Why is the shotgun formation so detrimental to the NFL?

One of the biggest criticisms of a rookie is that they “only have experience in the shotgun,” or they got big stats “because of the shotgun.”

My questions:

  1. If the shotgun produces such huge stats in college, why is it suddenly a seldom used formation in the NFL? I’ve heard the common arguments about “nfl players are better” but does it make that much of a difference? Could somebody explain, specifically, why the shotgun is worse than other formations in the NFL?

  2. Is the shotgun that much different than taking the snap under center? The way people talk, it’s like a top college athlete would be unable to take a snap, ever, in their lives, no matter how much practice they get. It’s just a hand off. Receivers, defensive backs and running backs are given extra credit for being able to catch, but quarterbacks are given no credit for being able to accept a handoff?

Someone a lot more knowledgable about football should come along soon, but here’s my take:

The thing about the shotgun is that when you see it, you know it’s going to be a pass. (Well, except for the occasional QB draw or Statue of Liberty, but that’s desperation tomfoolery, not what the formation is supposed to do.) The advantage to this is that the QB can get a better read on the defense and has more time to scan for receivers and get the pass off. The disadvantage is that since the defense knows it’s going to be a pass, there’s no way to keep them honest. Essentially, this is an open-field version of the goal line stand. No tricks, no gimmicks, whichever side has the better 11 men is going to prevail.

The problem with racking up lots of yards with the shotgun in college isn’t the formation per se, it’s the level of opposition that would allow such stats with obvious pass plays. Or else the team’s passing game in general was so dominant that he couldn’t help but dominate (IIRC this was the rap against Vinny Testaverde). Remember that the range of abilities among college teams is vastly greater than in the pro ranks, and with no mechanism whatsoever in the NCAA preventing complete mismatches, slaughter games are commonplace.

In all, it’s not unreasonable for a prospect who’s dominated on a powerful pass-oriented college team to have a lot to prove in the NFL.

Another thing to consider is the college season vs. the pro season. College pretty much finishes up in November, before the bad weather hits. Running the shotgun all year in the SEC is fine, but trying doing that in New York or Cleveland. You’re going to have some crappy weather games and trying to run a spread attack in a blizzard just won’t work well.

In college the talent is mostly on the side of the offense, high scoring games bring in fans so why train a good CB when you can have a good WR? The NFL has a much larger pool of talent so the defense improves greatly, with a much better front 7 and without a fullback busting up the shotgun is only a matter of time. Only great QB’s with good release time and solid nerves (Manning, Favre etc.)use it with any regularity and they get busted up if things aren’t clicking on the offense. Would you risk one of your most talented players to be ‘cute’. The shotgun is also popular with QB’s that can run and every year I hear about this new Vick-Jackson-Young that is a throwing AND running threat…till they get beat down a few times then their speed is used only to scramble and the D stops caring so much.

The farther back you go the greater the chance of something going wrong, the positions you mentioned at least have the thrower looking directly at them when they deliver the ball. But it’s really for the reasons I’ve already listed.

The thing about taking snaps from center is that it’s a skill that a QB has to be able to do without thinking about it. With their eyes figuratively closed, since they’re looking at the defense at the time. If a college QB never takes snaps from center, it’s one more thing they have to learn in order to be an NFL QB.

Another thing is that a handoff from under center involves the QB turning his back on the defense. The same thing applies to a play-action fake, but then the QB has to then turn back, look up-field, and already know where his receivers should be, and he has to make a read right away. For a passer used to surveying the field uninterrupted from pre-snap to release, it can be a difficult thing to become proficient at.

A pro-set involves route combinations unfamiliar to a spread-QB out of college, too. They’re used to having five receiving options all out in front of them, and a sixth option to run with it. There will be fewer receivers, and some routes will be coming out of the backfield (something they might not be used to) and in the flats, outside their field of vision.

Oh, another thing. It’s not like being a shotgun-only QB in college is some unforgivable sin. A team has to take the addition learning time in to account, and top draft picks are usually expected to contribute sooner than later.

It’s been covered pretty well thus far, but really there are 2 questions at issue here.

  1. Why is the shotgun and the under center so much different?

  2. Why don’t NFL teams use the shotgun more?

The first one has been hammered out pretty well. It takes a lot of practice and experience to take a snap from under center and get to depth quickly and predictably. In the NFL everything centers on precise timing and plays are diagrammed so that the QB reaches the proper depth moments before the WR becomes open and makes a break. Even under-center college QBs struggle with their footwork and pacing, but the hill is even tougher to climb for shotgun QBs.

Additionally reading defenses is vastly different when you are dropping back versus sitting back in the shot gun. It’s a challenge for under-center QBs to see the entire field when they are dropping back, often plays are scripted to only allow the QB 1 or 2 reads. In the shotgun the QB usually reads the entire field. He has more options and can be less precise.

There’s a technical aspect too, throwing while standing still is a much different skill that throwing while planting after a drop back. The weight shift and arm action can be much different and some QBs lose their mechanics when asked to throw from uncomfortable positions. Asking a shotgun QB to throw while dropping back is like asking a traditional QB to throw every pass while rolling out. It’s a much different talent.

There’s a big difference beyond just the passing game too. A QB dropping back gets a much different view of the pass rush and the feel of the pocket. Teaching pocket presence isn’t something that is easy to do, many players either have it or they don’t. With a shotgun QB you really have no idea if he’ll have a pocket presence until you see him playing live, and that’s a risk teams prefer to avoid. Physically taking the snap can be an issue too. Rex Grossman came from Spurrier’s spread offense and throughout his career he’s had issues fumbling the snap. Fumbled snaps are an absolute dealbreaker for coaches. It’s not especially complicated, but in the heat of battle coaches want their QBs acting on muscle memory. Shotgun QBs won’t work that way. Finally the entire experience with the running game changes with a drop back. Handing off and executing correct play action fakes is an art form into itself and shotgun QBs are pretty much foreign to it.

The second question posed above is much more debatable and harder to pin down. Some NFL teams have had success with the spread offense and heavy use of the shotgun but they don’t use it as exclusively as the college teams tend to. I think it all comes down to pass rush. Pass rush is a mixed bag in college and most NCAA teams use an inordinate amount of blitzes compared to the pros. Their margin of error is higher and they can take more risks. The fact that most college teams struggle to get a pass rush with just 4 men and the fact that they use much less trickery and variety in their pass rushes means that offenses can more confidently dismiss the running game and plan their QB in a predictable spot. In the NFL that will get a QB killed.

The running game is so important to NFL teams not because of the yards it gains itself but in the way it keeps the defense honest and slows the pass rush. Teams that can run the ball force defenses to think twice about stunting and twisting on the line and make blitzes riskier than normal. Shotgun spread offenses marginalize the run to such a great degree that a defense barely has to scheme for it.

Having a QB under center gives the offense the most options and makes the defense worry about the most possibilities. With players being so physically gifted and well coached in the pros the difference usually comes down to play calling and execution. Limiting your options as an offense is playing with a huge handicap.

I think this is the main thing. Defense in college is generally inept so you can get away with it. As often as not a pro level defense will eat your lunch if you go one-dimensional.

They’re actually confounding two separate aspects - the spread (which is how the linemen/receivers line up) and the shotgun (how the quarterback lines up). The two usually go together, but not neccessarily.

The inflated stats in college systems are more due to the spread aspect than the shotgun. The spread basically limits the offense to passing or draws (QB runs), but is successful because its far easier at the college level to find five good receivers than five good cover corners. The spread also usually goes with wider offensive linemen gaps, which makes it easier to pass block. The advantages to the spread are nullified in the NFL though - the WR/CB inequity is much closer, and the defenders are all much faster (both the coverage guys, and the guys rushing the passer). Along those lines, quarterbacks can’t run as much (which is one of the dings on a guy like Tebow - constantly running for 4 yards worked at Florida, but he won’t last long doing it in the NFL). Having a running game is much more important in the NFL - few teams can get by without it.

The shotgun aspect is that it makes it easier for the QB to read the entire field (so he can take advantage of having 5 receivers, all of them are options), but it also screams pass. It’s not as easy for a RB to run out of the shotgun - either he’s taking the handoff at less than full speed, or he’s really far behind the line of scrimmage.

Honestly, the “he’s a shotgun QB, he won’t succeed in the NFL” is a bit dumb. Drew Brees was a shotgun QB in college. I’d say he learned okay. It’s just that playing in a spread/shotgun can inflate one’s college stats, and leave them very unprepared to deal with a pro offense - it’s all about projecting a guy to the next level, and that can be difficult to do sometimes when he spent all of college throwing up huge stats in a system he won’t be able to run in the NFL.

It’s not as rare as you probably think (at least, not in recent years). In 2008, NFL offenses worked out of the shotgun on 32% of all plays (up from 27% in 2007), so that’s basically one play out of every three. In the AFC, only one team (in '08) used the shotgun on less than 20% of its plays (Houston). A few teams (most notably New England) use the shotgun as their base formation.

Overall, it’s not worse. On average, NFL teams perform better out of the shotgun just about any way you slice it (early/late, leading/trailing, etc.). They even run better out of the shotgun (largely, no doubt, because defenses are responding to the shotgun by anticipating a pass, but but success through misdirection is still success). Perhaps the only thing that the shotgun is inherently worse at is power running. Again, this is on average. Some teams (and some QBs) perform better from under center, for whatever reasons.

Clearly, I think, NFL teams are coming around to the idea that the shotgun has previously been underutilized. Until just a couple of years ago, there were still a few teams that used the shotgun basically (or even literally) never; now everyone uses it at least some non-trivial part of the time. Part of that might have to with there being more college players entering the league who are familiar with it, but I doubt that accounts for the majority of the shift.

This I’m not too knowledgeable about, but I would speculate that a lot of the issue with shotgun Quarterback prospects from college is that they’re usually not just “shotgun Quarterbacks,” but spread offense Quarterbacks. Lots of NFL teams use lots of shotgun formations, but no one in the NFL runs a true spread offense. (On preview, I see that magnus touched on this as well.)

The restrictions on passing defense in recent years makes passing in general more productive, and hence, the shotgun becomes more useful. I’m not sure NFL teams are discovering anything new so much as adapting to changing conditions.

I’m sure it’s both. Yes, the benefit to incorporating the shotgun into one’s regular offense would have been smaller (or possibly even non-existent) at some point in the past, but it’s not as if the formation’s expansion has tracked it’s actual utility perfectly. The passing game has been getting more efficient for decades now, not just since illegal contact rules were reinforced a few years ago, and it’s unlikely that the relatively small increase in passing efficiency since the new rules emphasis is the difference between Shotgun = Efficient, and Shotgun = Inefficient.

So teams are adapting, but slowly enough that they could also be said to be discovering.

I don’t think the changes are really that profound. The restriction on hitting the QB has become more stringent, but the limitations on contact with the WRs hasn’t changed all that much. While the no contact after 5 yards rule is new, they’ve also cut back on opportunities for WRs to push off and manhandle DBs ala Michael Irvin. Teams run more picks than they used to and it’s a rule rarely enforced, but there isn’t any rule change or point of emphasis there, teams are just exploiting it now.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Run and Shoot was all the rage and it’s essentially the same thing as the spread offense. The spread offense in college allows the QB to run more, but in the Pros the Run and Shoot and Spread are virtually interchangeable. I’d say that the re-adoption of the Spread is more the natural ebb and flow of the trends than it is a reaction to new rules. Before the Run and Shoot the Air Coryell was used by several teams and it’s still used today in some forms. Prior to that variations of the T formation and Single Wing made common use of motion, shotguns and 4 and 5 receiver sets (though usually they were RBs motioning out and working from the wing as oppose to slot).

There’s always been a notable minority of pass heavy and shotgun schemes and it seems that more than anything the labels that get used changed more than anything else.

FYI: A shotgun is not the same as an empty backfield. Most shotguns have a RB in them, and NFL teams run from the formation about 10-15% of the time. Plenty of college teams use the shotgun as a run formation.
To add to MagnusBlitz’ excellent response: It’s easy to conflate all “shotgun” formations as if they were the same, and certainly the lazier TV analysts do this. But there are significant differences among them. As noted, New England basically ran shotgun formations on 2/3 of their plays in their 18-1 year. That’s not a gimmick or a change of pace or a fluke.

But the shotgun as used by NFL teams is very, very different from the spread-option stuff that Florida/WV and the like run in college. It’s actually closer to the Run-and-Shoot used by SMU/Hawaii (and, I think, Purdue unde Joe Tiller), though only relatively.
A big part of the difference is the much better, and much faster DEs and LBs in the NFL, even moreso than the better DBs. Simply put, a college LT can be expected to hold off a college DE for about 4-5 seconds. A pro LT generally is expected to hold off his man only 3-4 seconds. (most teams’ internal grading systems do not blame OL that give up a sack after 5 seconds.) That one-second difference is the difference between a QB getting hit by a rusher (before or after the throw) 5 times a game and getting hit by a rusher 15 times a game. The human body cannot survive the latter long.

Update: Now the shotgun is seen as a savior for the Rams:
Rams need to utilize Bradford in the shotgun

They were when enacted. Defense always catches up after a few years, which they have once again. (IMO at least.)

Why is the shotgun formation so detrimental to the NFL?

It isn’t.


From what I remember from watching the NFL in the 1970s when Landy/Dallas Cowboys started using the shotgun on passing downs, NFL coaches are afraid of possible bad consequences, sometimes too much. Announcers of the period would wonder how often a QB would fumble a snap or the center would make a bad snap. NFL coaches try to minimize mistakes, especially in that era of run/run/run-punt if you have to. It sometimes takes years, even decades, for coaches to realize those fears are overblown. As it turned out Landry’s Cowboy teams were pretty good and it helped it gain acceptance, although I remember Don Shula of the Dolphins several years later ridiculing the shotgun when Bills coach Chuck Knox said he would use it. If some lousy team had tried it, it would have stayed in the closet much longer. NFL coaches are copycats.

Lots of coaches figure it is better to lose using the same system everyone uses rather than try something new and get ridiculed for trying something knew since “everyone knows this how to play the game”.

This seems odd. Wouldn’t the NFL defense be the same people as the college defense? Why would it be easier to learn to be a better defender than a better quarterback?

In the NFL, everyone is a freak of nature. At the college level there’s a huge variance in ability, even on the rosters of the very best programs. A college roster is what, 70 guys? A great year will see 5 of those players drafted into the NFL. That means a great four years would see 20 of 85 players good enough to make the pros. This is being quite generous, IMO.

Given that most of a college team is full of what would be considered total scrubs in the NFL, where do those players go? As a general rule, you put your best players on offense. Like, for example, when you see a DB drop an interception you hear the announcers say “if he could catch he’d be a WR.”

Putting the best of your scrubs on offense leaves the total scrubs filling out the defense. Thus, college defenses can’t compete with college offenses.