Chris Ault's (Nevada) Pistol Offense
For many here who can't do a long read or seizure at a wall of text, Kaepernick ran it at Nevada and you should see some of it today with San Francisco: offense consisted of five basic plays, each with dozens of variations and endless combinations of personnel. The alley guy could be a tight end, a fullback, an H-back or a slot receiver. Different versions of each play used three receivers, or two tight ends. "Imagine an ice cream shop with 5 flavors and 55 or 85 sundae combinations." That was the Pistol offense.
A College Offense Graduates to the Pros
By GREG BISHOP
RENO, Nev. — San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick faked the inside handoff, then jetted off right tackle, up an alley and into the end zone, 56 yards, untouched. Chris Ault watched that play, produced by both his protégé and his offense last weekend against the Green Bay Packers, from his living room. “That’s Samurai,” he told his guests.
Samurai was Kaepernick’s favorite play in college at Nevada, where Ault coached until he resigned last month. Ault’s tenure there is defined by the offense he created, the Pistol, an innovation that changed college football and this season became the new rage in the N.F.L.
On Thursday, Ault, 66, retreated to a back room at the local restaurant Napa-Sonoma, where he spread a half-dozen salt and pepper shakers across the table, into formation. His food sat nearby, uneaten. He pointed at one salt shaker, the quarterback, who must first read the left defensive end as one pepper shaker, known as the alley guy, slides in motion to the right. Should the end pinch inward, the quarterback must fake the inside handoff and follow the alley guy off right tackle, into the alley, as Kaepernick did against the Packers. Should the end remain outside the tackle, the quarterback must hand the ball off. “Ride and decide,” they called it. This is the Pistol, an offense defined by options and misdirection, at its finest. An offense that could again power the 49ers in the N.F.C. championship game Sunday against Atlanta, with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake. “I can’t tell you how many touchdowns we scored with Samurai,” Ault said. “Too many to count. People called me all week, ‘Coach, remember when he did that against Fresno?’ ”
Ever since Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against the Packers, an N.F.L. record for a quarterback, Ault had spent more than three hours each day talking about his offense and the quarterback who sped forward its evolution. Ault heard from former players and assistants, from locals and friends and reporters, from what seemed like every person he ever met. He told them all about the Pistol and about Kaepernick, the perfect marriage, Ault repeated, between system and skills. The system was born after Ault returned to the sidelines in 2004 and Nevada stumbled to a 5-7 record. Ault wanted to reinvent his offense and himself. Every day for three months, he scribbled notes, watched tape and studied other teams, including an innovative coach at New Hampshire named Chip Kelly. Ault wanted his quarterback to take snaps almost exclusively from the shotgun formation, just as Kelly’s did. Except Ault wanted his running back behind the quarterback, not beside him. One afternoon, Ault and an assistant went down to the locker room, where they used white tape and a rolled-up towel to design the Pistol. Ault was technically the system’s first quarterback. Two yards behind center felt too short. Five yards felt too long. Four yards, shorter than the shotgun but with many of the benefits, seemed perfect. Ault named his makeshift offense the Pistol, because it was shorter than the shotgun. “I needed to put our stamp on Nevada football,” he said. “So I made a stand.”
His offense consisted of five basic plays, each with dozens of variations and endless combinations of personnel. The alley guy could be a tight end, a fullback, an H-back or a slot receiver. Different versions of each play used three receivers, or two tight ends. Imagine an ice cream shop with 5 flavors and 55 or 85 sundae combinations. That was the Pistol offense. Ault started as a high school coach, and his creation incorporated many of the misdirection principles from his first offense, the Wing-T. Those who characterized the Pistol as a passing offense, or an option offense, were misguided. Ault wanted to run. And he wanted to run straight ahead. The Pistol allowed a coordinator to utilize any type of run game, whether power, zone, counter or stretch. It also placed the running back deeper behind the line of scrimmage, which allowed him to gather steam as he approached the hole and gave him room to cut back, too. Near the end of the 2005 season, Nevada upset Fresno State and captured a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship. No one at Nevada thought to trademark this new offense, no Pistol T-shirts, no hats, no key chains. “We had a signature,” Ault said. “We had a brand. We were the Pistol offense, and we missed a golden opportunity.”
Kaepernick arrived in 2007, after he declined a career in professional baseball and accepted the only football scholarship he was offered. He picked up the offense quickly and ran like a gazelle but threw the ball sidearm, his motion ugly and awkward. He studied clips of mobile quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham. But he longed to display a more balanced set of skills. “I feel like my whole life I’ve been categorized as a runner,” Kaepernick said last week. Ault drilled his pupil on shifting his release point, made Kaepernick toss hundreds of footballs over the goal posts to force his arm to extend. Kaepernick stepped in for an injured starter, as he would do in San Francisco. In 2009, Nevada became the first team in N.C.A.A. history with three 1,000-yard rushers. Kaepernick threw for more than 10,000 yards and rushed for more than 4,000. “By then, I hoped nobody else would adopt the Pistol,” Ault said. “It was my baby.”
Coaches began to arrive here anyway. They came from high schools, from junior colleges, from major universities, even from Canada. Representatives from 44 teams visited last spring alone. Ault shared his offense with every one of them. He saw Louisiana State run the Pistol in the national championship game it won after the 2007 season. He watched as the offense, his offense, became prevalent throughout college football, spreading from coast to coast.
Ault never expected the concept to bleed into the N.F.L., at least until he watched the Washington Redskins early this season. There went Robert Griffin III in the Pistol, his offense, running something similar to Samurai. The Redskins lined their alley guy up closer to the quarterback, but the idea remained the same. Washington made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. This did not seem to surprise Trent Dilfer, a retired quarterback turned ESPN analyst. “I remember making a statement, off the cuff, that this would be the next big thing,” he said. “Here you’ve got all the biggest, baddest dudes playing quarterback, and once that happened, the game had to adjust.” Dilfer viewed the Pistol as the perfect bridge offense for young quarterbacks, an easier way to transition from college into the N.F.L. Kaepernick, for instance, came to the 49ers, Dilfer said, with “a graduate-level degree in one area of quarterbacking.”
“He knows the zone read better than his coaches,” Dilfer said. The offense also marked the perfect home for a mobile quarterback, someone like Dilfer’s ESPN colleague Steve Young. The 49ers selected Kaepernick in the second round in 2011, behind a list of quarterbacks that included Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. Harbaugh had attended Nevada’s pro day, worked out Kaepernick himself, even had Kaepernick throw into the wind.
Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, had visited Nevada when Roman worked for Harbaugh at Stanford, to glean insight into Ault’s offense. Roman said last week that he “loved the concept,” but neither he nor Harbaugh told Ault they planned to use it in San Francisco. Some aspects of the offense confused even the 49ers. Frank Gore did not like the offense at first, saying it was not real football. He said he first noticed the Pistol at Oregon, where Kelly’s quarterbacks operated from the shotgun, a major difference. Tight end Delanie Walker said the N.F.L. would “evolve into the read-option pretty soon.” Nose tackle Ricky Jean-Francois called it a phase. Dilfer, as adept at X’s and O’s as any analyst in football, said he expected teams with mobile quarterbacks to feature the Pistol in up to 30 percent of their base offense, a high percentage for any one concept. He said the Pistol allowed for better footwork for quarterbacks than the shotgun. He said it aided offensive timing and would have a greater effect in future seasons when teams started to further incorporate the play-action pass. The near future of the N.F.L., Dilfer continued, would feature two schools of thought on quarterback play, professional football’s version of Republicans and Democrats. “You’re going to have your traditional quarterbacks,” he said. “And you’re to have another generation of quarterbacks that can do all the passing things and bring another dimension. I’m not talking about scramblers. I’m talking about a quarterback-driven run game. Like the Pistol.” The offense’s obvious drawback, that it can put a mobile quarterback in harm’s way, can be mitigated by play-calling, Ault said. Instead of calling a run play for a quarterback 15 times a game the way Nevada did, an N.F.L. coordinator would dial up more like five runs. Of course, tell that to the Redskins, who saw Griffin limp his way through a playoff loss.
“The Pistol is here to stay,” Ault said. “It’s not like the wishbone. You’ll still have guys like Andrew Luck who can drop back, throw the thing, sit in the pocket. But I’m going to tell you, he could run the Pistol. He’d be great in the Pistol. So would Aaron Rodgers.” After lunch, Ault drove to Mackay Stadium and reminisced. He talked about one run against Fresno, in Kaepernick’s senior season, when Kaepernick felt the blitz, evaded it and chugged down the left sideline before he vaulted from the 3-yard line into the end zone — “the best run I’ve seen in 28 years of coaching,” Ault said. He talked about the pass Kaepernick threw, on the run, 55 yards downfield, that hit his tight end in the face mask. “Every time he touched the ball, whether he gained yardage or not, you could just feel the electricity,” Ault said. “Especially when we called Samurai. When he got outside the tackle, with those long, loping legs of his, well, they haven’t caught him yet.”
When Ault stepped down after Nevada’s bowl loss this season, after too many games in which the Pistol helped the Wolf Pack gain 500-plus yards and score 50-plus points and Nevada still won or lost by single digits, he was careful not to use the word “retired.” In recent weeks, a few N.F.L. teams called. Kelly, meanwhile, left Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles. For the Pistol, an offense that started with white tape and a gray-haired quarterback in the Nevada locker room, the possibilities now seem endless — for Ault, for Kaepernick, for Harbaugh, from Washington to San Francisco. N.F.L., meet Samurai.
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