Commentary

Will the pistol be fired in 2011?

How the pistol offense could be the NFL's next big innovation

Originally Published: June 24, 2011
By Tim Kavanagh | ESPN Insider
Colin KaepernickJason O. Watson/US PresswireColin Kaepernick is a good example of a QB who can run the Pistol offense.

Before examining how the pistol offense could work at the NFL level, let's answer a more pressing question:

What is the pistol offense?

Engineered by Nevada Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault and first put on display during his team's 2005 campaign, the pistol offense features a quarterback -- most recently, San Francisco 49ers second-round pick Colin Kaepernick -- who is four yards behind center, with a single running back two to three yards behind the QB and a variety of motion amongst the other skill position players on the field.

In recent seasons, Nevada has found great success at the collegiate level running the pistol offense, while NFL several teams have deployed the pistol formation as a change-of-pace gadget (though the Kansas City Chiefs made use of it almost exclusively as a desperation move when injuries befell their No. 1 and No. 2 QBs in 2008). The million-dollar question, however, remains: Will a team at the NFL level adopt the pistol offense as a major part of its game plan, or will it continue to be just a gadget formation -- like the Wildcat -- used to keep opposing defensive coordinators on their toes?

Let's take a look at some of the basics first. With the QB about a yard closer than shotgun depth, the timing of the snap presents a challenge to the first two men touching the football on every play. "The snap was my biggest concern when we first implemented this offense," Ault revealed to Mike Kuchar of American Football Monthly. "With it being four yards, it takes a quicker reaction time for the QB which is why you need someone with outstanding athletic ability behind the center. He needs to make the moves and the fakes quickly."

But just as the depth of the QB can present issues for the offense, another aspect of the formation can present a significant problem to opposing defenses: the fact the tailback is hidden directly behind the QB. Thus unlike the shotgun, where the back is offset to one side, or a traditional I-back or single-back formation, where the tailback is several yards behind the QB, the direction of an upcoming running play is more difficult to read pre-snap, and harder to defend.

This also presents problems trying to defend the play-action pass, especially against teams with QBs who are adept at selling the fake. Meanwhile, aspects of the shotgun spread passing game can be implemented in addition to the play-action -- the offense can be run with just about any personnel grouping, which means that defenses will have to adjust with their own situational packages. Finding and exploiting favorable matchups can lead to explosive plays, making the pistol extra deadly, especially for teams with tight ends who play like oversized wideouts.

Tim Kavanagh

Fantasy and Insider
Tim Kavanagh is an associate editor for ESPN Fantasy and Insider, with specific responsibility for NHL and fantasy hockey coverage in addition to other sports.