There is a motto for teams like the Detroit Lions, and it's not Restore the Roar! this season's catchy p.r. slogan for the meek ones from the Motor City. It's When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose, and it explains why the Lions have committed an NFL heresy and wedded themselves to—are you sitting?—the run-and-shoot offense.
The run-and-shoot, as all pro football fans are aware, is a half-baked, backyard fire drill that features a wild-eyed, scrambling quarterback tossing the ball constantly to a gang of pygmy receivers scurrying over the turf like ants on a honey spill. The attack pops up occasionally in the lower reaches of the football world and flourishes there briefly like a fungus until its practitioners play decent teams or its coaches leave to become shoe reps. It's the kind of thing pro coaches talk about over a beer or two, the way they talk about hang-gliding or hair transplants, things that are intriguing to virile, aging men but which those men would never actually get involved with. After all, they will tell you, the run-and-shoot is not an NFL offense; it's a sideshow.
And yet, second-year Lion coach Wayne Fontes has committed himself to the thing, hiring its inventor, 57-year-old Darrel (Mouse) Davis, as his unofficial offensive coordinator and telling Davis to "just get it done." Fontes must be stark raving mad to utter such words to a man who describes his offensive theory as "using the pass to set up the run," who has never coached a down in the NFL, who has been out of coaching entirely for the last three years, who once devised an offense at Sunset High School in Beaverton, Ore., that was so confusing to himself that he had to scrap it. But that's what Fontes has done, and Lion fans can strap themselves in for a ride either to the top of the NFL mountain or to the pit of absurdity.
In truth, the Lions have been so bad for so long that even if the run-and-shoot—dubbed the Silver Stretch by Fontes—should fail horribly, fans may never notice. It couldn't be worse than the old self-limiting offense that roared for 60 net yards and three first downs in a game against the Minnesota Vikings last year; an offense that veteran receiver Jeff Chadwick, a dignified family man, has called "a piece of———"; an offense that cranked out a grand total of 23 touchdowns in 1988, 16 fewer than Detroit's first-round draft choice, running back Barry Sanders, got by himself last season at Oklahoma State; an offense that averaged less yardage per pass last season (4.1) than nine NFL teams did on their runs.
September 10, 1989
The Lions finished with a 4-12 record in 1988, which dovetailed nicely with the 4-11 season from the previous year and the 5-11 from 1986. The Lions were hot in 1985, going 7-9. Over the last 31 seasons, they have finished first in their division exactly once, in 1983, when they were 9-7. A big offense in Detroit is the Ford Motor Company dropping the Taurus on the Japanese.
Enough was enough, Fontes decided. Enter the Mouse-man and his loyal sidekick, quarterback and receiver coach June Jones, once a quarterback for Davis, later an assistant and now a defender of the man and his system. Davis and Jones, the evangelist and his apostle. They have brought with them an offense that everybody thinks of as a gimmick, but that, when properly manned and deployed, has never been stopped. Davis has taught the offense from high school to college to the CFL to the USFL, and in 27 years he has had just one losing season with it, going 5-6 in 1979 at Portland State. "We were only about eight points from being 8-3 that year," he says philosophically. What went wrong? "I guess I did a diddly job of coaching," says Davis. The run-and-shoot is not all that radical, really. After all, there is only so much anyone can do with 11 padded men on a 100-yard field. The principal differences between the run-and-shoot and the conventional drop-back, two-running back, power-I or H-back NFL offenses are that the shoot always employs four wideouts, a single running back and no tight end. In fact, Detroit has just one tight end on the roster. "We need one so our defense can practice against regular offenses," says running back coach Dave Levy. The quarterback usually rolls or sprints to one side or the other, throwing the ball on steps one through nine to the right or steps two through eight to the left. Occasionally, the quarterback will tuck the ball away and run, but passing is what this offense is all about. The biggest difference for the receivers is that they have fixed patterns only in the playbook. Everything they do afield—curl, fly, hook, drag, sprint, post, flag—is determined by the reaction of the defense. The receivers are labeled X, Y, Z and Wing, though, as Davis points out, they could be called Frick, Frack and the Doublemint Twins for all the difference the labels make. Why does Davis call one player "Wing" instead of "W"? The coach shrugs. "No reason," he says.
Davis is decidedly uninterested in taking credit for devising the shoot. "I didn't invent anything," he says cheerfully. "I just stole from every coach, quarterback and player I've ever been involved with. Dutch Meyer, at TCU 50 years ago, ran a double wing. That's all this is—a sophisticated double wing. There's an old guy named Tiger Ellison [a quarterback coach for Woody Hayes at Ohio State in the '60s], who wrote a book called Run-and-Shoot: The Offense of the Future [in 1965]. He called me when I was with the Denver Gold and said, 'Mouse, keep scoring touchdowns! Every time you do, I sell another book.' Here we're calling it the Silver Stretch, Wayne's idea, because it stretches the defense. I like that. I never cared much for the name run-and-shoot."
Whatever the attack is called, Davis is the man who understands it best. If he is not the offense's father, he is certainly its legal guardian. What attracted him was its possibilities. He showed up for his first day as coach at Milwaukie High School in Oregon, in 1962, and the zeal with which he began explaining his newfangled attack captivated football players, nonplaying students and even the faculty. "It was so scientific," recalls Mouse's first-ever run-and-shoot quarterback, Jerry Costanzo, then a Milwaukie High junior, now a poet and English professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. "It turns smash-mouth football into tennis." The offense turned Milwaukie High into a winner and Costanzo into a Mouse Maniac. "It just dumbfounds me that a genius is not at the top," says the outraged professor.
At Portland State University, where Davis was the coach from 1975 through 1980, his teams rewrote the NCAA Division I-AA record book, setting 20 offensive records and leading the nation in scoring three times. In Davis's final two years at PSU, quarterback Neil Lomax threw for 8,044 yards and 63 touchdowns. In 1980, Mouse's PSU team averaged 49.2 points per game. When Davis became offensive coordinator for the last-place Toronto Argonauts of the CFL in 1982, he installed the run-and-shoot and promptly led the team to back-to-back appearances in the Grey Cup, winning the CFL title in 1983. The possibilities in the Canadian game, with its wider field, 12-man teams and unlimited motion rules, nearly caused Davis's brain to explode with delight. "We just scratched the surface up there," he says. "You could do stuff on that field that would be unstoppable."
When he went to the USFL Houston Gamblers in 1984, Davis turned that team into an offensive powder keg. With quarterback Jim Kelly flinging and a pack of minireceivers (the Mousketeers) catching, the Gamblers played something resembling basketball on grass. In two years, Kelly threw for 83 touchdowns and Mouse Club wideout Richard Johnson (5'6", 185 pounds), who is now playing for the Lions, caught 218 passes. Davis worked a little more magic as head coach of the USFL Denver Gold in 1985, taking that 9-9 team to an 11-7 record and the playoffs, but he found himself out of a job when the league suspended play in 1986.
By that time a lot of people were interested in his views, but nobody in the NFL wanted him too close. The shoot, the big guys implied, just wasn't quite, ahem, manly enough for the rough-and-tumble NFL. In 1985, Buddy Ryan, now the Philadelphia Eagle head coach, said, "The run-and-shoot is no big deal. Will it work in the NFL? Sure, it might. For a weekend."
To pass the time after the USFL folded, Davis drove around the country in a mobile home with his wife, Beverly, and preached the glories of his offense to anybody who was interested. A few coaches listened, and colleges such as Holy Cross, Houston and South Carolina benefited from Mouse's crumbs of wisdom. Last season, Houston averaged 377.5 yards per game using the run-and-shoot; it also had two receivers who, for the first time in collegiate history, each caught more than 100 passes in a season. Both players—Jason Phillips, 5'7", who was a 10th-round draft choice despite leading the nation in receiving for the last two years, and James Dixon, 5'8", who signed on as a free agent—joined the Lions' roster at training camp this summer.
Houston head coach Jack Pardee, formerly a conservative coach on offense, became a convert when Davis served as his offensive coordinator with the Houston Gamblers in '84. "One of the nice things about this offense is that you don't have to recruit the same players as other teams," he says. "One of the hardest players to find in football is the all-purpose tight end, and you don't have to recruit one at all.
"If your receivers can run fast, they don't have to be big," says Pardee. "You use space, so you don't get beat up." The average height of the 13 wide receivers at the Lions' training camp this summer was 5'8", two inches shorter than the average last year. "We're not prejudiced against big guys," says Davis, "we're prejudiced for speed. We'd love to have 6'2", 200-pound guys who run 4.3 40s. But in America there just happen to be more little quick guys than big quick guys." Pardee makes another point about his experience with the run-and-shoot at Houston: "When you run, it's great." Indeed, the adjustments that defenses must make to battle the blitzkrieg—putting in five defensive backs, dropping players into deep zones quickly, removing big linebackers—soften up the defense for the run-and-shoot's traps, counters and draws. "People forget we had a thousand-yard rusher [Chuck Weatherspoon] last year," says Pardee. "He led the nation with an 8½-yards-per-carry average." Barry Sanders, are you listening?
While Davis was on the road proselytizing, Jones, who became a run-and-shoot convert while playing quarterback for Mouse at Portland State in the mid-'70s, hired on as the quarterback coach with the Houston Oilers. Jones installed the Oilers' "Red" offense, a selectively used run-and-shoot attack that helped pull the Oilers out of their offensive drudge and make Pro Bowl performers of quarterback Warren Moon and wideout Drew Hill. Coach Jerry Glanville liked the attack so much that by the end of last season the Oilers were using the Red formation on three quarters of their downs.
Meanwhile, the Lions, under coach Darryl Rogers, were continuing their time-honored march to the basement. Eleven games into the 1988 season, owner William Clay Ford fired Rogers. Ford and general manager Russ Thomas promoted defensive coordinator Fontes to head coach and gave him a three-year contract for an estimated $775,000. Fontes, an emotional, gregarious man who loves his players and assistant coaches and finishes his signature with a happy-face drawing, openly wept after he won his first game as head man.
To his credit, Fontes has assembled an all-star cast of assistant coaches, many of whom are former NFL head coaches or offensive or defensive coordinators, and he has allowed them to run their shows as they see fit. "If we win, there's credit for all," says Fontes. "If we lose, I'll take the blame."
Fontes's biggest move, of course, was turning the offense over to Davis. "A lot of teams use four wide receivers when time's running out or on third down," notes Fontes. "And they often succeed. As a defensive coach, I didn't like those things because I had to defense them. So, I figured, Why not have an offense that goes like that the whole game?"
Kelly, now the Buffalo Bills' quarterback, was dragged kicking and screaming into the offense when he first played for the Houston Gamblers in 1984. A year later, he was addicted to the shoot. "People are just too pansy to try it in the NFL," he says. "But I know it will work in this league. Mouse should be a head NFL coach. After they're successful at Detroit, people will beat down the door to sign him."
After practice one day at training camp in Rochester, Mich., Davis explains that getting a head coaching job is not a big deal to him. "If I have input, I don't care about any title," he says. "I do care about the stuff that goes into the offense, though." Embroidered on the sleeve of his coach's shirt is MOUSE. He got his nickname, he says, because he was a short kid. He's now a full-bodied 5'9". "I thought I'd lose it in the Navy," he says, looking at the inscription on his sleeve. Then he looks up with his usual easygoing smile. "This is an offense that continues to evolve," he goes on. "The questions people ask help me make it clearer. I know it looks like sandlot football, but in fact it takes more discipline than any other offense. The receivers and the quarterback have to make the same reads or you've got a hodgepodge." There are only eight plays in Davis's Silver Stretch attack, but each of them has dozens of options, depending on what the defense does (diagram, page 68). Mouse once dreamed up a formation he called the Ace, which he employed briefly when he was coaching at Sunset High in the mid-'60s. It was "a hell of an offense," he says. "But you could do so damn many things that I couldn't follow it. It was like being in a candy store where you can just eat it all. Well, the first thing you know, you're sick to your stomach!"
The vertigo caused by that glimpse of an unlimited weapon soon passed, and Davis is now content to tinker with his basic run-and-shoot. "Football has been so good to me," he says with a smile, "that I don't feel any need for revenge at all against the skeptics."
Not so for the apostle, Jones. "There has been a constant pounding over the years from people saying, 'That crap won't work,' " he says indignantly. "Mouse has heard it longer than anybody, and he's built up some defense against it. But not me. I want success for him. That's why I came up here from Houston to help, because I felt this was the last chance."
At the afternoon practice, rookie quarterback Rodney Peete runs the offense under Davis's patient eye. A sixth-round pick who could turn out to be the steal of the entire draft, Peete has the natural mobility, toughness and leadership qualities to run the shoot. "This is gonna cause some people some problems," Peete says.
Receiver Chadwick is thrilled with the new offense, though he is exhausted from the running necessary to make it hum. "Today was the hardest practice I've had in my entire career," he says outside the dormitory at the Oakland University training facility after dinner. "There are guys flying around in this offense. There are many opportunities to make big plays. There's always somebody going long. I'll tell you, we're a different team. We don't feel like losers anymore."
Levy, a coaching veteran who was an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers from 1980 through last season, says, "People ask, 'What if you're stuck on your own goal line, facing a 40-mile-per-hour wind. What then?' 'Well,' I tell them, 'we're screwed.' But who isn't? This is the best offensive theory I've ever seen." He shrugs. "Of course, if you don't have people, you don't have squat. People blow theories out the window."
The Lions are definitely a few people short of being able to duke it out with the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears in their division. But they have enthusiasm. "Things are going so good I can't believe it," says the ever-bubbling Fontes. "People call my name, they're lined up outside my door. I love my coaches, everybody loves everybody, life is great...and we haven't played a game yet! The best thing that could happen would be to have an NFL strike and call off the season."
In the debut of the Stretch—Detroit's first preseason game, against the Cleveland Browns on Aug. 12—the Silverdome fans gave the Lions a huge round of applause just for lining up on the first play with four wideouts. Behind Peete, the Lions rolled up 298 total yards—155 of it in the air—in the first half and took a 17-15 lead. That halftime yardage was more than Detroit amassed in 15 whole games last season and the team got a standing ovation when the half ended.
Of course, the Lions ended up losing to the Browns, 25-24, just like old times. And the rest of the preseason had its share of embarrassments, like a 35-3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in a game in which Peete didn't play. Still, there was a promise of better times to come. Running back Tony Paige, a reserve who gained 207 yards on 52 tries last season, carried the ball 13 times for 116 yards out of the Stretch formation in that first game, leading Fontes to note, "If he had some of those holes Tony had, Barry Sanders would still be running. By now, he'd be in Toledo."
Sanders, who sat out camp this summer while negotiating his contract, will get his chance to shine one of these days, and so too will Mouse and his men. As clearly befuddled Lion quarterback Chuck Long says of the whole program, "This should be interesting." If not a roaring success.
LOCK AND LOAD
THE "SILVER STRETCH" OFFENSE FEATURES FOUR WIDE RECEIVERS, ONE RUNNING BACK AND NO TIGHT END. THE LIONS HAVE ONLY EIGHT PLAYS, BUT THE RECEIVERS HAVE DOZENS OF OPTIONS ON EACH, DEPENDING ON THE DEFENSE AND EVERY PLAY INCLUDES AT LEAST ONE DEEP ROUTE WE'VE ILLUSTRATED THE OPTIONS FOR ONE PLAY, LOAD 60 Z CHOICE, AGAINST FIVE COMMON DEFENSES. THE RECEIVERS (X, Y, Z AND WING WITH Y IN MOTION AT THE SNAP) AND THE QUARTERBACK (WHO CAN ROLL LEFT OR RIGHT FOR FROM ONE TO NINE STEPS) MUST READ THE DEFENSE THE SAME WAY AND REACT WITH THE SAME OPTION—AT THE SAME TIME
[Red Line] 3-DEEP ZONE
THREE DOWNFIELD DEFENDERS
[Yellow Line] 2-DEEP ZONE
SAFETIES DIVIDE DOWNFIELD ZONE
[Blue Line] MAN UNDER
MAN-TO-MAN SHORT, ZONE DEEP
[Violet Line] MAN-TO-MAN
[Green Line] BLITZ