Chris Ault, Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs' Pistol Offense
The Kansas City Chiefs made a few headlines recently when they reached an agreement with Chris Ault to be a consultant with the team.
Ault is considered the "Godfather of the pistol offense".
It's not surprising that Ault found a role with an NFL club. In fact, it's surprising that it actually took this long. His pistol offense and ideas derived from it were prevalent throughout much of last season with the Washington Redskins and quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers with Colin Kaepernick.
Ault is familiar with Kaepernick having been his collegiate coach at the University of Nevada, where Kaepernick perfected the collegiate version of this offensive system. Kaepernick threw for over 10,000 yards during his four-year career at Nevada, while also picking up more than 4,000 yards on the ground.
Kaepernick did enough in Ault's offense at Nevada for the San Francisco 49ers to trade up for him in the second round of the 2011 draft and select him with the No. 36 overall pick.
The trickle down effect of this move two years later is that Alex Smith became expendable in San Francisco, the Chiefs needed a quarterback and new head coach Andy Reid made the move to bring Smith to Kansas City. Soon after, Reid hired the college coach of the player who replaced Smith in San Francisco, in Kansas City.
Understand? It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but with Chris Ault and football personnel instead.
As far as the pistol being a gimmicky offense that's just the fad of the times, Ault talked with Greg Bishop of The New York Times and shared his feelings on that.
The Pistol is here to stay...It’s not like the wishbone. You’ll still have guys like Andrew Luck who can drop back, throw the thing, sit in the pocket. But I’m going to tell you, he could run the Pistol. He’d be great in the Pistol. So would Aaron Rodgers.
Well if, in Ault's opnion, Andrew Luck could run the pistol, let's take a look at what the Chiefs offense could look like with Alex Smith running it. The Chiefs aren't going to run their entire offense out of the pistol formation, which is where the quarterback is about four yards deep in shotgun, but with running backs, tight-ends, H-backs or fullbacks beside or behind him.
The moves the Chiefs have made on offense have been consistent in building a physical, powerful football team. This was displayed when they made a concerted effort to improve the offensive line. They kept left tackle Branden Albert and used the No. 1 overall pick on tackle, Eric Fisher. In free agency they signed 6'6", 340-pound offensive guard/tackle, Geoff Schwartz, who was last with the Minnesota Vikings.
They brought over former Miami Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano in free agency, a physical player who's known for being a great blocker as an in-line tight end. They also sought to bolster the fullback position, trading for Anthony Sherman and drafting Kansas State's Braden Wilson.
The real interesting move they made was when they selected former Cincinnati Bearcats tight end Travis Kelce in the third round of the draft. It was the second pick for the Chiefs after trading away their second-round pick, the No. 34 pick overall, to the San Francisco 49ers for Alex Smith.
They had already signed Fasano in free agency, and the team's incumbent tight end, Tony Moeaki, has been a good player for the Chiefs when he's been on the field. Moeaki did miss the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL but played in 15 games last season, finishing as the Chiefs second-leading receiver.
Kelce was seen as one of the most well-rounded tight ends in the 2013 class. NFL.com compares him to the New England Patriots' tight end, Rob Gronkowski. That can't be a bad thing if you're a Chiefs fan.
Through the first few weeks of the Chiefs offseason activities, Kelce seems to have already turned some heads. Adam Teicher of The Kansas City Star has been reporting from the Chiefs offseason workouts and believes the Chiefs have big plans for Kelce:
Based on the ways the Chiefs have used Kelce, it would appear they plan to get plenty out of him. Kelce has lined up in a variety of spots and not merely as a tight end. He has shown the necessary speed to be able to get down the field and catch passes, as he did on Tuesday when he found a seam in zone coverage and grabbed a long ball from Ricky Stanzi.
These moves lead us to believe that either the Chiefs new brass aren't that high on Moeaki, or that they are planning on using multiple tight end packages quite often. Fasano may have cleared some of that up when he spoke about the Chiefs offense during these offseason activities and how all of these tight ends might fit (via NFL.com):
I think the offense is very friendly for a tight end...You can tell they're becoming a very valuable position in this offense. We ultimately determine (how many passes they catch) by how we play, if we make plays, exploit mismatches. The tight ends have a good opportunity in this offense.
The combination of the pistol offense being implemented in some capacity with the Chiefs offense, along with the use of multiple tight end formations might give us some idea as to how the Chiefs plan to use these players within this system.
Here's a look at how the Washington Redskins ran the pistol last season with quarterback Robert Griffin III at the controls.
You can see from this picture the Redskins offense is in a heavy personnel grouping. They've got one tight end in-line to the right and two backs on each side of Griffin, along with a running back directly behind him.
Those backs on each side of Griffin could be anyone, but in the Chiefs case, you're most likely looking at a two-man package comprised of a fullback (Sherman or Wilson) and a tight end (Moeaki, Fasano or Kelce).
This personnel grouping is tough to defend when you have athletic, versatile players at these positions, especially at tight end. If a defense matches your heavy personnel with an extra linebacker or defensive lineman, it doesn't take much to split the tight ends out and get a linebacker matched up out in space on your versatile tight end.
Here's a quick look at what this formation could look like for the Chiefs offense with the players mentioned above.
There are a lot of things the Chiefs could do with pre-snap motions and formation changes with this group. That puts a lot of pressure on a defense to think and react quickly.
A lot of talk about the pistol concerns defining the quarterback's role in that system. But it's the running backs who could benefit the most from these different looks.
The pistol gives the quarterback a better view of the play by keeping things in front of him. You can still run basic dives, traps and counters in the running game out of this formation; this isn't always the case when you're in the regular shotgun with backs strictly to the left or right of the quarterback. The pistol just creates more space and different lanes in the backfield through which the backs and tight ends/H-backs can move.
The pistol offense was broken down quite a bit last season when analyzing RGIII and Colin Kaepernick and their ability to run the zone-read option. Without going into that too much, it's easy to conclude that you have to have a running quarterback in order to run the pistol offense.
But that's not true.
The zone-read option is obviously a big part of what we all saw last season from the pistol offense, and it's probably not something we'll see Alex Smith doing a lot. But that doesn't mean there aren't adaptations and variations of those same plays that can get a quarterback moving around but avoiding the potential for physical punishment that comes from running the football down the field.
One of those variations, or something that we might see that's similar, is what former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein did on this play. Obviously Klein ran the football a lot for the Wildcats, but this is the kind of look the Chiefs have Smith in if they don't want him running the football and taking unnecessary hits.
It's just adding a simple variation to a play we saw run a lot of last year by Kaepernick and Griffin.
What you need is a quarterback who's athletic enough to move around the pocket. With multiple backs on each side and more space in the backfield to move around, it takes a quarterback with athletic ability to maneuver around these areas. Traditional dropback quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning wouldn't be great fits for this offense, although in a limited capacity, this system could work even with them.
Alex Smith is athletic enough and has quick enough feet to run the pistol offense.
That doesn't mean he's going to be running the ball like we saw from Griffin or Kaepernick, but it does mean, the Chiefs' offensive brain trusts can move him around and cater to his strengths, which are leadership, quick feet, decision-making and accuracy underneath. This is something that's already been noticed by his teammates during mini camp.
Jon Baldwin talks about his new quarterback (via KCChiefs.com):
He’s been a great mentor...Alex is going to demand it from you; so, I’m just going to go up there and ask him where he’s going to expect me to be and I’ll be in that spot. Those kinds of things help when you’re communicating with your QB and understand where he wants you to be and where the ball placement is going to be on certain throws.
In this play below from Robert Griffin III, we'll see a basic play-action pass out of the pistol. This is the kind of play we could see from Alex Smith next season with the Chiefs.
You'll notice right from the star that there's only one wide receiver on the field, he's just offscreen, split out to the left. We've got eight defenders in the box with a defensive back just out of the screen on the defense's left side, a cornerback head up on the receiver out to the right and a single deep safety.
You'll notice right off the snap that we've got all five offensive lineman slanting to the right. The left tackle ignores the defensive end right in front of him and slants to the right as well. The H-back that was lined up to Griffin's left is responsible for a cut block on the defensive end.
The play-action sucks up the linebackers and provides more space for Griffin to place the ball over the first line of defenders and make for an easy completion downfield. There were only two routes being run on this pass play as it was setup to sell the run, which it did, and the design worked well as the Redskins picked up a decent chunk of yardage.
This is the kind of play we could see from the Chiefs and Alex Smith next season. It's a play that's dependent on a strong offensive line and running game to help sell the play-action, and variations of this play requires versatility at the tight end position. These are personnel moves the Chiefs have made this offseason and should serve them well next season.
No matter what the personnel grouping is out on the field for the Chiefs offense, their biggest offensive weapon is still going to be running back Jamaal Charles. The pistol offense won't change that focus, but it will find more creative ways to get him the football. It will also give Alex Smith an opportunity to read the defense and put Charles in the best possible situation to make plays.
Alex Smith has already impressed some of his teammates after a few minicamps and workouts. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson and cornerback Brandon Flowers had some good things to say about their new quarterback (via KCChiefs.com):
Johnson—"He’s a QB that gets in and out of the huddle really easily. His communications skills are great. Defensively, if we show him a certain coverage, he’s going to know exactly what it is."
Flowers—"He’s a poised guy. He doesn’t get rattled, he’s poised, on-point. When a ball is supposed to come out, it comes out on time to the right target and he makes smart decisions."
It's one thing to impress teammates during minicamps and workouts, but it's another to get out there and produce on Sundays. These offseason moves seem to have the Chiefs moving in the same direction as far as implementing a offensive vision. Whether or not it's the right direction remains to be seen, but there's a consistent line of thinking when you look at what they've done on offense.
Alex Smith is known for being a cerebral quarterback in that he picks things up quickly. That should serve him well as the Chiefs combine Andy Reid's West Coast system and Chris Ault's pistol offense.
Chiefs fans are just hoping whatever combination they use leads to more wins. Something they haven't had a lot of in Kansas City recently.
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