Chalk Talk: the Shotgun

Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden doesn't want another one of his quarterbacks to need a splenectomy this season, so he's implementing the shotgun into his offense. Former 49ers front man Red Hickey is credited with inventing the formation. Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down the birth of the shotgun and why it has become a staple of almost every offense since.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden recently hinted to the media about implementing the shotgun formation in his offense this season. The Bucs run a version of the west coast offense that never uses the shotgun. But after losing his starting quarterback, Chris Simms, last year in week three due to a ruptured spleen, Gruden is considering the change to help keep his QB upright.

"As of right now," says Simms, "I think we're going to have the shotgun and I'm extremely excited about it."

If Simms beats out Tampa newcomer Jeff Garcia for this year's starting quarterback job, he will surely benefit from the formation created in 1960 by San Francisco 49ers head coach Red Hickey. With his team at 4-4, Hickey was desperately searching for a way to defeat his Week 9 opponent, the two-time defending champion Baltimore Colts. So he called a meeting with his players.

"I asked my players if any of them thought we could beat Baltimore with our regular offense," said Hickey, "and not one hand went up."

The Colts' highly disruptive defensive line, led by Eugene ‘Big Daddy' Lipscomb, forced Hickey to scrap his normal T-formation and develop something Baltimore had never seen. It was then that he created the shotgun formation. Harking back to the short punt and double-wing formation of years earlier, Hickey had his quarterback receive the snap five yards deep in the backfield instead of taking it directly from the center. This, he reasoned, would give his quarterback more time and better vision in which to spot open receivers while causing Baltimore to alter its defensive alignment. The plan worked, and the 49ers defeated the heavily favored Colts 30-22.

After the game, Hickey was asked to name his new offense. He replied, "Well, I'm an old country boy, and I used to go hunting with a shotgun. How about we call it the shotgun?"

The name stuck, but the formation did not. By the middle of the 1961 season after a humiliating 31-0 loss to the Chicago Bears, Hickey gave up on the shotgun and went back to the T-formation. Not until 1975, with Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys, did the shotgun reappear. Since then, it has become a staple of nearly every coach's playbook. Some college offenses, like the one Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young ran at Texas, use the formation exclusively. Up until this month, Tampa Bay was the only NFL team not to utilize the shotgun in some capacity. But it looks as if that is no longer the case.

The typical shotgun formation features three to four receivers and a single back

"I'm a big believer in it," Simms says. "It's a good wrinkle to put in the offense for protection purposes, so the quarterback can step back and look at the defense as a whole. I'm excited for it."

The shotgun is a passing formation normally used by NFL teams on 2nd- or 3rd-and-long. The quarterback's positioning on the field is 5-7 yards directly behind the center, who must snap the ball through the air to his signal-caller. The QB does not spend precious time and energy dropping back in the pocket because he is already there. By using the shotgun, a quarterback has extra time and more expansive field vision both before and after the snap of the ball. He can much more effectively see the pass-rushers, rush lanes, blitzers, and pass coverages. It also makes the defensive linemen work harder to get at the quarterback, which wears them down faster. It is these advantages that Hickey – and most every coach since – found so useful.

Yet it is not without its faults. The ball having to be hurled from center to quarterback increases the likelihood of a botched snap. Also, the shotgun basically tells the defense to expect a pass play. Without the threat of a run, the offense is at a major disadvantage. But the shotgun's main problem is that it is a poor rushing formation. With the quarterback standing next to the running back instead of in front of him, most of the standard running plays cannot be executed. Even more challenging to the running game is the fact most shotgun formations have multiple wide receivers, leaving fewer blockers for a would-be rusher.

The only run play with a real possibility of working from the shotgun is the draw. Since the formation essentially tells the defense that a pass is coming, most defensive coordinators will shift to their nickel and dime packages. The draw play can sometimes catch the defense off guard, allowing the running back to pick up good yardage before his opponents recover.

In its 37 years of existence, the shotgun has developed from a one-season gimmick to a formation that some offenses are built around entirely. From the creative mind of Hickey came one of the most effective passing formations in the game's history.

Said Hickey, "That makes me happy as the devil. I guess I came up with something good."

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
05/31/2007 - Run-and-Shoot
05/24/2007 - 46 Defense
05/17/2007 - Screen Pass
05/10/2007 - Draw Play
05/03/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part II)
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

Bear Report Top Stories