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Pop goes the Browns' offense: Both QBs already are learning plays in Kyle Shanahan's pistol formation

May 22, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi |



The Morning Kickoff …

Loading up: Typically at this infancy of a young NFL season, only the most basic elements of an offense are installed. That is especially true of a new offense being introduced to a team and its rookies.

Which is why it was very interesting to see the Browns run plays out of the pistol formation at only their second OTA practice on Wednesday. The reasonable conclusion to draw is that the pistol eventually will be a staple of the Kyle Shanahan offense.

With the Washington Redskins, Shanahan used the pistol to capitalize on Robert Griffin 3’s multi-dimensions. Shanahan incorporated state-of-the-art zone-read option concepts with his father’s famed zone-blocking run schemes to develop the most potent running game in the NFL the past two seasons.

The pistol formation is a mini-shotgun. The quarterback lines up four yards behind center – rather than the seven yards in the shotgun. In the pistol, a single running back – or two – lines up another three yards behind the quarterback. In the shotgun, the running back – or two – lines up beside the quarterback.

The pistol now is commonly attributed as the brainchild of former Nevada coach Chris Ault, who sprung it on major college football in the 2005 season. It actually goes back to Tom Kaczkowski, former head coach and now offensive coordinator at Ohio Northern, in 1999.

Ault is the one who popularized the formation. His pistol offense in 2009, triggered by Colin Kaepernick, led the nation in rushing at 345 yards a game. The Wolf Pack became the only team in college football history to produce three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.

After Kaepernick joined the 49ers, San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman employed the pistol, and Kaepernick rode it to the Super Bowl. Other NFL coaches incorporated it – including former Carolina offensive coordinator and Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski.

But it was Shanahan who took the pistol to another level. Washington ranked 30th and 25th in rushing the two years prior to Shanahan adopting the pistol; first and fifth after. RG3 and running back Alfred Morris had a lot to do with the improvement, too.

The basics: “Kyle’s on the leading edge of stuff you can do out of the pistol,” Browns coach Mike Pettine told me after Wednesday’s OTA practice.

“It’s difficult (on a defense) because you have the advantages of the shotgun but you can still run your run game with having the back at home (behind the QB), so that gives the quarterback a little bit of a head start.”

The pistol formation combines the best of the shotgun spread offense with Shanahan’s formidable north-south running game.

“What the pistol gives you is the threat of the zone read,” Shanahan said in February.

The zone-read option allowed the Washington quarterback, RG3, to read the defensive end to his left and either hand off the ball to Morris or keep it and run it himself behind his fullback. As a rookie in 2012, Griffin ran the ball 120 times for 815 yards and 7 touchdowns. He suffered a torn ACL late in his rookie year. The repercussions of the injury in 2013 ultimately led to the firing of Shanahan and his dad, Mike, the head coach.

“Doesn’t mean you have to run the zone read,” Shanahan continued, “but you can run the rest of your offense out of the pistol. You can’t run the rest of your offense out of the shotgun. If you’ve got a guy that can do that, it is a good threat and a good thing to have in your offense.”

Something to watch: Because Johnny Manziel was known to flee the pocket at a moment’s notice, the natural impulse is to speculate that Shanahan is tailoring the pistol to Manziel’s running.

Pettine himself pointed out, “We’re going to take advantage of his mobility. You don’t take a guy that’s made a living being a mobile quarterback and tell him all of a sudden he has to be a statue.”

But given Manziel’s slight frame (5-11 ¾ and 206 pounds), it would be unwise, if not downright irresponsible, to have Manziel running the read-option on a regular basis. RG3 is 20 pounds heavier and he still ran into harm’s way. He has yet to fully recover.

But it’s the threat of the zone read, that deception, that makes the pistol so effective. Like Kaepernick, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Carolina’s Cam Newton, Manziel is going to have to prove he can make the winning throws from the pocket to be successful in the NFL.

And that is where Brian Hoyer comes in.

Right now, Hoyer is being kept out of any 11-on-11 plays that call for the traditional quarterback under center as a precaution for his own recovery from ACL surgery. But the pistol enables Hoyer, right now, to get valuable team reps to sharpen his progressions and reads of the defense.

“The pistol? We did it last year (under Chudzinski), so I don’t have a problem with it,” Hoyer told me. “Obviously, Kyle has some experience running it. And really, me doing the pistol right now is (mostly) because they don’t want me getting under center.

“It’s a different look. Usually you’re looking at a team out of the gun, you’re looking for strength of the passing formation, things like that. When he’s behind the center, he can go either way. I do think it creates some advantages and you can also run out of it a little bit better (than from the shotgun).”

Hoyer isn’t adept at running the read option and Manziel isn’t adept at throwing from the pocket. The pistol formation may be the compromise to accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives of both quarterbacks.


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




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