Defending The Pistol

Posted Mar 22, 2011

Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick offers an interesting draft day debate surrounding the pistol offense

Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick has done all the right things to prepare himself for NFL football.

He has the physical traits of a pro quarterback.

Kaepernick goes 6’5”, 233 pounds and reportedly edged out Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton as the strongest arm at last month’s NFL Combine. He also threw two no-hitters as a senior in high school and can throw 90-plus mph as a baseball pitcher.

Leadership has never been a concern.

A four-year starter for the Wolfpack, Kaepernick broke a number of school, conference and NCAA records as one of the most versatile offensive players in the game. He also led Nevada to the biggest win in school history, unraveling Boise State’s National Championship in a WAC-clinching overtime win on national television.

He’s smart and character concerns haven’t been an issue. Post-collegiate workouts have all be up to par as well. His combine numbers were strong and Senior Bowl practices impressive.

Kaepernick has put himself into a very draftable position this April, but also faces critique extending beyond his control.

One of the primary issues is Nevada’s pistol offense.

“I don’t think our offense will directly translate, but I think we do a bunch of things as progressions, protections that are similar to [what] NFL teams do and we just call them something different,” Kaepernick said. “I think picking up on terminology will be a big thing for me, learning what those mean as opposed to what we call things.”

The very thing that thrust Kaepernick into the NFL spotlight is now something that the prospect is forced to defend.

Nevada’s pistol was good to Kaepernick. Gaudy offensive numbers and numerous post-season accolades were the result. Through no fault of his own, Kaepernick was asked to run an unorthodox offensive system and he ran it well.

He’s the only player in NCAA history to rush for over 4,000 yards while also passing for more than 10,000.

“I think I bring a lot of things,” Kaepernick said. “I bring confidence, leadership, intelligence as well as my physical abilities, strength and mobility. I think that there are a lot of things I can help an NFL team out with.”

Unfortunately, the offensive system known for producing eye-popping statistics hasn’t carried the same history of producing quality NFL quarterbacks. Fair or not, Kaepernick understands the stigma that says he’s a product of the system. It’s something that will continue he proves himself in a pro-style offense.

The pistol offense isn’t a stranger to those of us in Kansas City. Former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey converted to the system when third-string QB Tyler Thigpen was thrust into action midway through the 2008 season.

Though the pistol brought small glimmers of excitement to an otherwise dismal season, implementing the offense was more of a reaction to Thigpen’s skillset than anything else.

Entering training camp in 2009, Thigpen was the clear-cut favorite to serve as the primary back-up to Matt Cassel. “Thigbone” or “Thiggy” had developed a cult-like following with Kansas City’s fan base the season prior and achieved folk hero status.

Competitiveness, an ability to make plays with his feet and a genuine appreciation for serving as an NFL starting quarterback helped make the underdog story appealing and easy to like. To this day, Thigpen is still held in high regard by many Chiefs fans.

At the very minimum, Thigpen supporters wanted to see their man get a fair shake at the starting quarterback duties in 2009. The Chiefs maintained that the competition for starting quarterback was open and Thigpen entered camp accordingly.

A legitimate battle for the starting role would never materialize. Even if the competition was truly open, Thigpen’s play that summer didn’t allow there to be any controversy.

If anything, the competition became one of Thigpen vs. Brodie Croyle for the number two job.

Croyle looked left for dead entering 2009, coming off a season-ending knee injury and not taking a single snap during Todd Haley’s first six months on the job. Surprisingly, the time away didn’t seem to affect Croyle’s practice performance as he worked his way back up the depth chart.

Meanwhile, Thigpen went the other direction and was out-performed by the other three quarterbacks in camp on numerous occasions (the fourth quarterback competing that year was Matt Gutierrez).

When camp broke, the Chiefs opted to keep four quarterbacks because of an injury to Cassel. Thigpen opened the year as Croyle’s backup and was eventually traded to Miami when Cassel returned.

Thigpen’s poor camp could have been an adverse reaction to the off-season addition of Cassel. Perhaps it was a change in organizational direction or just simply a summer slump. Or, maybe, it  was Thigpen’s inability to adapt to a pro-style offense?

The splits are interesting when it comes to Thigpen.

Thigpen in Pistol Offense (as starter)

G Att Cmp Pct Yds Yd/A TD INT Rate
10 330 192 58.2 2216 6.72 16 8 84.6

Thigpen in “Pro-Style” Offense (as starter)

G Att Cmp Pct Yds Yd/A TD INT Rate
2 65 31 47.7 315 4.85 1 4 41.5

Thigpen’s Career Totals

G GS Att Cmp Pct Yds Yd/A TD INT Rate
22 12 496 269 54.2 3167 6.4 21 17 73.7

The sample size isn’t optimal, but it’s still interested that Thigpen’s two starts in a pro-style offense also happen to be the two worst of his career. One of those starts came last season when the Dolphins were blanked by the Bears 16-0 on Thursday Night Football. The other came in Thigpen’s first-career start with the Chiefs.

As you may recall, Thigpen was horrific that Sunday in Atlanta (9/21/08). He began the game completing only two of his first 14 pass attempts, which included two interceptions. Both completions came to Jamaal Charles out of the backfield.

Several weeks later, when injuries again forced Thigpen into a starting role, Gailey scrapped the offense and implemented the pistol. The purpose was to give Thigpen better access to the advantages he utilized in college at Coastal Carolina.

From a production standpoint, the switch worked for Thigpen. Of course, the Chiefs also went 1-11 while operating under the pistol.

Back to Kaepernick.

He’s a much more polished than Thigpen was when Minnesota selected him in the seventh round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Also, Thigpen wasn’t a pistol quarterback coming out of college. Coastal Carolina ran the spread. It just happens that Thigpen has played his best football under the pistol at the NFL level and he offers a local example of the differences in offensive philosophy.

Kaepernick’s company puts him into a position that will likely scare some teams away this April. There’s risk in selecting a pistol quarterback, but there could also be a huge payout on his upside as well. It’s the upside that has some believing Kaepernick could come off the board as early as the second round or possibly even slip into the tail end of the first.

Generally, most believe that Kaepernick will be picked up in the third-round or later.

Watch Kaepernick on draft day. He’s the type of mid-round pick that could trigger the packaging of picks for a draft day trade if he falls far enough down the line.

“I don’t think that I’ll run as much in the NFL as I did in college,” Kaepernick said. “Obviously there are great athletes in the NFL and you aren’t going to have the same freedom to run, but I think at the same time my mobility will have the ability to extend plays and convert some third downs and make plays for a team.”  

Cases like Kaepernick’s make the job of area scouts and the opinion of scouting directors all the more important. Is he a value pick, or will he follow the majority of pistol quarterbacks who have come before him?

Tyler Thigpen operated out of the pistol offense for the Chiefs in 2008

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