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There may be some dispute about whether or not the Redskins should continue to utilize the read option attack as a major part of their offense. However, it appears that the Pistol is in Washington to stay.
“I think it’s the key to everything,” said Kyle Shanahan last week.
Actually, the Pistol is more of a formation than it is an offense. It’s a variation of the shotgun formation, which has been used regularly in the NFL since the 1970’s. In the shotgun, the quarterback lines up seven yards behind the center to take the snap and the running back lines up a few yards to his left or to his right.
The downside to the shotgun is that it restricts the running game as the running back has to cross over to the quarterback to get a handoff and that limits which way he can go. The need to line up the back to one side or the other also can make it difficult for him to get a proper angle to pick up the blitz.
Enter the Pistol. Nevada coach Chris Ault moved his quarterback closer to the center, four yards off the line, and lined up the running back three yards behind him. In 2009 three Wolfpack teammates each rushed for over 1000 yards—quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running backs Via Taua and Luke Lippincott.
The Redskins became one of the first NFL teams to utilize the Pistol extensively when Robert Griffin III took the reigns of the offense last season. The formation became the primary launching pad for the read option, the attack that led to Griffin breaking the rushing record for a rookie quarterback with 815 yards and helped Alfred Morris set the Redskins’ single-season rushing record with 1613 yards.
The Pistol formation allowed Griffin to execute the option without needing to turn his back to the defense. But there are advantages to the Pistol that have nothing to do with the read option and will be beneficial to the offense if and when Kirk Cousins has to take snaps.
- As noted above, the running back gets a better angle on pass protection and blitz pickups.
- The quarterback has all of the advantages of the shotgun in terms of being able to stand upright and see the defense.
- The playbook is open to draw plays and counters as well as the option to either side.
- The ball gets to the quarterback faster compared to the traditional shotgun.
- Play action is quicker since the running back is closer to the QB. This forces the defense to make an instant decision, something that can be particularly helpful in the red zone.
Since the formation can help an offense with any variety of quarterback, mobile or not, expect its use to spread around the NFL. It’s a copycat league and the success of the Redskins’ attack, which led the league in rushing and in yards per play, and the 49ers, who adopted the Pistol once Kaepernick took over at quarterback and rode it to the Super Bowl, ensures that other teams will be lining up in the Pistol.
A quarterback who is a threat to run, which Griffin should still be despite the knee injury, can use the Pistol as a platform for a devastating offense that makes the defense wrong no matter how it reacts to the play. But even a more traditional quarterback like Cousins, Alex Smith, Ryan Tannehill, or Matthew Stafford can use the advantages the Pistol presents to become more effective.
The Redskins will continue to utilize those advantages no matter who is under center this year.