Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
24 Jul 2006
by Michael David Smith
In the beginning, Walter Camp created football, and offensive formations were without form, and a typical play looked like 22 men pushing each other in one big heap.
But gradually offensive football strategies moved out of the darkness and into the light, and creative minds began to notice that when the offense moved a player away from the ball and toward the sideline, the defense was forced to compensate. Those players had plenty of open space to run pass routes, and as defensive players moved toward the sideline to cover them, the offense had open space to run in the middle of the field as well. Soon teams began lining up a receiver to the outside all the time, even when they had no intention of throwing to him, simply to create running space in the middle of the field.
And that pretty well summarizes the progression of offensive football formations for the first century of the game's existence. But in 1975, 100 football seasons after Walter Camp enrolled at Yale, a man named Darrell Davis -- whose diminutive size earned him the nickname "Mouse" -- started doing radical things with offensive football formations at the small and hitherto little-noticed Portland State University.
Davis decided that if a one-receiver formation forced the defense to protect the outside of the field, and if a two-receiver formation really opened things up, he'd just take the logical next step. Football rules permit as many as five offensive players to be eligible receivers, so why not spread them all out, save running plays for special occasions, and leave all the blocking up to the linemen?
And so Mouse Davis spent six years at Portland State, and his team led Division I-AA football in total offense all six. Davis had two quarterbacks, June Jones and Neil Lomax, who went on to the NFL. Soon his way of thinking was in demand, with bigger colleges, the upstart United States Football League, and eventually the NFL hiring Davis and other coaches who ran similar attacks. By 1990, the Atlanta Falcons became the third NFL team to employ the Davis offense, commonly referred to as the "run-and-shoot." The Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions had started it the year before, and when the Falcons joined them, it seemed as though the future had arrived in the NFL.
But the future didn't turn out the way Mouse Davis and his disciples hoped. The run-and-shoot disappeared from the NFL in the mid-1990s and hasn't returned. In this article we'll examine why the run-and-shoot failed to catch on in the NFL, but we'll also explain some of the strengths of the offense, and look at how teams are still using its remnants (now called the spread offense) successfully.
Quite simply, the spread offense is a formation where the players spread out. Its polar opposite is a two-tight end, three-back formation like the wishbone or the T, where everyone is close to the ball. The spread usually features two wide receivers on the right side, two wide receivers on the left side, and one back in the backfield with the quarterback. Even that back is as much a receiver as a runner, though; most spread offense plays call for the back to be ready to catch a short swing pass if the quarterback can't find any of his receivers open.
By spreading out the field rather than keeping a tight end or a fullback in to block, teams that run the spread offense don't give their quarterbacks a lot of time to pass. That's why in the spread, receivers run short hitches and hooks more often than they run deep post or flag routes. There simply isn't enough time for a receiver to go long before the first defensive player gets to the quarterback.
Rather than simply lumping all four receivers into the broad "wide receiver" category, coaches who run the spread offense usually give the positions four distinct names. The most common format is a lettering system that calls the four receivers Q, X, Y, and Z. The reason for this is in the complex nature of the spread. The receivers are required to read the opposing defense prior to the snap and choose from among dozens of routes based on how the defensive backs align themselves. Breaking the four receivers into four distinct positions allows each one to memorize only one-fourth of the responsibilities. A receiver who always plays Z only needs to know what the Z does on each play, and let Q, X and Y worry about their assignments.
Even with the simplification of dividing the number of plays a receiver needs to learn by four, spread receivers often struggle with their reads. In a 1990 interview with The Sporting News, Oilers wide receiver Ernest Givins said receivers in the run-and-shoot focused so much on the myriad route assignments that they sometimes couldn't concentrate on the most fundamental aspect of playing wide receiver: catching the ball. "The receivers make a lot of different reads on every route," Givins said. "We're thinking a lot. When the ball approaches you, you're thinking -- Am I making the right read? Am I in the right spot? When you turn and the ball hits you in the hands, it's, Oh, my God. I dropped another one.' I'm not making excuses, but it's something to look at."
But if a spread receiver's job is like solving a college-level math problem, the quarterback's job is like solving the PoincarÃ© conjecture. A typical spread offense play might have a name like Slot Left Shoot Right 437 X Hitch. That encompasses the responsibilities of all 11 offensive players, and the quarterback has to know all of them. But that's not all: Because the spread so often relies on receivers to adjust their routes from the line of scrimmage based on the defensive formation, the quarterback needs to look at the defense, figure out based on how the defense lines up which routes his receivers are going to run, and adjust accordingly, all in the few seconds between lining up and the snap.
When the spread offense first caught on, it was so different from what other teams ran that it required extra film study and preparation from opposing defenses. That caused lots of sleepless nights for defensive coordinators and it might help explain why all three NFL head coaches who instituted the run and shoot (Wayne Fontes in Detroit, Jack Pardee in Houston and Jerry Glanville in Atlanta) had defensive backgrounds. They knew how frustrated they felt when preparing for unusual offenses, so they figured they'd inflict those frustrations on their opponents.
There's a common perception that another advantage of the spread offense is that it requires less talent than traditional I-formation offenses. For instance, in a 2000 Sporting News article describing Mike Leach's use of the spread offense at Texas Tech, Tom Dienhart wrote,
"A school doesn't need blue-chip talent to execute it.... To run a more traditional, line-'em-up, knock-'em-down Michigan-style offense, you need behemoth linemen and a great tailback. But ... the spread doesn't require overstuffed linemen."
But that's not really an inherent advantage to the spread. If the spread were the old standby, and the I-formation were the new thing, we'd hear exactly the opposite. We'd read features with paragraphs like, "A school doesn't need blue-chip talent to execute the I-formation. To run a more traditional, spread-em-out, throw-it-long Texas Tech-style offense, you need speedy receivers and a great quarterback. But the I-formation doesn't require fleet receivers."
The greatest advantage of the spread is the way it dictates the defense's reaction. With four wide receivers on the field, the opposing defense has no choice but to use its dime package, taking a lineman and a linebacker off the field and replacing them with two defensive backs. Teams are naturally more confident in their base defensive formations, with seven men up front and four in the defensive backfield, so forcing a defense to go with six defensive backs is forcing it to go outside what it does best. With six defensive backs on the field, the opposing offense can find one who's not up to snuff and exploit a mismatch.
Getting the quarterback killed is generally not a good thing for an offense, and many critics of the spread offense have pointed to the lack of a fullback or a tight end who can help with blitz pickup as a serious flaw. Jim Kelly, the first pro quarterback to play in the run-and-shoot offense with the USFL's Houston Gamblers, was sacked 75 times in 1984. Buddy Ryan, the defensive coach who built great defenses in Chicago and Philadelphia around his blitz schemes, sneered at the run-and-shoot, calling it the "chuck-and-duck." In fact, Ryan did more than just sneer: In 1994, as defensive coordinator of the Oilers, he punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride after Oilers quarterback Cody Carlson fumbled when he was drilled by an opposing blitzer.
Ryan was known as something of a loose cannon, though, so it would be easy to brush off his criticism. A much harder coach to ignore is Sid Gillman, the grandfather of the modern passing game, who disliked the run-and-shoot because he thought tight ends who could function both as blockers and as receivers were integral to any great passing attack. "I'm not a run-and-shoot guy," Gillman told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "I just feel that you can't play without a tight end. At times, when the situation presents itself, I would use four wide receivers and take out the tight end, but certainly not on a regular basis."
Some critics said the run-and-shoot was incapable of holding a lead. The conventional wisdom says that the way to hold a lead is to grind it out with the running game, sending your halfback behind your fullback and gaining first downs while running time off the clock. This is one case where the conventional wisdom is right. The most famous example of a run-and-shoot team's inability to hold onto a lead comes from the 1992 AFC wild card game, when the Oilers jumped out to a 35-3 lead over the Bills, only to lose 41-38 in overtime. But the Oilers' collapse was far from the first time a run-and-shoot team failed to grind out the clock and hold onto the lead. In Detroit's 1990 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Lions led 35-14 only to lose 41-38. The Lions had the best running back in football, Barry Sanders, but in their pass-oriented attack, they gave him the ball only 10 times all day and not at all in the fourth quarter as their lead disappeared.
The run-and-shoot was further discredited when the University of Houston (which, like the Houston Gamblers before and the Houston Oilers after, had Jack Pardee as head coach and Mouse Davis as offensive coordinator) had two highly drafted but unsuccessful quarterbacks, Andre Ware and David Klingler. Both Ware and Klingler put up gaudy numbers running the Davis offense, only to become two of the biggest draft busts in history when the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals spent top 10 picks on them.
No NFL team uses the four- or five-receiver set as a base offense anymore, the way the Falcons, Lions and Oilers did in the 1990s. But some teams still use four-receiver sets in certain long-yardage situations. In college, the name run-and-shoot isn't often heard, but the basic premise behind the offense is very much alive. Leach has garnered a great deal of attention for turning Texas Tech into a winning program. June Jones is now the head coach at Hawaii and is still using many of the schemes he learned from Davis at Portland State. Davis is now in his 70s but still teaches his offense as one of the assistants on Jones's staff. Purdue's Joe Tiller has turned the Boilermakes from Big Ten bottom-feeders into perennial contenders using a version of the spread offense. (And unlike most of the other college coaches who use the spread, Tiller has a track record of developing a quarterback, Drew Brees, who turned into a good professional.)
Mouse Davis will most likely never return to the NFL, but no matter how much football offenses change, Mouse Davis will be all around in the dark. He'll be everywhere - wherever you can look. Wherever there's a play with four receivers on the field, he'll be there. Wherever there's a Buddy Ryan beating up an offensive coordinator, he'll be there. He'll be in the way receivers yell when they're mad because there aren't enough passes thrown their way. And when the receivers are running quick hitches, and the quarterbacks are taking three-step drops -- he'll be there, too.
Read the first three parts of this series:
73 comments, Last at 23 Feb 2009, 4:03am by Gut