A Crash Course In The Pistol Formation, West Coast Offense, and RG3 as a Passer

Washington Redskins fans may be crazy, but they are not (always) dumb. Robert Griffin III’s 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns with 5 interceptions proved that he is for real. You don’t have those kind of stats by accident, and that takes into account he actually missed a full game.

However, we are a fretful bunch. One of the those things that have crept up; Robert Griffin III becoming a “pocket passer”, and learning how to play “under center”. What that means, is playing what’s typically described as a traditional style as quarterback, in the vein of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and the like. 3 and 5 step drops, from under center. The NFL has created the “myth” of the pocket passer, the guy who stands in there with chaos all around him taking all the shots and performing accurately from the pocket.

And with that there has been a certain degree of worry that the Redskins’ use of the pistol formation will stunt his growth. There seems to be a lot of misinformation about what the pistol is, how it works, and whether or not it hampers the growth of quarterbacks. So I think it’s time for a crash course, to better inform people of it’s use and what it means for Robert Griffin III going forward.

The Pistol’s Invention

The Pistol offense was first innovated and used heavily by former University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault as as a means to add a greater dimension to the run game while still keeping the spread concepts that made passing out of the shotgun successful.

A typical shotgun formation (pictured above) is a great tool at spreading defenses out and attacking them versus the pass. But your options in the running game are extremely limited, mostly to outside runs. You could run a spread offense, but you wouldn’t have the threat of the run in the shotgun the same way you would under center.

Ault’s solution was to take the quarterback and set him four yards behind the center, with the running back lining up three yards behind the quarterback.

In this formation, it became much easier to to have a traditional run game, while still be able to run spread shotgun concepts. In a traditional shotgun, for example, typically the running back will always run to the opposite side of where he’s lined up. For example, if the running back is lined up on the right hip of the quarterback, he will almost always run to the left.

In the pistol, you have you full package of run plays, to either side of the formation. In addition, unlike most shotgun plays, you can maintain your 3-step and 5-step rhythm passing plays. A.K.A, some of the core principles of the…

West Coast Offense

Better that you watch this and learn from the master himself than me try to explain it…

Naturally, though, with decades passing since it’s inception, things have changed a little bit. The fundamentals are there, though; shallow crosses, rhythm passing and timing routes.

But the Shanahans’ offense does thing a little bit differently. For one, the reads are inverted. Where as a more traditional West Coast Offense (such as the one Colin Kaepernick runs in San Francisco), the reads move from low to high. In a Mike Shanahan offense, the reads start high and work their way low.

Operating out of the Pistol formation allows the Redskins to run the exact same offense as they always have, while giving Robert a better snap shot of the defense than he’d get under center and enabling the read option run game. The Pistol is the best combination of the shotgun spread principles Robert ran while at Baylor, and the West Coast Offense run by Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan in the NFL, marrying the two to provide an easier bridge for RG3 to acclimate to the NFL.

Pre-Snap Recognition

One of the more frustrating things to hear about Robert Griffin III’s evolution as a passer in the idea that he plays in a “simple” offense where he doesn’t make many reads or progressions. This is usually said by people that don’t have a full and refined knowledge of how the Redskins offense works. For some quarterbacks in other styles of offense, they begin their reads post snap, having a defined set of progressions. They begin their decision making process after the ball is snapped based on what the defense is doing.

The quarterback in a Redskins offense. will typically use pre-snap motion to determine whether or not the coverage is zone or man. Based on his read, he will then determine the weakness of the defense. That tells him where to go with the football.


Robert Griffin III’s first touchdown pass is a good example of this. Robert comes to the line and send Fred Davis in motion. The defense shifts with Davis indicating the defense is in a cover 3 shell. This alerts him that there is one rusher likely to come free, which means he’s throwing hot to Niles Paul. Unfortunately, Niles gets covered in the flat by the linebacker. But, Robert has enough time to get his eyes back down field and find his number one target Pierre Garçon.

Another good example of RG3 reading a defense with pre-snap motion is actually this touchdown run. This play was wrongly referred to as a “called run” by John Lynch on commentary, but it wasn’t. Robert sends Fred Davis in motion to get the Vikings to declare coverage, and safety Harrison Smith moves with him, indicating man-coverage. The Vikings “sugar” their linebackers, or put them up close to the line of scrimmage between the two tackles.

When the ball is snapped, Robert identifies that the two linebackers blitz the same gap. That leaves a big hole in the defense. Robert hits the hole, breaks a tackle, and it’s six.

You can see more examples of the Redskins using pre-snap movement in Kevin’s article about a change-of-pace receiver.

The Shanahan’s system is really a quarterback friendly system, provided you know your stuff. It’s all about reading the defense, taking the proper amount of hitch steps and delivering the ball to the (usually) open receiver. Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan both have a knack for designing plays that get wide receivers wide open, which may be why analyst insist on saying that Robert plays in a simple offense with receivers that are wide open. Receivers have been wide open for a while; just no one’s been able to get them the football.

Furthermore, Robert has far more latitude and ability to audible and change plays at the line of scrimmage than any quarterback that’s played under Kyle or Mike Shanahan in recent memory.

The Pistol Formation is NOT the zone-read offense.

Besides a nagging insistence that Robert was hurt using the zone-read (he wasn’t), another thing people tend to get confused on is separating the pistol formation away from the zone-read.

The two are not one in the same. You can go a whole game in pistol and never run one zone-read play. You can run the zone-read option in nothing but shotgun (which is mainly what RG3 did at Baylor).

Just because the offense lines up in the pistol does not mean it’s a zone-read play. The Pistol is a formation. The zone-read is a play that can occasionally be run out of pistol.

It’s why any one claiming that the pistol can be stopped is being ridiculous. The Pistol can’t be stopped anymore than the shotgun can.

The Pistol FORMATION is not the Pistol OFFENSE

There really is no such thing as a “Pistol Offense.” The pistol is formation, like the shotgun is a formation, like the I-formation or “Ace/Singleback” formation. A team could in theory run absolutely any offensive scheme — West Coast Offense, Air Coryell, Run & Shoot, Air Raid, The Spread — out of the Pistol formation.

Chris Ault’s Wolfpack did, technically, play in the “Pistol Offense”. But the formation itself is just a formation; Ault built his own schemes and concepts into the formation.

Media analyst can’t seem to separate the formation from some of the plays that are used in the formation, such as the aforementioned read-option. There were times during the season when the Redskins heavily utilized the pistol, but Robert didn’t run much read-option at all.

The Pistol is means to an end. It is not in itself an offense with it’s own core set of principals. It is a tool to which you can apply offensive concepts to.

Robert’s Development In The Pistol

Fans seem to worry that because Robert operates in the pistol a lot, his growth as a dropback passer will be stunted.

The truth is that the utilizing the pistol likely helped ease Robert’s transition, and allowed us to run our base, conventional offense. There is some risk that taking lots of snaps from shotgun, as it can adversely effect your footwork and since of timing. But the pistol actually helps ease that problem, by keeping the quarterback in rhythm and maintain the same sense of timing.

In addition, Robert Griffin III actually spent far more time under center on pass plays than he spent in the gun or in the pistol. In 393 pass attempts, Griffin lined up in the gun or the pistol on 54.1% of his pass attempts.

Compare that with some of his contemporaries. Andrew Luck spent 66.5% of his time in the shotgun his rookie year. Cam Newton spent around 77.3% of his passing snaps in the shotgun or pistol, and Ryan Tannehill was in the gun for 69.6% percent of the time. Nick Foles was in shotgun 80% of the time.

That’s to say nothing of veteran quarterbacks like Peyton Manning (80%), Tom Brady (72.3%), Joe Flacco (59.8%), Aaron Rodgers, (78.6%), and Eli Manning (62.6%).

Roberts time in the gun and pistol is much more in line with Matt Ryan (56.0%), and his contemporaries Colin Kaepernick (46%) and Russell Wilson (57%).

Robert’s not losing anything by being in the pistol or the shotgun; in fact he’s in it far less than a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL. Mike Shanahan has always run a play action heavy offense, and Kyle Shanahan has always been successful at getting receivers open in his scheme. Robert threw for 3,200 yards, 20 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions.

You don’t throw 5 interceptions if you don’t go throw progressions and reads, and you don’t get a 3,000 yard passer, 1,600+ yard rusher, and four receivers with over 500 yards if you run a “simple” offense where the quarterback is a passenger.

Let’s get RG3 healthy, and then watch him take the next step in a long, brilliant career. The offense will continue to grow, and the pistol will stay, even when Robert Griffin III isn’t running the read-option.

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