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Evolution of a play caller: Andy Reid and the shotgun formation

Kansas City’s head coach continues to evolve his offensive scheme.

In the previous installment of this series, we covered Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s rise through the college and NFL coaching ranks, working with some of the pioneers of the West Coast offense. When Reid became head coach of the Philidelphia Eagles, he was as devout a disciple of that scheme as anyone.

But that lasted only until he ran into the 2004 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. They convinced him that he needed to move his quarterback out from under center. This began Reid’s evolution to become the offensive mastermind he is today.

Eagles vs. Chiefs, Week 4 of 2005

This matchup shows how Reid’s adoption of the shotgun formation was a slow and gradual process. In this game, Philadelphia ran 13 plays from shotgun. While that was more than double the number called in Super Bowl XXIX, it was still fewer than those run from under center.

Football 2005 - NFL Photo by Douglas Jones/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

One thing that stands out in this game is Reid’s commitment to throwing the ball. He dialed up 33 passing plays for 369 yards and three touchdowns — compared to just 17 rushes for 28 yards.

Up by two scores with less than seven minutes left in the game, six out of seven plays that Reid called were passing plays. Philadelphia won the matchup 37-19.

Eagles vs. New Orleans Saints, 2006 Divisional Round

This is another good bullet point along Reid’s timeline. With star quarterback Donovan McNabb sidelined with a torn ACL, Reid handed the reins of the offense over to three-time Pro Bowler Jeff Garcia.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Philadelphia Eagles vs New Orleans Saints - January 13, 2007 Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Garcia was a natural fit for the Eagles, having spent four years playing for the San Francisco 49ers under head coach Steve Mariucci, who (like Reid) had been a Green Bay Packers assistant coach under Mike Holmgren.

In this game, the Eagles came out fast, running the majority of their first-half offense out of the shotgun. At halftime, they held a narrow 14-13 lead. Then Reid inexplicably abandoned what had been working in the first half, having Garcia almost exclusively run plays under center for the rest of the game.

The Saints rattled off 14 third-quarter points on the way to a close 27-24 win.

Eagles vs. Chiefs, Week 3 of 2009

This game demonstrates Reid’s willingness to embrace a wild new future catering to the strengths (and natural abilities) of his players. With McNabb once again sidelined with an injury, Reid put the ball in the hands of the inexperienced quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was making just his second career start. This game also included quarterback Michael Vick’s first in-game action with the Eagles.

Kansas City Cheifs v Philadelphia Eagles Set Number: X82982 TK1 R5 F42

Philadelphia ran 37 of its 51 plays out of shotgun. Early in this game, Reid leaned heavily on the Wildcat formation, giving snaps to both Vick and rookie running back LeSean McCoy. During the broadcast, announcer Kevin Harlan referenced a conversation with Reid in which the head coach said he had changed in philosophy, deciding to utilize some of his playmakers in different ways.

But while the personnel and formations were different, the passing concepts were the same. The Eagles still focused their passing attack on short to intermediate routes across the middle of the field.

Going back to Reid’s roots yields fruit

By the time Patrick Mahomes became the Chiefs’ starting quarterback in 2018, Reid had fully embraced the shotgun formation — and then threw the entire weight of his offensive mind into playing to the strengths of his young gunslinger. That season, Kansas City ran 80% of its plays out of shotgun — and of those, just 29% were running plays.

They say everything old becomes new again — and while Reid gets a lot of credit for being an offensive innovator, a lot of what he’s doing now actually predates his West Coast roots. It goes back to his days as a graduate assistant for legendary Bringham Young University head coach LaVell Edwards, who was the creator of the Spread/Air Raid offense — the same scheme that Mike Leach learned there. Later, Leach passed it on to quarterback Kliff Kingsbury, who would one day be Mahomes’ head coach at Texas Tech.

Mixing these Air Raid concepts into the West Coast offense in which he originally believed, Reid was able to ease his quarterback’s transition to the NFL, helping him develop into the superstar he has become.

In 2022, the Chiefs ran 79.3% of their plays from shotgun — and while doing so, led the league with a DVOA of 25.4%, surpassing the Buffalo Bills’ figure of 24.3%. But what’s interesting is that while under center, Kansas City’s DVOA of 24.6% also led the league. The Baltimore Ravens were second at 20.1%.

So while the Chiefs are a shotgun-first team, they are still better from under center than any other NFL squad.

In some ways, Reid has traveled far from his West Coast roots. Even though Kansas City had the league’s second-highest target distribution to tight ends last season, Reid isn’t working the middle of the field nearly as much as he once did. In 2022, just 19% of Mahomes’ targets were to the middle.

But at the same time, Mahomes’ average depth of target (7.2 yards) was the lowest of his career. Still, he connected on 67.1% of his pass attempts. That was a career-high.

So Reid’s Chiefs offense doesn’t fit into any of our pre-defined schemes. It’s a short to intermediate, pass-first offense that is run out of the shotgun. It leverages players' strengths, focusing on spreading out the defense and finding open grass on the boundaries. It’s Reid’s West Coast Gun offense.

But even this doesn’t define it, because Reid and his team continue to evolve. After all, Kansas City just won Super Bowl LVII by calling 17 running plays in the second half.

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