Introducing the Run and Shoot
The 2019 season is officially underway, and for the Navy football program, it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Navy opened fall camp last week looking to knock the taste of a 3-10 season out of their mouths. It isn’t something to which the Navy program is accustomed, having finished under .500 only twice over the last 16 years. Nine winning seasons have come with Ken Niumatalolo at the helm, but despite his long track record of success, Navy’s all-time winningest head coach hasn’t been content to assume that 2018 was merely a fluke. Instead, he instituted several changes in the offseason to revamp his program both on and off the field.
One of the more eye-catching adjustments that Niumatalolo has made is in the passing game. Navy's veteran head coach felt that it needed an overhaul; to that end, he hired Billy Ray Stutzmann from Hawaii as an offensive assistant with the task of teaching the Midshipmen elements of the Run and Shoot.
Navy has traditionally been one of the most efficient passing teams in the nation; they don't throw much, but they are effective when they do. That wasn't the case in 2018. The Mids completed less than 42 percent of their passing attempts a year ago. Malcolm Perry has received the lion's share of the blame from fans, but while he admittedly struggled, the truth is that none of Navy's quarterbacks were able to do much better. Zach Abey completed only 43 percent of his passes. Garret Lewis connected on just under 45 percent. The three combined for 947 passing yards, the position's lowest output at Navy since 2008. The problem was consistent between all three quarterbacks, which would suggest that there was a larger issue than just the person throwing the ball. Indeed, there was.
When asked about the decision to incorporate Run and Shoot principles into the offense, Ken Niumatalolo mentioned that teams have been putting more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. There is truth to that; the other service academies have done that against Navy for years, and some AAC opponents, like Memphis, have begun to do the same. However, that doesn't tell the whole story as to why the passing game needed to be revitalized.
Most of the Navy passing game over the last 15 years has been based on play action. It makes sense considering that Navy runs the ball on almost every play. It's usually effective, too, with receivers running wide open downfield after defenders overplay the option. But what happens when defenders no longer bite the cheese?
If Navy’s troubles were rooted in defenses overplaying the run, then the usual play-action plays would have worked as they always have. They didn’t. Over the second half of last season, opposing defenses didn't really stack the box against Navy. They didn't need to. The Mids weren't running the ball effectively, and teams became less aggressive as a result. Rather than sell out to stop the option, defenses had their secondaries back off and watch for play action to prevent being caught off guard and allowing the big play. Navy was doing enough self-destructing running the ball that opposing teams didn't want to give up anything easy. As a result, the Mids weren't getting open receivers downfield, which is why the passing game struggled regardless of who was under center. The need for 2019, then, is to find a way to create open receivers that doesn't rely on play-action; something that works even when the option isn’t clicking.
The Run and Shoot is a logical addition to the offense for a few reasons.
-- In its most basic form, the Run and Shoot uses the same formations as Navy's spread option. While the scheme’s modern incarnations are typically run out of the shotgun, that wasn’t always the case. In Glenn Ellison’s seminal book on the Run and Shoot, he diagrams its base formation. You may recognize it:
The run and shoot uses the same formations as Navy, with the double-slot spread coupled with motion to either trips L or trips R. It can be integrated into the Navy offense while still looking the same to a defense.
-- Blocking in the Run and Shoot is also similar to what Navy already does. Again, from Ellison:
Offenses that pass from a pocket split their attack into two phases— their running game and their passing game. The setting up of the quarterback screams “Pass” to every defender on the field. Even though pocket-passing teams often fake the ball to a runner before setting up in the pocket, still the fake wards off detection for only a moment, after which all defenders spring into anti-aircraft action. The Run and Shoot offense did not split its attack— it was just one game, running and passing performed anywhere anytime with no distinguishing clue to distinguish run or pass.
Navy has always employed the same philosophy. The offensive line doesn’t form a pocket on the Mids' pass plays. The tackles don’t take a giant step backward with their outside foot on the snap. Instead, their first step is forward, just as it would be on a running play. It makes sense if you think about it; how much time do you want to spend on an entirely different blocking technique for passing plays when you run the ball 85 percent of the time? The learning curve for the offensive linemen isn’t as steep in the Run and Shoot as it would be with other passing philosophies.
-- Preseason chatter about Navy passing more is hardly new, but it rarely makes the transition from the chalkboard to the field. Such talk is usually the result of having a quarterback with a strong arm, but everyone quickly realizes that there are several factors other than the quarterback that determine a team's success in throwing the ball. For Navy, that means sacks. The Mids gave up 20 sacks in 2018, which doesn't sound too bad until you consider that they only threw 129 passes. That kind of ratio is an argument for throwing fewer passes, not more.
The Run and Shoot is an excellent way to improve on these numbers. Because most of Navy's passes are based on play-action, they tend to be slow-developing. The longer a quarterback stands in the backfield, the more likely it is that someone will get to him; the problem is made worse when receivers are unable to get open. In the Run and Shoot, the plays are designed to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly. He typically takes a three-step drop, reads a defender, and throws. The ball shouldn't be in the backfield long enough for defenders to tackle the quarterback.
As much as it makes sense to integrate the Run and Shoot into the Navy offense, it is not without risk. Perry has shown passing ability in practice but has yet to demonstrate reliable accuracy in a game. The Run and Shoot also requires quarterbacks and receivers to make the same read of the defense. Can Navy practice it enough for both groups to consistently be on the same page? Would doing so take so many reps that it takes away option reps, leading to the same problems as last year? These are valid concerns, although I think they can be mitigated somewhat.
Navy isn't completely reconstructing their entire offense. They aren't going to start throwing the ball 40 times per game. At media day, Niumatalolo held up the 2015 Military Bowl as his ideal vision for the offense. In that game, the Mids ran for 417 yards and threw for 173 yards on 10-of-18 passing in a 44-28 win over Pitt. Navy isn't necessarily looking to pass more, at least not by an unprecedented amount. Instead, they are changing the thinking behind what they do when they choose to pass.
Combining the option with the Run and Shoot has the potential to make both elements more effective because they both force defenses to simplify. The threat of the Run and Shoot makes it difficult for defenses to use some of the more complicated stunts that they employ against the option. Most option teams see a lot of man coverage when they pass, which should make the quarterback's reads fairly straightforward most of the time. Because defenses simplify their pass coverage against option teams, Navy shouldn't need to incorporate every element of the Run and Shoot for the offense to be effective. The staple "Go," "Choice," and "Switch" plays, plus the existing play-action passes, have the potential to be very effective.
In fact, spread option fans will tell you that the Run and Shoot is at the root of the offense. Here is Georgia Southern running the Run and Shoot "Switch" concept against Furman in 1985:
Here is the "Go" concept from the same game:
Georgia Southern's offense wasn't even described as the "spread option" at the time. They called it the Run and Shoot.
Georgia Southern, the defending Division I-AA champion, has used the run- and-shoot for two years. The Eagles (8-2) are averaging 485.9 yards a game. They have rushed for 2,995 yards, a 299.5 average, and passed for 1,864, a 186.4 average.
''We`ve taken the run-and-shoot and put it in reverse,'' said sports information director Mark McClellan. ''We run more than we shoot.''
While the Run and Shoot as a standalone offense is rare today, several offenses at every level incorporate its ideas. Spread option offenses like Navy's have a long, shared history with it. What the Mids are doing isn't unprecedented, and as they look to bounce back to their winning ways, it helps to have a blueprint.