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Inside the Pistol Offense and How It's Revolutionized the NFL

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Inside the Pistol Offense and How It's Revolutionized the NFL
David Welker/Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick is rewriting the rules of NFL football. Small-school, dual-threat quarterbacks aren't drafted high in the second round. "Projects" like that don't unseat a veteran starter on a first-place team in their second season.

But Kaepernick has. Now, everyone's talking about how the big kid from the little school played his way to the top, but most are leaving out an important part: the pistol offense. This innovative formation is revolutionizing football at every level, including the NFL.

 

The Beginning

Kaepernick's only college scholarship offer was at the University of Nevada, where head coach Chris Ault had installed himself as head coach two years before and his new "Pistol" offense one year before. Ault wanted to combine the passing strength of a spread-out shogun offense with the power running game of a traditional I-formation.

Ault shortened the shotgun snap, placing his quarterback four or five yards behind the line of scrimmage and the running back directly behind the quarterback, like this:

The short distance between quarterback and center allows for a much faster snap, and the short distance between running back and quarterback allows for quick handoffs and fast-developing run plays. The quarterback still gets an eagle-eye view of the defense, though, without standing so far back that he doesn't pose a threat to run.

In the shotgun, tailbacks typically line up next to the quarterback. This limits what the offense can do with them and makes it easy for defenses to read whether they'll be running, blocking or running a route. In the pistol, the running back is right behind the quarterback, so it's much harder for defenses to pick up what the offense is doing.

This allowed Nevada to throw like a shotgun spread team, run like an I-formation team, freeze defenses with excellent play action and use advanced running concepts like the veer:

Kaepernick had the perfect blend of height, athleticism and throwing ability for Ault's Pistol. He stepped into a starting role as a redshirt freshman and started 47 straight games from there.

In 2008, Nevada was the only D-I team to both run and throw for 3,000 yards. In 2009, the Wolf Pack led the nation in rushing, piling up a whopping 344 yards per game at an incredible 7.39 yards per carry. They became the first school in NCAA history to have three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.

 

It Spreads

It didn't take long for other college programs to begin using the pistol. This Big Ten Network clip does an excellent job of breaking down Indiana's implementation of the pistol and how devastating the play action can be with this formation (thanks to Smart Football and Shakin' the Southland for pointing this clip out):

It didn't take long for the pistol to spread to the NFL, either: The Kansas City Chiefs used the pistol extensively in 2009, when they lost multiple quarterbacks to injury. The Pittsburgh Steelers have used it to maximize Big Ben's strengths. The Redskins have deployed Robert Griffin III from it to great effect.

Perhaps most spectacularly, the Bengals deployed it in Week 3 with Mohamed Sanu. They used a two-back variant in their lineup, with quarterback Andy Dalton split wide:

The confusion in the Redskins secondary led to a wide-open A.J. Green scoring a 70-yard touchdown.

In the NFL, smart coaches ask their players to do what they do best—and Jim Harbaugh is a smart coach. Check out this outstanding breakdown by NFL.com's Bucky Brooks of the 49ers' use of Kaepernick in the pistol.

Just as when he led Nevada to a 13-1 record in 2010, Kaepernick's size, speed and throwing ability make him very difficult to stop, even with NFL defenders.

 

The Future of the Pistol in the NFL

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Will there be any true "Pistol Offense" teams in the NFL, using it as their base formation for most snaps, as Nevada does? No—just like there are no "I-Formation Offenses" or "Ace Offenses" in the NFL.

The pistol formation has become part of the NFL landscape, something every coach will study and be able to install if it will maximize their talent. Right now, many teams are just dipping their toes into it, using it as a gimmick or change of pace.

But the biggest potential of the pistol isn't in the mismatches created by the gimmick plays like the Sanu pass above. Rather, it's in the ability to freeze the defense with a mix of brutal downhill running and wide-open passing from the same formation.

As colleges continue to produce quarterbacks and running backs who've been used so effectively in the pistol, more and more NFL teams will incorporate it into their offenses—and more talented athletes like Kaepernick will find starting jobs in the NFL.

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