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Victor Cruz, the New York Giants, and Shades of the Run-and-Shoot Offense

Good strategies may fade away, but they never die

Nnew York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz has been nothing short of a phenomenon this year. In 2010, his first season, the undrafted free agent had the kind of woulda-coulda-shoulda start to an NFL career that more often leads to telling your grandkids that you almost made it rather than to a fruitful career. Cruz followed a breakout preseason game against the New York Jets — 145 receiving yards and three touchdowns — with a season-ending injury. Your grandfather once played for the Giants! I scored three touchdowns in one game! After that, little was expected of the undersized and unheralded receiver who claims to be 6-foot-1 in cleats. But Cruz returned and delivered one of the most memorable seasons for a receiver in memory. He racked up 1,536 yards on 82 catches for a staggering 18.7 yards per catch and produced some of the season’s most memorable plays, like a 99-yard touchdown against the Jets and a 74-yarder against the Cowboys in Week 17 that helped propel the Giants into the playoffs. And, of course, he capped off each score with his patented salsa dance, which is the only touchdown move I’ve seen be analyzed by a dance instructor. It all amounts to a pretty good bedtime story.

Cruz’s success is even more fascinating for how he accomplished it. He put up huge numbers by playing what has historically been an unheralded spot — the slot receiver. Cruz lines up inside rather than on the outside of a formation. This season, Cruz’s production is not quite as unusual, since several of the league’s top receivers played some form of inside receiver spot, whether it was Wes Welker or Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. Even so, the classic image of a great wide receiver isn’t a diminutive speedster lined up in the slot; it’s Calvin Johnson or Jerry Rice — bigger, more physical, lined up out wide and ready to streak down the sideline or run a deep route. Yet Cruz’s success is in no way unprecedented. Indeed, Cruz is the latest in a long line of slot receivers who have operated within the run-and-shoot offense, which forms the backbone of the Giants’ passing attack.

The run-and-shoot was supposed to be dead, at least in the NFL. The offense (at least one form of it) was conceived by Glenn “Tiger” Ellison back in the 1950s, while Darrel “Mouse” Davis developed its modern form throughout a four-decade coaching career that has touched nearly every level of football imaginable. The offense had its moment of glory in the NFL in the early 1990s. Back then, the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, and Houston Oilers (and the Seattle Seahawks, extremely briefly) ran the ‘shoot, which featured four wide receivers and one running back on every snap. The offense used no fullbacks and no tight ends.1 These teams had mixed success. The Lions won 12 games in 1991; the Falcons won 10 and made the playoffs twice during their ‘shoot days. But the NFL team that most exemplified the run-and-shoot, in both its glory and its shame, was the Houston Oilers. The Oilers made the playoffs in seven straight years with the run-and-shoot (and fielded a top-10 offense in each season), and quarterback Warren Moon blitzkrieged defenses with his four-receiver aerial assault. But the Oilers never reached the Super Bowl, and they managed to be on the wrong end of the greatest playoff comeback in NFL history. Against the Buffalo Bills in the 1993 wild-card round, Moon threw four first-half touchdowns, but he wasn’t able to burn the clock and the defense collapsed in the second half of a 41-38 loss. The Oilers became part of an even more ignominious moment the following year, when Buddy Ryan, Houston’s defensive coordinator, punched the team’s offensive coordinator in the face.2 Ryan was no fan of the run-and-shoot, which he called the “chuck-and-duck.”

Eventually, a consensus formed around the league that a team couldn’t win championships with the run-and-shoot, and teams abandoned the offense. Without a tight end or fullback, they said, the ‘shoot was “finesse only” and lacked the physical element necessary to win.3 But not everyone agreed. When Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson heard Houston had given up on the offense, he said: “Tell the owner thank you, and tell the front office thank you. The run-and-shoot got the Oilers where they are, and I think defenses all over the league are going to be very relieved when they hear about it.”

But the run-and-shoot went out of fashion for a reason. In a modern NFL full of tight ends and multiple formations, an offense that limits itself to one personnel grouping — whether it’s four receivers and one running back or two running backs and a tight end — can’t be successful. The run-and-shoot forced the Oilers, Lions, and Falcons to protect their quarterback with six players; without multiple looks, today’s defenses would develop schemes to destroy those protections. Indeed, what killed the run-and-shoot wasn’t the playoff failures or the perceived lack of physicality, but rather the zone blitz, which was designed to defuse the kind of six-man protection schemes that run-and-shoot teams used on every down. For a while, at least, everyone around football seemed to agree that the run-and-shoot had died and would never come back.

But the run-and-shoot never left. No, I’m not talking about the increased use of multiple receiver sets or the emphasis on passing in this year’s NFL. Both trends exist, but they aren’t necessarily tied to the ‘shoot. Instead, I’m referring to the famous route packages that Mouse Davis invented and every ‘shoot team since has used: “streak,” “switch,” “go,” Choice, and so on. What made the ‘shoot special — and truly explosive — was that it was backyard football writ to the NFL. Instead of the traditional pro football approach, where a team might have hundreds of pass plays, each with multiple variations, that the quarterbacks and receivers were all required to practice and memorize, the run-and-shoot was simple.

Tiger Ellison’s 1950s book on the run-and-shoot described the coach’s experience of going to a playground to watch how kids actually play football outside of organized teams. He didn’t see anyone getting in a power formation and running the ball off tackle. Instead, he saw the kid with the best arm run around and search for someone to throw the ball to. The receivers had no predetermined routes; they just looked for open areas and ran to get away from their defenders. Ellison had a revelation: High-level football shouldn’t have to fight this impulse. It should be based on what comes naturally to every kid who picks up a ball. And the run-and-shoot was born.

Prior to Ellison’s insight, the great leaps in football strategy had been rooted in increased organization, increased precision, and increased discipline. Coaches like the great Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns drew on the lessons of World War II — and installed martial-style techniques like huddles, playbooks, game plans, and rigorous drilling. Football, with its brief outbreaks of battle and long stretches of quiet planning, is more steeped in militaristic virtues than any other sport.

Ellison saw another strand running through the game, one closer to rugby, football’s Continental forebear, as well as sports like basketball and soccer where fluid, on-the-fly athletic intelligence matters as much as planning. While teams like the Browns achieved victory with the inevitability of a Roman legion marching through some soon-to-be-conquered territory, Ellison’s “Now Attack” was ad hoc guerrilla warfare.

Mouse Davis organized Ellison’s insights into the offense the Oilers ran 40 years later, and he did so by combining Brown’s military approach with Ellison’s free-flowing game. Each pass play was designed with the rigor of Brown’s battle plans, but instead of a single assignment, each wide receiver was given a decision tree. If the play was “go,” the slot receiver might run deep; he might stop and turn back to the quarterback after about eight yards; he might run 10 or 12 yards and then break across the field; or he might go deep, but instead of going straight he’d run diagonally upfield. Ultimately, the decision didn’t really belong to the receiver. Just like backyard football, it depended on the defense. Just as Ellison taught, while a receiver might have a variety of different assignments on a given play, he is ultimately given one overarching, all-encompassing command: Get open.

It’s true that the “pure” run-and-shoot is never coming back to the NFL. But this aspect of the offense — the read-and-react style that rang up huge numbers in the early 1990s — has never left. It was merely co-opted into other attacks. For an offense that is supposedly defunct, it may be surprising to know that almost every team in the NFL uses some piece of the old Oilers offense, whether it is a type of read route or an entire concept. In this way, Victor Cruz and the Giants’ success is no surprise. Cruz is a current-day Ernest Givins — the gutsy, undersized slot receiver who has a knack for reading defenses (and uses that skill to shatter receiving records). And let’s not forget the name of the Oilers’ offensive coordinator at whom Buddy Ryan took a swing: It was Kevin Gilbride, offensive coordinator for the 2011-12 New York Giants.

After leaving the Oilers, Gilbride joined the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars under their new head coach, Tom Coughlin. Given the sorry history of expansion franchises, they searched for an offense that would give the Jaguars an edge. Coughlin had no interest in running the “chuck-and-duck,” but over the next few seasons Gilbride and Coughlin blended their styles into an attack that helped Mark Brunell lead the league in passing in the franchise’s second season and brought Jacksonville to the AFC championship game twice. Gilbride left after the 1996 season and bounced around as a coordinator before reuniting with Coughlin in New York.

The Giants’ offense is different from what Coughlin and Gilbride ran in Jacksonville, but it retains many of the same elements: a mixture of traditional sets and spread looks, along with several old run-and-shoot favorites. As long as Coughlin coaches the Giants, they will be a run-first team, but it’s also clear that this season’s Eli Manning-led passing attack has been the one constant for an inconsistent 9-7 team that now hopes to complete another run from the wild card to the Super Bowl.

Cruz is the player who makes the New York offense truly dynamic. From his slot receiver position, it’s his job to, well, get open. Earlier this season, when Gilbride described Cruz’s job and development on the field, it sounded like a flashback to the run-and-shoot Oilers:

“When you are in that inside position and that is where we needed somebody to be, there is a lot going on. It is so much easier outside because you have a corner, and if the corner goes deep or rolls up and the safety is over the top, that is it. But inside you have somebody over your head, you have a linebacker, a safety and the other safety across, you have so many more variables in the equation of [Cruz] making the final decision. … [Cruz] has really reduced the number of errors he makes and he is making a lot of good decisions, and you saw the great plays. Even on the ones where he reads it right and his decision was right. He is doing the right things and I am really proud of him and what has taken place because I don’t know how fair it was to expect so much. We always knew we had a guy that we knew could do it but you never know if they are going to do it.”

A perfect example of Cruz excelling in a run-and-shoot play this season came in Week 3 against the Eagles. On third-and-2, Gilbride called an old staple — the “switch” concept. At the snap, the inside receiver, Cruz, and the outside receiver, Hakeem Nicks, were to “switch” their releases by crisscrossing past each other. But that’s just where the fun begins. Each receiver still had multiple decisions to make. Nicks’ job was to run an inside “seam read” route. Depending on how the defense played him, Nicks might go vertical or he might break across the field. Cruz’s first responsibility was to get deep, but if the defense played him over the top to take away the deep ball, his job was to stop and look for a pass in the open space. On the play, the Eagles blitzed and Cruz found an open spot in the defense and waited. Manning found him, and 74 yards and several broken tackles later, the Giants had a touchdown.

The image below is an actual page from Coughlin and Gilbride’s playbook with the Jaguars, showing how they run the old Switch in modern football with a tight end.

Switch play

Examples of these run-and-shoot concepts abound in the Giants’ game plans. Cruz reads the defense on almost every pass play, and the Giants’ favorite passing formation is a variant on the run-and-shoot’s Choice concept, with Hakeem Nicks as a single backside receiver with multiple route options while three receivers to the other side run a different formation. This forces defenses to pick their poison: Guard Nicks one-on-one and Manning will throw to him all day, just as Warren Moon once did with guys like Haywood Jeffires. If the defense sends additional players to Nicks’ side, space opens up for the run game inside or for the other receivers, just as it did for Cruz on his 99-yard touchdown against the Jets. For a dead offense, that’s pretty good.

In football, the narrative is never as simple as it seems. Do the Giants run the run-and-shoot? No, of course not. But they use pieces of it, just as every other NFL team does. Drew Brees’ best pass play is four verticals, where the receivers can adjust on the fly — a ‘shoot staple; the Patriots use a plethora of option routes, where receivers are given the freedom to get open and break in any direction they want; and even Peyton Manning’s great Colts offenses frequently asked receivers to read routes on the fly. Maybe these players and coaches use run-and-shoot concepts without knowing where they came from, but they use them.

There are few absolute truths in football. One is that championships are won with talent and hard work more than anything else. Another is that good ideas don’t die. They merely get assimilated. This year’s Giants are the proof.

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