This story appears in the Oct. 17, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
ON THE FIRST SERIES OF THE FIRST GAME of the first week of the 2011 NFL season, the Packers ran nine plays. Eight of them, including the inaugural snap, started from the shotgun. Of those eight, two were running plays. Two might not seem like a large number, but think about it this way: On their first series, the defending champs ran the ball 25 percent of the time they lined up in the gun. That's a lot for a formation that even a decade ago would result in rushing yardage only if the quarterback had to pull the ball down and run for his life.
Welcome to the Gun 'N Run era. When Tom Landry popularized the formation in the 1970s, the shotgun was a go-to play exclusively on third and a mile, but these days, with the NFL having legislated a dramatically more pass-friendly league, a typical offense is in the shotgun 38 percent of the time, up from 16 percent in 2005. (The Lions topped the league last season with a 64 percent gun rate.) To maintain a semblance of play-calling unpredictability out of the formation, offensive coordinators are loading the gun and shooting out tailbacks. Last season, NFL offenses ran the ball on 14.6 percent of shotgun snaps, compared with 10.8 percent of gun snaps five years ago.
Sure, some of those runs come when an offense is on its heels and trying to reclaim a little field position for a punt. But more than ever, teams will run from the gun on first and 10 -- or in any other situation. Witness the Eagles' Week 1 win over the Rams, when LeSean McCoy broke off a 49-yard TD on second and two in the fourth quarter. "Down and distance are irrelevant," says Ravens center Matt Birk, a 14-year veteran.
Teams are getting more creative with their shotgun run plays too. When Baltimore's Ricky Williams was a Saints rookie back in 1999, the only gun runs that offensive coordinators called were QB or halfback draws. "Now you can run counter, outside play, zone play, everything," he says.
These runs often result in big gains because when defensive linemen see a team lined up in the gun, their first instinct is still to rush the QB, which opens lanes up the middle for backs to run through. Then there's the nickel effect. When a 4-3 D thinks it's facing a passing situation, the D-coordinator will replace a 250-pound linebacker with a fifth defensive back, losing 50-plus pounds of run-stopping muscle. In a 3-4 D, a team will typically pull its 350-pound nose tackle, move the two ends inside and have the two outside linebackers play as down linemen. In comes the scrawny nickel back and, presto, the unsuspecting defense is suddenly 150 pounds lighter. Ballcarriers dig that.
The formation is not without its drawbacks, though. For runners, it's not as easy to hit a hole with burst and vision when you don't have a seven-yard head of steam before getting the ball. Packers center Scott Wells says the shotgun run places a premium on a signal-caller who can sell it (such as Aaron Rodgers). That's because if the QB moves to the back too quickly, he'll key the noseguard to the handoff, giving him a jump on the play before the center can switch from a pass-blocking posture to run blocking. End result: a stuff.
In the end, the biggest threat to shotgun runs is ... shotgun runs. They've become so common that it's a matter of time before defenses adjust completely. "Teams have started game-planning to play the run first against the shotgun," says Wells.
Exhibit A: In Super Bowl XLV, when Green Bay lined up in the gun, the Steelers defense didn't flinch, leaving their base run-stopping personnel in at linebacker and defensive back.
If enough defenses follow suit, the gun 'n run will be gun 'n done.
Eddie Matz is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.