By Jason Wilde
GREEN BAY - Mike Holmgren never was a big fan of the shotgun formation. And when he finally did give it a try, it didn't take much for him to pull the plug on it permanently.
Like his anti-shotgun mentor in the West Coast offense, San Francisco 49ers mastermind Bill Walsh, Holmgren didn't believe the shotgun's benefits outweighed its drawbacks, so he never used it during his first six years as Green Bay Packers coach. Then, during a training-camp practice before the 1998 season, he finally relented because then-offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis and quarterback Brett Favre wanted to try it.
But when then-starting center Frank Winters sent the second snap sailing over Favre's head, Holmgren had seen enough, stomping angrily into the offensive huddle. The formation was never seen again in Green Bay on Holmgren's watch. And although Holmgren's current team, the Seattle Seahawks, has regularly practiced the shotgun under Holmgren, he has yet to use it in a game.
In Green Bay, the attitude is quite different nowadays. Holmgren may have been the mentor to current Packers coach Mike Sherman, but despite two errant snaps by center Mike Flanagan in the team's last game at Minnesota Oct. 21 and the possibility that the shotgun is adversely affecting its rushing production, Sherman and offensive coordinator Tom Rossley have no intention of dumping it.
"A lot of teams are bringing unusual blitzes and unusual looks, and (the shotgun) gives the quarterback a little more time. And we can run the ball out of that formation," Rossley said Wednesday, as his offense prepared for Sunday's game vs. Tampa Bay at Lambeau Field. "It's becoming a common thing around the league. We've had a couple bad snaps that's the biggest worry you have in that (but) we'll continue to use it."
Favre said Wednesday that he also likes the shotgun which was first installed by Lewis during the 1999 season following Holmgren's departure because of the freedom and time it affords him on passing plays.
"It allows you to not only be away from the blitz sooner, but it allows you to see things developing much sooner," said Favre, who has thrown only two of his 14 touchdown passes from the shotgun. "When you take a snap (from under center), by the time you get back into position, blitzers have a better chance of closing in on you, and forcing you into a throw you're not ready to make. That's why I like the stuff that we've run out of the shotgun, it's enabled me to get away from the rush."
The shotgun's appeal to Favre, Rossley and Sherman stems from the Packers' victory over reigning Super Bowl-champion Baltimore on Oct. 14, when Green Bay spread the field and operated out of the shotgun a whopping 38 times in 60 offensive plays. It worked wonders, of course, as Favre threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens' previously-impenetrable defense.
But the Packers' success in that game may have clouded their view of the shortcomings of the shotgun. Not only is there the danger of bad snaps, but the shotgun takes away the traditional running game and play-action passing game.
Although the Packers have run the ball out of the shotgun Favre takes the snap 5 yards deep and hands off to the running back beside him they haven't been as effective as they have from the traditional I-formation.
During the first two games of the season, the Packers used the I on a little more than half their plays, and halfback Ahman Green rushed for a league-leading 273 yards and a 6.5-yard average per carry. Green even managed 53 yards on 19 carries at Carolina working mostly from the I-formation, in spite of the turf nightmare that occurred at Ericsson Stadium.
It all changed at Tampa Bay, however, when the Packers ran 23 of 58 plays from the shotgun. Then came their success against the Ravens, and in their 35-13 loss to the Vikings, the Packers were in the shotgun for 29 of 51 plays. All told, the Packers have been in the shotgun on 90 of 169 plays the last three weeks (53.3 percent).
"They've gone away from the traditional running game and they've gotten into some (new) things," Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy said. "I don't know how much of that was just situations or how much of that was (changing) the personality of their offense. We're preparing a little bit for (the shotgun), but I think we're going to see their traditional game."
That would seem to be the wise choice. Green has managed just 186 yards on 46 carries during the past three games since the shotgun took hold of the Packers offense, and 61 of those yards came on one carry an explosive run from the I-formation behind a lead block by fullback William Henderson. Unofficially, Green has run 12 times for 53 yards from the shotgun.
With five home games remaining as well as cold-weather games at Chicago Nov. 11 and at the New York Giants Jan. 6 Sherman knows he must return to the traditional running game and be more discriminating in his use of the shotgun, even against top-flight defenses like the Buccaneers.
"Everybody understands the necessity of balance in the National Football League and in this division, especially to run the football effectively," Sherman said. "That certainly controls the tempo of the football game, something I'm very much interested in doing. In order for us to be successful, (we have) to continue to work with the running game. But if a team is (determined) to take away the run … you hope on those days that you're able to take advantage of the pass."
Jason Wilde is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.