The K-Gun Offense: Beyond No Huddle

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Updated: February 19, 2013
mckeller reed

Ever since new Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett moved from CNY to WNY, he’s continually hinted that the offense he builds with Head Coach Doug Marrone will include some “K-Gun” elements like they had at Syracuse. Any mention of the term “K-Gun” is a sure-fire way to elicit warm memories of the glory years for Bills fans that are old enough to have witnessed it. However, if you ask most of those fans what that offense actually entails, you usually won’t get much more than the fact that it was generally an up-tempo, no huddle offense. Maybe they’ll tell you it was a shotgun formation named for Jim Kelly (if they’re ignorant) or Keith McKellar (if they’re not).

The term “no huddle” doesn’t really do much to differentiate, as many teams, such as New England, Green Bay, and (presumably) Philadelphia frequently operate without a huddle. And at this point, every NFL offense, even Andy Reid’s, runs plays out of the shotgun. So what exactly was it about the K-Gun that made it unique enough to deserve its own name, and how does that relate to what Doug Marrone’s Bills will be doing?

Run and Shoot Origins

To answer, we’ll start with a bit of history. The K-Gun has its origins in Houston, where the offense’s predecessor, the Run and Shoot, was popularized at the NFL level by the Oilers. The Falcons, Lions, and Seahawks were also purveyors of the Shoot, but the most successful form was “run” by the Warren Moon lead Oilers, who were able to make the playoffs 7 straight seasons and finish top 10 in offense each year with the vertical, pass first offense.

However, the Oilers weren’t the first Houston pro football team to tear apart up a league with the shoot. That honor belonged to the USFL’s Houston Gamblers, led by none other than the Bills #1 draft choice a few years earlier, James Edward Kelly. Kelly and the “Mouseketeers,” as his receivers were dubbed, worked with Gamblers offensive coordinator and Run and Shoot pioneer, Mouse Davis, to throw for 5219 pass yards and 44 TDs in 1984. It wasn’t the NFL, but Kelly took home USFL MVP honors that year, so if nothing else Kelly knew how to be the Shoot’s “gunslinger,” if you will.

But what exactly did the Run and Shoot look like? Essentially, both the receivers and the quarterback read coverage, and ran to open space based on where the coverage was or perhaps more accurately, wasn’t. The Shoot’s creator, Tiger Ellison, developed it after observing kids play backyard football. Rather than lining up in power running formations, Ellison saw what I remember from my own experiences of pickup football games: everyone is a receiver, try to beat your man, and the qb will chuck the ball to whoever can get open.

These adapted basic ideas of the offense were elegant in their simplicity. In essence, the offense’s core elements were to read the coverage, stretch the field vertically, and create numerical mismatches (for instance, 4 receivers attacking downfield against 3 defensive backs). By reading the coverage, receivers had the prerogative and imperative to change their route on the fly based on what the defensive back was doing. Further, since where the receiver ran change according to the coverage scheme, there was theoretically no coverage a defense could run that the Shoot wouldn’t have an answer for. John Jenkins, another of the Shoot’s patriarchs and Davis’s successor as Gamblers OC, explained it to Kelly like this:

“Any conversation on any type of offensive theory without the acknowledgment, consideration, and complete understanding of defensive opposition is entirely useless. This statement certainly applies to our situation more so than any other team in football today. For with our repeated route altering and adjusting dependent upon the recognition of coverage categories, it is obvious that we must be capable of reading and reacting to coverages properly. When reacting properly, we place the defenses into an impossible state leaving them rendered helpless. In simpler terms, whatever the defense throws up at us should be wrong. Naturally this is due to our own proper decisions in reacting to the specific coverages revealed.”

So why was the Bills offense christened with their own name, rather than grouped with the rest of the Shoot teams? The answer had to do with formation. The pure form of the Run and Shoot was always four receivers and a running back. The base set, or doubles, would put two wide outs and two flankers (slot receivers) on either side, like this:

run n shoot

Often both flankers would line up on the same side of the formation to create a trips look, but that was it. The run and shoot formations were doubles and trips.

Enter the late 80s Buffalo Bills, who wanted to take advantage of Kelly’s proficiency, well, running, the Run and Shoot, but who also had an excellent young running back named Thurman Thomas who they wanted to attack defenses on the ground more than your typical Shoot offense typically would. At least in the late 80s, most coaches first choice of formation to run the ball out of wasn’t a 4 wide set. However, the Bills had an answer: tight end0Keith McKeller, who was capable of both catching and blocking, as all true TEs are. So the original formation was adapted to this:

 

k gun

 

Now, the Bills not only had capable WRs lined up across the line of scrimmage ready to take full advantage of Run and Shoot concepts, but were in a better position to run the ball out of the formation. Combine the vertical passing of the Shoot, a powerful rushing attack headed by a Hall of Fame running back, and the no huddle pace that was much more novel at the time, and suddenly it becomes clear why the Bills offense was explosive enough to reach 4 consecutive Super Bowls.

Run and Shoot in Action

Let’s take a look at a classic run and shoot play: the streak.

four-verts11

While this may look like a simple hail mary, there is quite a bit more going on. The X, Y, and W receivers (according to the diagram, ignore the traditional WR lettering) are all attempting to get deep to test the safeties. If the either of the two outside receivers face very soft corner coverage, they have the option of breaking off into a hitch around 12-14 yards (an example of the sight adjustment I mentioned earlier). Otherwise, we want the mentioned receivers (other than Y) to get outside release and push deep.

The reason is we want to create a numbers mismatch: 3 or 4 streaking receivers versus 2 or 3 deep safeties/ cornerbacks. Running this pattern against a 1 or 3 deep look, the free safety will be forced to make a decision between playing either the Y or  Z seam routes, leaving the opposite one open. Against a 2 deep look, the two safeties will have over the top responsibilities towards the edge of the field, leaving the middle of the field open. As Jenkins said, no matter what the coverage is, it is wrong.

Here is an example of the latter case, from the Comeback. The Oilers are at this point protecting the lead that they, ironically, built with the Shoot. At this point, the Bills are facing a 4th and 5 at the Oilers 19. They’re down 11 points still with just over 2 minutes to go in the 3rd. The announcers are incredulous that the Bills aren’t just kicking the field goal with so much time left, but Levy apparently is living by one of Bill Walsh’s tenets: inside the 25, we’re going for the endzone.

 Bills K-gun 4 Verts TD to Reed

 

Buffalo is in the K Gun, and reads the 2 high safety look as an indicator that Houston is likely in a cover 2 shell, which indeed they are. The underneath coverage is somewhat tight in anticipation of a short throw right at the sticks. To counteract the cover 2, both wide outs and the TE (Pete Metzelaars, in this case) will get an outside release, meaning they will run past the defender’s side closer to the sideline. Consequently, both safeties will cheat closer to their respective side in order to prevent getting beat over the top.

However, Buffalo is sending 4 deep, and by playing the sideline routes, Houston leaves the middle of the field abandoned. And it just so happens that the flanker, Andre Reed, is running a seam read rout- designed specifically to take advantage of that hole.

open middle

 

Reed reads the space, QB Frank Reich sees the space, and…

touchdown

Boom goes the dynamite.

Modern Variations

As great as Comeback game was, it also served to illustrate the worst aspects of the Run and Shoot. Houston couldn’t put a 35-3 lead away in 30 minutes because of the emphasis on throwing the ball vertically down the middle of the field, which angered the Houston Oilers DC (who also happened to be Rex Ryan’s father) so much he publicly bashed both the offense- calling it “chuck and duck”, and it’s administrator, Kevin Gilbride- by punching him in the face. With the help of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz, the Run and Shoot would soon be finished as a primary offensive system.

However, the best elements of the system- choice/read routes, vertical spacing, spread formations, are still widespread throughout the NFL. The seam read role that Andre Reed is playing above is a huge factor in Victor Cruz’s seemingly out of nowhere emergence, which is less surprising when one considers Cruz’s coordinator in NY: Buddy Ryan punchee Kevin Gilbride.

There’s one more NFL team that does a particularly good job of incorporating Run and Shoot concepts into their attack. If you were to pick one current NFL offense or play that the above Andre Reed TD reminded you of, which would you pick? If you said New Orleans and their 4 Verticals play, you’re on the money. Look at this play from 2009.

While there are some small differences (rather than reading the coverage, Payton is attempting to dictate cover 1 or 3 by using a trips formation, which will leave one of the seams open), it is essentially the same concept as the Reed touchdown above: four receivers streak downfield, have the wide outs get outside release, identify the uncovered player, and deliver the ball. And like Thurman Thomas for the Bills, Reggie Bush is a back capable of destroying the defense underneath if they go to a cover 4 look.

Bring it on Home

Although the previous clip was from 2009, the Saints had been running the offense for a few years at that point. And by now you’ve probably made the connection of who was there during the years Payton installed the Run and Shoot Concepts: Head Coach Doug Marrone. Combine that tasty nugget , the no huddle that both the Saints and Syracuse Orange have run recently, and a fan base who hasn’t seen a consistently good offense since the early 90s, and there you have it. The K-Gun.

That’s not to say the offense will solve all of the Bills problems. As we’ll discuss in a upcoming post, there are some significant personnel challenges that will have to be overcome in order to successfully implement a K-Gun attack. And there are ways to beat it: the still prevalent zone blitz was famous for it’s role in chasing the Run and Shoot out of the league. Nonetheless, plays like these will attempt to correct the Bills biggest offensive weakness in recent years: it’s inability to stretch the field vertically. If successful, the K-Gun could elicit a serious case of early 90’s offense déjà vu.

Stay tuned as in upcoming posts we will examine how the Bills personnel fits this attack, and how offensive philosophy may affect the team’s moves in free agency and in the draft. We’ll also be taking a look at the other aspects of the Marrone/Hackett offense, such as West Coast concepts, the running game, and perhaps even the zone read.