1. The Pistol
Ah. The semester is finally over, so now I have the room to donate thought to more pressing matters, such as the the Chiefs' offensive alignments. This is about the Pistol Offense, some things you should know about it, and why I really think it's a good idea. I have run the pistol before in HS, so most of what I have to say here is personal experience. At the time ('01-'02) the pistol had not been formally invented yet, as such, but it was known in HS programs. Most centers sucked at shotgun snaps and most QBs were not so good under center, so you got a hybrid my coach called the "shortgun." That compromise ends up being more than just difference splitting--creative opportunities come along with it. Hopefully I can provide you with some inside perspective on the pistol. So to star off, what actually is the pistol?
2. What is it?
The pistol is an intermediate set, between center and true shotgun. A normal shotgun places the QB 7-9 yards behind center. There are two major advantages in placing the QB back like this: 1. better field vision, 2. increased play speed. Vision is a pretty obvious and easy to understand benefit. The tempo increase comes from the QB not having to drop, because he is essentially pre-dopped. The weaknesses are that communication is more difficult, and it is a hard set to run out of. The reverse of that cost-benefit package is true for taking snaps from under center. The pistol places the QB at about 4-5 yards behind center, which alters the dynamic altogether. The 4yd. cushion is truly the only requirement to be in the pistol. The personnel set, and lineup do not matter. New lineups are possible in the pistol that really are not in the other 2, more typical QB placements. I have included this diagram below to show some various pistol lineups. The top one is the standard set, and the two below are variations that will be discussed later.
NOTE: I use High School terminology because that's what I know. Some college systems are the same but I don't know about NFL.
3. What it is not
There are some misconceptions about the pistol, so I would like to address what the pistol is not. For starters, it is not an offense. Yes, I have "pistol offense" in the title, but that is mostly for recognizance since people hear that label so often. Strictly speaking, it is not an offense. You could run it as an offense, making it your base set, but this is not all that common and probably should not be. Typically teams run the pistol as a set, or set component, just as with under center or shotgun. A coach will call a play that has the pistol built in as its alignment. While I suppose it could be done, I have not seen QBs audible into the pistol from another alignment, as you see them do frequently from center to shotgun. It comes out awkward and some personnel sets prohibit it. a Pistol is something you you design into a play very specifically, because of the basket of benefits it provides, which are presumably of benefit vs the defensive formation you are confronted with.
When most people think pistol, they think option. There is good reason for that, but it is a habit you should break, especially for NFL use. Pistol sets facilitate the option beautifully. It is very easy for the QB to read pre-snap, and decide on the carrier. Easier still, because he back is immediately next to him(sets 2&3 above), the QB can hand it over or bail out with it himself. If the QB runs to the strong side, he can still pitch it out to the back if he has to because the HB is next to him the entire time. But this is far from the only use of the pistol. I ran the option from the pistol exactly zero times. I doubt the Chiefs do it either. The other benefits of the pistol outweigh option gimmicks, and are more germane at the professional level.
4. The Pistol is Awesome!
I have been hinting at certain benefits the pistol provides. Now I'll get to them directly. In my mind the pistol provides the benefits of communication, vision, speed, and versatility.
Taking snaps under center makes communication with the line much easier. Your head is down next to the Center giving you a direct line to him. He can then either echo the call to the rest of the line, or make a line call, for which the C is typically responsible, based off of how the QB has audibled. In the shotgun you just yell, which is fine in HS and sometimes in college. The pro game is just too loud for this to work consistently. In the pistol I could lean over and dictate the call to my line without breaking formation. If I needed to adjust routes, I could yell it to the WR or to the back next to me who would echo. It's not at easy as taking snaps from under center, but it close. Getting calls out to the flanks is easier with pistol.
Under center your height is negated. Out in the pistol you retain the field vision benefits of the shotgun without putting yourself so far back, which carries its own secondary benefits. The QB is far enough back to see, but close enough to communicate.
The shotgun is fast because the drop is not unnecessary. The QB can read cleaner because he is not hopping around as he does it. The piston presents two options as far as pacing and spacing. One, the QB can 3 step drop from the point of snap receipt, which get the full effect of the gun in half the time. Two, the QB can throw "dead legs." This just means the QB catches the snap and throws the ball immediately with no further drop. Both the QB's legs stay planted (or "dead") throughout the play. This is an extremely fast play execution. The routes are usually pretty short (3-7yds) and the ball is thrown in rhythm to a spot. Often it would look something like, flanker 5yds down, in/out cut, throw immediately to the cut side as it is made. This execution is highly timed, and very fast when it works. Prediction: Andy Reid will do this out of the pistol all day. I wold not be surprised to head that this is his main attraction to pistol formations.
In the pistol you will always have a back, and often two. I can think of no reason to use the piston in a no back set; shotgun would be better. Because of the relative positions of QB and the HBs (or FB) they can do a lot of things. Defenses are forced into respecting the run in a way they do not have to with standard shotgun. Lets say you have two backs as your "wings," meaning right next you(set 2 above). The QB can quickly hand off to either, so that is a guessing game for the defense. Or (and I loved doing this) the QB can audible into the pass and put the backs in pass pro without relocating them. Also one back can be behind the QB and one out to his side, for a lead setup (set 3 above). The back behind the QB gets running start, which he would not in a shotgun, and the back to the side run blocks. Often that guy will be a FB or H-Back, though that cuts out some guess work for the D. They still have to respect the pass though because the FB can pass block and the HB can creep out on a wheel route. The bottom line is that backs can be behind the QB, next to him, or both on the same play, which simply is not possible in the other alignments. It could be done in the shotgun, but it is too clumsy to be practical.
So to wrap this up, the shotgun provides some measure of advantage seen in both the shotgun and under center, without any real pitfalls. The disadvantages are that isn't that great for 4WR sets or spreads, even though you see that all the time. Communicating with the spread flankers is hard and you do not get any use of the intricacy backs provide you with in that setup. I think that understanding the pistol brings some of Reid's personnel moves into more clear focus. 2 back sets work wonderfully in the pistol, and we have been stocking up on all manner of back. TEs can be used as H-Back types in pistol formations. But as nicely as it goes with the run, passing is always still on the table. The QB has vision and time on his side as he sit back there in the pocket before it even exists. I remember back in '08 when we ran the piston for Bones, analysts spoke of it so dismissively. At the time I thought a trend could come of it. Its practicality in the NFL has been underrated because people tend to think option with it, but as I have explained here, that is only one of its many uses. It is a highly, highly QB friendly set, which in this QB oriented league should give it staying power. I do not think this is a fad, rather I think we are seeing an evolution in the game along the lines of the 3-4, zone blitz, cover 2, or what have you.I think the pistol is here to stay.