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Shane Waldron should incorporate more bootlegs and pistol formation into the Seahawks offense

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Scrimmage Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Below you’ll see Russell Wilson’s second ever regular season snap and first ever regular season pass attempt.

Jimi Hendrix would call that “Manic Depression.” Wilson is under center. Wilson is frenetic in the pocket. Wilson bounces up on his toes looking for a throwing lane. Sidney Rice is so open he does a jumping jack. Wilson throws way behind Marshawn Lynch. The ball caroms wildly off Lynch. Rice makes a diving catch.

In 2012, Wilson took 44.4% of his snaps from under center. That fell to 37.1% in 2013 and 24.0% in 2014. Building an offense around shotgun was Seattle’s second big step to maximizing Wilson.

It’s sorta staggering that it took two seasons for Darrell Bevell to figure that out. From the get-go, Wilson was everything one could want in a quarterback but short. The constant coverage of his height became tiresome, but the viewing public’s need for novelty is not an offensive coordinator’s concern. Guy’s short. Guy benefits immensely from surveying the field from deep in pocket. Wilson was not the prototype but he did much to define a new prototype. One who could do this.

Nearly a decade later, I am just one of surely thousands of Seahawks fans who thinks no offensive coordinator has ever really embraced Wilson’s athletic profile. It seemed to me that Bevell and later Brian Schottenheimer were forever attempting to fix him. As if, with the just the right coaching, Wilson would get taller, slower and older.

The madness, or really just mad arrogance, of coaches is well documented. Doug Pederson lost his job confusing practice precision with potential. And of course who could forget Sean McDermott’s fascination with Nathan Peterman? McDermott’s an excellent head coach too.

Shane Waldron’s at a distinct advantage. He’s the first OC in the Wilson era who gets to build his offense around Wilson. No more attempting to make Wilson a Brad Johnson or Kelly Holcomb or Sam Bradford. Waldron can leave the Pygmalion for the recently unemployed. For once in his career Wilson can be empowered, encouraged and entrusted to play his way. But what is his way?

Today and for however long I can find time for this series, I attempt to find out. I’m not a scout or a coach and I think apart from diagramming plays x’s and o’s are mostly used by people who want to obscure what they’re saying, but I’m a damn good fan and an astute observer of tape. Further, I have the passionate FG community behind me to critique my ideas and add their own. I hope this series of posts becomes a big tent discussion for everyone who’s ever had a pet idea of how to maximize Wilson’s potential. Because Mr Waldron has a tough task which is also the opportunity of a lifetime, and if he’s smart, he’s open to every good idea on how to complete that task and maximize that opportunity.

Today! We discuss one of the building blocks of an offense: formation. Specifically, where does the quarterback line up to receive the snap.

Wilson still sees the field from deeper in the pocket

Stepping up into the pocket is nice conceptually. It works for many. It did not seem to work for Wilson. In trouble, he still wants to back up to better see the field. Nine seasons in and Wilson rarely steps into the pocket and throws. Teams spy Wilson. They also contain Wilson and control gaps while blitzing Wilson. I won’t deny praising Wilson for attempting to incorporate this bit of conventional wisdom into his skill set, but three sacks—one wiped out by penalty—by Leonard Floyd in the Wild Card round has more or less debunked the soundness of this technique.

If Wilson must be deep, and if Wilson performs best throwing after play action, and if Pete Carroll would prefer to eschew anything particularly oddball like building a power run game out of shotgun, may I suggest two conventional but underutilized tools: the bootleg and pistol formation.

Wilson is on his way to becoming the greatest scrambling quarterback ever by running well and passing really well. The pistol is a hybrid formation containing benefits of the shotgun—benefits Wilson undeniably benefits from—and downhill running. I think that term is mostly used metaphorically but in this case I mean downhill in a specific way. In a downhill run, the back does not have to cut laterally to find the hole. He can run straight ahead.

One of the problems with running play action out of shotgun is that the jig is up quick. That depth which allows the quarterback to survey the field also allows defenders to clearly see whether the back did receive the handoff or not. And the need to move laterally to find the hole weakens both possibilities. There’s something simple and pure about a play fake in which the back fakes receiving the handoff and barrels straight ahead.

Compare this:

To this:

Neither play ends well, but the effect of the play fake is quite a bit more pronounced in the first than the second. The first may be evidence of the diminishing value of play fakes for an offense reluctant to run the ball, but two defenders are caught leaning forward and one is frozen from dropping. The faked inside handoff produces no obvious effect.

The second (very dated) play is so botched in conception that one would guess the goal is not to draw in the underneath coverage but to pit Wilson against a free rusher in a dance off. Were this 2014, maybe Wilson Kyler Murrays around Floyd and breaks one. It isn’t and Wilson can’t.

A funny thing happened with Schotty at OC. Wilson became a more effective player working from under center than he was working out of shotgun. In 2020, Wilson completed a higher percentage of passes, threw for more ANY/A and took fewer sacks while under center. Figuring out why that might be is a subject far too big for one post, but it’s something the Seahawks should look into internally. I would guess Schotty simply had a more robust and better set of play-action pass calls built around snaps taken from under center than he had from snaps taken from shotgun.

Pistol formations and bootlegs combine the best of both—potentially. This post is long and my time is up, but soon as I can, I will post again exploring some specific plays executed out of pistol or executed after a bootleg which I think Wilson would thrive running.