By Mike Garafolo
USA TODAY Sports
NEW ORLEANS - To note the impact of the Pistol offense and the read-option looks that branch off it, look not toward the reactions of defensive coordinators who have to figure out how to stop it.
Look at the face of Sean Payton, considered one of the best offensive minds in recent NFL history, and see the consternation over how one season away from the game might have put him far behind what could be the game-changing trend in the league.
"It's nerve-racking," the New Orleans Saints coach said last week in his first news conference since his suspension for his role in the bounty scandal was lifted. "My first reaction is I don't know enough about it -- and that bothers me."
Other than the guys running it, nobody seems to know enough about it. And it's bothering them, too.
The Washington Redskins ran the Pistol and the option as well as anybody in the NFL this season until Robert Griffin III got hurt. Russell Wilson became a rookie of the year candidate in large part because of what the young quarterback did with his legs in option looks. And the Carolina Panthers, with Cam Newton continuing to display his athleticism, posed plenty of problems for some good defenses.
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The moment, however, that will legitimize the Pistol and the read option more than any will come Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, probably just shy of 7 p.m. ET, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick takes the first snap from about 5 yards behind the center, "rides" the running back and, depending on what he sees from the Baltimore Ravens defense, either keeps the football or leaves it in the gut of Frank Gore.
Ladies and gentlemen, the read-option and the Pistol have come to the Super Bowl.
"My part of that offense is just a small part of what Coach (Jim) Harbaugh and those guys do," former Nevada coach Chris Ault, Kaepernick's college coach and widely considered the developer of the Pistol, said in humble fashion. "They have a great offense without the Pistol. But I'm just proud (the offense is) part of that organization, and (offensive coordinator Greg) Roman and Coach Harbaugh, for them to realize the abilities 'Kaep' brings to the table and that the Pistol could add to their already-terrific offense. I'm excited about it and love to see it."
Ault isn't one to boast or self-promote, so he's understating the impact of his offense making an appearance in the NFL's biggest game.
There have been unorthodox offensive plays run in the Super Bowl. Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway caught a pass from running back Steve Sewell in Super Bowl XXII. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El took an end around and threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL.
However, even with the popularity of the Wildcat schemes in recent years, there hasn't been anything other than a standard, drop-back offense in the Super Bowl until now.
"It adds another variable," new Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, the former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks who watched Wilson create headaches for defenses this season, said of the Pistol and option.
"I know it's relatively new, but I think now a lot of coordinators in the league in the offseason are going to spend quite a bit of time saying, 'OK, it looks like a few more teams are doing it.'"
Adding more wrinkles
The Pistol, which puts the quarterback between a position under center and in the standard shotgun formation, gets running plays moving faster than a traditional run or shotgun draw. It also gives the quarterback a better vantage point to begin reading the coverage downfield.
Ault originally ran the formation as a one-back set. It's since evolved to the point where the 49ers run a broken-I formation that allows for a lead blocker in front of Gore.
The Niners and Redskins deployed as many as three backs in the backfield with Kaepernick and Griffin, respectively, this season.
"They keep expanding it more and more," said former Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who noticed massive changes between what his defense saw from the Niners in Week 12 (Kaepernick's third start) and what the 49ers showed in their NFC Championship Game victory against the Atlanta Falcons.
Said Bradley, "They've definitely expanded (the offense)."
Asked what expansions he saw from the 49ers, Ault said the play-action passes off of the zone read were a thing of beauty. Tight end Vernon Davis was running wide open over the second level of the Falcons defense after Kaepernick faked the handoff and then the keeper. The 25-yard completion sparked the Niners' second touchdown drive that made it a ballgame.
Then on the 49ers' game-winning touchdown, the linebackers froze while Kaepernick this time put the ball in Gore's gut. Gore easily ran downhill against a flat-footed defense for a touchdown.
"Guys were wide open because they have to be concerned with 'Kaep' running outside, Gore inside and then you throw the play action on them," Ault said. "That is the substance of the Pistol offense in terms of play-action pass and just the actual zone play itself."
The option aspect of the Pistol was added to the Nevada offense in 2008. Because of Kaepernick's legs, right?
"What I've done with the Pistol is add something each year," Ault said. "Some people say we created it for 'Kaep.' We didn't. The read was going in regardless of who our quarterback was. It was the next phase. It just happened to be ol' Kaepernick."
Now, it just happens to be Kaepernick, Griffin, Wilson, Newton and whoever else is coming up through the college ranks over the next couple of years.
Which is why pro and college coaches have begun to huddle.
Just as Chip Kelly shared some secrets of his up-tempo offense with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, defensive coaches are speaking with their college counterparts who have been trying to stop this stuff for years.
One NFL coach joked during last week's Senior Bowl that he had an opening on his defensive staff he was planning to fill from within "but let me bring in these eight college coaches to talk to them just in case." The implied joke was he was planning to steal their secrets, not give them legitimate consideration for the job.
"There's always a lot of information that goes back and forth," Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "A lot of times you see that stuff when you're watching prospects on college film or a bunch of our coaches go to college campuses when we're working guys out and get information there.
"You exchange a lot of ideas."
Defensive skill set
Talent evaluators need to help the process by drafting defensive players who can move sideline to sideline.
"You saw it a little last year. We knew the Redskins were going to draft RGIII, and we thought it was important to improve our speed on defense," Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "You talk about defensive linemen who can run, (first-round pick) Fletcher Cox can run and (second-round pick) Mychal Kendricks was the fastest linebacker at the combine but also a really good player. You don't want to sacrifice a player's production just because they're a really good athlete. Both of those things have to match."
Bradley says, at some point, all of the brainstorming and adjustment in personnel will help defenses finally slow this thing down.
Or at least he hopes.
"Just like everything, offenses get ahead a little bit and then the defenses adjust and then it comes back," Bradley said. "It's like the Wildcat. That took off, and then they had a chance to catch up to it and then it kind of died down. I don't know if it's going to be like that. It might carry on a lot longer than that just because of the athleticism you're seeing in college. Guys are coming into the NFL and then being able to play at an earlier age."
Durability will be a question, particularly after Griffin's injury. But Spagnuolo noticed his counterparts started to wise up.
"Even when we played Cam Newton, he picked his spots about when to go down and when to take a hit," Spagnuolo said. "But there are some real challenging quarterbacks in this league. You know who they are."
He's talking about Kaepernick. And the Pistol. And the option. As many will be -- for years to come.
"They'll figure out ways to defend certain things with the Pistol, but the Pistol is not just one play or two plays," Ault said. "It's an offensive scheme or system where you've got to be consistent to stop a lot of different things about it.
"I'm excited to see it in the NFL. The formation's in there to stay."