Strategy Minicamps

How to beat your opponent with 11 living, breathing chess pieces

The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

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.

What is the spread offense?

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 Poincaré 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.

What are the advantages of the spread?

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.

What are the disadvantages of the spread?

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.

Does anyone still use the run-and-shoot?

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

1 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by James C // Jul 24, 2006 - 12:39pm

If Andre Ware put up great numbers in the system in college, why couldn't he do it in the NFL running the same system?

Or is the whole system just deeply flawed?

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2 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Lou in Cincy // Jul 24, 2006 - 12:55pm

I remember the run and shoot teams quite fondly. At the time it was really neat to see somebody trying something radical at the pro level. And it wasn't a complete flop. If I remember correctly, one year all three run and shoot teams made the playoffs.

It always seemed to me at the time that the three run and shoot teams (ATL, DET, and HOU) had all the parts neccesary to make it work, if only they could smush the three teams together.

The oilers had the qb (Moon) and two of the recievers.

The Lions had the RB (Sanders) but no recievers

The Falcons had lots of the parts, plus a good defense.

Is there a team that could run it now?
Maybe the Bengals? They have 2 great recievers and a great qb. A RB who can pass block and good complimentary players.

Anybody else?

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3 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Dave // Jul 24, 2006 - 12:57pm

There are three big reasons why things sometimes work in college that don't in the NFL. The first is that the talent differential is a lot smaller, so you rarely have much better players than the other team (which means your #3 and #4 reciever don't have a big advantage over the nickel and dime dbs). The second is that NFL players don't have to go to class, and don't have any NCAA-imposed limits on practice time, so they've got more time to adjust to an odd offense. And the third is that with older players under multi-million dollar contracts, schemes that increase the risk of injury are... unpopular. Besides, a 35-year-old QB can run a conventional NFL offense against an NFL defense; he can't run a spread/run-n-shoot.

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4 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Ted Max // Jul 24, 2006 - 1:34pm

An interesting article, but I'm always dissatisfied with some of the criticisms leveled against the run-n-shoot:

1. Buddy Ryan didn't like it. - Uh huh, and Buddy Ryan is the gold standard for offensive coaching excellence since when?

2. Some Run-N-Shoot quarterbacks who did well in college flamed out in the NFL. - EVERY offensive system has generated some great college quarterbacks who flamed out in the pros. Need I name names?

3. Run-N-Shoot teams couldn't hold a lead. - An alternate way of saying this is, "Run-N-Shoot teams often generated huge leads." Would you rather lose a thirty point lead or lose by ten because you couldn't generate a lead to begin with? Are we talking about bad offense here or bad defense?

To be fair, it baffles me why some Run-N-Shoot teams didn't just switch to a normal set when they needed to run the clock out. That's just bad coaching. And when it comes to Detroit: It may just be me, but I never saw Barry Sanders as a 3-yards-guaranteed kind of back. More like a thirty yards or -3 yards kind of back.

4. Run-N-Shoot teams never won the Super Bowl. - Sure, but they sure won a lot of games, many of them in the playoffs. Again, name an offensive system that never lost big games. I've seen a lot of West Coast teams not winning the Super Bowl these days.

5. The Run-N-Shoot is too complicated. - Here we get into a paradox. If it's too complicated, why are people more successful with it at a lower stage of development (college) than at a higher stage of development (NFL)? Plus, this is a criticism you hear about any sophisticated offensive system (listen to what the players say every time the West Coast offense is installed at a new place).

6. The Run-N-Shoot is anti-running. - This criticism only makes sense when we remember that the "Run" in "Run-N-Shoot" refers to a quarterback who is always moving, rolling, out, etc., rather than to any special running attack. (An always-mobile quarterback is why you can get away with taking out the TE.) However, the criticism is still iffy. When you spread out the passing game, you open up the running game, as this article made clear at the beginning. Many run-n-shoot teams have had big-time running perfomances since you have to choose your poison: Let them pass you to death, or let them run you to death? That some bad Run-N-Shoot coaches forgot about the run in game situations and lost because of it only proves the point.

7. The Run-N-Shoot is mostly gone now, except for occasional long-yardage plays and some receiver read-and-choose-route plays and things like that. - Is this really a criticism? Don't most strategic fads eventually get integrated, in modified form, into the mainstream of football strategy. Even non-West-Coast teams use short routes sometimes, and even grind-it-out teams use spread sets sometimes. This seems more like a mark of success than of failure.

I guess I'm just trying to say that a lot of the criticism I hear being heaped on the Run-N-Shoot seems like 20-20 hindsight and is rather unfair. Sure, the Run-N-Shoot has flaws, like any system, and in the wrong hands could lead to some bad outcomes (not enough clock management, offense-at-any-cost gameplans, etc.).

It is likely to be less effective against the highly-skilled, highly athletic and well-coached defensive units you see every week in the NFL than the widely varying defenses you see in college ball. All offensive systems have this problem (did any of you see what the NFL did to the Fun-N-Gun?).

It also requires rather specialized personnel to be run as a complete system: Fast, agile, smart wide receivers who can read and react quickly, mobile quarterbacks who can throw accurately and intelligently while almost always on the move, etc. Not easy to find.

So give it a break, is all I'm saying. Like the Option and other advances in offensive strategy, it had its moment in the sun, left its mark, and left the arena. No shame in that.

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5 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Kachunk // Jul 24, 2006 - 1:36pm

"Besides, a 35-year-old QB can run a conventional NFL offense against an NFL defense; he can’t run a spread/run-n-shoot."

It seems that, given the number of college QBs who are succesful in the spread, but not in the NFL, spread QBs might be easier to find. While the mental/decision making aspect of it is great it would seem that perhaps the physical tools are less important. If my hypothesis is true, then QB's would be a little more like running backs--more or less fungible. A commodity if you will, instead of the irreplaceable asset they are today.

No idea if that's true or not, it's just an idea.

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6 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by calig23 // Jul 24, 2006 - 1:46pm


I think the Lions' problem was more a lack of QBs(Rodney Peete?, Erik Kramer?, Scott Mitchell?).

They (eventually) had receivers like Brett Perriman and Herman Moore.

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7 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by 72 // Jul 24, 2006 - 1:47pm

I played in a run and shoot offence for an exhibition game a few years back. (It was Scotland vs England so not exactly a friendly exhibition). It was agreed before hand that both teams would run this offence and the defences were reestricted to suit it. I thought it was though. One of the pass protections was zone based and involved the offensive line punching to one side and the moving away to the opposite side leaving the "punch side" defensive end for the RB, needless to say we did not finish the game with our starting QB under centre.

However there were some aspects of it that I did like. What was not mentioned directly in the article was that with four WRs you force the defence into it nickle or dime sets which usually include 6 DBs. Some simple maths dictates that the defence is left with 5 men in the box to stop the run and thus can open up running lanes as every team in the world should be able to run the ball with 5 OL vs 5 Defenders. This, I presume, is why so many teams still try draw plays from 4 receiver sets on long third downs.

As always guys excellent article. Are there any other minicamp articles planned for the offseason?

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8 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Vass // Jul 24, 2006 - 2:46pm


It is hard to run out of a Shotgun formation if the defense KNOWS you are going to run. As as far as lining up in the I formation, how is a line like the Colts (IMO the closest thing to a Run-N-Shoot Offense) gonna grind it out in an I Formation when they are taught to pass block out of a shotgun set? One example: the Pats v. Colts game where the Colts got stuffed from the 1 on 4 downs.

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9 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Zac // Jul 24, 2006 - 4:02pm

Could you make the run and shoot work if you replaced one of the WRs with a TE? With the proliferation of pass-catching TEs we seem to have now, having a bigger body who could also be a blocker on running plays seems like it would be an improvement.

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10 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Mike V // Jul 24, 2006 - 4:17pm

Doesn't the entire Arena league play run-and-shoot, more or less? I guess you can't say whether the offense is workable if the whole league used it. But it seems like Kurt Warner did so well his first few years on the Rams because their Greatest Show On Turf offense wasn't too different than the run-and-shoot.

In any case, I think an offensive formation is only as good as it's players. The Rams could pull off a run and shoot because they had two #1-quality receivers in Bruce and Holt, and a great pass-catching running back. The Bills Superbowl teams' K-Gun offense was basically run-and-shoot with a tight end - Marv Levy always said he wanted to coach a run-heavy team, but he had the talent for a passing attack, so that's the way he went. I think if someone had a smart QB and three top-flight receivers, you could still do fine with run-and-shoot. But only if the talent's there.

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11 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by LaViva // Jul 24, 2006 - 4:28pm

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't New England run a variation of the Run and Shoot during their championship runs in 2003 and 2004 with Charlie Weiss as Offensive Coordinator? I seem to rememeber Brady lining up in a shotgun formation with four and five receiever sets quite often, throwing 3 - 5 yard hitches and in patterns - and doing it very well, especially at the end of games, where New England would essentially grind out the clock by throwing high percentage short passes instead of running the ball. Didn't this happen? Or have I lost my mind?

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12 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by MJK // Jul 24, 2006 - 5:12pm


You're right. I'm a Pats fan, so I've watched almost all of their games in the past few years, and they run more "run-and-shoot" type 4 WR plays than any other team I've seen them play, except for maybe the Colts.

I wouldn't say they exactly used a "Run and Shoot" exclusively, though. What they often did during their 03-04 run was to open a game with four or even five wides, primarily to take the defense out of its game plan (as alluded to in the article--one of Belichick's maxims is not to attack the opponents weaknesses, but to prevent them from playing to their strengths) and try to get a quick lead. It's no coincidence that during those two years they had some sort of streak of something like 20 consecutive games where they scored first. Then they would switch to a more conventional 3WR-TE-RB, or 2WR-2TE-RB offense, or even a heavier set, to try to wear down the opponents with more "smashmouth football". You're correct in that they would switch to a 4-wide set near the end of a lot of games and use short passes to control the clock, but that was more "West-coastish" in philosophy (although not really in execution) than "Run-and-shoot"ish.

The other place you would see them use 4 or 5 wide sets, which must have driven opposing D-coordinators crazy, is in 3rd and 3~6. They would go spread, but with Brady under center, not in shotgun, and then if the CB's were backed off even one WR, use the quick hitch, if not, try a slant or crossing route, but usually teams would counter with a dime zone coverage that left the middle of the field open, in which cases Brady would go to a quick count and sneak for six yards and a first down. Saw this time and time again, and it kept working because everyone knows that Brady is the slowest QB in the league and never runs with the ball. Kind of like how Mike Vrabel, when lined up at TE, is no good at catching TD's... ;-)

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13 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Sophandros // Jul 24, 2006 - 5:12pm

And you could argue that the old Jim Kelly Bills were a quasi run and shoot team.

Many offenses use variations on this theme, which is a testiment to the aspects of it that worked.

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14 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by MJK // Jul 24, 2006 - 5:14pm

Sadly, with only two or three viable wide recievers (undersized ones at that) and a plethora of pass catching TE's and RB's, I doubt we'll see much of that kind of offense from the Pats this year. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of multi-TE and H-back based sets they dream up.

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15 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by MJK // Jul 24, 2006 - 5:15pm

I always thought of the old Jim Kelly Bills as the prototype for the no-huddle offense the Colts now use. I guess you could argue that both the Bills and today's Colts use a lot of elements of the Run and Shoot.

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16 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by BCS // Jul 24, 2006 - 5:32pm

is the spread offense always synonymous with the run & shoot? I had the impression from watching the Pats/Weiss offense that even though it was spread 4 & 5 receivers wide, the fact that they used quick drops and short passes ("dink & dunk" was used alot to describe it) defined it as more WCO. When I hear run & shoot, sure I think spread, but also 5 & 7 step drops and medium to long routes (more verticality by all receivers) a la Rams/Martz offense.

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17 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by J Martin // Jul 24, 2006 - 5:43pm


Zac, I was thinking the same thing.

He wouldn’t even have to be an Alge Crumpler or Tony Gonzalez. If you had 4 or 5 WR set, you could get away with only one “home run, stretch-the-field� type�the rest simply could be possession level talent.

Just an example TE Corps: Jason Witten and the other TE’s Dallas has compiled (Fasano, Hannam) can all catch AND do a serviceable job of blocking.

Not that Parcells would do something like this.

But, his Double TE plans could potentially place the same pressure on LBs that quick slot WRs would in a Run -n-Shoot (or variation).

What Ted Max said: Yes. Just another phase in offensive football evolution--no shame in that. Components of the R-n-S philosophy are still used today.


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18 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Ryan Mc // Jul 24, 2006 - 6:36pm

The Oilers collapse in the playoffs against Buffalo is always used as an example of the run-and-shoot not being able to hold a lead. In fact, the controlled short passing of the run-and-shoot could be very good at racking up time of possession. Houston had a 7+ minute drive in the fourth quarter of that game, which unfortunately for them ended in a missed FG. However, there's no way to describe that game as anything other than a complete defensive meltdown by Houston; not fair to say it was the offense not holding the ball (there was also another Bill's TD drive which began after they recovered a surprise onside kick. Again, nothing to do with the offense not being able to hold the ball)

Another random, unrelated thought: Pittsburgh got to the Superbowl after the 1995 season (losing to Dallas) with a healthy dose of 4- and 5- WR formations in their offensive sets.

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19 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Jerry // Jul 24, 2006 - 6:41pm

I seem to remember the Oilers, during their run-and-shoot heyday, not having any TEs on the roster until they put one on the practice squad entirely for the purpose of providing the proper look on the scout team.

Of course, I can also remember the mid '90s Steelers using a lot of 5 wide sets where one of those wideouts was Kordell "Slash" Stewart.

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20 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Alaska Jack // Jul 24, 2006 - 7:49pm

18: Right on. To this day I can't understand that. The Oilers' R&S hangs *THIRTY-EIGHT POINTS* on the top-notch Bills' defense (Bruce Smith, C. Bennett, etc. etc.), the defense suffers a complete meltdown, and the offense gets blamed.

A couple of other points:

1. I remember an old Sporting News article that dispelled most of the myths about the R&S, while still managing to do so with a negative tone. The two I remember are (a) Statistically, NFL R&S QBs (at the time at least) were injured at a *lower* rate than the average. The article noted that the only R&S QB who ever missed significant time was Chris Chandler, and he was injured on a broken play where no one touched him. And (b) the big criticism at the time was that the R&S struggled in the red zone, which TSN showed just wasn't true statistically.

2. As far as I am aware, the last time the R&S was run full time was 1995. In that season, the Falcons' Jeff George passed for more than 4100 yards, three receivers (Terrance Mathis, Eric Metcalfe and Bert Emmanuel) went over 1000 yards, and they had a 1000-yard rusher (Ironhead). That, by any measure, is one astoundingly successful offense.

I contend that no one ever really stopped the Run and Shoot. Sure, R&S teams never one the superbowl, but as someone above noted, neither did alot of pro-set teams. Only one team can win the superbowl every year, and it's not always the team with the best offense.

- Alaska Jack

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21 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Alaska Jack // Jul 24, 2006 - 7:50pm

Re my above post (#20), I think it was Chris Miller who was injured, not Chris Chandler.

- AJ

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22 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Alaska Jack // Jul 24, 2006 - 7:52pm

In the last six months or so I read a long, fascinating article about Mike Leach's offense at Texas Tech. One thing that article didn't explain, and this one doesn't, is how exactly Leach's spread offense is different from the R&S. I'd be curious to know.

- Alaska Jack

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23 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by LaViva // Jul 24, 2006 - 7:54pm

Those Steelers teams in the mid-1990s did, in fact, utilize 4-and-5 receiver sets quite often, but that was all essentially a ruse to spread the defense and pound the ball right up the middle with Bam Morris or Barry Foster. Other than their base formation before the snap, the offensive attack resembled the Run and Shoot very little. It was more like a Spread I.

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24 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Alaska Jack // Jul 24, 2006 - 8:07pm

Hey, can I add one more comment (sorry, but obviously I like this subject). Mouse Davis didn't exactly invent the R&S, he adapted it from principles started by Glenn Ellison. Ellison, the legend goes, got the idea when he was just idly observing some kids playing an unorganized game in a park. He noticed that the QB was completing pass after pass even though they obviously didn't have a single pre-planned pass pattern -- the receivers simply ran out then cut in a direction away from the nearest defender. That observation became the basis for the R&S system of reading the defense and adjusting routes accordingly.

A great history of the R&S, from Ellison up to the current day, can be found here. Like me, the author believes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, NFL defenses never really "caught up" to the R&S, and has done quite a bit of research to back that up.

- AJ

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25 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Tim L // Jul 24, 2006 - 9:04pm

MDS: Great article, as usual. Bonus points for references to the Poincaré conjecture and Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath". What's next? Analyzing the evolution of the zone blitz by comparing it to the growing dialectics within Jean Luc Godard's New Wave films?

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26 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Reinhard // Jul 24, 2006 - 9:09pm

Leach has his lineman have very big splits, thats one big difference. His recievers have the most stanima of any corp and tire out the DBs. His play calls are pretty simple, but there are lots of formations to run them out of.

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27 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by BillWallace // Jul 24, 2006 - 9:24pm

I remember that Lions-Skins game, I canm't BELIEVE Sanders only got 10 carries. That should be a felony. How on earth did Fontes last so long?

I agree with AJ and others that the RnS got a bad rap over the years. It seemed like the offenses were always very good, but the defenses on the same team were their undoing. But was there some reason that running the RnS caused your team to fail defensively? Or were teams adopting the RnS because it was the only way to win with their poor defenses? Or were teams that ran the RnS overly focused on personnel for the offense, at the expense of defense? I don't really know.

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28 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Richie // Jul 24, 2006 - 9:42pm

The Lions had the RB (Sanders) but no recievers

Herman Moore was pretty good.

a 35-year-old QB can run a conventional NFL offense against an NFL defense; he can’t run a spread/run-n-shoot.

Warren Moon says HI!

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29 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Trust Doesn\'t Rust // Jul 24, 2006 - 10:18pm

The antidote for the run n' shoot is to allow the typically undersized receivers to catch those short hitches and then clobber them. I think it was The Eagles maybe who first used this strategy against the Oilers in a Monday night game in '92 or so. Everything else-- the idea of the injured quarterback, the lack of the tight end holding back the offense, the failure to hold a lead, having troubles in the red zone-- is a myth. The run n' shoot evolved from being a wide open offense that created chaos in the defense, to being an inefficient ball control offense once defenses learned to be more physical with the tiny receivers. That, more than anything, marked the death of the run n' shoot.

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30 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Dan Led // Jul 24, 2006 - 10:24pm

First off I would like to say that what you guys are doing with this series is awesome. As a fan who is very analytical in nature, but never played organized football, I think this "survey course" on NFL playbooks is a great basis for intelligent debate on playcalling, rather than the "that play on 3rd and 5 did not work in the 4th quarter, clearly the coach is at fault" arguments that I hear on TV and radio so often.

Now that the requisite pats on the back are out there, I agree with Ted Max and take issue with the "The run and shoot doesn't protect leads well" argument in this article. Essentially you have cherry picked a game in which a run and shoot team blew a big lead, and offered this as evidence. How is this any different than the 17 "Mike Martz always blows leads, remember this game..." articles that Bill Simmons pumps out every year? Is there statistical evidence that run and shoot teams gave up leads more often than others? Or even evidence that a run-heavy offense can consistantly gain enough first downs to make "grinding out the clock" a legitimate strategy?

Finally I'd like to comment on the "remnants of the Run and Shoot today" part. It seems to me the time I see Run and Shoot type plays most often isn't 3rd and long, but 1st and 10 or 3rd and short, when teams pull out the empty backfield or 4 WR, 1 RB sets and run alot of short curl routes. The Raiders ran these types of plays all the time in their AFC championship season, and the following year I remember seeing the Broncos, Patriots, Chiefs, Bills and Eagles running these type plays quite a bit (obviously, one of these teams was not like the others and struggled a great deal with this strategy). Since then it seems every team uses sets like these sometimes. Was this something MDS missed? Does everyone but me consider these plays some different sort of offense? Am I on crazy pills? Feel free to comment anyone.

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31 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Trust Doesn\'t Rust // Jul 25, 2006 - 12:28am

"Is there statistical evidence that run and shoot teams gave up leads more often than others? Or even evidence that a run-heavy offense can consistantly gain enough first downs to make “grinding out the clock� a legitimate strategy?"

That's absolutely why this argument is such a myth. How many times has a team built, say, a 10 point lead mid-way through the 4th quarter, only to start "grinding the clock" by calling predictable running plays that the other team stops by stacking the line. Cue the incredulous announcer screaming incessantly for the next ten minutes about the team "playing not to lose."

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32 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Sergio // Jul 25, 2006 - 3:15am

Great article, MDS. Between this and the Gallo column, my week has started off quite nicely...

re:24 (the linked article)

Very nice read. I have to say, I'd never read a pair of such insightful articles on the run and shoot. It's enlightening, to say the least...

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33 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by tim // Jul 25, 2006 - 3:30am

i may be mistaken, but didn't the Rams under Mike Martz have certain RnS qualities to the offense?

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34 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by EnglishBob // Jul 25, 2006 - 3:53am

Can we start a campaign to get a team to play run and shoot? Maybe the Redskins are a more obvious candidate for it? Sounds mad but just think, S Moss, B Lloyd, Randel El and David Patten (with Cooley available). Playing behind a strong line and with Portis in the backfield. How would you like to face that? Maybe Saunders has a few "spread" plays in his pocket this season! Any other candidates out there?

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35 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Wanker79 // Jul 25, 2006 - 9:48am

Re 34:

Maybe not this year, but I could see Arizona going a little more RnS in the coming years. They have the two stud WRs, a very-good (if not great) pass-catching RB, and a very promising QB. Unfortunately for them they are the only 4 guys on offense worth mentioning.

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36 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Soulless Merchant of Fear // Jul 25, 2006 - 10:51am

Can you really call the spread attack synonymous with the Run and Shoot? Just because there are four WRs on the field at once, doesn't make it an RnS play, I'd think. The adjustable routes are vital to the RnS style. They're also what make it hard to implement, since the QB has to have a jillion passing trees in his mind at all times.

One criticism of the RnS, which I don't have the knowledge to evaluate properly, is that the teams' defenses get worse because they seldom practice against standard offenses. They'd so seldom see off-tackle runs from the I formation in practice, that they'd be weaker at it in games. This could be true, it could be crap, I don't know.

To implement the system in the NFL would require an insanely talented QB. He'd have to be smart, tough, nigh-impossible to rattle, have a great arm, and hopefully some mobility. Warren Moon, basically. That's a tall order. Not a lot of Warren Moons to be found. Look at Kevin Gilbride's QBs: Stewart couldn't run it in Pittsburgh, because it was too confusing for him. Bledsoe tried it in Buffalo, but he got smacked around so much he started making those "Egad, Drew!" reads and throws. But it seemed to work for Jeff

Martz's offense wasn't RnS based, I don't think. Wasn't it more a descendant of Air Coryell, with its "throw into open spots" theories and deep routes? Spread attack, but not RnS?

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37 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Jason McKinley // Jul 25, 2006 - 11:13am

Re: Run & Shoot teams holding leads

The Oilers were within one game of league average (slightly above, actually) in terms of holding 4th-quarter leads and also within one game of expected (slightly below) in terms of holding two-score leads during their run & shoot years.

The Lions were within one game of the league average (slightly above) for holding 4th-quarter leads, but won about two fewer than expected when they had a two-score lead at some point in the game.

From 1991-1995, the Falcons won about four fewer games than expected when leading in the fourth quarter. They also won about four fewer than expected when they held a two-score lead at any point in the game.

So, the Oilers (I used 1987-1993) had no consistent problems maintaining leads. They weren't especially good or bad. The Lions (I used 1989-1994) were about average at holding fourth-quarter leads and a little below average at holding any two-score advantage. The Falcons were poor in both scenarios from 1991-1995.

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38 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by James C // Jul 25, 2006 - 12:46pm

I may be wrong but wasn't one of the big problems with the run and shoot in the NFL having to go and play places like Chicago or Green Bay in the middle of December or January? It was all well and good running spread formation, multiple read, sharp cutting routes indoors on a carpet but a bit trickier orchestrating the whole gig when it is sub zero temeratures and its sleeting horizontally. The R & S's lack of versatility made it tricky to advance deep into the playoffs against some of the cold weather teams that you will inevitably come across at some point.

I haven't undertaken a statistical study on the subject - I once got 8 out of 70 on a stats exam so anything I did would be worthless - but it does seem that it could be a relevant point.

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39 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by David Lewin // Jul 25, 2006 - 2:02pm


The run and shoot and the spread are definitely different things. The run and shoot is one type of spread offense. Other type of the spread include the fun n gun (Spurrier), the spread option (Urban Meyer, Rich Rodgriguez others), and the traditional spread which uses traditional offensive concepts just with more receivers, this is basically what every NFL team is using when they go 4 wide.

The difference between the run n shoot all other offenses is the the run n shoot let players change their routes based on the defense instead of having the quarterback audible before the play or have the quarterback simply check down to his safety routes if the play call is bad against the defense being played. What happened to the run n shoot is two fold, one coaches nowadays are control freaks and do not want to risk play ground football type run where they ain't stuff because the quarterback and receiver might not be on the same page. The other thing that happened is that normal offenses incorporated receiver options. Every system now has many plays where the receiver changes his route based on what the defense does. This is not done to the degree that the run n shoot did it, but it is a compromise that has improved traditional passing offenses.

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40 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Cosmic Debris // Jul 25, 2006 - 2:49pm

The Spread Offense, like the Wishbone Offense (at the other end of the spectrum), will never get any long term success in the NFL because it is too one-sided, too extreme if you wish, hence too predictable. On the contrary, the West Coast Offense for instance, is based on balance and the formation used doesn't tell you what is going to happen next (run or pass). Hence, its success.

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41 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Richie // Jul 25, 2006 - 3:13pm

#40, the run n shoot was not a pass-only offense. Remember a RB for Detroit named Barry Sanders? From 1990-1993 the Houston Oilers had between 250 and 320 rush attempts each season. The run n shoot was pass-heavy offense, but so is the west coast (blech) offense.

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42 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Ryan Mc // Jul 25, 2006 - 4:10pm

re 36: it doesn't seem like the Oilers defense got worse over time as they played the Run-and-Shoot offense. For example, from 1990-1993 their rankings in points allowed for those seasons were 14th, 6th, 9th, 4th)

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43 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by zach // Jul 25, 2006 - 4:35pm

This was a nice article but it seemed to me to be out of place in the series. Gone was the in-depth analysis of the actual play on the field (for instance, what different routes the spread receivers would have to run based on what situations specifically) in favor of a concise football history lesson. Again, great article, but those specific things would be nice to read a little about.

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44 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by 72 // Jul 25, 2006 - 5:15pm

To me the run and shoot offence is mostly defined by the idea of the QB and the Wrs both running around, hence both the name and a reason for the lack of NFL success: designed roll outs make coverage too easy for NFL defences but in college it is possible to do this as the sped and talent of the players is more varied.

Sadly I no longer have the playbook for the RnS offence I played in, but if I remember correctly the concept is based on what a coach once saw in a pick up game between some kids where the QB would run around as the WRs ran into the open spaces between the defenders, which is the basic principle that the RnS is based on. This is what survives in the NFL today.

Martz's offence is based on the Air Coryell one, he is part of that coaching tree.

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45 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Andrew Cascini // Jul 25, 2006 - 5:20pm

It needs to be said that Grand Valley State University has successfully visited the NCAA division 2 championship game four times out of the past five years using a slightly modified Run 'n Shoot offense. Three of these visits have been victories. These four visits occurred while using three different quarterbacks over that span.

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46 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Jerry // Jul 25, 2006 - 7:15pm

Re #23:

With 4 wideouts, there can only be one RB, and none with 5 WRs. And when there was one RB, it wasn't Foster or Bam.

And, generally, whatever the reasons are, NFL teams have gone away from the run-and-shoot. This means that coaches have decided that other offenses are better for them, whether or not any of us might agree.

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47 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Aaron Brooks // Jul 25, 2006 - 10:18pm

The most interesting variety of the run and shoot is the offense Rich Rodriguez made popular at Tulane in their 12-0 1998 season - adding a counter running option to the four-receiver set. Texas used that offense to win a national title.

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48 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Vern // Jul 26, 2006 - 12:10am

Re: 40 and 41
I don't think the issue here is "pass" vs. "run." The NFL arms race between offense and defense could better be described as "mismatch" vs. "versatility."

The RnS lived on the mismatches between dime defenses and 4th and 5th WRs. But because the talent pool in the NFL is so good, the dime defenders are just not that bad. Seeing a RnS offense creates no mismatches (in most cases) as long as you can get your dime package on the field.

The "versatility" camp seems to be ascendent these days, where teams want even their lineman to be able to drop into coverage and offenses want defenders waiting until too late to make the read on what any given eligable player is going to do. This stresses having lots of players who excel "enough" in many areas so that no one can cheat on any type of read - negating some of their speed or strength advantages.

Versatility is also a product of the information age we live in, where any coaches tendencies are easily tracked and available. Having players and formations that let you run many different things rather than commit to any one style negates that. I know Belichick obsesses as much about the Pats tendencies (i.e. scouting his own team play calls) as he does with other teams.

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49 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Scott de B. // Jul 26, 2006 - 11:49am

Can we start a campaign to get a team to play run and shoot? Maybe the Redskins are a more obvious candidate for it?

Maybe they can rehire Spurrier.

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50 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by stan // Jul 26, 2006 - 12:56pm

The zone blitz killed the run and shoot.

Got to go to a meeting, more later.

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51 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Wanker79 // Jul 27, 2006 - 10:09am

Re: 43
This was a nice article but it seemed to me to be out of place in the series.

I was thinking the exact same thing.

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52 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Russell C. // Jul 29, 2006 - 8:44pm

People think of the run-n-shoot as a pass offense, but Barry Sanders ran better out of the run-n-shoot. He was worse with a full back. The spread gave him more room to run.

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53 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by John \ // Jul 30, 2006 - 2:14am

People are overlooking the most important fact:

The Run-N-Shoot was awesome in Madden 95.

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54 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Will Allen // Jul 31, 2006 - 3:15pm

I dunno if Stan is correct in saying the R and S was "killed" by the zone blitz, but there is no doubt that it complicates reads considerably, and allows a lot more unimpeded shots at guy who is likely consuming large amounts of cap space.

Whether one ascribes to the R and S, or the West Coast (Coryell or Walsh versions), or any other imperfect label assigned to a method of offensive football, or more particularly, method of passing attack, one has to make an initial decision; how much personnel to use, or to hold in reserve, for protecting the passer. I've always thought it more sound, especially for the long haul of a sixteen game regular season, hopefully followed by at least three playoff games, to first and foremost assure that the passer is consistently protected well. Does this mean I can never see the wisdom of having four or five wide receivers in the formation? No, but predictably using that many receivers seems to be the real mistake.

I also always thought it interesting that two guys from branches on the Gillman/Coryell coaching tree, Gibbs and Martz, seemed to have somewhat different ideas as to the primacy of pass protection. Predictably, I've always thought the Gibbs approach to be superior.

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55 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Kwame // Aug 03, 2006 - 1:35am

I wrote an a letter to Dr.Z at SI (he actually answered it in his mailbag at sometime last year arguing that because of the current rules (basically you can't cover WRs anymore) and all the available WRs in the draft that a team would be smart to install the run and shoot. His arguement against it was that you cannot protect the QBs.

While I do think there is some truth to that arguement and Stan's "zone blitz" statement ( I seem to remember Rod Woodson blitzing off the slot constantly and absolutely destroying Warren Moon) all offenses have weaknesses. I still think (especially with the recent emphasis on the passing game in the rules and field turf) that a run and shoot with slight variations could be very sucessful

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56 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Todd S. // Aug 03, 2006 - 1:37pm

I just wanted to point out that the Colts are not a run-and-shoot team. During the big year of 2004 they used 3-receiver sets most of the time, with some 2-TE sets mixed in (Stokely was the 3rd WR). Last year in 2005 when more defenses encouraged them to run, they used way more 2-TE sets (Stokely played a lot less). It is quite rare for the Colts to be in 4-WR sets.

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57 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Alaska Jack // Aug 03, 2006 - 4:07pm

I guess my final comment on this thread is this: If you want to say "the zone defense stopped the run and shoot" or "crushing the little receivers stopped the run and shoot" or "blitzing the qb stopped the run and shoot" that's fine -- I'm all ears. But I think the onus is on you to first show *that the run and shoot was stopped*, then explain how it was done. As I stated previously (#20), I contend that no one every really *did* stop the run and shoot. As I noted, in the last year it was ran the QB/RB/WRs went 4000+/1000+/1000+ (x3). And the players involved -- well, we're not going to be debating their entry into the hall of fame someday, let me put it that way.

Yes, the conventional wisdom is that the R&S exposes your QB too much. I don't think this is the case, because, unless I'm mistaken (and I will freely back down if I am), R&S QBs have a lower instance of injury than conventional-offense QBs.

And, in a way, this makes sense to me. If I'm an OC, then of course I'm worried about my QBs health throughout the whole season. But as a DC, I don't care about the other team's *season*; I only care about *this game*. And even if your blitz-the-QB strategy gets you a lot of sacks, the odds of *injuring* a QB during any particular game just aren't that good. Now contrast that with the fact that blitzing a R&S team is a very high-risk strategy; you're basically conceding the fact that at least one WR is going to be wide open, it's just a matter of the QB being able to find him in time. You give up two or three touchdowns that way, you're going to re-think that strategy pretty quick.

Put another way, if I played all 16 games against the same R&S team, I might blitz every play. I'd probably lose that game, but it would be worth it if I could knock the QB out for the season. But the fact is, I *don't* play that team all 16 games, and I'm not willing to sacrifice one loss so that *other* teams can reap the benefits.

- Alaska Jack

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58 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Stravinsky // Aug 03, 2006 - 10:21pm

Wow, what a great thread!

One aspect that doomed the R&S in the NFL that isn't obvious is the placment of the hashmarks on the field. When the R&S came to prominence in the college game in the 70's and 80's, the college hashmarks were way outside the NFL hashmarks. As a result, you had a true wide-side of the field. So when the offence split three wide-outs into that huge open area it forced the defence to overcommit to cover the wide side. So if the defense committed to the wide-side, the offense runs up the middle or if they stack the middle the QB rolls out and throws. When you had an agile QB like Ware rolling out with three guys running routes in that huge wide-side of the field, the defense had problems. Ditto for when the defense would over-commit to stop the wide-side.
This opened up the middle for running. In those big years that Ware and Klingler had at the University of Houston, they also had a huge back named Calrence Weatherspoon that gained tons of yards running the ball up the middle.

In the NFL, the hash marks are much closer to the middle fo the field. As a result, the wide-side wasn't as wide as it was in college and putting three wide-outs on that side wasn't as effective. Defenses could play without having to really overcommit one way or the other.

Another problem, as others noted, is that in order for the R&S to work, you have to allow the QB to run the ball a lot. If the Defense is going to drop 8 guys into coverage, the QB has to run the ball to force the defence to have to pay attention to him. Ware was especially effective at this in college. In the NFL, having the QB carry the ball often is a recipe for disaster. So, like against the Oilers, the defences could drop 8 guys into pass coverage without having to worry about Moon taking off with the ball all game.

And last, Buddy Ryan punched Gilbride because he called a pass late in a game that resulted in a sack and fumble when the Oilers D was pitching a shutout. The play was near mid-field and the Oilers had been running effectively all night so there was no reason to call a pass at that time and, if I remember right, the Oilers maybe could have run out the clock with a couple of running plays.


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59 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by B Nelly // Aug 04, 2006 - 3:48am

David Klingler? Oh how I hate him (as a QB) so...he ruined my Bengals for years. Curse you Mike Brown for picking him and curse you David Klingler for pretending to be good. Oh the pain!

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60 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by dryheat // Aug 04, 2006 - 3:12pm

I don't know if it happened in practice, but in theory the Run and Shoot would be a hard system to get married to because of depth. If there are four distinctive receiving positions and no redundancy between them, that means you need 8 WRs minimum on the roster, and the talent drop off is likely huge. I guess if you're not using large RBs, FBs, and TEs, you can devote more roster space to the WRs, but losing a WR for the season would hurt badly. It's not like you could pick up a guy mid-season and coach him up on all the routes and adjustments.

in re: #40

The wishbone wasn't abandoned because it was one dimensional. The wishbone was abandoned because its bread and butter offensive play exposes the quarterback to brutal hits. The quarterback has to read the unblocked outside lineman (DE or OLB) and make a decision off him to run or pitch. Once defensive coaches got wise and instructed that player to lay a licking on the QB pitch-be-damned, the formation made a hasty exit from the pro ranks.

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61 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by stan // Aug 05, 2006 - 1:31am

Homer Smith, one of the great offensive minds in college football, a superb OC at UCLA, Ala, and AZ, and a football historian (maybe its that Phd from Princeton) says that the zone blitz killed the run and shoot.

I remember Tx A&M using the first zone blitz concepts that I ever saw against the Houston Cougars and Ware with a 1-5-5 defense. The O-line was confused the whole game about who was blitzing and who was dropping. Aggies got great pressure while being able to drop some people to help out on pass defense.

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62 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Chuck // Aug 07, 2006 - 11:55am

I remember the Lions-Redskins game. The reason Sanders didn't rush much was that the Redskins played a straight 4-3 (yes!). With 7 men in the box, you pass in the R&S. The 'Skins used to play a nickel and Cover-3 against the R&S, but found that the safety in the middle had nothing to do. So, they trusted their DBs to control the WRs and used 7 men to pressure the QB.

The Oilers' experience was a bit different. I don't remember which team it was that blew them up. As, I said, 7 men in the box is the key for a pass play, as no deep help is available. Fewer men in the box are keys for the run, as 5 on 5 or even 6 has a good chance at a decent gain. So, the Oilers' opponents gave Moon one look when he lined up. Then, after Moon made his read, they shifted a man in or out of the box and blew up the play. I think the reason this worked so successfully was that R&S's motion (a SB normally runs from one side to the other) prevented quick snaps.

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63 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by empty13 // Aug 13, 2006 - 9:12pm

18. Houston didnt run the ball even with a lead in that game, even to run out the clock at the end of the half. That is why Ryan went after Gilbride on the sideline.

Now maybe the D also quit after that episode, must have been an interesting halftime in the locker room...

I do think that Dallas was glad that Buffalo won that game.

Injuries eventually blew the Oilers up. They had talent. One GM quit, disgusted with Pardee's laissez faire approach, telling all that he had done all he could do.


Like Millen, Fontes had old man Ford's ear. "Big Buck..."


56, the Colts actually have had TWO good pass catching tight ends at one time, so installing the pure RnS would have detracted from stuff they did well without it.


The hashes were moved in prior to the 1971 season, which had a whole slew of 1000 yard rushers, back when that meant something.

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64 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by BV // Aug 14, 2006 - 10:53pm

There was a fundamental defense found that stopped the run and shoot. As a houston fan, I saw it in one of the last games. Do not remember opp, but think it was the bears.
The Base of the Bear plan was

What happened on the end - If a line backer blitzes? There is a hole in the short coverages and there were different routes that adjusted to take advantage.
What they did was they rushed the DE wide and then shot a outside linebacker through the Gap

Again this was not a problem in the Houston plan except they curled the DE back out. They generated the impact of a blitz (A rusher aiming for the QB) without the hole. We could not complete the big plays because he would either disrupt the pass or clobber the reciever as he caught the ball. (no run after catch). Our outside lineman got left in limbo so in many ways it was 11 defenders vs 10 offensive players. If he chased the DE, then he would be downfield for the pass and a penality. He could not get to the Linebacker except to hit him in the back, (another penalty)

If he did not stay up with the DE went outside, without a TE the DE had enough space and angle that the lineman had to roll when he went wide. No win sums up our offensive that day. Last full season of the run and gun

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65 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Alaska Jack // Aug 16, 2006 - 4:51am

BV -

The Houston Oilers last ran the Run and Shoot in 1993. That year, they won their last 11 games. Heywood Jeffires, Warren Moon, Bruce Matthews, Mike Munchak and Webster Slaughter made the pro bowl. The offense finished third in the NFL. Gary Brown ran for 1,002 yards (Lorenzo White chipped in almost 500 more). And all this despite the fact that Warren Moon threw as many INTs (21) as TDs.

After that year, Kevin Gilbride was fired, Moon traded to Minnesota and the Run and Shoot junked.

The following year, the Oilers finished 2-14. The offense finished 22nd. A single offensive player (Bruce Matthews) made the Pro Bowl. And it wasn't a defensive collapse: the Team's defense actually improved, from 15th to 7th.

- Alaska Jack

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66 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by ChrisCab // Aug 23, 2006 - 4:45am

Great article, I just read it yesterday and looked up the Poincare Conjecture to see what's that all about it. And wouldn't you know, today a Russian mathematician solved the Poincare Conjecture AND turned down the $1Million prize. Go figure.

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67 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by SukiDillon // Oct 04, 2006 - 7:46pm

This is a response to comment #30 talking about Mike Martz blowing 4th qtr leads.

This is gonna shock alot of people, but Mike Martz is 55-5 with a 4th qtr lead. That is the best record in NFL history of any coach since 1970. Not bad for the worst coach in NFL history.

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68 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Andrew // Oct 09, 2006 - 12:36am

The issue with wide receiver talent is, I think, misrepresented. The success of many college spread teams, and the recent Patriots teams, results from having numerous (cheap) mediocre receivers, rather than a single highly paid/recruited threat on the outside like more traditional offenses. Notably, the Northwestern team that was so good offensively last year lacked a single notable receiver, and was able to replace several injured receivers.

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69 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Larry A // Dec 04, 2006 - 1:17am

I have always seen a more pragmatic failure to the NFL implementation of the RnS (as a Falcons fan who watched it for a number of years). Simply put, any offense where the defense can dictate what the offense does is doomed.

The RnS is completely based upon reads by receivers and the QB right up until the snap and even shortly thereafter. Based upon the defensive formation, the QB either gives the ball the the RB or passes. If the defense is to cheat to the outside to protect the receivers, the middle is open and the QB can hand off to the RB. If they cheat to the middle a bit, the receivers are hot targets. In short the RnS is a read and react offense, and a very good one at that capable of putting up obnoxious numbers.

The problem comes when the defense figures out that they can "force" the offense into certain plays by their alignment and behaviour. The key to an offense is either a) forcing your will upon the defense (irresistable force versus immovable object theory) or b) making them defend the entire field creating holes or c) defend the wrong part of the field, creating a bigger hole where you want to attack.

I am not going to say it can't work, the reality is that Wayne Fontes was not and will never be regarded as a great coach while Joe Gibbs is in the HofF. Joe Gibbs and Co made adjustments that allowed them to predict the offense actions and hence gain control. If Wayne Fontes was a decent coach, he would have realized the boundary conditions on the decision matrix for the offense were being manipulated by the defense and adjusted those boundary conditions accordingly.

I personally look forward to a coach having the nerve to truly resurrect the RnS - perhaps the Falcons with Mike Vick (he could certainly handle the run part) would be a viable candidate for the Tight end as a Y/Q in the RnS. Of course, that would require Vick to make decisions, probably not a good idea.

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70 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Alaska Jack // Dec 08, 2006 - 4:53pm

Larry -

Interesting observations. I still contend that a detractor would have to demonstrate that the R&S was indeed "doomed", when the numbers suggest otherwise. But I agree with quite a bit of what you wrote.

The coaching bit strikes to what I was talking about earlier -- having a good offensive *scheme* is just one of about 15 factors that need to come together for a team to win. Others include good coaching, talented players, a good defensive scheme, good strength training and conditioning, good support from ownership, good individual coaching (ie., teaching technique), smart playcalling/adjustments, and let's not forget about a good dose of -- luck!

I wouldn't even go so far as to say the R&S is the *best* offensive scheme. What's "best" can vary depending on your personnel, opponent, etc. My sole point: a dispassionate look at the numbers indicates that it is a very good scheme, and better than most.

- Alaska Jack

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71 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Daniel // Jun 22, 2007 - 11:18am

I'm surprised he doesn't make mention of the Rams Greatest Show On Turf. Although not a RnS offense, their spread offense style broke and rebroke the record for most points scored in a season during the 1999-2001 seasons. The idea of the spread offense still works today, it's just that all the pieces have to be in play for it work. The Rams did, after all, have Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Ricky Proehl, and Al-Zahir Hakim as Wide Receivers, not to mention Marshall Faulk, a great receiving back. If the spread offense were truly dead, I don't see why most teams find it worth their time to invest in at least one good slot man, like Stokey previously of the Colts, or Chris Brown of the bengals.

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72 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Coach Ron // May 08, 2008 - 10:43pm

First, there are two types of "Spread" Offense. The quick passing game (i.e. Purdue, Hawaii, Texas Tech) and the Spread Option run (Texas, Northwestern, Florida, West Virginia). Both create match up problems....4 WR's = AT LEAST 4 DB's which leaves at the most 7 defenders to rush the passer or stop the run. With 5 O-lineman blocking, that leaves two player (one if the RB blocks) the QB must account for in the pass game. In the Option Run game the numbers are at least even (7 vs. 7) and any option coach will take that all day.

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73 Re: The Passing Game IV: Spread Offense

by Gut // Feb 23, 2009 - 4:03am

Some disturbing signs...if you really don't know how the Run and Shoot works, I don't know how you can write an article about it that isn't very accurate.

While it's true that a lot of NFL teams use some run and shoot concepts (and even one of it's core plays), simply running 3 or 4 WR sets has little to do with the Run and Shoot. And, by the way, the spread offense is NOT a Run and Shoot offense. They work differently.

The RnS offense had many advantages (and still does) over most offenses. Having a 4 WR set dictated TO the defense that the defense had to show it's hand. 6 in the box...then the offense gets to pass with 4 WR's vs 5 DB's. 5 in the box means running with 5 OL vs 5 defenders...not to mention the rb. Additionally, 4 WR's are starters. WR's #3 and #4 are going against part time players in CB's #3 and #4. When it came into the NFL, it is the biggest reason the Oilers put up some huge numbers. Put your best cb's on the inside and we burn you deep to the outside. Put them outside and our better slot players have the entire middle of the field to get open. Also, since few teams ran it..hard for defenses to prepare for it since they could only make so many changes in one week. Also, the offense got more reps to execute better as the base offense is the same for all downs and distance AND two minute drill AND in the red zone. So while most offenses change personel for 3rd and long package, the Run and Shoot stays the same. More reps equals better execution and one of the reasons why the Run and Shoot was better at having WR's alter routes on the fly. And it's not rocket science. For each play, a WR has at most 3-4 different routes...not dozens.

The Oilers were by far the best Run and Shoot team in the NFL. They dispelled most of the RnS myths. Couldn't control TOP? How come they were near the top each year? And they also proved that you don't need top notch talent at rb or wr to be successful. Lorenzo White and Allen Pinckett each put up big yardage but couldn't really play in other systems. Haywood Jeffries went to the Pro Bowl as a RnS wr but couldn't even start successfully after he left. It was more important to have a good OL and a good but not great QB. While Moon was a great QB, the Oilers couldn't do it with him when he had mostly bad WR's, a solid RB but an injured OL playing backups and a rookie LT. They made the playoffs with their great D that year (dispelling the myth that the defenses had trouble because they couldn't practice against a TE). In the Oilers games against the Broncos and Bills, they put up over 60 points total...and scored 35 of those points in one half against a very good D. (The Oilers also regularly used it in cold weather games successfully...another myth down.)

In the Bills game, the offense outplayed most offenses in playoff history while their defense choked big time...but it was the offenses fault? Wasn't this the same offense that can't be successful in the playoffs outdoors and in the cold?

The Falcons and Lions were even less successful simply because they were less talented teams. The system actually let those teams be more successful than they should have been, but once you play the league's best teams, some of those advantages get nullified. The Oilers were really the only team with the talent on offense and defense to have a legit chance to win a SB.

As for more of the it gets your QB killed...didn't the Rams play in 2 SB's and win one of them with a similar type of offense. Mostly blocking with 5 and a RB? Warner took his lumps but that team broke NFL scoring I guess an offense like that can win in the NFL.

But even THAT offense, once beaten by the Pats came under heavy fire and is no longer a system used in the NFL except where Martz is hired. A similar argument can be made about the 46 Defense. Where ever it's been run it's been an extremely effective defense and yet few teams are willing to 'gamble' on it.


Simple. Job security. If you do what everyone else is doing and can still have a job. If you do something out of the ordinary and fail...goodbye! When someone has the gumption to use a new in Davis with the Run and Shoot, Martz with his pass happy style, or Buddy Ryan with the 46 D, anything from great advances to greatness can be achieved. However, you need the determination to run it.

Thank you.


PS - Gilbride ONLY ran the Run and Shoot at Houston...not anywhere else he coached. The spread offense WORKS in the NFL (the Colts have run it for more than a decade and won a SB with it). And Hawaii ran the Run and Shoot while Jones was coaching there. It wasn't some crazy variation of the offense. Most other college teams run the spread...mainly because they can achieve similar results with less complication.

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