49er's pistol offense demands defenses' respect
Associated Press Photo / Tim Dunn, Reno Gazette-Jo
Then Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick watches as head coach Chris Ault gives instruction on the pistol offense during practice in this 2010 photo. Ault developed the pistol, the most innovative offensive scheme football has seen in decades. It has found its way into the NFL where Kaepernick, now San Francisco's starting QB, runs it with great success for the 49ers.
White tape on the floor of the locker room. A rolled-up towel to simulate a football.
And out of that came an offense that could win the San Francisco 49ers a Super Bowl.
"The tough part was there was nothing to compare it to," Ault said. "It was a huge gamble at the time."
It was also the kind of gamble most football coaches don't take. They're a conservative bunch by nature, not terribly eager to risk their reputations on unproven ideas that may or may not work.
Line up the quarterback 4 yards behind center? Not a chance.
Put the running back behind the quarterback instead of next to him as in the shotgun? Nope.
Add in a read-option to allow the quarterback an opportunity to run? No way.
Ault, though, didn't have much choice when he began tinkering in the locker room along with an assistant coach. He had returned to coaching the prior year, only to go a disappointing 5-7, and he needed something to make the most out of the recruits he was left with after the bigger schools made their picks.
The pistol -- named because it was a shortened version of the shotgun -- was born in 2005, and Nevada went on to go 9-3 and win a conference championship. Ault tossed in the read-option two years later, just in time for a quarterback named Colin Kaepernick.
His Wolf Pack began to win -- and win a lot. Suddenly, other coaches started looking at what was happening and began traveling to Reno to see what this new-fangled offense was all about.
Now Ault is being hailed as a coach who helped change the offensive landscape of football.
"I never had any vision of it being used in the pros," Ault said. "The NFL is a copycat league. People don't do stuff like this."
They are now, with several NFL teams incorporating elements of the pistol in their offenses. The Washington Redskins probably used it most this year to suit the talents of Robert Griffin III, and the 49ers began using it more and more to allow Kaepernick to run when he took over at quarterback.
"I think it will have staying power in the league," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "The beauty of it, and part of the genius of it, is it's such a simple idea. It goes back to Nevada and coach Ault out there. You can run your whole offense on it. You aren't limited to an option type attack out of it."
Whether the Ravens can stop the read-option that Kaepernick runs so effectively may be the key to the Super Bowl. But the problem with stopping Kaepernick from running the ball, as the Atlanta Falcons did so successfully, is that it opens up the running game for a back such as Frank Gore.
And that, says Ault, was the basic plan of the offense to begin with.
"We designed it for that," he said. "We want the running back to carry the football, that's the guy you're paying, so to speak, to run the ball. There was never a thought in my mind our quarterback is going to rush for this and that on our read play. The first thing we want is the ball in the running back's belly. Then the play takes care of itself."
The concept of the pistol is that the ball gets to the running back quicker than it would out of a shotgun or if the quarterback is lined up under center, allowing him to run north and south more quickly. For passing plays, the quarterback is just 2 yards closer to the line of scrimmage than in the shotgun, giving him a clear view of the field.
The benefit of adding the read option is that it forces the defensive end to make a decision on which way to go. If he commits the wrong way or hesitates for a split second, the hole opens up.
"They can do so much and do so many things," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They can pass out of it. They hand the ball off. There are so many things they can do with it. They can even bring in the trick plays. You have to stay fundamentally sound to defend so many things and play."
If the pistol gets the respect of the defense, it's also now getting some respect from the 49ers' Gore. His role seemed reduced after Kaepernick took over for an injured Alex Smith at midseason, but Gore ran for 119 yards against the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs and then scored a pair of touchdowns, including the winner, in the NFC championship game against the Falcons.
"I am good with it. I just have to learn to be patient and know when I am getting the ball," Gore said. "That's the only concern about the pistol. I have always been a patient back. If you watch me run the ball before this, the pistol, it's just knowing you are going to get the ball, that's it."
For the 66-year-old Ault, who resigned as head coach at Nevada after last season, validation doesn't necessarily come in the form of being copied by the NFL. It came when his team averaged 505 yards a game over the past five seasons, and his running backs broke records.
He does admit, however, to being proud both of what he developed and the way it is being used by some of the best coaches in the business.
"To see the teams jumping into the pistol is exciting," said Ault, who will be at the Superdome for the game. "Being in the NFL tells us something about how well it works."
Ault most certainly isn't done teaching the pistol just yet. He says he's open to offers from teams that might want him to run it for them in the pros.
"A lot of fun things are happening right now. We're talking to a lot of people," he said. "If there was somebody who thought I could be of value to them I certainly would listen to what they have to say."
He may be doing a lot of listening if the 49ers ride the pistol to a Super Bowl championship.