The Dirty Dozen Diary: The Shotgun
To begin their sixteenth season in the league, head coach Tom Landry added the Shotgun formation to the franchise’s bag of magic tricks, bringing the fabled formation back to the NFL after an absence of more than a decade.
Then-Cowboys scout Red Hickey was the mastermind behind the original version of the Shotgun, installing it during his days as the San Francisco 49ers head coach in the early 1960s. Relying on a heavy dose of trick-plays from the formation, Hickey’s 49ers enjoyed a brief run of success with the Shotgun until injuries depleted his allotment of quarterbacks.
But Landry should be considered the father of the modern-day Shotgun. It was Landry’s Cowboys in 1975 who first showed the world how to play simple, everyday football with the quarterback lined up somewhere other than under center.
Landry installed the Shotgun as a means to increase the efficiency of Dallas’ third-down offense, which struggled mightily during Dallas’ 8-6 season of 1974. He also deemed it a viable remedy to the Cowboys’ surprisingly collapsible pocket which had left quarterback Roger Staubach with little room to breathe in recent years. Over the course of the 1973 and 1974 seasons, no quarterback had been sacked more than Roger “The Dodger.”
There would be critics attacking their new “rinky-dink” formation, but by season’s end nobody could argue against its overall effectiveness.
From the very first game of the 1975 campaign, Staubach used the Shotgun to extend drives, which consequently allowed Dallas to control games with increased fluency. In 17 Shotgun opportunities versus Los Angeles in the season opener at Texas Stadium, Staubach scrambled seven different times for 50 yards, and on three different occasions burned the Rams defense with his arm, completing third-down passes of 15, 17, and 13 yards. Twice Landry completely fooled the Rams by calling shovel passes, in which Staubach would receive the snap in the backfield, take a step back, and then flip the ball underhanded to a back running a few yards in front of him but still in front of the line of scrimmage, netting gains of 24 and 17 yards, respectively.
Dallas’ 18-7 conquest of Los Angeles was the first of many big afternoons for the Shotgun and the Cowboys in 1975. Charles Young broke a game-changing run on a draw-play in Week 3 at Detroit. Staubach and Drew Pearson teamed up to lead a furious fourth-quarter rally to beat the Eagles three weeks later. The fact that Staubach authored his famous “Hail Mary” pass in the NFC Divisional playoffs at Minnesota and then teamed up one week later with Preston Pearson for three touchdowns from the Shotgun should also be noted.
By season’s end, the Cowboys had converted on 44.5-percent of their third-down plays from the Shotgun, well above the NFL’s average third-down conversion rate of approximately 33-percent. And, much to Landry’s delight, the Dallas offensive line allowed 25-percent fewer sacks.
“The guys who criticized this offense,” said Staubach after the season, “didn’t understand what we were doing. It’s a very solid concept. It isn’t anything overwhelming. It just gives you advantages in certain situations where the defense normally has a lot going for it.”