For the past eight years, Washington State Cougars fans have grown used to watching their team sling the football all over the yard behind Mike Leach’s Air Raid, passing the ball nearly 80% of the time — and putting together some incredibly prolific offenses in the process.
Nobody does what Leach does, but don’t expect a drastic change in style under new WSU coach Nick Rolovich: His Hawaii Warriors threw the ball on 63% of plays last season while also compiling some impressive numbers. While that’s a difference of about 10-12 more rushes a game, the passing game always will be the staple of the Run and Shoot that Rolovich will bring to Pullman.
(For those of you who have been around for a while, the run/pass splits will remind you a lot of the ratios you saw in Mike Price’s spread offense.)
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Run and Shoot! Not a lot of people run it these days, but its influence on football has been undeniable. Via Chris B. Brown at Grantland when June Jones — one of the OGs of the Run and Shoot, and the man Rolovich played QB for at Hawaii — retired about five years ago:
In a world where NFL teams use three or more receivers and the shotgun on a majority of snaps, and college offenses are dominated by spread-based attacks, you don’t need to look far to see the run-and-shoot’s influence. But it’s a bit strange that, with Jones retiring, no NFL or college offense directly traces its roots back to the run-and-shoot, leaving an opening for other flavors of the spread to saturate football. A major reason for this is that Jones and his run-and-shoot confidants are notoriously secretive — so, few people learned enough of the offense to confidently run it at a major college level.
The other reason is the wide gulf between the pure run-and-shoot, as run by Davis and Jones, and its animating ideas. While the other spread offenses — and modern offenses in general — have readily evolved, the pure run-and-shoot remained just that: pure, leaving little room for experimentation. But that doesn’t mean it’s a dead offense.
The insights of Ellison, Davis, and Jones were so profound, they’ve permeated football itself. While we no longer see NFL teams trot out run-and-shoot classics like “Go,” “Switch,” and “Choice,” you see the practiced improvisation that is the run-and-shoot’s true legacy every time a receiver adjusts his pass route — from a corner to a post, or a curl to a corner — to find an opening in the defense.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “ ‘no NFL or college offense directly traces its roots back to the run-and-shoot’? Wasn’t Rolovich running it?” The answer is no, Rolovich actually was running the Pistol at Nevada at the time Brown wrote that piece. But the Run and Shoot has undergone a revival under Rolovich at Hawaii over the past two seasons, and that’s what he’ll bring to WSU.
Your biggest question probably is whether the Cougars’ personnel is well suited to adapt from the Air Raid to the Run and Shoot, and the short answer is yes, mostly. This is still a QB-powered, no-TE-four-wide-receiver offense, and Rolovich’s offensive coordinator at Hawaii has talked about how they prefer more agile linemen. All of those things set up well.
The big difference comes in that Rolovich uses his quarterbacks as a running threat — likely owing to the Pistol influence he picked up during his time at Nevada. We know that the QB signee in WSU’s 2020 class, Jayden de Laura, is a legitimate dual-threat guy; what we don’t know is if Cammon Cooper and Gunner Cruz can be good enough running the ball to satisfy Rolovich.
We’ll have a lot of time to dig deeeeeeep into the Run and Shoot over the coming months, but here’s a relatively quick take on how it compares to the Air Raid we’ve grown used to.
Schematically, the two offensive philosophies share quite a few similarities, and the product on the field is going to look awfully close to what it looked like under Leach. But there are a few nuances that separate the Run and Shoot from the Air Raid.
The first is how much more dependent the Run and Shoot is on its receivers to read the defense. The Air Raid does ask receivers to make some adjustments based on coverage — on Mesh, settling into the zone vs. running away from man coverage, for example. But the Run and Shoot asks receivers to read defenses on the fly and run significantly different routes based on that read.
To give you an idea of how that works, if the offense runs “Choice,” the outside receiver could be running a 12-yard out, a post, or an outside vertical, all based on the alignment and technique of the defender in front of him. And there are three other receivers all doing something similar:
The second major difference is that is that the Run and Shoot is actually less flexible in its formations than was the Air Raid. Except in rare cases, you won’t see WSU in an Empty set. Or the two-back look. Or the A-Frame. Or even Big Gulp. WSU will be in a 2x2 (two receivers on either side) or 3x1 (trips) set 99.9% of the time.
Finally, how the quarterback reads the play will be different. The Air Raid was very consistent in reading its progression from right to left across the field. It didn’t matter the play; with one exception, the quarterback was starting on the right side and scanning across to the left. The Run and Shoot loosens that up a bit, and will have the QB read specific areas of the field or a specific defender first, then work through to the other receivers.
Here are a few videos to help you with this quick introduction. If you’re looking for a deep dive into the Run and Shoot’s history and main tenets right off the bat, we highly suggest you read all of this. This is a bunch of links. And you also could pick yourself up a copy of S.C. Gwynne’s “The Perfect Pass,” which is mostly about the Air Raid but includes a good chunk about the Run and Shoot — and how their histories are intertwined.