Bill, Tom, and the Forgotten Cult: New England’s Run and Shoot Concepts

When people think of the run and shoot, they often recall prolific offenses of yesteryear, many of which can be linked to shoot proselytizer Darrel “Mouse” Davis and the late Jack Pardee. The former gained notoriety as the head coach of Portland State and was eventually commissioned by the latter to bring the offense to the USFL. And while their partnership was short-lived, the ensuing seismic tremors felt across the football landscape were not.

In his lone season as the Houston Gamblers offensive coordinator, Davis was able to coax 5219 yards out of some guy named Jim Kelly, who would graduate from the USFL before its collapse and go on to captain the derivative ‘K-gun’ in Buffalo. Pardee took a forced sabbatical from coaching following the demise of the USFL, but returned to football a year later as the Houston Cougars head coach. In his three years there, he would guide Andre Ware to a Heisman and witness David Klingler set an NCAA record for most touchdown passes in a game. That record – 11 touchdown passes – still stands today. He would then make the commute to the Astrodome to coach the Oilers and another Hall of Fame quarterback, Warren Moon. (The Houston program would be a springboard for offensive wunderkinds forevermore.)

Meanwhile, Davis toiled in the minor leagues before becoming the offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions. And for all intents and purposes, that’s as far as he ever got. The Lions made Andre Ware the 7th overall pick in 1990, but the run and shoot disciple had something of a Heisman hangover. Ultimately, Davis was ousted as Ware cracked the lineup just five times in two losing seasons. The pioneer continued to bounce around before landing on the Hawaii football staff. There, he lived vicariously through his former Portland State QB June Jones, the Rainbow Warriors head coach. And after Colt Brennan’s record-setting season in which he threw 58 touchdowns, Davis took a job calling plays for…Portland State. “From even the greatest of horrors, irony is seldom absent.”

In the leadup to Super Bowl LI, Warren Moon appeared on the Rich Eisen Show, where he was asked if he saw the run and shoot in any of today’s NFL offenses. The Hall of Famer’s response?

“A ton of it.”

“I see it in New England’s offense, and I see it throughout the league,” he said, “Back when we were doing it, it was like, ‘This is some kind of pop gun offense, and this thing will never work in the league,’ but what they’ve been able to do is take the good things out of it and incorporate it into offenses today.” The Patriots offense – which is notoriously advanced – actually presented many run and shoot elements in the AFC Championship game against Jacksonville. Using what I’ve learned from a Mouse Davis coaching clinic and two of his playbooks (1985 Denver Gold, 1992 New York/New Jersey Knights) as supplementary materials, I’ll briefly deconstruct some of these elements.

Davis didn’t give a name for this two-man route combination, but the 2004 New England Patriots playbook suggests it would have been called ‘Illinois’ during the bygone Charlie Weis era. The reads made here look quite similar to the rules for the frontside of Rip 61 X Choice (a day one shoot install) against three-deep coverage. Even though Davis preferred to run it out of trips back in the 80s, the Patriots present it out of a twins alignment here.

On 1st & 10 from their own 14-yard line, with 5:01 to go in the first quarter, New England comes out in base 21 personnel with a 1×2 alignment. The closed side is to the boundary and Brady motions Amendola to the field side. Jalen Ramsey does not follow Amendola across the formation; instead, he lines up over Gronk with outside leverage. Meanwhile Tashaun Gipson, who had been deployed as a weakside linebacker in the box, trots out to align over Amendola. This indicates to Brady that the Jags, a Cover 3-heavy team, are likely playing a three-deep zone. (And it should be noted that the use of presnap motion to identify coverages was an integral part of the shoot.)

Amendola, who would be called a wing in shoot parlance, executes a seam read from the slot upon the snap. He releases vertically up the seam and reads the middle-of-the-field (MOF) safety once he works through the under coverage. In the shoot’s glory days, rollouts were used to manipulate the MOF safety. Quarterbacks working off the initial choice read would progress to the seam read because any over-commitment by the safety could result in a big play. But Tom Brady is something of a fixed turret, so he’s not going anywhere. Instead, he play actions off the snap as the Patriots get into an 8-man protection.

So, if the safety cheats away, Amendola will continue up the seam. If the safety plays it perfectly – which means remaining within three-fourths to the middle of the goal post– he will break his route inside at a depth of 12-to-14 yards at a 90-degree angle and open himself to the quarterback. As the end zone angle shows, Gipson hesitates off the fake but otherwise plays it ‘perfectly,’ so Amendola breaks inside about 12 yards downfield.

Meanwhile, Brandin Cooks has a read of his own to make on the outside as the Z. The way Davis once described the read in a coaching clinic was thus:

“[The] Z drives up, reading the corner. If the corner turns and runs inside, like many three-deep corners do, the Z gets to the 8-to-10 yard depth and hooks. If the corner turns outside and runs with the Z, he will run a ‘takeout’ (fade) route.”

A.J. Bouye gets into a zone turn, reads Amendola’s vertical release, and begins cheating inside. Cooks recognizes this and snaps his route off at about 11 yards, hooking it back to the inside before sifting outside to carry himself away from the hook-curl defender. The result is an 11-yard completion for a first down.

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On this 3rd & 4 play, I want to focus less on the overall structure and more on the route Cooks runs – the ‘Choice.’ This route was the staple of the run and shoot offense and is beautiful in its simplicity. The receiver begins by running at the outside shoulder of the cornerback. The route will be a 7-step stem, and the wideout will cut one of two ways. If the cornerback maintains five yards of cushion, or loses outside leverage, the receiver will break it outside after seven steps. If the receiver reduces the cushion to three yards or less, he will run a skinny post. Cooks is motioned tight to the formation presnap and begins getting into his route. He gets ‘onto the face’ of Bouye and begins breaking the post upon the seventh step. While Brady didn’t throw him the ball, this is a textbook example of proper out read execution.

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We’ll see him run the Choice again on this red zone play, which is a modern take on ‘Z Choice Special.’ In the original Choice Special, the Y and wing swap routes, with the Y (#3 receiver) taking the seam read while the wing runs a 5-to-7 yard curl. This gives the quarterback a high-low read against Cover 3 defenses. If the hook curl defender carried the seam route up the hash, the QB would hit the wing settling into the void. If the defender bit on the curl, he’d hit the Y over the top. And on the outside of that combination, there would be a fade route by the #1 WR to carry the outside corner away from the seam.

In this variant, the Patriots align themselves in 2×2 but use the back, who’s offset to the quarterback’s left, as part of a three-man route combination into the boundary. Again, we see presnap motion towards the ball in an attempt to force Jacksonville’s hand. They disguise well and give limited response before presenting a pattern-matching quarters coverage. On the field side, we see Chris Hogan run the curl while Dwayne Allen executes the seam read. Where the wrinkle comes in is with James White running a wheel route out of the backfield, supplanting the traditional fade route. My guess is that the Patriots wanted to bait the boundary Cover 4 corner into driving on the curl so they could isolate White against the linebacker on the wheel route. They also incorporated a drag route from the slot, which serves as a hot and creates an NCAA route concept should the Y choose to execute a square in off the seam read.

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In this last example, we see an amalgamation of ‘Choice Drag’ and ‘91 Switch’ out of a 3×2.

On Choice Drag, the #1 WR to the trips side will run a 5-7 yard drag while the wing will run a ‘switch’ to take the fade route. Furthermore, one of the two receivers will rub for the other, although who’s picking depends on the coverage.

On ’91 Switch,’ the first- and second-outermost receivers will – you guessed it – switch their routes. The #1 WR will work an inside release to execute a seam read, whereas the #2 WR will release outside to run a wheel route.

Here, the Pats pick up 20 yards on a 4th & 1 early in the first quarter by blending these concepts. The outside receiver executes the switch as he normally would, but the responsibilities of the slot receivers change. The #2 WR runs the drag, thereby picking for the #3 WR running the wheel. Jacksonville appears to be in some form of Cover 1 Double Robber with a defensive lineman dropping out to read – and presumably cut – any inside releases from the twins side. The rub on the trips side short-circuits the man coverage responsibilities and the result is a first down.

These are just a few example of shoot elements the Patriots ran against the Jaguars. In fact, a more in-depth study – one conducted across several games – may reveal even further utilization of such concepts. So, if the Patriots have had success using some of these ideas, why hasn’t the rest of the league followed suit? One theory, noted here by Jeff Glessener, is that the offense is extremely demanding of quarterbacks. (A notion which would apply to receivers by proxy.) Glessener also suggests that the scheme was ‘a cult’ that jealously guarded secrets which were never passed down to the next generation of coaches.

But when you have arguably the most cerebral quarterback to ever play, throwing to a receiving corps which has long been predicated on technique and understanding of the game, that makes it seem easy. And when you have the greatest coach to ever live – who was raised on football – no secret is lost to time. As the Patriots look to capture their sixth Lombardi trophy, look for these relics of the past. Appreciate them; appreciate Belichick and Brady. Because this New England dynasty is itself a mysterious cult. And one day – they too, will vanish.

Bryce Rossler wrote this piece, follow Bryce on twitter @btrossler.

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One thought on “Bill, Tom, and the Forgotten Cult: New England’s Run and Shoot Concepts

  1. Just would like to clarify John Jenkins was the O/C for the University of Houston that helped Ware win the Heisman and David Klingler to set all sorts of records. After Pardee He was elevated to Head Coach. Unfortunately he spliced in some topless girls in a film session and it got out so he was let go. He seemed to be blackballed, I could be wrong on that, by the teams in SWC schools because back in that time it was thought uncouth to run the score up and I don’t mean trying to. It was just the Run-in-Shoot was made to score points. I know he went to the CFL but I’m not sure how long he coached. Several years ago I believe he was a scout for one of the CFL. He has continued supporting UH with donations since his time away. He was a character. There’s a pic of him somewhere wearing his cowboy boots on the outside of his pants and wearing a UH windbreaker. I believe most think he got a raw deal considering what was going on at the time of the SWC. He may not have been a HC material but he was certainly a mad scientist when it came to being a O/C. He was always twinkling with the application of the Run-in-Shoot.
    I know this article is old but I just ran across it today on one of the Coogs message board’s. Just had to stand up for Coach Jenkins.
    By the way I thoroughly enjoyed the article.

    Craig Wiggins

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