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BUILDING A BETTER MOUSETRAP
Rick Telander
September 11, 1989
THE DETROIT LIONS, OF ALL TEAMS, HAVE HIRED RUN-AND-SHOOT GURU MOUSE DAVIS TO START A REVOLUTION
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September 11, 1989

Building A Better Mousetrap

THE DETROIT LIONS, OF ALL TEAMS, HAVE HIRED RUN-AND-SHOOT GURU MOUSE DAVIS TO START A REVOLUTION

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By that time a lot of people were interested in his views, but nobody in the NFL wanted him too close. The shoot, the big guys implied, just wasn't quite, ahem, manly enough for the rough-and-tumble NFL. In 1985, Buddy Ryan, now the Philadelphia Eagle head coach, said, "The run-and-shoot is no big deal. Will it work in the NFL? Sure, it might. For a weekend."

To pass the time after the USFL folded, Davis drove around the country in a mobile home with his wife, Beverly, and preached the glories of his offense to anybody who was interested. A few coaches listened, and colleges such as Holy Cross, Houston and South Carolina benefited from Mouse's crumbs of wisdom. Last season, Houston averaged 377.5 yards per game using the run-and-shoot; it also had two receivers who, for the first time in collegiate history, each caught more than 100 passes in a season. Both players—Jason Phillips, 5'7", who was a 10th-round draft choice despite leading the nation in receiving for the last two years, and James Dixon, 5'8", who signed on as a free agent—joined the Lions' roster at training camp this summer.

Houston head coach Jack Pardee, formerly a conservative coach on offense, became a convert when Davis served as his offensive coordinator with the Houston Gamblers in '84. "One of the nice things about this offense is that you don't have to recruit the same players as other teams," he says. "One of the hardest players to find in football is the all-purpose tight end, and you don't have to recruit one at all.

"If your receivers can run fast, they don't have to be big," says Pardee. "You use space, so you don't get beat up." The average height of the 13 wide receivers at the Lions' training camp this summer was 5'8", two inches shorter than the average last year. "We're not prejudiced against big guys," says Davis, "we're prejudiced for speed. We'd love to have 6'2", 200-pound guys who run 4.3 40s. But in America there just happen to be more little quick guys than big quick guys." Pardee makes another point about his experience with the run-and-shoot at Houston: "When you run, it's great." Indeed, the adjustments that defenses must make to battle the blitzkrieg—putting in five defensive backs, dropping players into deep zones quickly, removing big linebackers—soften up the defense for the run-and-shoot's traps, counters and draws. "People forget we had a thousand-yard rusher [Chuck Weatherspoon] last year," says Pardee. "He led the nation with an 8½-yards-per-carry average." Barry Sanders, are you listening?

While Davis was on the road proselytizing, Jones, who became a run-and-shoot convert while playing quarterback for Mouse at Portland State in the mid-'70s, hired on as the quarterback coach with the Houston Oilers. Jones installed the Oilers' "Red" offense, a selectively used run-and-shoot attack that helped pull the Oilers out of their offensive drudge and make Pro Bowl performers of quarterback Warren Moon and wideout Drew Hill. Coach Jerry Glanville liked the attack so much that by the end of last season the Oilers were using the Red formation on three quarters of their downs.

Meanwhile, the Lions, under coach Darryl Rogers, were continuing their time-honored march to the basement. Eleven games into the 1988 season, owner William Clay Ford fired Rogers. Ford and general manager Russ Thomas promoted defensive coordinator Fontes to head coach and gave him a three-year contract for an estimated $775,000. Fontes, an emotional, gregarious man who loves his players and assistant coaches and finishes his signature with a happy-face drawing, openly wept after he won his first game as head man.

To his credit, Fontes has assembled an all-star cast of assistant coaches, many of whom are former NFL head coaches or offensive or defensive coordinators, and he has allowed them to run their shows as they see fit. "If we win, there's credit for all," says Fontes. "If we lose, I'll take the blame."

Fontes's biggest move, of course, was turning the offense over to Davis. "A lot of teams use four wide receivers when time's running out or on third down," notes Fontes. "And they often succeed. As a defensive coach, I didn't like those things because I had to defense them. So, I figured, Why not have an offense that goes like that the whole game?"

Kelly, now the Buffalo Bills' quarterback, was dragged kicking and screaming into the offense when he first played for the Houston Gamblers in 1984. A year later, he was addicted to the shoot. "People are just too pansy to try it in the NFL," he says. "But I know it will work in this league. Mouse should be a head NFL coach. After they're successful at Detroit, people will beat down the door to sign him."

After practice one day at training camp in Rochester, Mich., Davis explains that getting a head coaching job is not a big deal to him. "If I have input, I don't care about any title," he says. "I do care about the stuff that goes into the offense, though." Embroidered on the sleeve of his coach's shirt is MOUSE. He got his nickname, he says, because he was a short kid. He's now a full-bodied 5'9". "I thought I'd lose it in the Navy," he says, looking at the inscription on his sleeve. Then he looks up with his usual easygoing smile. "This is an offense that continues to evolve," he goes on. "The questions people ask help me make it clearer. I know it looks like sandlot football, but in fact it takes more discipline than any other offense. The receivers and the quarterback have to make the same reads or you've got a hodgepodge." There are only eight plays in Davis's Silver Stretch attack, but each of them has dozens of options, depending on what the defense does (diagram, page 68). Mouse once dreamed up a formation he called the Ace, which he employed briefly when he was coaching at Sunset High in the mid-'60s. It was "a hell of an offense," he says. "But you could do so damn many things that I couldn't follow it. It was like being in a candy store where you can just eat it all. Well, the first thing you know, you're sick to your stomach!"

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