"They had a great offense already," says Ault. "Then they added a gazelle."
"[The pistol] is here to stay," says veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio of the 49ers. "The run-and-shoot faded, the Wildcat had a little run. This is a Wildcat with a real quarterback. It stresses the defense with the run and the pass, and I can tell you from seeing it every day: There aren't magical answers to stopping it."
Later this month Falcons coach Mike Smith will gather the members of his defensive staff and hand them an assignment. He will remind them about the playoff games against Wilson and Kaepernick. The former threw against them at will. Maybe the latter could have, but the fear of Kaepernick's arm and feet freed the Niners' backs to run wild. Smith will tell his staff, Figure out how to stop these mobile guys who can throw. Diagnose the option read.
"I won't be alone," Smith says. "You can bet every defensive coach in the league will vet this offense. Every one of my coaches will be assigned a specific element. They'll research it, they'll present their findings, and we'll add some strategy to our playbook for next season."
So what do teams do to adjust? SI asked four defensive assistants who faced either San Francisco or Washington in 2012 to predict how the league would scheme to stop the pistol. They focused on three positions: corners who can cover without safety help, quick defensive ends who can shed blocks, and linebackers who can cover. Cornerbacks will have to go man-to-man more often because safeties will be needed to help in run support and in diagnosing the pistol. Defensive ends, instead of rushing upfield to sack the quarterback, will spy the passer instead and mirror his movements. And more than ever linebackers will keep one eye on runners waiting for a handoff that may get yanked back and the other eye on receivers trolling the middle.
"The defense," says one veteran coordinator, "has to be a lot more disciplined against the pistol." Teams will need more corners like Seattle's Richard Sherman on islands, to take away good wideouts; more pass rushers like Cameron Wake to shed guards and tackles and keep mobile quarterbacks from breaking past the line of scrimmage; more linebackers like Patrick Willis to cover intermediate areas and make sure the backs who take pistol handoffs don't break runs for big gains.
The crazy thing is, offenses aren't done dictating. Chip Kelly brings his breakneck attack from Oregon to the Eagles, and as Tony Dungy, whose son Eric played for Kelly in college, said, Expect speed. "I think the offense he'll run will be very similar to what Buffalo ran with Jim Kelly, the K-Gun," says Tony. "High pace, fast tempo, making a defense respond to what he's doing."
Another aspect of Kelly's approach will enter the league in 2013. Last off-season Marrone studied the fast-paced offenses at Oregon, Missouri and Toledo. "I got to believe how important pressuring those pressure defenses was," Marrone says. "My players loved it." Syracuse scored 100 more points in 2012 than in '11, ran 214 more offensive plays—and won three more games. Stevie Johnson and C.J. Spiller, start your engines.
In late June 2011, Wilson left the Asheville Tourists. He drove to Madison, Wis., got there on Fourth of July weekend and began studying the playbook. "A total sponge," says departing Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien, who worked out with Wilson that July. Tolzien helped Wilson transition from the West Coast he ran at N.C. State to the more downfield-conscious Wisconsin scheme. Paul Chryst, then the Badgers' offensive coordinator, said that by the time practice began in August, Wilson "knew the offense—all of it. Shocked me." After three weeks of practice Wilson was elected a captain. In a new offense he threw 33 touchdown passes and just four interceptions and led the Badgers to a win over Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.
Seahawks G.M. John Schneider, scouting that game, found Wilson's older brother, Harry, and grilled him for personal information about Russell. "I don't know how many big brothers can say they look up to their little brother," Harry said, "but I do." In Russell, Schneider saw a combination of charisma, intelligence, and leadership by example. Bevell, the Seahawks' offensive coordinator, says he is "blown away by [Wilson's] uncommon belief in himself."