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The Elways And The Spread Formation: Part III

In Part III of Doc Bear's treatise on the Spread Formation, we learn how Mouse Davis ties together with Bill Walsh.

Mouse Davis was a believer in what he called ‘pissants’. At 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds when he was in college, he still played QB and he used the description ‘pissants’ as a compliment — they were the fast, smaller players who could fit into smaller holes in the field.

The big guys tended to be a touch slower, and that gave Mouse’s players an advantage that he took full value from.  As the head coach at Milwaukie High School outside Portland, Mouse was running an 'I formation'.

He was looking for a way to use his ‘pissants’ more effectively when he received a copy of Glenn Ellison’s book in 1965, right about the time that he was looking for a new way to get the field spread open for his smaller players. 

He worked on developing it over the last 12 years of his career teaching high school, and won the Oregon State Championship with it in his final year at that level, 1973. He then took a job as offensive coordinator at Portland State.

The following year, he was promoted to head coach. He had the good fortune to have June Jones as his quarterback, and that year, Jones threw for a Division II record 3,518 yards, a record that stood for a decade.

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By the time Jones had been replaced by Neil Lomax, Portland State had been kicked up a level and was playing Division I-AA. Lomax became the all-time leader in total offense for the NCAA until Steve McNair surpassed him in 1994.

What really makes the run and shoot offense unusual is that it’s similar to the triple option, even though one is more heavily based on passing and the other on running. The similarity is that both have multiple reads for the QB to make.

The receivers are responsible for reading the defenses and the QB, in turn, is responsible for reading the receivers. In the case of the run and shoot, there are readable — in other words, option — pass routes.  Here’s an example of the old triple option running game out of a wishbone formation, to give you an idea:

The response from the rest of football about the run and shoot? It would never work. It was a ‘gimmick’ offense that wouldn’t stand the test of time and level of play. Of course, Bill Walsh was told the same thing — how’d that work out?

There was another similarity — both systems were essentially cerebral. Although the Walsh offense relied on the system to limit the number of reads that Mouse Davis loved, they were still dependent on the QB making the right reads — in the case of Walsh’s West Coast Offense:

Walsh gave the QB a limited number of options or reads to make, but they were essential and had to be made quickly. Walsh hated letting the QB make decisions, but there came a point where it was necessary. Mouse, on the other hand, loved it, and loved teaching the young QBs how to make those reads. 

There were other differences. Walsh loved spreading the field horizontally, using the short pass as a running play and he required what we now usually call ‘possession’ receivers — the bigger guys who can take a pounding, going over the middle in the short passing game.

The receiver knows that he’s going to take punishment, and it takes a special breed to do it well. Mouse, true to his name and background, put it this way:

“The whole thing is, when you boil it down, that if I’m going to put out a pissant, you’ve probably got to cover him with a pissant. And, the more of the field that you use, the cleaner your reads.”

Both Walsh and Davis took great resistance to their systems. In Walsh’s case, the constant refrain was, “That’s not football. That’s just a dink and dunk offense. It won’t work.” It was a ‘dink and dunk’, too, although vertical routes were a bigger part of it than legend permits.

Walsh dank and dunked his way to three Super Bowl Victories, and changed the nature of the modern game in the process. Several Super Bowls have been won using his precepts since then, including two in Denver. 

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Mouse was constantly criticized because, as he relayed, “They called it flag football. You ought to be able to knock someone’s head into the dirt or you’re not a real football coach. That was the thinking.”

Given the popularity of the spread — even though the run and shoot version was of limited use in the NFL, where some big guys can run a 4.35 40-yard dash and cover pissants just fine — Mouse had a point.

Offenses were headed down the road toward using, and often combining, the principles of Warner, Gillman, Ellison, Davis, Walsh and Coryell, all of whom were men of great intellect, as well as incredible drive and creativity. 

How does all of this play into the development of the single back spread and how does it link John Elway to Kyle Orton? The answer lies in Part IV. I’ll look forward to seeing you there. 

Don't miss the first two installments of Doc's treatise on the Spread Formation. Part I can be found HERE. Part II can be found HERE.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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