Chad Kelly and the Myth of the Gunslinger

Whether it’s about going deep or running the play-action, football teams need to be able to pass. In addition to pointing out how college QBs might fit into the NFL and which to watchMark Schofield takes a look at Chad Kelly in the context of the prototypical “gunslinger” type.

In “Gunfighter Nation,” the third in his trilogy of works following the historical development of the Myth of the Frontier in American literature, professor Richard Slotkin tracks the idea of the frontier, and the gunfighter, through American culture, cinema, and policy. Slotkin illustrates how the nation’s idealized vision of the gunfighter, forging west against a dangerous frontier, not only reflected the culture of the day, but also shaped our internal imagery and allowed politicians such as John F. Kennedy to frame even the vastness of space as a possibility for America, as its “New Frontier.”

Slotkin focuses on the medium of film to make his cultural arguments, particularly the rise of the Western and John Wayne. But another fertile area the professor could have relied upon was the growth of football on television, and the mythology of quarterback as gunslinger. From Sonny Jurgensen to Dan Fouts, from John Elway to Brett Favre, football fans and pundits alike have fantasized about the role of quarterback as gunslinger, firing bullets all over the field in the face of danger and unpredictability.

Mississippi’s Chad Kelly is the latest college quarterback to be labeled a “gunslinger,” and in many ways the archetype fits. Kelly has the arm strength to challenge all areas of the field, and he is a fearless passer who believes he can fit the football into any throwing window. But he also displays some additional traits that will serve him well as he finishes his college career and looks to enter the professional game.

When thinking of gunslingers, the first aspect of their game that comes to mind is the ability – or the desire – to challenge tight throwing windows. One such area of the field is the deep outside, when a cornerback has safety help over the top. It takes accuracy, arm strength, and fearlessness to make such a throw.

Here’s Kelly doing just that:

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Mississippi is trailing by seven midway through the second quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks, and Kelly is lined up in the shotgun with an empty backfield. They run a double-in design to the left side of the field, where the outside two trips receivers break inside while the #3 receiver runs a corner route. To the right side of the field, the outside receiver runs a curl while the slot WR runs a vertical route, gaining outside leverage on the slot cornerback before breaking vertically. The Razorbacks are in Cover 1 here, and Kelly is not afraid to take his shot. And he drops the throw in perfectly, just over the outstretched arms of the nickel corner, and before the safety can arrive. A simply beautiful throw.


One of the other aspects associated with the gunslinger style of play is the the ability – or the willingness – to make the risky decision. Often bordering on reckless, quarterbacks displaying such play are known to stare risk in the face and laugh, and then throw passes while falling down or with their opposite arm – whatever the situation presents.

Here against Arkansas, is Kelly:

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Mississippi runs one of their standard passing concepts from trips, a three-man levels design, but Arkansas brings pressure. The QB is able to prevent a sack and stay upright in the pocket, but as he attacks the line of scrimmage he spots a receiver trailing across the formation. While sliding to the turf, Kelly simply flips him the football. A somewhat risky decision, but the quarterback is able to turn a near-certain sack into a 3rd and manageable for his offense.

Watching Kelly, you can see the hallmarks of a gunslinger in his game. But when you scratch a bit at the surface, some of those traits give way to a more poised, polished passer. Perhaps again the gunfighter angle is more myth than reality.


The ability to move defenders with your eyes is an essential ability for an NFL quarterback. When a QB can force a defender out of his assigned zone – to convince the player to abandon his assignment in exchange for another potential threat – the signal-caller exposes the defense to a potential big play. On this play against New Mexico State, Kelly demonstrates this trait to perfection. The offense faces 2nd and 7 on their own 34-yard line and lines up with the quarterback in the shotgun and 11 offensive personnel on the field. They align three receivers to the right and put a single receiver wide to the left, aligned at the bottom of the numbers. The Aggies have their 4-2-5 nickel defense on the field and they show Cover 4 in the secondary, with both cornerbacks giving around seven yards of cushion and the safeties aligned around 12 yards off the line of scrimmage:


While the defense drops into Cover 4, Mississippi runs four verticals:


Running this play from trips, the inside receiver must bend his vertical route to the opposite side of the field. Kelly takes advantage of this perfectly, looking at that route before coming to the middle trips receiver on his vertical route:

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By looking at the crossing vertical route first, Kelly convinces both safeties to collapse on this receiver. This leaves his target wide open for the touchdown. From this angle, you can see the quarterback move his eyes from the single side of the field, to the middle of the field, and finally to his target:

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By the time he releases the football, the safeties are out of position and his target is wide open. This is impressive from Kelly, not just with his arm, but with his eyes and his mind.


While the gunslingers of the gridiron are known for challenging narrow throwing windows, one way a quarterback can avoid throwing into tight coverage is by throwing with anticipation. If the ball comes out on time – before the break – the CB can get caught in a position where he cannot react to the throw and break on the football.

Against Arkansas, Mississippi faces a 1st and 10 in the fourth quarter. Trailing by 7, the offense has the football on the Razorbacks’ 31-yard line with the ball on the right hashmark. Mississippi has Kelly in the shotgun and 11 personnel on the field, with a wing trips look to the right and a single receiver split very wide to the left, aligned at the top of the numbers. Arkansas has their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game and they show Cover 2 in the secondary:


Mississippi runs a RPO scheme here, and Kelly makes the decision presnap that he is going to throw the football:


Looking at the defense, the QB sees that the Razorbacks have six defenders in the box, and single coverage on the outside where he has a slant route. Up front, the offense blocks this play like power, with the left guard pulling to the right edge in front of the running back. But with the decision to throw made pre-snap, Kelly keeps the football and throws the slant:

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I love the anticipation Kelly displays here, as demonstrated in the below still


As the receiver is just slowing down to make his break, Kelly is pulling the trigger. The cornerback tries to break on the route and the ball, but because of the timing from the QB, the CB has no prayer on this play.

Here is another example, from Mississippi’s game against Vanderbilt. Facing a 3rd and 9 on their opening drive of the game, the offense lines up with Kelly in the shotgun and trips (or trey) to the right with the tight end aligned next to the right tackle. The Commodores have their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, and they show a blitz upfront and a Cover 4 look in the secondary:


Vanderbilt chooses to blitz a linebacker and a safety, and they roll their coverage to Cover 0, with one of the linebackers spying Kelly in the pocket. Mississippi runs a curls concept, with three of the receivers running curl patterns right at the first down marker, while the middle receiver in the trey formation runs an out pattern:


Kelly displays both solid recognition here as well as decent anticipation. At the snap, he verifies the coverage by reading the free safety, who blitzes on this play. Seeing this, Kelly peels his eyes to the right side of the field. He then sees the back of the defender in the slot as he is breaking to the outside to cover the out route. This confirms man coverage and that the defenders to that side of the field are not going to switch their man responsibilities:

KellyStill14Kelly now knows that the outside receiver will be isolated against the safety on his curl route. The QB just needs to make this throw with some decent timing, and the route should break open for the first down. The better the timing, the better the chance for his receiver to pick up additional yardage after the catch:

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Kelly throws this well before the break and the receiver (aided by a bit of a pushoff) is able to work back towards his QB, and the football is right on him coming out of his break. Because of the timing, his receiver is able to break the tackle attempt of the safety and race into Vanderbilt territory with the first down.

Patience: In the Moment and Beyond

One trait that gunslinger quarterbacks typically are not known for is patience. But in the moment, there are times as a QB that you need to hesitate, if even for a split second, to let a route break open or a defender clear a zone. Speeding up your process in these situations can lead to a turnover, or worse. Situational awareness becomes critical here. As a quarterback, you need to keep the offense on schedule, and when you get behind the chains, you might feel the need to make everything up with one big play. But sometimes the situation requires you to simply take what is there, get back on schedule, and fight on the next down.

Kelly displays both of these aspects of patience on this next play again against Vanderbilt.

Late in the first half, Mississippi has the football in their own territory, facing a 1st and 20. Kelly lines up in shotgun with 10 offensive personnel, with trips to the left and a single receiver split to the right. The Commodores have their 3-3-5 nickel on the field, and they sugar the A gap with one of the linebackers:


Mississippi attacks vertically here, while Vanderbilt drops into a Tampa 2 coverage:


Kelly takes the snap and verifies the coverage. Seeing both safeties deep outside the hashmarks, and the middle linebacker dropping with the inside trips receiver, the QB knows the defense is dropping into Cover 2. He also knows that the middle trips receiver will clear the underneath defender shortly on his vertical route and find a soft area in the zone. So the quarterback waits for a bit, lets the receiver clear the underneath coverage, and then hits him:

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Kelly is patient not only with his decision, but also with his placement of the throw. At first glance this might seem like an inaccurate pass, but let’s consider the context. It’s 1st and 20. Kelly knows the offense has two more downs after this to move the chains, so he can live with a 17-yard gain. But also, since the defense is running Tampa 2, if he leads his receiver any more, he’ll lead him right into the playside safety. By placing this throw where he does, Kelly patiently keeps his offense on schedule – and his receiver upright as well.

Kelly certainly does display some of the traditional aspects of a gunslinger of the gridiron: He’s not afraid to challenge narrow throwing windows; He can take risks with the football; And he is supremely confident in his arm to challenge defenders in all areas of the field. But looking at him deeper, you can see some other aspects to his playing style that demonstrate a more patient, refined passer. Anticipation, manipulation, and patience are the hallmarks of successful quarterbacks, and the fact that Kelly displays them now as his game is still developing is a good sign for his future. He has one more season to improve against top-notch competition, but given what he has shown to date, he might have a very high ceiling as he continues to develop.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter.  Buy his book, 17 Drives.  Check out his other work here, or how Connor Cook is like comfort food, or potential 2017 NFL QB draft picks.

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All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.

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