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Red Hickey and the Shotgun Formation

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

The shot gun formation is one of the most popular formations in all levels of football yet few know the origins of this formation. Interestingly enough its origins reside in the Bay Area. The 49ers of the late 1950’s were a talented group but could not get past powerhouses such as Baltimore. Their coach, Red Hickey, designed the formation with the idea that the quarterback could pass the ball faster. He called his new invention “the shotgun” due to its propensity for firing footballs all over the field.

The formation was not exactly new. Pop Warner had used a version of it called the Double Wing B-formation. He used this formation at Stanford University in the 1930’s. Other teams had used a short punt formation in a similar fashion which Hickey was using the shotgun. While the early pioneers may have inspired Hickey to use the formation, it was Hickey who introduced the formation to the modern NFL and the rest of the football world.

The First Game

As stated earlier, the formation was introduced to combat teams such as the Baltimore Colts and in fact that was the formation’s first victim. The 49ers unveiled the shotgun to the football world on November 27, 1960 against the Colts. The 49ers were desperate for a quarterback having lost both Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie to injury. Bob Waters filled in and he took hold of the moment. The Colts were stunned by the formation though not just because of its’ passing capabilities. To the Colts great surprise the 49ers were able to run well out of the formation. The 49ers upset the Colts 30-22 and ended up winning three out of their four remaining games. Brodie recovered from his injury to finish the year as the formation’s trigger man.

Early Death and Resurrection

The 49ers traded Tittle before the 1961 season and drafted quarterback Billy Kilmer. Hickey made the decision to rotate Brodie, Waters and Kilmer throughout the season. The strategy worked for the first few weeks of the season and the team started 4-1. In their first game against the Los Angeles Rams that year, the 49ers never once had to revert to the standard T-formation.

Their strategy backfired when they played the Bears. Hall of Fame middle linebacker Bill George found a weakness in the offense and instead of lining up as a traditional linebacker he stood above the center. This gave the quarterbacks less time to throw and threw the entire offense completely off kilter. The Bears humbled the 49ers 31-0 and Hickey was thoroughly embarrassed. He decided that the offense was as good as dead and scrapped it for a more traditional offense lining up under center. The shotgun would be dead for the next decade.

The Dallas Cowboys had wanted to try the shotgun since its birth but their quarterback at the time, Don Meredith, never got comfortable lining up seven yards behind center. They waited until Roger Staubach took over the offense. Staubach then led them to three Super Bowl appearances in the 1970’s along with two victories on the sport’s biggest stage.

Today, the shotgun is widely used in all levels of football. The formation fits well with the rise of the passing game as well as more mobile quarterbacks taking over the NFL. The 1960 and 1961 49ers did not win many games but their “invention” changed the way football is played forever.

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