There is a motto for teams like the Detroit Lions, and it's not Restore the Roar! this season's catchy p.r. slogan for the meek ones from the Motor City. It's When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose, and it explains why the Lions have committed an NFL heresy and wedded themselves to—are you sitting?—the run-and-shoot offense.
The run-and-shoot, as all pro football fans are aware, is a half-baked, backyard fire drill that features a wild-eyed, scrambling quarterback tossing the ball constantly to a gang of pygmy receivers scurrying over the turf like ants on a honey spill. The attack pops up occasionally in the lower reaches of the football world and flourishes there briefly like a fungus until its practitioners play decent teams or its coaches leave to become shoe reps. It's the kind of thing pro coaches talk about over a beer or two, the way they talk about hang-gliding or hair transplants, things that are intriguing to virile, aging men but which those men would never actually get involved with. After all, they will tell you, the run-and-shoot is not an NFL offense; it's a sideshow.
And yet, second-year Lion coach Wayne Fontes has committed himself to the thing, hiring its inventor, 57-year-old Darrel (Mouse) Davis, as his unofficial offensive coordinator and telling Davis to "just get it done." Fontes must be stark raving mad to utter such words to a man who describes his offensive theory as "using the pass to set up the run," who has never coached a down in the NFL, who has been out of coaching entirely for the last three years, who once devised an offense at Sunset High School in Beaverton, Ore., that was so confusing to himself that he had to scrap it. But that's what Fontes has done, and Lion fans can strap themselves in for a ride either to the top of the NFL mountain or to the pit of absurdity.
In truth, the Lions have been so bad for so long that even if the run-and-shoot—dubbed the Silver Stretch by Fontes—should fail horribly, fans may never notice. It couldn't be worse than the old self-limiting offense that roared for 60 net yards and three first downs in a game against the Minnesota Vikings last year; an offense that veteran receiver Jeff Chadwick, a dignified family man, has called "a piece of———"; an offense that cranked out a grand total of 23 touchdowns in 1988, 16 fewer than Detroit's first-round draft choice, running back Barry Sanders, got by himself last season at Oklahoma State; an offense that averaged less yardage per pass last season (4.1) than nine NFL teams did on their runs.
The Lions finished with a 4-12 record in 1988, which dovetailed nicely with the 4-11 season from the previous year and the 5-11 from 1986. The Lions were hot in 1985, going 7-9. Over the last 31 seasons, they have finished first in their division exactly once, in 1983, when they were 9-7. A big offense in Detroit is the Ford Motor Company dropping the Taurus on the Japanese.
Enough was enough, Fontes decided. Enter the Mouse-man and his loyal sidekick, quarterback and receiver coach June Jones, once a quarterback for Davis, later an assistant and now a defender of the man and his system. Davis and Jones, the evangelist and his apostle. They have brought with them an offense that everybody thinks of as a gimmick, but that, when properly manned and deployed, has never been stopped. Davis has taught the offense from high school to college to the CFL to the USFL, and in 27 years he has had just one losing season with it, going 5-6 in 1979 at Portland State. "We were only about eight points from being 8-3 that year," he says philosophically. What went wrong? "I guess I did a diddly job of coaching," says Davis. The run-and-shoot is not all that radical, really. After all, there is only so much anyone can do with 11 padded men on a 100-yard field. The principal differences between the run-and-shoot and the conventional drop-back, two-running back, power-I or H-back NFL offenses are that the shoot always employs four wideouts, a single running back and no tight end. In fact, Detroit has just one tight end on the roster. "We need one so our defense can practice against regular offenses," says running back coach Dave Levy. The quarterback usually rolls or sprints to one side or the other, throwing the ball on steps one through nine to the right or steps two through eight to the left. Occasionally, the quarterback will tuck the ball away and run, but passing is what this offense is all about. The biggest difference for the receivers is that they have fixed patterns only in the playbook. Everything they do afield—curl, fly, hook, drag, sprint, post, flag—is determined by the reaction of the defense. The receivers are labeled X, Y, Z and Wing, though, as Davis points out, they could be called Frick, Frack and the Doublemint Twins for all the difference the labels make. Why does Davis call one player "Wing" instead of "W"? The coach shrugs. "No reason," he says.
Davis is decidedly uninterested in taking credit for devising the shoot. "I didn't invent anything," he says cheerfully. "I just stole from every coach, quarterback and player I've ever been involved with. Dutch Meyer, at TCU 50 years ago, ran a double wing. That's all this is—a sophisticated double wing. There's an old guy named Tiger Ellison [a quarterback coach for Woody Hayes at Ohio State in the '60s], who wrote a book called Run-and-Shoot: The Offense of the Future [in 1965]. He called me when I was with the Denver Gold and said, 'Mouse, keep scoring touchdowns! Every time you do, I sell another book.' Here we're calling it the Silver Stretch, Wayne's idea, because it stretches the defense. I like that. I never cared much for the name run-and-shoot."
Whatever the attack is called, Davis is the man who understands it best. If he is not the offense's father, he is certainly its legal guardian. What attracted him was its possibilities. He showed up for his first day as coach at Milwaukie High School in Oregon, in 1962, and the zeal with which he began explaining his newfangled attack captivated football players, nonplaying students and even the faculty. "It was so scientific," recalls Mouse's first-ever run-and-shoot quarterback, Jerry Costanzo, then a Milwaukie High junior, now a poet and English professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. "It turns smash-mouth football into tennis." The offense turned Milwaukie High into a winner and Costanzo into a Mouse Maniac. "It just dumbfounds me that a genius is not at the top," says the outraged professor.
At Portland State University, where Davis was the coach from 1975 through 1980, his teams rewrote the NCAA Division I-AA record book, setting 20 offensive records and leading the nation in scoring three times. In Davis's final two years at PSU, quarterback Neil Lomax threw for 8,044 yards and 63 touchdowns. In 1980, Mouse's PSU team averaged 49.2 points per game. When Davis became offensive coordinator for the last-place Toronto Argonauts of the CFL in 1982, he installed the run-and-shoot and promptly led the team to back-to-back appearances in the Grey Cup, winning the CFL title in 1983. The possibilities in the Canadian game, with its wider field, 12-man teams and unlimited motion rules, nearly caused Davis's brain to explode with delight. "We just scratched the surface up there," he says. "You could do stuff on that field that would be unstoppable."
When he went to the USFL Houston Gamblers in 1984, Davis turned that team into an offensive powder keg. With quarterback Jim Kelly flinging and a pack of minireceivers (the Mousketeers) catching, the Gamblers played something resembling basketball on grass. In two years, Kelly threw for 83 touchdowns and Mouse Club wideout Richard Johnson (5'6", 185 pounds), who is now playing for the Lions, caught 218 passes. Davis worked a little more magic as head coach of the USFL Denver Gold in 1985, taking that 9-9 team to an 11-7 record and the playoffs, but he found himself out of a job when the league suspended play in 1986.