Tracing the History of the Explosive Run and Shoot Offense In Football

The passing offense of the 80s and early 90s gets a deeper study

The Run & Shoot Offense

On the one hand, at least by its practitioners, it’s been lauded as the deadliest passing offense to ever come down the 50 yard line. On the other hand is the media, who loudly decry anybody involved with the offense as nothing more than a gimmicky head coach because it radically eschews the running game in favor of utilizing short passes in its place.

Yet others call it a high school offense or proclaim it failed because it never won a National Championship/NFL Super Bowl. Many in the media and even well respected football strategist Chris Brown remark that the Zone Blitz, largely invented by Dick LeBeau precisely due to this offense, eradicated the offense entirely and has been the cause of only remnants remaining scattered like ashes blown by the wind.

I grew up watching the NFL predominantly as early as 1990 and I remember the glory years of the Run and Shoot as it wove its way through the NFL. I remember being enthralled as Warren Moon carved up defenses and watched in awe as Atlanta’s WRs would seemingly catch a dozen passes between all four receivers.

I will always be fascinated by the Triple Option or the Air Raid or the Zone Read Option attack but none of them can ever match the pure electricity of the Run and Shoot in its purest form of motion.

Now normally this would be a fairly quick write up but instead we are going on a journey to really dig deep into how this offense came into being and seemingly vanished overnight.

The Starting History
Glenn “Tiger” Ellison is the godfather of this offense and any fan of a passing offense likely knows his name. He was an Ohio high school coach and the story/legend goes that he was walking home and saw kids playing sandlot football. He was suddenly struck with the thought that he could basically cultivate an offense largely around the concept of, roughly, “go where the defender isn’t.”

The offense initially was heavily overloaded towards the left to account for the scrambling quarterback he coached but a year later it morphed into a bit more of a recognizable form not too dissimilar from the Flexbone Offense.

From roughly 1959 through 1963 he would amass a record of 38-7 utilizing this new found offensive system. He would also publish a book appropriately titled, “Run and Shoot Football: Offense of the Future” in the mid 1960s and “Run and Shoot Football: The Now Attack” in 1984.

The Braniac Mad Scientist
Darrell “Mouse” Davis had been the offensive coordinator of a little Division II school called Portland State University. In 1972 and 1973 the school would combine to finish a dismal 4-18. So Mouse decided to try and take a different tactic as early as 1974 and the results were almost immediate: A 5-6 record and they scored over 45 points in 3 different games that season. To put that into perspective, they had not scored more than 36 points since the final game of 1971 against Montana.

Then Mouse Davis took over Portland State and the Division II world got slapped upside the head with the new Run and Shoot Offense. From 1975 – 1980 Mouse would put up a record of 42-24 while scoring 366, 424, 416, 337, 377, and 541. Keep in mind that he was doing this in just 11 game seasons.

The offense was running so efficiently, in addition to being extremely radical for opposing defenses and defensive coordinators, that Portland State was putting up scores of 87-6, 63-9, 63-7, 72-35, 93-7, 105-0, and 75-0.

A large byproduct was how great his QB talent was as he had Neil Lomax (a future 2nd Round Draft Pick) at his disposal. Lomax’s final 2 Seasons saw him throw for 3,950 yards and 4,094 yards with a combined 63 TD vs 28 INT. Again, I cannot stress enough that this was done in just 22 games.

More interestingly and lesser known, June Jones was the very first quarterback to flourish under Mouse Davis’ potent attack throwing for 3,518 yards in 1976 and throwing 50 TD to 20 INT between 1975 and 1976. June would also play quarterback under Mouse Davis in 1982 when Mouse took over as the Toronto Argonauts offensive coordinator.

The First Stumbling Block
After the insane production from the 1980 Season and with the graduation of QB Neil Lomax, Mouse Davis was given the chance to hold the reigns of an official big boy college, namely California serving as offensive coordinator under Roger Theder. Theder had gone 3-8 in 1980 with a largely anemic offensive output and figured the Run and Shoot would be a shotgun blast to the arm that the school needed (and one could argue, he needed in order to keep his job).

After just 7 games and a disappointing 1-6 start, Mouse Davis resigned as offensive coordinator. Tellingly, they had scored over 24 points in 3 of those games but there was a belief that Theder had not quite bought into the offense as a system. He reportedly requested to implement more pro set formations within the system, which led to Mouse’s resignation.

Much like the Triple Option, it required one hundred percent commitment as a coach and is a large reason why it failed more often than not at various college programs. This scenario would, unfortunately, become an all too common theme in the ensuing years.

Canadian Invasion and USFL Spotlight
In 1982, Mouse Davis would proudly show off his unique offense in what was seemingly a setting tailor made for such an explosive, wide open offense. Yet again, blessed with a very talented quarterback, the offense took off like a rocket. QB Conredge Holloway would win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award after throwing for 4,661 yards with 31 TD against 12 INT while also running for 448 yards. The next year under the same offensive system, the Argonauts would win the Grey Cup while Holloway & Joe Barnes combined to throw for 5,458 yards and 29 TD. In 1985, head coach Bob O’Billovich would transition from the Run and Shoot after going 9-6 in 1984 despite Holloway & Barnes again combining to throw for 5,359 yards and 34 TD.

Where the name of the Run and Shoot really started generating buzz was in the upstart United States Football League as Mouse Davis was named offensive coordinator of the Houston Gamblers in 1984 under head coach Jack Pardee, then became head coach of the Denver Gold in 1985. John Jenkins would take over for Mouse as offensive coordinator of the Houston Gamblers in 1985.

The key proponent of the buzzsaw offense was QB Jim Kelly, whom would throw for 5,219 yards and 44 TDs in the 1984 Season alone. The following year he would throw for 4,623 yards with 39 TD. He also had future NFL Starters at WR including: Ricky Sanders, Clarence Verdin, and Richard Johnson.

The 1985 Denver Gold would go 11-7 but was notable for RB Bill Johnson rushing for 1,261 yards and 15 TD in 18 games. As OC of Houston, Mouse showed a sense to run the ball too as RBs Todd Fowler & Sam Harrell combined for 1,700 yards rushing and 25 TD.

The Early Golden Era
Jack Pardee fell in love with the Run and Shoot and cannot be stated enough at how integral he was to pushing the offense forward at higher levels. He tagged John Jenkins to follow him to the University of Houston where they proceeded to slaughter opponents and hold a take no prisoners attitude. If you really wanted to know what this offense could do, John Jenkins was pushing the boundaries above and beyond what even Mouse Davis had perceived.

A lot of fans know about the future draft busts of Andre Ware and David Klingler but don’t readily acknowledge just how dominant this offensive system was at the University of Houston. Houston went from a combined 9-23-1 from 1985-1987 to an astounding 28-6 from 1988-1990 including scoring 589 points and 511 points in 1989 and 1990. Despite John Jenkins going 4-7 as head coach in 1991 and 1992, the offense still managed to average a respectable 32-34 point per game average.

In the NFL, the Houston Oilers under HC Jack Pardee, OC Kevin Gilbride, and alongside offensive assistants such as Chris Palmer were laying beatdowns all over the NFL. From 1990-1993, the Oilers finished 42-22 but often lost in the playoffs with the penultimate image of the Run and Shoot being the 41-38 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

The Detroit Lions under OC Mouse Davis went 7-9 and 6-10 but flourished, after Mouse left for the Atlanta Falcons, in 1991 to a 12-4 Record while largely running the same system. Worth noting that yet again, Mouse did not abandon the run, as RB Barry Sanders ran for over 1,300 yards in both seasons and combined to score 27 TD.

The Atlanta Falcons mostly struggled but did make the playoffs in 2 of the 7 years that they utilized the offense. Most noteworthy is that they became the first NFL team to feature: A 4,000 Yard Passer with a 1,000 Yard RB and 3 WRs over 1,000 Yards receiving. This was accomplished a full 9 years before the 2004 Indianapolis Colts also accomplished the feat.

June Jones
If anybody is considered the third godfather behind Tiger and Mouse, it’s June Jones. He was the OC with the Atlanta Falcons and then head coach from 1994-1996 but he really erected his statue of greatness as the head coach at the University of Hawai’i from 1999-2007.

His teams were constantly beating and challenging much higher touted opponents including Oregon State in 1999, BYU in 2001, Cincinnati and Alabama in 2002, Alabama in 2003, Northwestern and Michigan State in 2004, Purdue and Arizona State in 2006, and Washington in 2007.

The peak of the offense’s efficiency was arguably 2006 with QB Colt Brennan throwing for 5,549 yards (on just 559 attempts) with 58 TD while RB Nate Ilaoa ran for 990 yards and 13 TD himself.

Unfortunately, much like the NFL, a lot of college football fans’ mental image of the Run and Shoot is Georgia absolutely slaughtering Hawai’i in a 41-10 drubbing in the Sugar Bowl the next season.

June became the head coach at Southern Methodist University in 2008 and immediately improved to 8-5 in 2009 from a 1-11 showing in 2008. He remains the unofficial guru of the Run and Shoot Offense and the guy to talk to.

Notable is that ex-Hawai’i QB under June Jones, Nick Rolovich, has carried his own brand of the Run and Shoot to Nevada as offensive coordinator there.

The Struggles of the Run and Shoot
The offense became the offense of the 1980s and 90% of the installations and executions bombed precisely for one reason: The coaches installed the offense as a quick fix to get quick wins (usually to try and save their jobs) and it didn’t happen so the offenses were immediately junked. It’s telling that Joe Gardi, head coach of Hofstra University from 1990-2006 ran the Run and Shoot to massive success because he stuck with it as did Dan Allen to varied success at both Boston University (1990-1995) and Holy Cross (1996-2003).

Schools as varied as East Carolina, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Mexico, and South Carolina all dabbled with the Run and Shoot for 2-4 years if that. Sterling Sharpe put up 2,021 yards and 15 TD in 1986 & 1987 in the system at South Carolina.

Another issue was that coaches just simply did not understand how to coach the offense so they rarely committed fully to it. They still needed their fullbacks and tight ends. As soon as the offense sputtered or hiccuped, they dumped it the next season in order to go back to their traditional offenses.

Outside of high school coaches and a handful of coaches (June Jones, Dan Morrison, Nick Rolovich, Kevin Gilbride, Jerry Glanville, and Chris Palmer), there are simply not that many coaches who can purely run the offensive system and even most of the above have had to adapt somewhat over the years.

The Media Response
Boy… the media was swift, cruel, and utterly disdainful towards it. At the very best, a media writer would maybe call it a high octane offense but inevitably would succumb and follow that up with some variant on it being gimmicky or a fad offense. The NFL beat writers were particularly dismissive of it and seemingly took glee in its post-season struggles. It took Jeff Fisher 3 years to get “back” to a 13-3 record and he was hailed as a great head coach largely because his team ran the ball downhill like the old school NFL mandated.

In a lot of ways, it was simply just too ahead of its time. College was still predominated by Pro Style and I Formation, maybe the Wishbone if you wanted to be a radical coach. Nobody was throwing the ball around, certainly not 40-45 times a game and certainly not without a tight end on the field or at least a fullback in the backfield too.

The Myths of the Run and Shoot
Yes, it got the quarterbacks sacked a lot but that was largely by its nature as a passing offense. Even with that said, Warren Moon usually was fairly low among sacks because he was able to read coverages and get rid of the ball so fast.

The other myth is that the Run and Shoot didn’t run the ball or struggled to run the ball. Interestingly enough, Mouse Davis was often in stark contrast compared to most of his peers in regards to running the ball. In a lot of ways, his offense was a predecessor to the current days of football where teams can throw for 4,000 yards and yet have a RB who runs for 1,200 and 14 TD. In 1989 Detroit threw for 3,200 and ran for over 2,000 yards. The following year in 1990 they threw for 3,300 and ran for 1,900 yards.

Even Houston and Atlanta with their varied successes and struggles had several RBs run for 1,000 yards: Lorenzo White in 1992 (1,226 yards), Gary Brown (1,002 yards) and Erric Pegram in 1993 (1,185 yards), and Jamal Anderson in 1996 (1,055 yards).

Now then, after that really long history lesson, let us finally delve into the plays and meat of the Run and Shoot offense.

Mouse Davis’ Run and Shoot: The Passing Plays
The offense was initially predicated on motion, half rolls by the QB ending up behind the OT, and being under center with 1 RB. As the decades have gone by, that has shifted more to a Shotgun look with static formations (usually 2×2 or 3×1), and the RB offset to the QB’s left or right.

In the initial creation of the Run and Shoot under Mouse Davis, the plays were named really basic and simplistic. One example would be what is more commonly known as 60 Go, then called Rip-Scramble-Right Right Half Flare or 60 X Choice being called Load-Scramble Right Split End.

All receivers will be noted as X (left split end), W (left slotback), Y (right slotback), and Z (right splitend).

01: Rip 60 Z Slide
The base routes are that X has the option of playing his man to an out, post, fade, or hook. W motions into a bubble screen with option to go vertical against man (an offshoot of this is what is called a wheel route which New England likes to use with RB Shane Vereen). Y runs a comeback but has the option for a post or dig out. Z runs a vertical route to take his man deep.

What you’ll immediately notice, aside from the bevy of options, is that nearly every route attacks downfield when shown man coverage.

02: Rip 60 Z Go
At its heart it is a 3 Vertical play with the Y swinging out on a flare/wheel combination. W has the option of going to a post if the middle of the field is open (MOFO vs MOFC).

03: 60 X Choice
A combination of the first 2 plays. X has the option of an out or post with possible fade streak up the sideline. W motions over and runs the same route option as 60 Z Go. Y runs a hard drag across the middle and Z runs a streak with option to button hook.

You can really see the influences of the BYU passing attack as well as the influence on the Air Raid offense down the line. Call Y a drag and have W run a square in without motioning and you arguably have the staple Shallow Cross.

Also take note of the variations and how static they can be as quick hitting play designs.

04: Early Rip-Liz 90 Switch
The most common play still in use today, especially prolific under Kevin Gilbride with the New York Giants. X switches underneath on an inside wheel route with option to go in or run a post. W runs a streak. Y motions and runs a wheel route off of X’s movement inside. Z runs a streak.

05: Rip 460 to S
A basic screen pass set up for the SB (aka Superback due to having to pass protect, run, and catch passes). Every WR runs vertical to take their defender with them downfield. The C pulls hard to set the outside while the RG and RT seal off the edge to set up an alley for the SB leaking out.

There were also quick screens to the W or Y receiver that are reminiscent of today’s quick screens to the TEs at the NFL level.

The Running Game
The running game was kept fairly simple and predicated around draws, dives, and quick traps inside. One wrinkle Mouse included was a speed option or load option when he often employed down around the goal line to be run opposite the 3 WRs.

John Jenkins’ Run and Shoot Passing Plays
One of the immediate differences with Jenkins’ package is that he almost never utilized motion, instead relying on the smarts of his offensive personnel. As a result, he used a lot of static 2×2 and 3×1 formations and was really ahead of his time by almost 1 decade at the very least.

Another variation was that Jenkins also employed more attacks both vertically and through the SB. Note also that he does not try to confuse his players by incorporating the plays together but rather splits them up. He allowed the SB to read blitz, then split out if there was nobody to block. In 1990, RB Chuck Weatherspoon not only ran for 1,097 yards (on just 158 carries) but also had 49 catches.

01: 4 Verticals
Basically what it says. 4 Verticals (against Man Free in top picture) with W given option of square in and SB option to run a flare route. Second picture is against a 2 Deep Zone.

02: 90/91 Switch vs. Cover 3 Zone

03: 60/61 Choice Switch
Another intriguing thing is that John Jenkins started combining play combinations in addition to morphing the Run and Shoot with a WCO feel. Take note of the vertical Wheel/Streak by the X and Z receivers combining with a quick hitch for the motioning Y and quick hook by W. As a bonus, the SB runs a delayed flat route.

04: 60/61 Read vs. Man Free
Another distinction is that it’s clear that Jenkins really saw the Switch route as the best attacker in the core group of plays (whereas Mouse preferred 60 Z Go and rarely utilized 60 X Choice). Here we again see the Switch but this time combo’d with a quick flare route from the Y and a post from Z. This allows a vertical attack to press the coverage but also a quick hitting safety route combo if the QB needs it. In a lot of ways, this has been the gradual evolution of June Jones in his latter years at Hawai’i and now at SMU.

05: 60/61 Z Slide vs Cover 3 Zone
Here we again see the quick hit variation as the Z runs a straight hook while the X and Y receivers are given the option of hooking up out of their streaks.

The Running Game
Treated similarly to Mouse except the receivers attacked vertically and the offensive line also attacked aggressively downhill in run blocking. This forced the DBs expecting pass to get blocked further downfield while also giving running room inside immediately.

The Modern Day Aftermatch
Despite the media criticism of the offense, I’d argue Mouse Davis had as big an impact on the evolution of the passing game as anybody in the history of football. His name should be mentioned among names like Sid Gillman and Don Coryell as innovators. Even if the media never acknowledges just how potent that offense was and is, the men on the sidelines understand how much of an impact the offense has had.

I’m hopeful that the Run and Shoot will remain a staple of football, even if it’s never in its purest form and there is some optimism out there so long as coaches like Dan Morrison, Nick Rolovich, Chris Palmer, and Kevin Gilbride roam the sidelines.

“When the league switches totally to the run-and-shoot, I’m gone. Retiring. I can’t tell you what a nightmare it is.” – NFL DL Howie Long from 1991
“I don’t think anybody stops it. They always make their yardage. What you hope to do is keep the scoring down the best you can to give yourself a chance to be successful.” – NFL HC and DC Marty Schottenheimer from 1992
“The way they throw, I think they can hold up. I know from a defensive standpoint, the run-and-shoot gives me nightmares.” – NFL DC Rusty Tillman from 1994
“The run-and-shoot got the Oilers where they are. I think defenses all over the league are going to be very relieved.” – NFL CB Rod Woodson after Jack Pardee was fired from 1994
“As a matter of fact, we use some the exact routes from the run-and-shoot scheme in our offense. And just about everybody does. That’s just the truth.” – NFL HC and OC Chan Gailey from 2001
“People couldn’t stop the run-and-shoot and then they figured out that you better just find ways to get to the quarterback.” – NFL OC Cam Cameron from 2001
“I always used to think the Run-and-Shoot was one of the toughest offenses to stop.” – Longtime Philadelphia Eagles DC Jim Johnson from 2006
“As far as read routes and timing and leverage, all those things he teaches, it’s all very current. His systems are simple, yet very complicated to the defensive side.” – NFL Offensive Coordinator Marty Morhinweg in 2008

Credit to USAToday for feature image


Written by David Hunter

David Hunter enjoys writing about wrestling, sports, music, and horror!

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