Riding shotgun

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 25, 2006



By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Mike Carlson

"Shotgun! Shoot 'em 'fore he run now ..."

The word "shotgun" brings up pleasant thoughts for your typical troll. It is associated with hunting for tasty creatures, as well as with Jr. Walker & the All Stars, the hit-making Motown act of the 1960s. (Walker, shown at right, continued to make hits into the 1980s and played the sax solo on the Foreigner classic "Urgent.") As for the irate father who chased the Chief Angry Troll while waving an up-and-down Remington loaded with rock salt, well, the less said about that, the better. 
  
We were reminded of how sweet it is to associate the shotgun with football when Howard "Red" Hickey passed away back on March 30. (Apparently, rapid response is not a troll strong suit unless a shotgun is aimed at our ample asses.) Hickey was a pretty good football player, and at the University of Arkansas, he'd also been a star forward on a basketball team that went to the NCAA Final Four. Entering the NFL in 1941, he played one game with the Steelers before being traded to the Rams. Then his career was interrupted by World War II, where he served three years as a gunnery sergeant. He came back to the Rams in Cleveland in 1945, and won an NFL title. (That's Hickey here, in a photo from the Pro Football Hall of Fame Web site.)
 
As an assistant coach with the 49ers, Hickey's basketball skills helped him come up with the "Alley-Oop" pass from Y.A. Tittle to R.C. Owens, which gained Owens his memorable nickname. You'd think that would be enough to ensure your immortality, but all of Hickey's obituaries led with his "invention" of the shotgun offense, which he did while he was head coach of the 49ers, and for that he will be most remembered.
 
In 1960, San Francisco was 4-4, and two of their last four games were against the two-time defending champion Colts, whose formidable pass rush, featuring Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti, had helped them to a 6-2 record. Marchetti might be considered the first modern pass rusher, isolating on a tackle and using dedicated rush moves. He was able to do this partly because his massive tackles, Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb and Art "Fatso" Donovan, clogged the middle so effectively. Big Daddy was always a threat to push the pocket up the quarterback's nose, while Donovan, another future Hall of Famer, was always a threat to push the known limits of beer and pizza consumption. 
 
According to legend, while practicing in D.C. for the game at Baltimore, Hickey asked any of the 49ers who thought they could beat the Colts with their regular offense to raise their hand. No one did.
   
San Francisco just couldn't protect its passers very well. An injured Tittle had given way to John Brodie (pictured here on the cover of Sports Illustrated), and Hickey not only wanted to give his QB more time in the pocket, but also to protect the team's investment. So he went back to his football roots, the single wing, moving Brodie off the line of scrimmage into what used to be called the tailback position. In fact, what Hickey wound up with looked an awful lot like Pop Warner's double wing, with the single wing's blocking back moved outside the end instead of in his original position inside the tackle.
    
And it worked, at least briefly. The 49ers beat the Colts twice and the Giants too, while losing to the Packers to finish the season 7-5. 
 
Brodie's passing line for the season was unimpressive:
  • 103 for 207 (49.8%), 1,111 yards, 5.5 YPA, 6 TD, 9 INT
But he did rack up 171 rushing yards on just 18 carries. Interestingly, it was third-stringer Bob Waters who threw the winning TD pass in the first game against the Colts, a 30-22 victory, on a hook-and-ladder play. Waters' season passing stats were 2/2 for 61 yards and a TD. Although Hickey had called it a "spread" formation, he was hit with an inspiration at the postgame press conference and named it the shotgun.
    
The most important immediate effect of the shotgun was to convince San Francisco to make a QB change. The relatively immobile Tittle was dealt to the Giants, where he would proceed to have a series of fine seasons overshadowed by the team's failure to win an NFL title. Meanwhile, the 49ers drafted a replacement, Billy Kilmer, who was an All-American at UCLA and, not by coincidence, a single-wing tailback.
    
In 1961, Hickey ended up rotating Brodie, Kilmer and Waters at tailback, using them to carry in the plays. San Francisco started the season 4-1, romping over the Lions and Rams, but then ran into the Bears, who moved their fierce middle linebacker Bill George onto the line of scrimmage, directly over the center. 
 
Not surprisingly, the snap became more erratic and the rush more fierce, and Chicago shut them down and shut them out. Other teams noticed, and soon Hickey had switched back to the T, with occasional shotgun snaps. The 49ers finished 7-6-1, fourth in the West, but only NFL champion Green Bay (11-3) and NFC East powers New York (10-3-1 with Tittle and Charley Conerly at QB) and Philadelphia (10-4) scored more points.
    
Brodie blossomed as a passer in 1961. Note the huge increase in his yards per attempt (an under-utilized stat you'll hear more about here during the upcoming season):
  • 155 for 283 (54.8%), 2,588 yards, 9.1 YPA, 14 TD, 12 INT
He also ran 28 times for 90 yards and 2 TDs. Kilmer threw only 34 passes, completing 19 for 286 yards, no TDs and 4 picks. But he ran 96 times for 509 yards (5.3 per carry) and 10 touchdowns, which was second in the league.  Waters, likewise, threw only 28 times (13 completions, 183 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) but ran 47 times for 233 yards and 3 more touchdowns.
    
That's 171 carries for 832 yards and 15 touchdowns from their quarterbacks, a combined total that would have ranked "BrodWatMer" fifth among the league's rushers, behind Cleveland's Jim Brown, Green Bay's Jim Taylor, N.Y. Giants' Alex Webster and Detroit fullback Nick Pietrosante. Taylor's 15 TDs led the league; Kilmer's 10 were second. 
 
Brodie was third in the league in passing yardage and led in yards per attempt, but he didn't make the Pro Bowl team; Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas took those slots. "Alley Oop" Owens had a big year, with 55 catches for 1,032 yards, but he didn't get a Pro Bowl spot either.
   
Hickey coached San Francisco again in 1962, then quit early in the '63 season after an 0-3 start. His career coaching mark was 27-27-1.
 
But he was also responsible for the shotgun's revival with the team that became synonymous with the formation: the Cowboys of the 1970s. Hickey spent most of the rest of his career as an assistant or scout with Dallas. Tom Landry called on him to install the shotgun for Roger Staubach, whose running ability contrasted with their other QBs. Staubach had a four-season run between 1971 and 1975 (he played only 4 games in 1972) where he ran 189 times for 1,228 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 12 TDs. As Staubach slowed down, the shotgun formation was used with more frequency.
 
In the Staubach Era, the Cowboys enjoyed tremendous prosperity, winning four NFC titles and two Super Bowls. Their success with the 'gun led more and more teams to adopt it, if only in passing situations. Today, almost everyone in the NFL except Paul Hackett utilizes the shotgun, and dozens of colleges run variations of Hickey's original spread and Pop Warner's double wing. The formation is used to isolate receivers in man coverage, and to execute runs taking advantage of thinned defensive fronts. 
 
There's a good argument to be made that such formations cannot work on a regular basis against NFL defenses. But as Red Hickey showed, necessity is the mother of invention – and innovation can be a mother of a success.

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