Chip Kelly believes his job is to provide players with answers.
If he hasn’t armed them with solutions to their on-field problems, he has come up short as a coach.
Last year, there were many answers as the Eagles had one of the top offenses in the league, setting franchise records in points, yards and a number of other categories. There were occasions, though, where opposing defensive coordinators stymied the Birds' attack.
So the offseason has been about adding layers to the offense. The foundation remains the same: spread 'em out and run the ball until the opponent forces you to do something else. But there will be new wrinkles added in 2014. Some might be obvious in four days when the Eagles host the Jaguars. We might not see others until November or later, depending on the rhythm of the season.
Either way, it seems likely that one of the wrinkles revealed itself in the preseason: the pistol.
The fine folks over at The ChipWagon have done a lot of the legwork on this topic. While the starters were on the sideline in the preseason finale, the backups picked up 44 yards on eight carries out of the pistol.
"Yeah, we showed those in earlier games," Kelly said afterwards. "When the back is not offset from the quarterback, you can run plays in either direction. But we've run that a couple other times in the preseason. It's something that's always been in for us."
The pistol is not a play, but a formation. Here's a look from the Eagles' final preseason game against the Jets:
As you can see, the back is stationed directly behind the quarterback, not off to the side as is the norm in the Eagles' offense.
"It’s just a different formation," said guard Evan Mathis. "It’s a different alignment for the back and the quarterback. It’s good not to always do the same thing, so it’s just a changeup."
Added Nick Foles: "It's a formation that the defense has to look at and prepare for, and you can do a lot of different things out of it. It's just one of our formations that we like."
The pistol was created by former Nevada head coach (and current consultant with the Kansas City Chiefs) Chris Ault.
"Everybody thinks the pistol is just a read, but the pistol is a formation," Ault told the San Jose Mercury News in 2013. "And from that formation, if you're a power offense, you can run the power. If you're a counter offense, you can run the counter. It's not just a read offense. I think the read offers another dimension to it, but it's really a versatile formation."
Versatile. That's a word Kelly loves. Yet for years, observers confused what his Oregon teams did with what Ault and other teams were doing. Before the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, Kelly was asked about the pistol.
"Don't know. Haven't been there," he said. "Don't run the pistol offense. That's not what we do."
"Chris Ault at Nevada invented the pistol offense. Just retired. Great football coach out there. There's lots of ways to play football. Pistol, don't know that very well. We're more of a spread run team."
Eagles players used mostly vague terms Tuesday when discussing the pistol. Most agreed that it was part of the arsenal last year, yet no one could remember it ever being used in a game.
So why does Kelly think it can help the Eagles now?
"The broad sense of the term is that when you’re in the shotgun, defensive players have a lot more tipoff on the plays that you can get, just based on the running back’s alignment," said Jason Kelce. "When you’re in pistol, it makes it a little bit more difficult for the defense to be able to get pre-snap reads on where the ball is going.
"Whenever you’re in formations, whether it’s putting a tight end right or a receiver left, that gives the defensive players tips on certain plays that we’re gonna run because everybody has tendencies to run certain plays out of certain formations. So when the back is offset, it’s a little different. Now when the back’s directly behind the quarterback, that tips off a lot less. There might be certain plays you like out of pistol, and then all of a sudden, you’re tipping stuff off with that as well. But it’s just another tool that offensive coordinators, I think, try to use in order to not tip too much off to the defense."
Kelly loves talking about tools in the toolbox. We know the foundation of the Eagles' offense is the inside zone. In the run game, there is also the split zone, the outside zone and the sweep.
It appears the Eagles are adding the pistol as another tool in 2014.
"For the defense, it limits their prediction of where the ball might go, where they could overload strengths because of the back to that side," said quarterback Matt Barkley. "The back can go in either direction, including in pass pro… he can go either way. I think it just enhances the offense’s ability to remain ambiguous with their play-calls."
Added Darren Sproles: "It’s good, because for me, behind the quarterback, they can’t see me. So it’s always good for me. Then when the line raises up, they don’t know where we’re at."
The name pistol was given to the formation because the quarterback is generally closer to the line of scrimmage than when he's in the shotgun. The standard pistol depth has been cited as 4 yards. But that's not how the Eagles seem to be running it. As you can see in the above picture, the quarterback is 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That's the same depth Eagles quarterbacks set up at on traditional shotgun snaps.
The running back, meanwhile, is at a depth of 7 yards. What makes this a pistol look is that he is directly 2 yards behind the quarterback.
"The defense doesn’t know what side the back’s on, and plus they can’t see you so by the time you’re getting to their level, you’re already full speed," said running back Chris Polk. "So the spacing and separation of pistol, it works perfectly just to time it. ...We get a running start, and we get the ball sooner."
The guess here is that the pistol will be another option the Eagles can turn to in the run game (and for play-action). It might not appear every week or even in the early part of the season. But when Kelly's looking for a switch-up that will keep the defense from guessing and sniffing out the offense's foundation plays, he now has something else to go to.
"Offensively, they’re just trying to disguise what they’re doing," said rookie nose tackle Beau Allen. "So as a defense, you want to try to get as many pre-snap keys as you can, especially as a defensive lineman. ...Any kind of change they can make to disguise their offense is a good thing."
Added backup center David Molk: "Like everything in football, the offense is trying to outsmart the defense. And that’s all we’re doing. Changing a look. Changing the perception of what they think it is, and giving us the upper hand."