What is the definition of shotgun in American football?

The shotgun formation in American football is an offensive alignment that has become increasingly popular over the years. This strategy involves the quarterback lining up about five yards behind the center, allowing for more time to read the defense and execute passing plays. The origin of the term “shotgun” is thought to be due to its resemblance to a shotgun spraying receivers around the field.

This formation is often used in situations where teams are looking to prioritize their passing game, although some teams have adopted the shotgun as their primary formation. By providing the quarterback with more time and space, the shotgun allows for a better assessment of the defensive coverage and reduces the likelihood of a sack. The versatility of the shotgun formation also allows running backs and wide receivers to be positioned in various alignments, resulting in a more dynamic offense.

Key Takeaways

  • The shotgun formation provides the quarterback with more time to read the defense and execute passing plays
  • Its versatility allows for a dynamic offense with running backs and wide receivers in various positions
  • Increased popularity can be attributed to its success in providing teams with a more effective passing game

Basic Terminology

In American football, a shotgun is an offensive formation where the quarterback lines up about five yards behind the center. This formation allows the quarterback to have a better view of the field and more time to make decisions, as opposed to the traditional formation where the quarterback is directly under the center.

The shotgun formation can also include running backs positioned to either side of the quarterback and wide receivers spread out across the field. This setup provides various passing and running lane options for the quarterback and helps stretch out the defense.

The term “shotgun” derives from the formation’s similarity to the way a shotgun shell disperses pellets when fired, spreading them out in different directions. This formation is designed for passing plays, but it can also be used for running plays or play-action passes, which involve a fake handoff followed by a pass.

The shotgun formation has evolved from single wing and double-wing spread formations, with roots tracing back to the 1930s. It is now commonly used in all levels of football, from high school to the NFL, due to its versatility and adaptability to various offensive schemes.

While utilizing the shotgun formation, quarterbacks may call an audible, which is a change in the original play just before the snap. They do this when they believe the original play would not work out well based on the defensive formation.

Understanding the shotgun formation and its basic terminology is essential for fans and players alike, as it plays a significant role in modern American football strategy.

Shotgun Formation

The shotgun formation is an offensive strategy used in American and Canadian football. This formation is characterized by the quarterback lining up about five yards behind the center, with the center snapping the ball through the air to the quarterback at the start of the play. Originally evolved from the single wing and double-wing spread formations, the shotgun has become increasingly popular in recent years as more teams have focused on their passing game.

Though often employed in obvious passing situations, some teams opt to use the shotgun formation as their base setup. By positioning the quarterback further back, this formation helps to give them more time to survey the field and read the opposing team’s defense before making a decision. This additional time potentially allows the quarterback to find open receiving targets or evade oncoming pass rushers.

In addition to the quarterback’s placement, the shotgun formation can also incorporate running backs and wide receivers in various alignments. Running backs can be positioned to either side of the quarterback, providing options for hand-offs or screen passes, whereas wide receivers can be spread out across the field with the aim of stretching the defense. This versatility enables teams to effectively mix up their plays and keep opposing defenses on their toes.

Some common variations of the shotgun formation include:

  • Trips left: Three wide receivers line up on the same side of the field.
  • Empty backfield: The quarterback is the sole player in the backfield, with all running backs either set as wide receivers or removed from the lineup.

Ultimately, the shotgun formation provides a flexible offensive strategy that caters to a more pass-focused approach. By offering a variety of options in terms of player positioning and play execution, the shotgun remains a reliable and popular choice for many football teams.

Advantages and Disadvantages


The shotgun formation in American football offers several advantages for the offensive team. One of the main benefits is that the quarterback, who lines up about five yards behind the center, has more time to set up in the pocket and survey the field (source: This is a significant improvement when compared to an “under center” snap, where the quarterback needs to drop back before being in position to throw (source: LiveAbout).

Since the shotgun formation supports a variety of plays, it adds an element of unpredictability to the offense. Both running and passing plays can be executed from this formation, with running backs lining up to either side of the quarterback, and wide receivers spread across the field. This flexibility can keep the opposing defense guessing and on their heels (source:


However, there are some drawbacks to the shotgun formation. One disadvantage is that many college quarterbacks, such as Tim Tebow, have difficulty adapting to NFL offenses due to their extensive use of the shotgun formation in college (source: Wikipedia). Quarterbacks may struggle with transitioning to under-center snaps, which are more common in the NFL.

Another potential issue with the shotgun formation is the increased risk of fumbled snaps, given the longer distance between the quarterback and the center. This added distance and the need for an accurate snap to the quarterback could result in turnovers, negatively affecting the offensive team’s chances of scoring.

In summary, the shotgun formation is a versatile offensive alignment with several advantages, such as giving the quarterback more time to analyze the field and facilitating diverse play options. However, it also presents a few disadvantages, such as difficulty in transitioning for college quarterbacks and a higher risk of fumbled snaps.

Usage in Different Situations

The shotgun formation is a vital part of many offensive strategies in American football. This alignment positions the quarterback approximately 5 to 7 yards behind the center, providing a better view of the field and more time to throw the ball. Many teams deploy the shotgun formation in obvious passing situations, while others integrate it into their base offense.

There are various adaptations of the shotgun formation, each designed to tackle specific game situations. Some predominant types include the standard shotgun, the spread, and trips formation. The main advantage that sets the shotgun apart from other formations (such as the under-center formation) is the increased passing opportunities it offers.

In recent years, the shotgun has gained momentum, becoming prevalent across different leagues. College quarterbacks like Tim Tebow primarily used this formation throughout their college careers. However, transitioning to the NFL has proven challenging for some, as about a third of the snaps are still taken under center.

As teams started focusing more on passing plays, the usage of shotgun formation increased. The spacing it provides creates opportunities for smarter offensive plays and can create mismatches against defenses. Furthermore, the shotgun formation works effectively during short-yardage situations, as it supports the implementation of quick passing plays.

A variation of the shotgun is the pistol offense, where the quarterback stands only 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage. This formation incorporates elements of both the shotgun and traditional under-center alignments and serves as an alternative for teams that prefer a more balanced rush and pass approach.

In summary, the shotgun formation is a crucial component of modern American football, particularly when it comes to passing plays. Its versatility and adaptability make it suitable for use in various game situations, allowing teams to effectively beat their opponents through innovative strategies.

Famous Shotgun Offenses

The San Francisco 49ers were early pioneers in implementing the shotgun formation in the NFL. They started using it in 1960, under the guidance of coach Red Hickey. This innovative approach led the 49ers to quick success, with notable victories over the Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Rams. However, they soon faced challenges adapting the offense, as demonstrated in a game against the Chicago Bears in which Bears linebacker Bill George exploited a weakness in the shotgun formation.

One of the most well-known examples of a successful shotgun offense in recent years involves the Florida Gators college football team. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow played as their quarterback and almost exclusively used the shotgun formation. Although he faced challenges transitioning to the NFL, where fewer snaps are taken from the shotgun, his success at Florida is still noteworthy and a testament to the effectiveness of the shotgun formation at the college level.

Another famous shotgun offense comes from the partnership between Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry and quarterback Roger Staubach in the 1970s. Landry, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, adapted the shotgun formation to fit the Cowboys’ offensive strategy. Staubach’s skill and versatility as a passer and runner made the shotgun offense a formidable force, ultimately helping the Cowboys achieve significant success during this period.

In recent years, the shotgun formation has become increasingly prevalent in both college and professional football. Many teams now incorporate shotgun formation plays into their offensive game plans, making it an essential and powerful weapon in modern American football.