(RANCHO MIRAGE) – It was a chilly evening this past March under the lights at the expansion SoCal Coyotes’ sprawling Big League Dreams practice facility, when J. David Miller was introduced as the new coach and the man now responsible for the team’s offense, called the Run ‘n’ Shoot.
Nate Lewis, the Coyotes’ 6-5, 225-pound quarterback, couldn’t wait to introduce himself. Once considered the hottest prospect in the desert, his hopes had all but dissolved due to injuries and setbacks at the major-college level, and then, a lackluster season in the minor leagues. This was to be his last hurrah, the year in which he finally put football to bed forever.
Miller and the 26-year-old quarterback shook hands and exchanged formalities. Lewis told him he’d run a four-wide offense in high school and indicated that he couldn’t wait to throw for his new coach. Miller, meanwhile, observed Lewis’s size and strength like a stable-hand checking out Secretariat. What the coach said next stunned the young quarterback.
“Coach (Miller) took one look at me and said, point-blank, ‘Welcome to the real Run’ n’ Shoot,” Lewis recalls. “He said, ‘Kid, get ready. You’re about to throw for more yards, complete more passes and throw more touchdowns than you ever have in your life. You are going to average 400 yards a game and complete 70 percent of your passes. And you’re going to lead the league in everything and compete for a championship.
“To be honest, I thought he was nuts.”
WHAT LEWIS DIDN’T KNOW at the time was that Miller was a Run ‘n’ Shoot disciple who had been carefully groomed for three decades under the direct tutelage of legendary coaches Darrel “Mouse” Davis and June Jones, the very men who created and developed the offense that today has revolutionized football.
Miller, as an author, had written a half-dozen books with Davis and Jones, and had played and coached in the Run ‘n’ Shoot, too. Furthermore, as a producer, Miller has spent the past three years working on a soon-to-be-released documentary film about Davis and his fire-breathing offense, interviewing players like Jim Kelly and Barry Sanders, and coaches like Bill Belicheck and Jerry Glanville.
“A teacher like Mouse affects eternity, because you can never tell where his influence stops,” says Miller. “Call it fate, call it chance, call it a connect-the-dots miracle, but the Coyotes and Mouse were about to become synonymous.”
Miller has spent much of his career building an irrefutable argument that the five-foot, six-inch Davis is a larger-than-life football messiah; and that the Run ‘n’ Shoot has Lombardi-size impact on all whom it touches. At the personal level, it is as life-changing as the Ten Commandments, rekindling hope in the hearts of players, and for the careers of many, has become a second-chance saloon.
The unsuspecting Nate Lewis had unknowingly stepped right out of central casting into a leading role, starring himself as a most unlikely character who would overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to mature into one of the nation’s best quarterbacks.
In a story of Walt Disney-esque proportions, the Coyotes would dedicate their offense to Davis. Nate would lead his teammates to a “Remember the Titans” season behind thrilling Run ‘n’ Shoot fireworks -- in a land where positive reinforcement and tons of fun revitalized them with child-like energy and excitement.
Before you could say 'Cinderella story,' Lewis burst to the pinnacle of 800 quarterbacks in AAA professional football, where he set national records with 228 completions and led the country in every category, including an astonishing 15.2 average yards per completion, 466 yards per game and 35 touchdowns. He completed 72-percent of his passes and led the Coyotes to the Pac West title and a berth in the national championship, where the team lost on a last-second field goal, 23-20.
The long-ball gunner found himself as the starting quarterback for the West in the national All-Star game, where he promptly set a game record with 351 yards and three touchdowns and earned Player of the Game honors. For his brilliant season, he was named National Player of the Year. Miller was head coach of the West, and was named National Coach of the Year.
"We realize," says Lewis, "we need each other. We feed off each other. Our communication is often simply eye contact. We read each other fluently."
On December 8, the Coyotes will open defense of their Pac West title in the first annual Catalina Kickoff Classic against the Arizona Flying Dutchmen in the first pro football game ever played on the historic island, 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The Coyotes will be greeted by the Mayor and given a key to the city. Lewis and his teammates will be given treatment normally reserved for heads of state.
And at the center of this magic kingdom, in the shadow of Disneyland?
A Mouse, no less.
IT WAS DAYS BEFORE the Coyotes were to play in the opening round of the PWFL playoffs. Miller and Lewis were working together with the legendary Mouse Davis, the godfather of the Run ‘n’ Shoot, examining why the quarterback had inexplicably thrown four interceptions the week before.
In spite of another victory, 251 yards passing and three touchdowns, it had been Lewis’s worst outing of the year; now his every decision was being dissected like a dead frog in a high-school biology lab.
“When that happens,” Mouse explained in his gravelly baritone, “it’s usually one of three things. You’re either holding the ball too long, you’re locking on to a single receiver, or you’re not reading through your progressions properly. On the choice route, for instance, do you mind telling me what you’re seeing?”
Lewis gave his best explanation. Davis chuckled. When you’ve been Running and Shooting for 48 years, there’s little left to chance. “You gotta control the field with your eyes,” he told the young gunslinger. “Then the ball has to come out.” In rapid-fire fashion, in less than five minutes, Davis broke down everything from Lewis’s pre-snap reads to post-snap sight adjustments.
“I get it,” nodded Lewis. “Wow. That’s on me. It’s wide open.”
As they have all season, Miller and Lewis scribbled notes, all of which immediately went into on-field practice, then finally, became part of that week’s game plan.
“Hopefully, the other guys try to blitz and bring everybody,” Davis told Lewis. “Their only hope is to put you on your back. But with the speed you have at receiver, they can’t pressure you and cover you at the same time, so let’s hope they come after you. If they blitz, we score, and that’s the rule.”
Davis’s infectious, bellowing laughter filled their ears with confidence.
Three days later, Lewis torched the San Diego blitz, and completed 79-percent of his passes for 428 yards, his sixth 400-yard-plus game of the season. “Nate has the ability to think three plays ahead,” says Miller. “He has really come into his own. And his accuracy is ridiculous. He can throw a donut down a chimney at 70 yards." The Coyotes rolled up nearly 600 yards in total offense, and the Thundercats went down with barely a whimper, 31-7.
“It was,” says Miller, “the most complete game Nate’s ever had as a pro.”
FOR NATE LEWIS, HE NEARLY never had a game as a pro, much less a complete one.
Lewis grew up on a farm in Banning, where he was the second of four boys. After six years of dealing with cows and chickens, the family moved to Cathedral City, and father John made a living framing houses, while mother Emma kept her precocious quartet of boys singing from the same sheet of music.
Nate was a varsity defensive end until his senior year at Cathedral City High School, when he was finally moved to quarterback. He was first-team all-league and led Riverside County with more than 2,000 yards passing, and finished 13th overall in the state.
Over two years at (junior) College of the Desert, Lewis was the team’s Most Valuable Player and first-team all-conference. He earned a full scholarship at Fairmont State University, where as a Fighting Falcon, he broke his collarbone. He transferred to Dixie State College, where he showed promise, but finished his senior year holding a clipboard, before graduating in 2008.
He returned home to the desert, started his own company, and played a season with the semi-pro Desert Valley Knights, splitting time between quarterback and safety. For all practical purposes, football was over, until last year, when he coached a little-league team. Tasting the field again, however, made him hungry with wonder, and the ‘what-ifs’ permeated his mind. His bride Megan recognized his inner torment, and pushed him to give football one last shot.
The day he tried out for the expansion Coyotes, Nate had no idea he would find himself on a serendipitous crash course with Miller, then Mouse, then June Jones, or that the next career resurrected by the Run ‘n’ Shoot offense would be his own.
Miller, who had last been on the sidelines when he served as senior vice president for the Arena League’s world-champion Tampa Bay Storm, quickly indoctrinated the young Coyotes on the Run ‘n’ Shoot family. Soon the team was surrounded by passionate veteran coaches and players who had followed Mouse and the offense for decades.
“It was amazing, really,” Nate remembers. “We would go to Coach Miller’s house and watch film, and in the course of a three-hour night, we’d break down the Gamblers, the Lions, the Falcons, the (Hawaii) Warriors, and then get on the phone and talk to some of the best coaches and players of those teams. I learned more in a few nights in his living room than I had my whole career.”
Miller explained to Lewis he was now part of that lineage: Neil Lomax, June Jones – as a player, and a coach -- Jim Kelly, Colt Brennan, Bobby Hebert, Jeff George, and Warren Moon, to name a few. But for Nate, nothing beat working with Mouse Davis, the 80-year-old legend himself, especially when so many other coaches claim to run a ‘version’ of the offense.
“There are many interpretations of the Bible, too, but there’s only one King James Version,” Miller told Lewis. “Make no mistake: The Coyotes are all about Mouse. To appreciate our offense, they had to learn a little history."
THE YEAR WAS 1964, and Mouse Davis – then a high school coach in Portland, Oregon, had grown weary of being out-manned and out-gunned by bigger kids at bigger schools. Like any coach, he’d tried the Wing-T, the veer and the option, to no avail, but kept scribbling on chalkboards deep into the night, searching for answers.
He experimented with putting his kids in the slot position and using the hashes to open up the field, but the seminal moment occurred when he read a book by Ohio State assistant Glen “Tiger” Ellison entitled “The Run and Shoot.” Suddenly, it all made sense.
Mouse took Ellison’s base formations and began to add more layers, based on years of discovery, like field markers and hashmarks and base routes, and how players could run competitively to open space. He developed positions like slotbacks and S-backs, and cared less about punishment and more about self-discipline, where receivers read coverage and converted routes on the run, making them impossible to stop. The running game was used as an element of surprise, with devastating results.
The modern Run ‘n’ Shoot was born.
Mouse, who refused to wear a whistle, demanded his players call him by his first name, relax, laugh and have fun. “We’re teachers and educators, first,” Davis preached, “and we’re all about repetition. Nothing gets done breaking clipboards.”
With scores like 61-0, 105-0 and 93-7, he insisted that passes were little more than long handoffs, and allowed touchdown celebrations. Long interceptions were no different than punts, twice as exciting, and had a 50-50 chance of being a touchdown, and so the iconoclastic coach filled the night skies with footballs.
Davis and his system earned three-straight, high-school championships and he became head coach at Portland State University. His teams destroyed national passing records, won conference titles, and produced multiple NFL players, including Lomax and June Jones. Mouse took the offense to the Canadian Football League, where it won a championship, forever banishing the notion that a passing offense can’t win in rain, high winds or cold weather.
Mouse hit American pro football by storm, and took June Jones with him as a coach. They inherited rookie and future Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly at quarterback with the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League, and Kelly broke all professional passing records, and the Gamblers receivers – the Mouseketeers – did the same.
Jones went to the Houston Oilers, where Moon rewrote the record books and took the team to multiple playoffs. Mouse and June went to Detroit, where the Lions went to an NFC title game and Barry Sanders enjoyed the best years of his career. Together, they began teaching the offense to dozens of other NFL coaches, who included Belichick, Tom Moore and yes, even Bill Walsh, who credited Davis and his ideals as the basis of the West Coast offense.
“It took on a life of its own from there,” Miller says. “Most coaches refused to call it by its name. Few NFL coaches wanted to give Mouse Davis any credit whatsoever. But overnight, the NFL went from smash-mouth football to a league where every team was running some form of it.”
Jones went back to college coaching, and did the unthinkable.
Behind the Run ‘n’ Shoot, he orchestrated the two greatest turnarounds in NCAA history: The first, at the University of Hawaii; the second, at Southern Methodist, where his teams and quarterbacks continue to assault the record books.
MILLER WASTED NO TIME convincing Lewis he would be next in line as a quintessential Run ‘n’ Shoot quarterback.
“Nate showed me some of his old film,” says Miller, whose coaching record is now 61-13, for an .833 winning percentage. “I was impressed with his release, and how accurate he could throw it. Of course, I didn’t need to see film to see his height, realize his intelligence, or believe in his incredible arm strength. He’s strong enough to sit on the 30-yard line and throw it through the back of the end zone. You could tell he was pretty special, and we had a lot to work with. Together, we started from scratch and built him from the ground up. He had an immediate willingness to trust us, and trust the system.”
The rebuilding of Nate Lewis began in earnest two months prior to the season. Miller spent hours with not only Lewis, but also wide receivers Rashad Roberts, Demario Brown, Josh Asuncion and single back David "The Diesel" Cathcart. patiently teaching them the nuances of the offense at the same time. The routine was rigorous: Film, almost daily. Four-hour practices.Repetition, repetition, repetition.
“The biggest part of the system is consistent, overwhelming, repetitive, positive reinforcement,” says Mark Lane, who lives in Tennessee and played quarterback under Miller in high school. In Nate’s early days in the offense, Lane spent time on the phone with Lewis, assuring him to stay confident, and believe in what he was being taught.
“When David took the job with the Coyotes,” Lane remembers, “all of us knew what was about to happen.”
For starters, Miller gave Lewis an original Mouse Davis Run ‘n’ Shoot playbook; then explained on a grease-board the drops, routes, reads, progressions and coverages. This included constant phone calls to Mouse and other players and coaches who had achieved great success in the offense.
Second, Lewis was introduced to film, film and more film; teaching, reinforcing and building a relationship of trust between himself and Miller. It helped when the film included the likes of Jim Kelly or Colt Brennan.
Third, they made him throw against air, as many as 300 repetitions in each practice, carefully correcting footwork, hips, eyes, shoulders, and throwing motion.
Fourth, he was eased into seven-on-seven drills. Fifth, live scrimmages, where the coach slowly built in the complexity of multiple looks, blitzes and formations.
Finally, when regular season games began April 30, Lewis faced opponents in a hostile environment, and the offense slowly became second nature, to the point that Miller would eventually relinquish most of the play calling to his new understudy.
“That was total trust right there,” Lewis recalls. "That changed everything for me. It changed my life."
COYOTE PRACTICES WERE SUDDENLY FULL of ‘Mouse-isms.
On mistakes: “If you’re going to make a mistake, at least make it really, really fast.”
On repetition: “Whatever we teach has to be second nature. Repetition, repetition, repetition. When we get it right, do it again.”
On being little: “Size is relative. When you catch touchdowns, you’re the biggest guy on the field.”
On criticism: “The way to shut up the crowd is throw touchdowns.”
On failure: “It only takes one play to change the game. We are engineered for comebacks. The other guys aren’t.”
"Nate was smart enough to see what he could do in our system," Miller says. “Now he’s done some unbelievable things. His accuracy, quickness in the pocket, ability to avoid the rush and throw from all angles is amazing. His mind and body just take over."
Lewis laughs about the time he asked Mouse which short-yardage play to call inside the 10.
“Well, I kind of like the Rip 60 Z Go from 30 or 40 yards out,” Mouse cackled, describing a deep pass. “Then go for two.”
“What about when I’m backed up on my own goal-line?” Lewis asked.
“That’s the best time to throw deep,” Mouse answered, dead serious. “You have the entire field to work with. Every great quarterback in our system – June, Jimmy (Kelly), all of ‘em, have a 90-plus-yard touchdown.”
Soon, Nate Lewis would join them.
IN AN OPENING-DAY, 14-13 loss – their first and last en route to the Pac West title -- the Coyotes gave away the game with a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown. It was the last time the Coyotes would punt all year.
Still, Lewis engineered 500 yards in total offense, including 412 through the air. The second week at Las Vegas, the offense rang up 50 points, scored on every possession, generated 656 yards in total offense, and Lewis passed for 524 yards and six touchdowns.
“At that point,” Nate says, “I started to realize we had something really special. We weren’t playing the other team, we were playing against space. Even in our one loss, we marched it down their throats, we just didn’t capitalize. No matter what they did, they were wrong. That’s when I started grasping it.”
Until this season, Lewis’s best career game had been 380 yards. By week three, he was averaging 450, and the best was yet to come.
Over the next three-game span, he completed 74 percent of his passes for a staggering 2,100 yards and16 touchdowns, and the Coyotes won by margins of 50-0, 48-22 and 58-8.
Lewis is quick to deflect all personal praise to his offensive line and receivers. Coyote wideouts Rashad Roberts, Josh Asuncion and Demario Brown, legitimate 4.4 speedsters, solidified themselves as pure deep threats that could score every time they touched the ball, and all three became All-Americans. Roberts led the nation in touchdowns (19), yards per catch (19.2) and yards per game (134.2).
The rest of the receiver fleet wore defenses to the bone. And, as predicted, S-backs David Cathcart and James Allison blossomed as the running game rumbled to life, adding more insult to injury with consistent 100-yard rushing games.
Dominating time-of-possession victories have given Lewis a “greater confidence and belief in myself than I’ve ever had,” he says. “With our offense, we believe we can score on any play, any down, any distance. I’m having the most fun of my life. Every game is now a thrill ride."
Like a magic mountain, perhaps.
Mouse, June and other coaches frequently made themselves available to the Coyotes throughout the season, an experience the players truly enjoyed.
This included the likes of Tim Marcum, the AFL’s all-time winningest coach and member of the Hall of Fame; former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator and Hawaii head coach Greg McMackin; and Jeff Reinebold, assistant head coach of the Montreal Alouettes, and receiver coach Marcus Mayo.
Wayne Anderson Jr., head coach of the Bari (Italy) Patriots, was a regular adviser to the Coyotes. The two teams – and their players – became international friends, supporting one another on Facebook and sporting Italian and American flags on their helmets.
“I’ve studied and coached this offense for 24 years,” says Anderson, “and Nate Lewis is running it as well as any quarterback I’ve seen.”At the end of the Bari season, where the team won its division, Anderson joined the Coyotes and Miller full-time as quarterback coach and offensive coordinator.
“It’s been amazing to be able to talk to these guys, especially Mouse or June, directly,” says Lewis. “You know nothing is getting lost in the translation. It’s incredible and humbling what a family the Run ‘n’ Shoot really is, and how much all these guys are on the same page, and how much they really care.”
WHEN THE COYOTES TOOK center stage against the nationally ranked Sin City Saints for the Pac West title game, all eyes – including those of Lewis’s young son Parker – were on them.Early predictions were the veteran Saints would dominate the young Coyotes, especially since they had only allowed 35 points all season.
By halftime, however, a different story was unfolding. In two quarters, Lewis had not been sacked, rolled up 294 yards, and the Coyotes led 35-14. By game's end, SoCal had blasted the best defense in the league for 648 total yards and a 49-35 victory. In addition to Lewis, "The Diesel" Cathcart rushed 22 times for a game-record 209 yards. Lewis finished the season with a PWFL record 3,479 yards passing and 35 touchdowns.
"So much for the idea that Run 'n' Shoot teams don't win championships," said a jubilant Lewis. On the year, the Coyotes rolled up a whopping 5,212 yards in total offense.
As the Coyotes get set for the Catalina Kickoff Classic on December 8, Lewis and his team hold the PWFL season passing records for, well, everything.
A look back demonstrates the many ways Lewis administers pain to a defense -- and it is a mind-numbing body of work.
Against Santa Clarita, he put together a string of 14 consecutive completions. Against San Diego, he threw a 97-yard touchdown out of his own end zone. He’s so accurate with the deep ball that he averages 15 yards a completion.
Lewis was sacked just 14 times in 400 attempts, and sets another PWFL record for attempts and completions every time he throws. Three times he’s completed passes to eight or more receivers in a single game. For three consecutive games, Brown, Roberts and Asuncion had double-digit catches for nearly 300 yards.
“It’s scary what those guys can do to you, and how fast they can do it,” said Mike Howard, head coach of the Las Vegas Cobras, after the Coyotes’ deep aerial assault resembled more of a track meet than a football game. “If you can’t get pressure on that kid, they can score at will, and they don't hesitate to do so..”
Of course, detractors are already asking: “Is it the system, or the quarterback?”
This makes Miller bristle. “All I know,” he says, “is our kid is the best in the Pac West, maybe the nation, and we have pro scouts from three different leagues now asking for film. He’s a fierce competitor. He’s made every throw, done everything that could be asked of him. Now he’s one of the best in the country. He’s put up more points than anybody on the West Coast. If our ‘system’ showcased his skills, then isn’t that what any system is supposed to do?”
Lewis was the first Run ‘n’ Shoot quarterback in history to take an expansion franchise to a title. Which is why Lewis doesn’t mind being labeled as a ‘system’ quarterback.
“As long as we keep winning by these margins," Lewis grins, “you can call me anything you want.”
MOUSE DAVIS IS A PART OF football history, and now, so are the SoCal Coyotes. Teams from around the country -- as well as Italy, England, Germany and Scotland -- are asking for film of the Coyote offense, as well as copies of the SoCal playbook, which Coach Anderson willingly shares and teaches. Pro teams are asking for film of the new-and-improved Nate Lewis, to see his quick feet, cannon arm and remarkable leadership.
To be on the radar with a number of Arena Football and Canadian teams, as well as several leagues overseas, is a far cry from a guy who a year ago was debating his football future.
“None of this would be possible,” says Nate, “without the Run ‘n’ Shoot. I’m proud that my coaches have taught us that every time we play, we represent history. I’m just thankful to be trusted with the offense that Mouse and June built. That’s some pretty rare air. I’m honored to be here.”
The NFL Network recently selected the Run ‘n’ Shoot among the Top Ten Innovations of all time (it was number eight). CBS commentator Phil Simms didn’t mince words. “The entire NFL is running the Run ‘n’ Shoot,” he says. “They just don’t call it that. The New England Patriots are the best Run ‘n’ Shoot team in football. Bill Belichick has nothing but respect for Mouse and June.”
IN THEIR MOST RECENT CONVERSATION, Mouse offered Lewis more advice.
“Nate, here’s the deal,” he told the quarterback. “When you’re warming up, visualize every coverage you will see. You have an answer for every one of them. Now see yourself throwing a touchdown against all of them. Pitch and catch. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re now among the best quarterbacks available out there. You and the Coyotes are throwing it all over the place, having fun, and that’s what this game is all about. Now it's up to you to pull the trigger."
The two shared a laugh like old friends before parting ways.
If the Coyotes win the Catalina Kickoff Classic on December 8, it's unlikely Nate Lewis will take the perfunctory trip to Disneyland.
He's already on the ride of his life -- and he has a Mouse to call his own.
(For more information on quarterback Nate Lewis or the SoCal Coyotes, visit www.facebook.com/thesocalcoyotes)