PRO FOOTBALL ’90 : The Mouse Is Roaring : Davis’ Run-and-Shoot Offense, Once an NFL Joke, Turns Deadly Seriously
As a high school and college coach, Mouse Davis had been refining the run-and-shoot football system for more than 25 years when he arrived in Texas in the mid-1980s to enter pro football.
Jack Pardee, who at that time coached the United States Football League’s Houston Gamblers, had summoned Davis to be his offensive coordinator.
And the week he joined up, a reporter, meeting him on the practice field, said: “Hey, Mouse, tell us in words of one syllable, exactly what is the run-and-shoot?”
“Think of it as the two-minute drill,” said Davis, referring to the hurry-up pass formation that most football teams prefer in the final moments of the first half or the game. “Remember the day your wife asked: ‘Why don’t they use it on every play if it’s that good?’ That’s what we do.”
As the NFL heads into its 71st season this week, the run-and-shoot, or Mouse formation, has become the fundamental offensive system of two pro teams.
They are the Houston Oilers, coached by Pardee, and the Detroit Lions, coached by Wayne Fontes and his assistant, Davis.
On close inspection, Davis advises, one difference between the run-and-shoot and the NFL’s various two-minute drills will be apparent:
--In a typical two-minute drill, the quarterback stands far behind center as a shotgun-formation passer.
--In the run-and-shoot, the quarterback is up under center in his normal position. The abnormal detail is the absence of a tight end. Instead, there are four wide receivers and one back. Three of the receivers are usually to the right or left, and every play is either a pass or a fake pass. Virtually the only running play in the system is the draw.
Pardee had a ragtag team here in 1984 and ’85--with only one blue-chip player, quarterback Jim Kelly--when he twice made the USFL playoffs with the run-and-shoot. And everybody credited Kelly, who has gone on to fame and fortune with the Buffalo Bills.
Last season, when Detroit’s run-and-shoot team won its last five games and six of its last seven--with another rag-tag bunch that had finished 4-12 the year before--everybody credited rookie running back Barry Sanders, who gained 1,470 yards on draw plays, a first in the NFL.
Most football observers will acknowledge the excellence of Kelly or Sanders, but not that of the Mouse formation. Most of them instinctively abhor it. To NFL traditionalists, football is a game of muscle and power. They distrust the run-and-shoot because it is a game of mind and finesse.
“What you need the very most are five very bright guys,” Davis said, referring to the quarterback and four receivers.
Davis and Fontes seem to have the bright players they need in Detroit, and Pardee, as the 15th coach of the Oilers in 30 years, is apparently getting it under way here.
Talking about its rise, one of many detractors, Dick Steinberg, the new general manager of the New York Jets, said: “The Oilers have the best players that ever tried the run-and-shoot. In fact, they’re the only good team that ever tried it.
“If they have a good year in Houston, and if Detroit has another good year, it could be the start of a revolution.
“But, personally, I don’t think so.”
Going in, call it a test year.
CHANGE OF PACE
One way to run the run-and-shoot is as a change-of-pace formation. And after years of ignoring it, many NFL teams are suddenly doing just that--even the run-oriented Seattle Seahawks.
Their leader, Chuck Knox, who was also among the first to coach the shotgun formation, said: “We’re planning to use the (run-and-shoot) 20% to 25% of the time as a mixer--as another formation the defense has to get ready for. It’s a good no-huddle set.
“And it’s a better run set than some people think. If they defense it with extra defensive backs, we’ll run. If they leave in their linebackers, we’ll pass.”
Knox said the Seahawks are putting in pure Mouseball, with the quarterback under center and four widely spaced wide receivers clearing draw-play running room for John L. Williams.
Other teams, among them the Cincinnati Bengals, are experimenting with other kinds of four-receiver formations. It’s a transition year in pro ball, and more coaches than ever are getting ready to open up.
One veteran, Jerry Glanville, who in recent seasons has used more shotgun plays than any other coach, has carried his version from Houston to the Falcons in Atlanta.
Glanville’s name for it is the red-gun formation, but what he uses is actually the four-receiver shotgun formation, with the quarterback placed far behind center.
Said Houston quarterback Warren Moon, who was Glanville’s passer last year:
“I liked playing in the deep shotgun. But the run-and-shoot is a better running formation than the shotgun or red-gun. (The Oilers) have more options when I’m under center in the run-and-shoot.”
The most useful of these options is the draw play--a deception play that appears to be a pass until the quarterback slips the ball to a running back.
“The draw isn’t consistently productive in the shotgun,” Pardee said. “You can’t plan on executing any running play in the shotgun. But in the run-and-shoot, draws and trap plays are our whole running game.”
On a trap play, which is a form of the draw play, the ballcarrier delays for an instant before running behind a pulling or trapping blocker.
“The great thing about the draw is that you don’t have to practice it much,” Pardee said.
“Ask any coach, they’ll tell you there isn’t enough time between games to polish runs and passes both. That’s why football teams make so many mistakes. The most valuable secret of the run-and-shoot is that you spend all your practice time on one thing, the pass offense.”
Pardee insists, along with Davis, that four-receiver football is most successful when used on every play, but Glanville refuses to do that. He has never red-gunned it for 60 minutes. Instead, half of the time he prefers a more muscular lineup with two running backs and a tight end.
“We like to physically smack you around some,” Glanville said. “We call it, ‘No fair dodging.’ ”
3 NFL OFFENSES
Before leaving the University of Houston this year, Pardee, who formerly coached both the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins, decided that NFL teams are now playing three kinds of offense.
“There is an old school way, a graduate school way, and the new school way,” he said.
Old school: The Raiders, the New York Giants, the Buffalo Bills and 15 or 20 others attack with tight ends and power backs to set up pass plays that often develop slowly.
“The passer drops back seven or eight, maybe 10 yards,” Pardee said. “The receivers go out 15 to 20 yards, improvising on the move to deceive the defense, and they may (take) more time coming back oward the passer. The passer reads all that, and sets up to throw to the open man.
“It’s been a good system, but three bad things can happen on every pass:
--"When blockers have to hold their blocks up to four seconds or more, protection breakdown busts the play.
--"There are only two wide receivers, and an aggressive defense can destroy one or both of their routes.
--"Long passes are harder to throw than short passes.”
Graduate school: This one is the Walsh-Wyche way, as largely created in San Francisco by the 1979-88 coach of the 49ers, Bill Walsh, and enhanced in Cincinnati by Walsh disciple Sam Wyche, who this year exported his first disciple, Bruce Coslet, to the Jets.
The Rams under John Robinson have been in this school since the arrival in 1987 of offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, whose roots, as do Walsh’s, go back to Don Coryell at San Diego.
“Compared to (Walsh), Robinson puts more emphasis on the running game,” said Wyche, whose no-huddle approach has been the most imaginative addition to Walsh-style football.
The Ram passing game also looks a bit different.
"(The Rams) throw more often straight up the field,” Walsh said. “And they throw more into the seams.”
Along with the 49ers, however, the Rams play fast-break football. And Ram pass plays develop as swiftly as San Francisco’s.
“That’s the difference between us and the (old school),” Robinson said. “Our starting point is that you can’t let the passer hold the ball more than a couple of seconds. So there’s no time for our receivers to improvise on pass routes.
“We use (Walsh’s) one-two-three progression--and every receiver is required to be at a certain place at a certain time.
"(Quarterback Jim Everett) is always ready to throw to No. 1 at l 1/2 seconds, to No. 2 at two seconds, and to No. 3 at 2 1/2 seconds.”
New school: The run-and-shoot way is also fast-break football. But it differs from Walsh’s way, or Robinson’s, as drastically as softball differs from baseball.
In a Walsh-style offense, option-running by receivers is barred. In the Mouse formation, that’s all there is.
Run-and-shoot passes are all option plays, and run-and-shoot coaches say that any of their plays will work against any defense. Accordingly, they don’t waste much time studying or practicing against particular NFL pass defenses--either man-to-man or zone defenses.
Any Houston or Detroit receiver confronting any cornerback or safety simply reacts to whatever the defensive back does.
“He options off the defensive back’s movements,” Davis said.
At the same time, run-and-shoot passers react to whatever option a receiver chooses. On each play, the assignment for passer and receiver is an identical reading of a defensive back’s moves.
Thus, whereas offensive coaches design and control the pass plays on other NFL teams, run-and-shoot players design their own--creating impromptu plays on the spot to set up their ground offense, the draw play.
“We don’t care what you do,” they tell the defense. “We’ll complete it unless you overload the pass defense. In that case, we’ll run on you.”
SPEED AND HANDS
The 49er fast break--in contrast to the run-and-shoot fast break--has proved itself in many Super Bowls.
As the culminating feature of years of evolution of old school football, Walsh’s style is entitled to Pardee’s description--the graduate school way of playing the game.
For one thing, few defenses can shut it down.
Said Wyche: “In (Walsh-Wyche) football, the receivers’ routes are all designed to (defeat) the (anticipated) defense, and they are coordinated, each with the others. Therefore, if No. 1 isn’t open in the progression, No. 2 probably is, and No. 3 almost certainly is.”
In thumbnail terms, that’s the essence of the system that Walsh established a decade ago in San Francisco.
“Timing is the key in the (graduate school),” Walsh said. “An (old school) receiver attacks a defensive back individually with (fakes and feints), trying to beat him one on one. (Our) receivers attack the (design) of the defense with controlled routes that are carefully planned, very precise, and closely timed.”
Robinson, describing a Ram--or 49er--pass play, said: “Each one is an (all-encompassing) play with specific assignments for each receiver--in the same sense that running plays have a specific job for each blocker.”
As a result, for a graduate school receiver, the premium is on speed and hands--not on difficult moves.
Said Wyche: “It’s easier for the quarterback, too. (Walsh-style) passers don’t read the whole defense, they just memorize the progression. You can now become a (pro) quarterback in a year or two. It doesn’t take five years anymore.”
That’s one thing that the Walsh-Wyche way has in common with the Mouse formation.
“The run-and-shoot is much less complex than it seems,” Houston’s Moon said. “For a quarterback, it’s the least complicated system I’ve ever been in. Of course, there are a lot of options to learn--a receiver can break off (from a defensive back) three or four different ways, sometimes eight or 10 ways. But once you can read the options, that’s all there is. You’ve got the run-and-shoot.”
Said Pardee: “A new school, definitely a new school.”
SEVEN MAJOR MYTHS
The man who wrote the book on the run-and-shoot was a high school coach in mid-century Ohio, Tiger Ellison, whose rudimentary version grew out of winged-T football.
By placing two wide receivers on the wingback’s side, Ellison got the three quick receivers that have confounded opponents ever since.
By the 1960s, a high school coach, Pearl Smith, was averaging 49 points with the run-and-shoot at Fairfield, Iowa, and others were doing nearly as well.
“All you need is the courage to use it,” Smith said recently. “The principle is so sound that it will work anywhere, but it’s been slow to catch on everywhere because people make fun of it. They call you a basketball coach. They say it’s basketball on cleats.”
He said its critics even gave it its name, run-and-shoot, which is a basketball expression.
As a football system, it has evolved so dramatically that it is a different game entirely from Ellison’s. It has the same name, however. And the same critics. There are, in fact, more critics than ever.
Yet in the words of its adherents, most criticism is based on myths.
“There are more misperceptions about the run-and-shoot than anything else in football,” Davis said.
He listed seven major myths:
1. You need a mobile, rollout quarterback.
Davis’ comment: “The ideal quarterback is the same in ours and every other system. Any smart, strong-armed, 6-foot-4, 225-pound passer would be mobile enough for us. We roll out on every play--but usually just a few steps. Our passers mostly play the game inside the offensive tackles. The thing they need more than mobility is brains.”
2. Run-and-shoot quarterbacks are injured more often.
Davis: “It’s because they play a vulnerable position that quarterbacks get hurt, not because they’re run-and-shoot guys. Of course, you can get any quarterback out of the game if you decide to go after him. Ours (Rodney Peete) was hurt last year on a flagrant late hit.
“Injury surveys show that conventional dropback passers are more exposed (to injury) than our guys. Conventional quarterbacks get rushed from both sides. The reason we roll out a few steps is to cut the rush in half. By the time the back-side rush can reach a (run-and-shoot) passer, the ball is gone.”
3. The way to defeat the run-and-shoot is with determined blitzing linebackers.
Davis: “We don’t see many blitzers. Blitzing means single coverage, and our receivers are open right now. The whole deal (in the run-and-shoot) is to get the pass off fast. Blitzers play into our strength. The defense we fear the most is one with four all-pro pass rushers and seven all-pro defensive backs. Great talent defeats any offense.”
4. The little pass receivers whom run-and-shoot teams use are fast enough but too small.
“The ideal run-and-shoot receiver has Al Toon’s size, speed and hands,” said Davis, referring to the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jet star. “But speed and hands are first. When you see four little receivers on the same team, the reason is, there’s only one Al Toon.”
5. The run-and-shoot can’t count on running the ball because it is a passing offense that doesn’t even have a tight end.
In the view of run-and-shoot coaches, the tight end and the second running back are the two most useless players on any team.
Davis and Pardee hold that:
--Since only one running back at a time can carry the ball, the threat of an occasional run by a second back is far less efficient than the constant threat of a fourth wide receiver.
--If a tight end is big enough to be an effective blocker, he isn’t quick enough to be an effective receiver.
--In the NFL, the tight end is always a compromise. Candidates are either blockers with above-average hands or receivers who can block sparingly.
--A third offensive tackle is better for power running than a tight end.
--The constant passing threat in the Mouse formation gives it a ground threat that matches or exceeds any in football. The run-and-shoot makes any back an acceptable ballcarrier--even a third-stringer.
The indispensable requirement? Said Davis: “He must be a selfless blocker.”
The ideal run-and-shoot running back? Said Pardee: “A young, 6-2 Walter Payton.”
6. Bad weather kills the run-and-shoot.
Davis: “Bad weather kills all teams. The run-and-shoot puts a premium on sure hands, and sure hands help in bad weather.”
7. There are times when a football team can’t pass and must run--on the goal line, for instance, or late in the game--and the run-and-shoot doesn’t generate adequate blocking for must-run situations.
“There are no must-run situations,” Davis said. “When you show the defense that you (aren’t afraid) to pass the ball anywhere, any time, you automatically become a consistent threat to run it, too. Nothing is chancier than a power run when the defense gangs up on you. Timid teams go three and out on power plays all the time trying to protect a lead.
“Run-and-shoot draw plays or trap plays are a better way to run the ball--on any down, anywhere on the field--because the threat of the pass opens up so much running room.
“Football is the kind of game that should be played to win--not to just avoid losing. And if you’ve proved that you have the guts to throw the ball whenever you want to, the best running play in football is the draw play.”