For years and years in the NFL, quarterbacks spent most of their time under center, taking the snap directly from the center and then either turning to hand it off to the running back, or dropping back to pass. More recently, the NFL has seen a shift towards a passing-heavy league, with quarterbacks spending more time in the shotgun. Aligned five yards back from the center, the quarterback gets a much better view of the defense from the shotgun and has an easier job recognizing coverage schemes. The shotgun also takes some of the three, five and seven step footwork out of the mind of the quarterback, making it easier for him to focus on finding an open receiver.
But the shotgun restricts the running concepts you can use from that formation. With the quarterback under center, the running back can line up directly behind him and go either way. But in the shotgun, the running back has to align either side of the quarterback, meaning he can only really run in one direction with blocks in front of him. Running from the shotgun also brings up timing issues, with the running back getting the ball much quicker than he would if the quarterback took the snap from under center.
Enter the pistol formation. In the pistol, the quarterback lines up three yards behind the center, with the running back lined up directly behind him.
This combines the best of both worlds. The quarterback gets to stand back from the line of scrimmage and get a better view of the defense, while still having the running back lined up directly behind him. That allows the offense to run their full quota of running plays in either direction. The offense can also run their standard drop back passing game, with only the quarterback having to make slight adjustments to his footwork and timing. With the full running package available to the offense, it’s easier for them to sell play-action fakes. Because the running back is lined up behind the quarterback, the offense can still call for play-action bootlegs that have been so effective in the NFL for decades.
Another benefit of the pistol formation is that it hides the running back from the view of the defense.
As you can see there, with the quarterback stood up, he blocks the view of the defenders as they attempt to key in on the running back. Hiding the back can cause hesitation in the defense as they have to wait to see which direction he’s going, which the offense can use to its advantage.
This is a two-way street though. The running back’s view is somewhat blocked by the quarterback. But the back has the advantage of knowing what play is going to be, whereas the defense, obviously, doesn’t. Inside runs are slightly more difficult to execute effectively, but the Redskins managed to adjust by getting the quarterback to toss the ball to the back and get out of the way quickly, giving the back a clearer vision of the field.
As you can see above, the pistol also brings the fullback position back into the game. With a high percentage of the NFL favoring a shotgun, passing offense over a traditional under center offense, the fullback was becoming a thing of the past. There’s no place in the backfield for a fullback in the shotgun. But in the pistol, he can line up either side of the quarterback.
The pistol formation does come with it’s downsides. Obviously, it takes some time to adjust the timing and footwork of everyone in the backfield, but those issues can be overcome with repetitions in practice. But short yard plays like quarterback sneaks and fullback dives aren’t effective from the pistol.
Even with that in mind, I still believe the pistol formation is the way forward in the NFL. We saw a number of teams run plays out of it last year, some more than others. But I don’t think it will be long until we see the NFL embrace it as the league looks to maintain its running game, while shifting towards a passing philosophy.