Introducing the Pistol Offense

At his introductory press conference, new Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre indicated that he would be bringing the pistol offense with him from San Jose State. 

“We will run out of a pistol alignment,” MacIntyre said. “Basically we are in the gun; that allows us to be able to run downhill runs, inside zone, outside zone, gap and power. We’re also able to get the ball out of our hands quick, able to throw the ball to our receivers for all of the bubble screens, quick screens, so a spread principle.

“I want to be able to have a run playaction conflict on the defense. Therefore, when I have that hard downhill run, I get the linebackers in on it. Our [San Jose State] tight end was up for the Mackey Award, he was the leading tight end in the WAC so we were able to utilize him.”

So, what is the pistol offense?

The pistol offense is an offensive strategy developed in 2004 by Chris Ault, head coach at the University of Nevada. It is a hybrid of the traditional shotgu and single back offenses. In the pistol offense, also commonly referred to as the “pistol formation”, the quarterback lines up four yards behind the center rather than seven yards, as with the shotgun formation. The running back lines up three yards directly behind the quarterback, as opposed to next to him as in the shotgun.

In the pistol formation, the quarterback is close enough to the line of scrimmage to be able to read the defense and far enough back to give him extra time and a better vision of the field just like in the shotgun.

Why it works … The pistol formation can be used in a variety of ways, because the quarterback is closer to the line of scrimmage than a traditional shotgun formation. This allows him to see more easily over the line and make down field reads. He will also get the ball snapped to him faster, which can alter timing patterns greatly for a preparing defense. The pistol offense can effectively use draw plays, counters, and options using three wide receiver formations or multiple tight ends combined with a fullback for pass protection. In a pistol formation, hand-offs occur 2-3 yards closer to the line of scrimmage than in the shotgun. This can make for a more effective running game, but may limit pass efficiency due to quicker recognition of play-action by linebackers and defensive backs. This formation works well with dual threat quarterbacks who can both throw and run.

While the pistol had its origins in Reno, it has been adopted at different times, in one form or another, by dozens of BCS schools, including Arizona State, Oregon, and Washington from the Pac-12. The pistol has also been used in the NFL by a number of teams, including the Washington Redskins, who have taken advantage of the talents of Robert Griffin III by way of the pistol.

Mike McIntyre, while at San Jose State, emphasized the pistol. Jimmy Durkin, who covers San Jose State football for the Mercury News, told Adam at that the Spartans have lined up in the pistol formation 80 percent of the time this season.

“They go under center every once and a while, mostly when they get into third-and-short,” Durkin said. “They get a fullback in there a little bit here and there with some of their heavy packages. But for the most part they would have just one tailback out there.

“They were going running back by committee. They had co-starters until one of the co-starters got hurt. They like to have one guy who is a speed guy and one guy who is more of a between-the-tackles type of runner. They like to have different plays set up for the different running styles.”

Does Colorado have the personnel to run the pistol?

Well, yes and no.

The Buffs ran a pro-style offense under Jon Embree, after using multiple offensive sets under Dan Hawkins.

The key to the pistol offense is going to be the quarterback. Colorado will have a host of quarterbacks on the roster next fall, but the job will likely fall to a freshman, either red-shirt freshman Shane Dillon or true freshman Sefo Liufau (if Liufau stays with his commitment to CU – Liufau stated the day before Mike MacIntyre was introduced as the new head coach that he was “fully committed” to Colorado).

Both Dillon and Liufau are “pro-style” quarterbacks, with Dillon the No. 13 pro-style quarterback recruit in the Class of 2012, Liufau the No. 28 pro-style quarterback from the Class of 2013. The pistol offense does rely upon a mobile quarterback, and Shane Dillon only ran for about five yards a game in his senior year in high school, while Liufau rushed for 291 yards and eight touchdowns this past fall. Still, both are large –  Dillon is 6’6″, 190-pounds; Liufau 6’4″, 215-pounds – and can take a hit.

As for the running backs, Colorado has a diversity of talent … which could come in handy. In his introductory remarks, MacIntyre stated that CU will use “multiple personnel groups, kind of like Boise State did for all of those years”, adding, “when you play more people, more personnel groups, there are more happy kids. They practice harder. They do better in class. They play harder and you have better production.”

At San Jose State, the Spartans had a “speed guy” (could that be Tony Jones?) and a between-the-tackles runner (Christian Powell). In spite of the reputation of a speed offense, the fullback also sees a great of playing time with a pistol offense.

Colorado will return most of its receivers in 2013, and the pistol offense would seemingly be a opportunity for Paul Richardson and incoming speedster Jeffrey Thomas (a greyshirt from the Class of 2012, who is reportedly sticking with the Buffs, and will enroll in January). While most of the receivers are returning, the corps as a whole in 2012 was a disappointment, so the Buffs will have to continue to upgrade this unit for the pistol to be successful.

That most of the offensive line will return in tact in 2013 could be seen by the new coaching staff as a blessing or a curse. The Buffs will have experienced starters along the line, but this was also a line for an offense which was 109th in rushing offense, 96th in passing offense, 116th in total offense, and 117th in scoring offense.

Can the pistol be successful at Colorado?

Yes. The pistol did not work for UCLA in Rick Neuheisel’s final season in Westwood. The Bruins were balanced on offense (198 yards passing per game; 191 yards rushing), but had a tough time scoring (23 points per game, 85th in the nation).

Still, one need look no further than this past weekend’s New Mexico Bowl involving Nevada’s pistol offense against Arizona from the Pac-12. The Wolfpack defense folded late, giving up two touchdowns in the last minute to lose the game, 49-48, but you can’t fault the pistol offense for the loss. Against Arizona, Nevada’s pistol offense went for 48 points and 658 yards of total offense. The Wolfpack ran 105 plays, held the ball for 39:10 of game clock, and had 403 yards rushing.

The University of Colorado offense in 2012, conversely, ran for 110 yards per game, posted only 302 total yards per game, and scored only 17.8 points per game.

Let’s hear it for the pistol offense!

A YouTube video showing Indiana in the pistol, with a running play and a pass play explained:


For the more sophisticated, here is a link to a more detailed breakdown of the X’s and O’s of the pistol offense.


6 Replies to “Introducing the Pistol Offense”

  1. chode,

    The guy chiding Dinardo is NOT Sandusky it is former University of Minnesota HC Glen Mason.

    Whatever, hopefully the new coach steals some of Harbaugh’s power option tweaks to this offense rather than just run it vanilla style.

  2. Inasmuch as the offense these past several seasons has been “take two bananas and shoot myself” the transition to the Pistol should be a welcome one.

  3. Before you drink too much of that Kool Aid look at Indiana’s numbers withe the pistol. Indiana 2012 is probably a good example of CU 2013. I hated Embree’s offense from day one and I knew that it would never work but after seeing so many sacks because of the wide selection of dwarf QB’s in recent years (since 2006), I am anxious to see any CU team win 4 games or more. My God! What the hell happened to this program?

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