The Shotgun Formation Is Far From Lethal

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on October 1, 2015.

NFL teams are employing the shotgun formation with more prevalence than ever before. So far, 80.1% of all passes attempted through three weeks of the 2015 season have been made out of the shotgun or pistol, according to Stats LLC. In theory, by beginning each play several yards behind the line of scrimmage, the quarterback should have more time to look downfield to find an open receiver and avoid rushing defenders. Statistics, however, seem to indicate that the shotgun is actually a detriment to NFL offenses.

Only one active quarterback that has attempted at least 1,000 passes has a higher quarterback rating from that formation than while taking snaps under center: Mark Sanchez. Since Peyton Manning’s debut in 1998, 77 NFL quarterbacks have had at least 1,000 passing attempts, with at least one coming from the shotgun, and only Sanchez, Jeff Blake and Josh Freeman have a higher quarterback rating when lining up in that position.

While the numbers show that the shotgun has eroded passing stats across the league, there are a few quarterbacks in particular who seem to be especially misused. Robert Griffin III, who has lately been relegated to third string for the Redskins, has attempted over 82% of his career passes out of the shotgun, yet has a quarterback rating that is nearly 18 points higher while he is under center. Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill are in similar situations; both make over 80% of their throws out of the shotgun, despite passer ratings that are at least 13 points lower from that formation. Even Super Bowl winners Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco all have passer ratings that are at least 9.8 points worse out of the shotgun, yet each of them has attempted at least 55% of their career passes from there.

An argument can be made that by having the quarterback begin a play several yards behind the line of scrimmage, it reveals to a defense the offense’s intention to throw the ball, rather than run it. But some of the game’s top rushers—Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray, to name a few—have equal or lower yards per attempt over their careers out of the shotgun, as opposed to when their quarterback is under center. So if nearly every active NFL quarterback performs worse in the league’s most popular offensive set and a who’s who list of running backs perform no better, perhaps it is time for coaches to rewrite their playbooks.

(photo by Erik Drost)

One thought on “The Shotgun Formation Is Far From Lethal

  • January 3, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    So you’re evaluating QB play based on QB rating? How very 1980s of you. Also, since shotgun has become the norm, not the exception, of course it is going to fare worse on average than a much more deceptive pass from under center.

    Here’s the thing about deception: you can only do it so often, or it fails to deceive. By your logic (use whatever play works the best all the time), teams should be fake punting every fourth down.


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