up in the I formation and
    saying our Jimmys are better than your Joeys, and we want to beat you
    into submission, nobody wants to do that anymore.”

    Nobody except Nick Saban.

  • See I read the Times article and assumed as the writer did that the Pistol and Oregon Triple Option were one in the same. Now I am not football illiterate but both scheme seem to mirror each other. They both use the QB to execute an option, both spread the field, and both open alleys for the running game. What am I missing?

  • gschwendt

    The main thing is that in the Pistol, since the HB is directly behind the QB, the read can easily be on either DE/OLB. Whereas with the Shotgun Read, you’re typically reading the DE/OLB that is on the same side of the field as the HB. It’s not 100% cut & dry but that’s one of the biggest benefits to the Pistol.

  • smartfootball

    I actually understand your confusion, given how loosely the terms have been used recently. There are like four of five different concepts/ideas going on, and they all get gunked together by various folks.

    At its most basic, and to operate somewhat in chronological order, the idea of using “spread” formations is at least fifty years old, and it involves the idea of spreading your formation using multiple receivers (originally this meant two, but nowadays means more like 3-5) and, at minimum usually means a one-back set.

    In more modern times, a “spread offense” is generally a shotgun based offense that uses at least three receivers.

    Around the time of the modern spread (arising as a reaction to defenses that increasingly stacked the box), particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the “spread run” game (to use Chip Kelly’s term) began springing up which used an updated “option” concept known as a zone read, which combined a basic zone running play with the quarterback reading a backside end. This concept has evolved over the last decade or so to involve other variations, but the combination of shotgun spread formations with the zone read is kind of the foundation of the modern spread-to-run team.

    In 2005 Chris Ault wanted to use the shotgun but didn’t want to offset the back. Instead he put the runningback directly behind the quarterback. Originally, he didn’t even use read plays or other options — instead he used this “stacked shotgun” alignment but then just ran traditional pro style run plays.

    A few years later Chris Ault blended the shotgun spread read plays — like the zone read — with his stacked shotgun/pistol formation. His offense exploded, and Nevada led the nation in rushing and also had 3,000+ yards passing. He had a season with 3 different 1,000 yard rushers.

    Flash forward to today. Many NFL teams are now using these “shotgun read” plays, but (1) not all of them use “spread formations” to run them and (2) some of them run them from a pistol set while others don’t. For example, the Redskins made extensive use of read plays this year, but frequently used regular personnel (two WRs, 1 TE and 1 RB and 1 FB) to run them, all from the pistol alignment. Conversely, the Panthers and Seahawks frequently ran read plays from a regular shotgun set (with the runningback offset to one side) and 3 WRs and 1 TE on the field. This is more of a true spread run game, in the sense Chip uses it — but as you say it is pretty similar.

    The confusion is that NFL types use the term “pistol” to refer to the read game. The most helpful way to think about it is pistol is the formation — with the RB directly behind the quarterback — while the read plays are the specific plays. The 49ers are using both; some teams have used the pistol formation but not the read plays, and others have used the read plays and not the pistol formation.

    I hope that makes sense. It’s difficult to regulate this since most of the verbiage is so inconsistent.

  • Thanks Chris that clears up a lot of my confusion with the “Pistol”.

    I want let you know that I always recommend two books to every football fan who wants to educate themselves on the game. The first one is always “SI Blood, Sweat, and Chalk” the second, and I always emphasizes your book as an equal in knowledge and presentation, “The Essential Smart Football”. Thanks Again!

  • The whole Pistol is an offense thing is amusing to me, it’s just an adjustment of where the Qb will initiate the play. Having said that, that adjustment is profound, in that it is a kind of merge point between two very different philosophies for moving the ball.

    All of the old staples from the I can be run from Pistol (with the possible exception of the smash mouth downhill Iso), so if you prefer the downhill I philosophy you can stay with that (mostly) while opening up the passing game. This is where Coach Ault started, eventually bolting on the play side read. As to the spread philosophies, the Pistol adds 2 things – better play action because the Qb can pivot and more effectively hide the ball, and the play side read on the option (basically Dash where the back is offset now becomes a downhill option that hits faster). Those two things, along the majority of the old playbook remaining viable, add significant pressure to a defense as the NFL is now learning.

    It’s interesting how such a simple adjustment is a kind of merge point for two very different approaches to moving the ball.

  • Conceptually, though, I think the important thing is that the Pistol is more a power-oriented running game — the back is already moving toward the line when he takes the ball, instead of standing still or moving laterally as is more often the case in Chip Kelly/Rich Rod/Urban Mayer type offenses.

    I suspect part of the Pistol’s appeal to NFL types is that from the Pistol, QB is mostly only going to be running to the outside, aiming to break contain. In the Kelly offense, he’s more often running an inverted veer and looking for a gap up the middle. That subjects him to hits by DL and LB, whereas the Pistol plays will see more hits by DBs.

  • fat dave

    spread also refers to how far your linemen are lined apart, this was talked about by Mike Leach, the wider they are lined, the more time it will take for the best pass rushers to get to the qb

  • fat dave

    Chip Kelly said if he had a 6’3 240 pound qb that could run a high 4.6 4.7 he would run him up the middle a lot. He was reffering to Tim Tebow, who is currently available to his system.

  • fat dave,

    Here’s the comment I was responding to (which, because of a lag in discus, I embarrassingly responded to twice):

    “In the Kelly offense, he’s more often running an inverted veer and looking for a gap up the middle”

    I was responding to that comment being inaccurate.

    Maybe I’m missing some context, but the quoted comment has nothing to do with what MIGHT happen IF the Eagles sign Tebow AND make him a starting quarterback. For a counter balance, Chip Kelly has also frequently said he prefers a good throwing quarterback who can also run, which Tebow is not (he would prefer Darren Thomas over Masoli). I think the idea Chip would choose to run his quarterback up the middle a lot is more of an “If I’m given lemons…” situation (as in if he was stuck with Tebow as his QB), rather than commentary of what he would consider ideal. Chip wants to win, and if you find yourself with Tebow as your QB, running him frequently might be your best chance to win. But, seeking that QB to run up the middle, when other options are available, is not what I expect Chip to do. Maybe you have more and better information.