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The Case for More Pistol and Less Shotgun in the Stanford Offense

2013 gameplan should feature more play-action, downfield passing

Kevin Hogan averaged more yards per carry than per pass attempt in the Rose Bowl.
Kevin Hogan averaged more yards per carry than per pass attempt in the Rose Bowl.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a good thing it’s been a quiet few days, right? Of course.

As is pretty well-known by now, the Stanford offense needs to make a step forward in 2013; it has some pieces put together, but it doesn’t have the whole puzzle. The subject of this post has been scooped a bit by Jack Blanchat, but let’s make the case anyway, in more depth: Stanford should be using much more of the pistol in 2013.

The offense in the Rose Bowl was a bit of a microcosm of the season -- against a tough opponent, the offense mixed proficiency and a running-straight-through-a-brick-wall blend of stubbornness and futility.

Wisconsin was an underrated opponent defensively, surrendering only 4.82 yards per play (and was rated 15th in the country by Football Outsiders’ F+ metric.) By that standard, Stanford’s 20 points and 6.25 yards per play don’t necessarily indicate an awful day for the offense. Stanford’s field position correlates with much of its offensive success -- on drives beginning past Stanford’s 20 yard line, the team averaged 3.3 points per meaningful drive (i.e. drives that were trying to score points rather than burn clock; it’s also pretty average) and 7.6 yards per play; drives beginning on the wrong side of the 20 didn’t get a single point and barely more first downs.

Stanford showed itself dependent on its usual pattern in the pass game -- most passes directed within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage (Hogan tossed 15 passes in that range, going for 48 yards -- an anemic 3.2 YPA.) Hogan was successful when attempting passes long -- he tried three times (I’m counting a pass interference drawn by Toilolo) for 58 yards, almost 20 yards per attempt. In other words, it’s an offense that needs to figure out how to get the ball long more often. (Hogan’s accuracy problems in the game -- missing two opportunities to sink the dagger in on separate potential touchdown passes -- were not typical. It’s odd that in the game Hogan does well passing vertically and doesn’t take a sack, his intermediate and short passing accuracy desert him, an inversion of strengths and weaknesses.)

It’s also an offense that needs use Hogan’s legs in a more systematic way -- Hogan averaged 7.7 yards per carry versus 6.4 yards per pass attempt, with the running yardage off of scrambles and a grabbag of designed runs, typically zone reads or inverted veers from the shotgun.

There’s an answer here that stays true to what Stanford wants to do on offense -- more pistol; less shotgun. Stanford ran 3 plays out of the pistol formation, each time playing a running back with two tight ends in the backfield. Those 3 plays gained 51 yards -- they were two play-action passes and a simple zone run. Otherwise, the team featured a near one-to-one ratio between shotgun plays and plays under center; the plays under center roughly tracked the offense’s average, while the plays in the shotgun puttered along -- around 3 yards per play, by my notes.

There’s a good reason why the pistol works well for Stanford: it’s fundamentally a running formation; it doesn’t rely on spreading the defense laterally and allows the offense to play power personnel; it puts Hogan in a position he’s comfortable in. (And this is the limited version!)

As recently retired Nevada head coach Chris Ault explains in Chris Brown’s history/manifesto of the pistol:

"There are no gimmicks in our offense. When the shotgun offenses came out, I enjoyed watching those teams move the football. The thing I did not like was the idea of a running back getting the ball running east and west. We have always been a north and south running game offense."

Does that not sound...a lot like Stanford? Of course it does.

That’s probably why Harbaugh sent a Stanford delegation to talk to Ault in 2010. Here’s Ault in an interview with the Mercury News:

Greg [Roman] came over, their last year at Stanford. Greg, and I want to say, two other coaches from Stanford came over. And they wanted to look at the pistol, what are you doing, what are you running, they just wanted to see what it is and what advantages there would be. They were with us a day, a day-and-a-half, it was a lot of fun. We exchanged films and it was good clinic talk. But I have not talked to Greg or Jim since Kaep's been with 'em.

It’s hard to know who the other two Stanford coaches were, but we can be sure Shaw and Hamilton have at least absorbed the basics, if only secondhand -- they are, after all, running the formation.

What they aren’t doing, however, is integrating the zone read game from the shotgun. The point isn’t necessarily to let the quarterback run, but to open up the rest of your offense -- either by helping your running back (because you’re not blocking a defender, typically a defensive end), or adding a play-action component. In other words, it’s an excellent way to complement what we want to do: downhill, north-south running and play-action, downfield passing. (Again, Ault explains in the Merc interview, saying, "No question, they might just say, 'We're not going to let this Kaepernick run the ball.' And we had that in college. Then, it gives you an opportunity to run the read and the play-action pass." It’s the understatement of a while to say that Hogan’s not the athlete Kaepernick is, but he’s certainly good enough to require respect.)

As it is, we’re running Hogan about the same amount that, say, Marcus Mariota or Kaepernick is being run in their respective offenses, but not gaining the same integration into the rest of the offense. That’s something that can be (and hopefully will be) changed. In the meantime, the pistol formation offers the advantages of the shotgun, except it threatens downhill running -- something you can’t as easily do in the shotgun, a possible reason for its bumbling in the Rose Bowl. That presents more threats to the defense, which is surely a good thing.

Darius Tahir isn't an offensive coordinator, but he plays one on Twitter @dariustahir.