Revisiting the Run and Shoot Breaking down June Jones impact on the Ticats’ 2017 turnaround
When the Hamilton Tiger-Cats hired June Jones as Assistant Head Coach midway through the 2017 season, the team was at the bottom of the CFL’s East Division. After the Ticats went winless in the first six games, Coach Jones entered the fold as an extra pair of eyes on the struggling offence. Before long, his role became more prominent. Following the Ticats’ eighth consecutive loss, Vice President of Football Operations Kent Austin stepped down as Head Coach and appointed June Jones in his stead.
Immediately, the press latched onto Coach Jones’ history as a pioneer of the run and shoot offence. What was lacking, however, was an explanation of what exactly the run and shoot offence was. For the casual fan, the phrase ‘run and shoot’ had very little meaning. What exactly is the run and shoot, and how did it help Coach Jones revitalize the Tiger-Cats offence in the final 10 games of the season?
Coach Jones developed his offensive schemes throughout a long career in football. He served as a player with the Atlanta Falcons and Toronto Argonauts, and as a coach for numerous football programs including the Houston Gamblers (USFL), Ottawa Rough Riders, Atlanta Falcons, University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, Southern Methodist University (SMU) Mustangs, and now the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Throughout it all, he has proudly waved the run and shoot flag.
According to Coach Jones, “Basically the run and shoot is more reliant on the receivers to read the coverage for the quarterback, and then more of a progression for the quarterback.”
Let’s break down what that means.
In the 1950’s, a man by the name of Glenn ‘Tiger’ Ellison founded the run and shoot offence. As the story goes, Coach Ellison was in the midst of a losing season when he drove past a group of children playing pick-up football in a park. He noticed that the children were running improvised routes with the sole intention of getting open. That moment inspired Coach Ellison to develop what he called the ‘Lonesome Polecat’ and thus, the run and shoot offence was born.
The original run and shoot involved a fluid view of the offence, in which the passing and rushing offence were indistinguishable, the huddle was eliminated, and the receivers were responsible for just two things: run to an area, and get open.
Coach Ellison operated the run and shoot with success for a time, but the system gradually declined in popularity, likely due to the heavy demands placed on the quarterback. With receivers modifying their routes on the fly, the quarterback was tasked with adjusting to the receivers as the routes developed. No easy task.
The run and shoot was not destined to be forgotten so easily. Darrell ‘Mouse’ Davis was the next coach to turn his attention to the run and shoot. As a coach at Portland State University, Coach Davis found great success running a modified version of Coach Ellison’s system. Despite the changes to the run and shoot, the system still required an intelligent and accurate quarterback. Fortunately, Coach Davis had an abundance of those with the Portland State Vikings, including none other than June Jones himself.
Working with then-quarterback June Jones in Portland, Coach Davis developed a handful of receiver routes, many of which persist today. The switch route is a good example of a run and shoot coach’s way of thinking. Against a zone defence, the receivers run vertical routes until the defence drops into zone, and the routes are then converted to exploit a hole in coverage. Against man defence, the receivers either run deep if they can beat their man, or convert the route to drop short when the defender overruns deep. It is a good example of how receivers in run and shoot offences can improvise their routes on the fly.
Unlike other offensive systems, the run and shoot begins with just one or two pre-snap formations. For the purposes of this article, all formations will be translated from their American football origins to their equivalent representations in the Canadian game.
The run and shoot was traditionally executed with five offensive lineman and no ends. There were five receivers (two wide receivers and three slot backs) with three receivers lining up to the wide side of the field. There was a single running back in the back field that was heavily relied upon to aid in pass protection. The quarterback lined up under center, and employed a half-roll drop back following the snap of the ball. The half-roll drop back involved the quarterback executing a five or seven step drop and rolling away from center but remaining in the pocket. It provided the quarterback some advantages such as avoiding inside pressure, moving closer to the intended receiver, and overcoming a shifted defensive alignment.
We’ve already discussed the receiver’s responsibilities in this alignment, but the running back also plays an integral role on passing downs. The running back was responsible for blocking the sixth man against a blitzing defense, or releasing into the flat and receiving a screen pass from the quarterback.
For years, run and shoot teams possessed the most potent offenses in professional football.
Despite early success, the run and shoot no longer exists in its original form. As Coach Jones said, “I remember Bill Walsh telling me, if you’re not tweaking 17-20% of your offence every year, they’re catching up to you.”
The run and shoot was forced to evolve as opposing teams learned how to defend it.
Some evolutions of the run and shoot offence are attributed to Coach Jones himself.
In his storied tenure at the University of Hawaii, Coach Jones implemented the shotgun formation and an offset running back into the run and shoot.
The shotgun formation is when the quarterback receives the snap around five yards behind the center. There are a number of advantages to the shotgun formation including: a better view of the secondary for the quarterback, a better position for the quarterback to avoid the pass rush, and more time for the quarterback to throw the football. These advantages are particularly important in a run and shoot offence, as one of the drawbacks of the offence is that quarterback protection is sacrificed.
Colt Brennan, University of Hawaii quarterback from 2005-2007, was the beneficiary of the shotgun adjustment. Playing in Coach Jones’ system, Brennan passed for 58 touchdowns in 2006, setting the NCAA Division I record for most touchdown passes in a single season. Brennan would go on to be drafted by the NFL’s Washington Redskins (later spending a brief stint on the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ practice roster), but was never able to replicate the success he found under Coach Jones.
Numerous adjustments to the run and shoot have led to the widespread adoption of its concepts. Although the run and shoot is no longer used in its original form, as designed by Ellison many years ago, its core concepts persist.
“I watch New England play now, and they’re running a combination of Bill Walsh, Ted Marchibroda, and run and shoot, and that’s why they’re having success,” said Coach Jones. “Over the years, I’ve stolen from everybody and everybody has kind of stolen from me.”
As Coach Jones reminds us, run and shoot concepts have passed through many hands, and the complexion of the offence has changed with each great football mind that touches it.
“I stole Mouse Davis’ run and shoot concepts which I think the people here would remember. Way back, Mouse came up here and took the 2-14 Toronto Argonauts to the Grey Cup. And the next year, they won the Grey Cup. The concepts work,” said Coach Jones.
Certain personnel have to be in place for run and shoot offensive concepts to be used effectively. Coach Jones believes that it all starts with the quarterback, and passing accuracy is a vital requirement. Beyond that, speed is paramount.
“If I was going to sacrifice anything, I’d sacrifice for speed,” said Coach Jones. “You know, maybe a guy is 5’10’’, that runs a 4.4 forty [short but fast], instead of a guy that’s 6’4’’ that runs a 4.6 forty [tall but less fast]. I side a little bit more with the fast guy.”
But that isn’t to say that Coach Jones has intentionally built a system around short, fast players. Instead, he was simply working with what he was given.
“We had to survive for 35 years with those guys because the 6’4” fast guys were going to Oklahoma or Texas,” said Coach Jones. “I’ve compromised size for speed at every level from Hawaii to SMU in college, and in the USFL when we were competing – just like the CFL the 4.4 guys that had size weren’t going to come. They were going to go to the NFL.”
Based on Coach Jones’ statements, it is clear that the system he built out of necessity in college, lends itself to the CFL – a league where teams face similar personnel limitations to those Jones contended with throughout his college tenure.
“It’s actually kind of better up here,” Coach Jones said of how the run and shoot can be adapted to the Canadian game. “You have way more room. You don’t have to be quite as tight on your throws. The reads are all the same; there’s just more room to throw them.”
The situation Coach Jones walked into when he was hired as an assistant coach by the Tiger-Cats seemed primed for Jones to make an immediate impact. Simply looking at the makeup of the receiving corps confirms that suspicion.
Brandon Banks, Jalen Saunders, Damarr Aultman, Luke Tasker: all lack size, and all boast plenty of speed.
The results speak for themselves. Three of those under-sized receivers, Banks, Tasker and Saunders, broke the 1,000-yard receiving mark, despite a slow start to the campaign. It was the first time in franchise history that three Ticats’ receivers accomplished that feat in a single season.
And it wasn’t just those three receivers who benefited from Coach Jones’ offensive schemes. Jeremiah Masoli, formerly backup quarterback to Zach Collaros, proved his starting pedigree down the stretch. With Masoli at the reins, the Ticats fielded an offence which was arguably the best in the league.
After Labour Day (Masoli’s first start and the first game in which Coach Jones acted as Head Coach) the Tiger-Cats offence ranked first in the CFL in the following categories: points for, net offence, passing yards, rushing yards, offensive touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, and first downs. The Tiger-Cats also committed the fewest turnovers of any CFL team in the back half of the season and posted over 400 yards of net offence in six of the team’s final eight games.
There were also improvements on the defensive side of the football, as the Ticats ranked first after Labour Day in quarterback sacks, forced fumbles, and pass knockdowns. Coach Jones’ revitalized squad also allowed the fewest rushing yards per game.
The historical success of the run and shoot offence stands as a testament to the effectiveness of its concepts. And if historical success isn’t enough, just consider the second-half of the Ticats’ 2017 season.
It’s undeniable that Coach Jones and his run and shoot offence had a profound influence on the Ticats’ turnaround this season. But, according to Coach Jones, it isn’t the system alone that will determine the Tiger-Cats’ success in future seasons.
As Coach Jones has said, “So much of it comes down to belief in what you’re doing and the players’ belief that they can’t be stopped.”