Many say that the run and shoot offense was killed off in 1996, after the Atlanta Falcons finished tied for second with the worst record in the NFL at 3-13. The New York Jets finished at 1-15 and the New Orleans Saints finished at 3-13.
The Atlanta Falcons scored 309 points on the year, finishing 6th amongst NFC teams in that regard. They managed to score 20, 17, and 31 points in their three wins that season. So… what went wrong? Many things, starting with quarterback Jeff George.
A year after the Falcons went 9-7 and made the playoffs, Jeff George started the first three games before blowing up at June Jones on the sideline after getting yanked in an eventual 33-18 loss. He would subsequently be suspended for the rest of the season after throwing for 698 yards with 3 TD vs. 3 INT.
Atlanta was forced to turn to 36 year old Bobby Hebert who had thrown 2,978 yards and 24 TD in 1993. He was effective throwing the ball in that he threw for 3,152 yards and 22 TD in only 13 starts but also turned the ball over 35 times by himself (25 INT, 10 fumbles). Still, that was an average of 242 passing yards per start, which is quite respectable. He finished 8th in passing yards, 6th in pass completion percentage, and 7th in passing touchdowns that year. The big statistic was the #1 spot in interceptions.
Well, we all know that the run and shoot is tailor made for quarterbacks and wide receivers. Their running back probably didn’t do that well, right? Jamal Anderson finished tied for 5th in yard per rush and in only 12 starts he had 1,055 yards on 232 carries. That would be good for an average of 88 yards per start and 66 yards rushing per game in 16 games.
Bert Emanuel, Terance Mathis, and Eric Metcalf combined for 198 catches and averaged 11.6 yards per catch. They also combined for 19 TD catches and had a long of 67, meaning that all three were very adept possession receivers.
If the run and shoot offense wasn’t the major issue… what was?
#1: Bad luck on the schedule. Their first win didn’t come until week ten, after they had started the season off with an awful 0-8 record. During that time, they had five losses in games that were decided by ten points or fewer and their first win was 20-17. Overall, on the season they played in ten games decided by ten points or fewer; only winning two of them.
#2: The differential in turnover ratio. In their 0-8 stretch the offense accounted for seventeen turnovers while the defense had only eight takeaways. On the year, the offense had 41 turnovers and the defense helped the team out by getting the ball only 23 times (with six interceptions).
#3: The defense was unspeakably bad. As a unit, they finished 30th in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed. They allowed 25 first downs via penalty (1.5 per game) and held only two opponents to games under 300 yards of total offense. They won both of those games. Their defense would disappear at times as when they wanted to be, they could be effective (5 games under 100 yards rushing and 6 games under 200 yards passing).
Of their three draftees in 1995, none were effective at all on defense. First round pick Devin Bush had 1 FR and played in only 11 games. Second round pick Ron Davis had 1 FR in only 12 games and 1995 was the only season he played in the NFL. Third round pick Lorenzo Styles didn’t start any games during 1995 and lasted only six years in the NFL, largely as a special teams player. In the 1996 draft they did not have a 1st or 2nd round pick. Their best pick, Juran Bolden, only played 9 games that year for them.
#4: Media backlash. This was the only other season in the very brief nine year existence of the run and shoot in the NFL where a team that employed the offense finished with fewer than six victories on the season. The year before in 1995, the Falcons with the same offense finished with 9 wins and made the playoffs. Jeff George had thrown for over 4,000 yards with 24 TD vs. 11 INT and Craig Heyward had run for over 1,000 yards. This, despite the defense still finishing 19th in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed.
The run and shoot had failed to win the Super Bowl, which in hindsight is what killed the offense in terms of teams being willing to run such a “radical” offense. In 1991 with the 24th ranked defense in yards allowed, Atlanta had still finished with 10 wins and it wasn’t the defense doing the job. Houston had a top 15 defense in yards allowed in six of its seven seasons and won 61 games but the run and shoot got yanked due to the lack of SB success. Ignoring the fact that they made the AFC Championship game and made the playoffs all seven seasons.
From 1990-1995, Atlanta had won 43 games during that time span with the run and shoot offense. The best their defense ranked in yards allowed was 19th, way back in 1990. From 1997-2002, Dan Reeves led Atlanta to only 46 wins with a far more conventional offense.
The media and critics sneered at the run and shoot and still do today, calling it a gimmick offense that doesn’t work over the long haul and won’t win the Super Bowl. It didn’t do Atlanta any favors and since they were the last team running this foreign offense, it only made sense for it to finally disappear when Atlanta “proved” that the offense didn’t work. Although in reality it was the defense that largely failed with a little help from the offense. In the three years prior, Atlanta had improved in wins each season from 6 to 7 to 9. Maybe it could have led to another 9 wins in 1997 because Reeves won only 7 games despite average 1 more point per game and 6 fewer points per game on defense.