A Change in Identity
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
When Peyton Manning lines up in the shotgun, the defense, the 80,000 partisans at Mile High and a national television audience all know what’s coming.
Manning threw the ball 659 times for NFL records of 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns last season in passing the Broncos to an AFC championship. Denver lined up in the shotgun 59 percent of the time and Manning threw all but 154 of his passes out of that formation.
But that wasn’t the original intent of the shotgun.
When Red Hickey hatched the idea in 1961 as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the shotgun was a running formation. It was driven by the legs of the quarterback, not his arm.
Hickey dabbled with it in the 1960 season finale against the Baltimore Colts, having quarterbacks John Brodie and Bobby Waters take shotgun snaps and run with the football. The 49ers upset Johnny Unitas and his mighty Colts that day, 30-22.
Hickey decided the future of his offense would be quarterbacks who could move. So that offseason the 49ers traded away immobile quarterback Y.A. Tittle and used a first-round draft pick on mobile UCLA quarterback Bill Kilmer.
After a 1-1 start to the 1961 season, Hickey went all in on the shotgun. He began alternating his three young quarterbacks, using them as messengers to carry in the plays.
The 49ers shocked the Detroit Lions in the third week, 49-0, with all 49 of the points coming on the ground. Then Hickey’s shotgun ripped the Los Angeles Rams, 35-0, and toppled the Minnesota Vikings, 38-24, for a share of first place in the West at 4-1.
“We didn’t have the material to beat Baltimore, Detroit or many of the other ball clubs with a regular offense,” Hickey said. “That’s why I went to the shotgun -- do anything that would improve your chances of winning.
“We beat the Rams. We beat Detroit. We were scoring at will. We kept the ball all the time. We controlled it.”
Kilmer set an NFL record that still stands for quarterbacks with three consecutive 100-yard games rushing. In those three victories, the 49ers threw the ball 61 times for 566 yards and a touchdown. Their three quarterbacks ran the ball 57 times for 520 yards and 11 scores.
But the bumps and bruises were adding up. The tackling of quarterbacks began taking a toll. Waters would miss six games the rest of the way and Kilmer three games. Waters sprained a knee in 1961, Kilmer suffered a broken leg in 1962 and Brodie a broken arm in 1963.
And the shotgun was dead. Hickey resigned in October 1963.
Hickey moved to Dallas in the personnel department -- and it would be the Cowboys who resurrected his shotgun formation in 1975. Dallas had a quarterback who fit Hickey’s prototype in Roger Staubach but by then coach Tom Landry had converted the shotgun into a passing offense.
The most famous play in Cowboys history -- Staubach’s Hail Mary to Drew Pearson in the final seconds to win a 1975 playoff game at Minnesota -- was a product of the shotgun formation.
All teams eventually adopted the shotgun and many of them now use it as a base formation in what has become a pass-first league. NFL quarterbacks threw more passes for more yards and more touchdowns in 2013 than any season in history. Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore and San Diego all threw more passes out of the shotgun formation in 2013 than the Broncos.
But Hickey, who passed away in 2006, would have loved to have seen what the shotgun could have done as a run-first offense. There certainly would have been a place in the NFL for Tim Tebow in this offense.
“It was my thought all along that I’d eventually get me three tailbacks (at quarterback), school would have been out,” Hickey told me back in the 1980s. “They never would have stopped it. I regretted the fact I didn’t last long enough to get the type of people I wanted to use in that formation.”
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Courtesy of Indianapolis Colts