Earlier this month, Portland State’s Jerry Glanville unveiled to the viewing public his team’s new offense.
In his first season as the Vikings head coach, Glanville has installed the high-powered offensive attack known as the “run-and-shoot.” And who better to run his offense than one of the originators of the pass-happy system, new offensive coordinator Darrell ‘Mouse’ Davis. Davis originally coached PSU between 1975 and 1980, where he first used the offense that is now getting rave reviews from his current players.
“Everybody’s excited,” said wide receiver Kenneth Mackins. “The offense is fun. It’s difficult, but we’ll adjust.”
Now in his second stint with PSU, Davis looks to succeed with the offensive philosophy he learned as an adolescent at Middleton (OH) High School. His then coach, Glenn ‘Tiger’ Ellison, was the originator of the offense and author of the book Run-and-Shoot Football: Offense of the Future. Mouse read the book repeatedly, committing to memory all of its nuances and detail. Years later, after he tinkered the system to near perfection, Davis accepted the head coaching position at Portland State and immediately installed the run-and-shoot. Davis’ offense led the nation in passing and total offense for six consecutive years, averaging 35 points and nearly 500 yards per game.
Davis continued to develop the run-and-shoot throughout the 1980s during coaching stops in the CFL and USFL. In 1988, his system caught the eye of Detroit Lions head coach Wayne Fontes. Fontes loved the high-scoring scheme and quickly made Davis his offensive coordinator. Mouse brought the run-and-shoot with him to the Motor City, the first time any NFL team had employed it. The Houston Oilers and Glanville’s Atlanta Falcons soon adopted the offense. It was time for the NFL to see how well Davis had adapted Ellison’s precocious theories.
“You basically steal everything you do and then do what you do and make it your own,” Davis said. “What we did was very new and different to the NFL and football.”
The base run-and-shoot – or spread offense, as it is often called – is composed of five linemen, four wide receivers, a running back, and a quarterback. The receivers normally line up two apiece on either side of the ball and go in motion often. The RB is alone in the backfield and never does a tight end or fullback see the field, leaving a dearth of blockers for the running game. But with multiple receivers out wide, the defense must spread out accordingly, opening up the middle of the field for the running back.
With no fullback or tight end to help in pass protection, the run-and-shoot forces the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly. Which is why receivers in the spread offense normally run shorter routes such as slants and hitches. It is a read-based offense, where the receivers decide which pattern to run based on their pre- and post-snap reads.
Brian Masck/Getty Images
"We are always going to adjust on the run to the defensive coverage," Davis said. "If the defense sets in one look, we are going to make one route adjustment. If the defense sets in another look, we are going to make another route adjustment."
It is a difficult assignment for the pass catchers, as all four WRs must make the right decisions on the fly. Additionally, the QB must make the exact same reads as his receivers, or else the execution of the play is compromised. Many wideouts, like former Oiler Ernest Givens, found the system too complicated for its own good.
“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.’”
The greatest advantage of the spread offense is how it dictates the opposing defensive formation. With so many receivers on the field, defenses must always play their nickel and dime packages. A defense is most confident in its base formations, like the 4-3 or 3-4, and is pushed out of its comfort zone when facing the run-and-shoot.
Unfortunately for Davis and Glanville, the run-and-shoot disappeared from the NFL as quickly as it came. By the mid-1990s, no team ran the spread offense exclusively. Many factors played into its dismissal, none more important than the lack of protection it offered the quarterback. Jim Kelly, the first pro quarterback to play in the run-and-shoot offense with Davis’ Houston Gamblers of the USFL, was sacked 75 times in 1984. Not exactly a recipe for success – just ask David Carr.
Even Sid Gillman, who was the first to use a pass-heavy approach, found fault in the run-and-shoot. “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.”
Another downfall of the spread offense is its inability to chew up clock. The system is so pass-heavy that most drives, even successful ones, are short-lived. This wears down the team’s own defense, as they must stay on the field for most of the game. The opposing offense then has plenty of time against a tired defense to make up whatever lead the run-and-shoot may have established.
The run-and-shoot has no place in the current NFL, but many of its basic concepts are still used today. Every team has a four-receiver package and many, like the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, use it frequently and with great success. But if you want to see the purest form of the spread offense, tune in to a Portland State game this season. You will be witness to a quasi resurrection of the early-90s NFL.
|Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.
Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
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