GREEN BAY, Wis. – In his fifth season as a starter for the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers represents the modern-day shotgun quarterback.
He used the formation 36 times in the Packers’ wild-card playoff win over Minnesota, throwing a touchdown pass to John Kuhn from it and converting a long fourth down to Greg Jennings. He used the shotgun on first down (15 times), second down (eight) and third down (12).
“I never sat down and asked him why he likes it, but I know he does like it,” said quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo. “A lot.”
It’s a popular choice for quarterbacks who want to see the field and slow the pass rush, and common in the NFL and for Rodgers.
But Rodgers said that only one other coach – Craig Rigsbee at Butte College – let him play in the shotgun, “so I’m making up for lost time.” Rodgers took to the formation early in Green Bay as a backup behind Brett Favre.
“Brett always liked to do it,” said Rodgers. “Especially when he went to more of the big packages with four receivers, five receivers. He liked being back there, being able to make checks.”
There are numerous advantages to throwing from the shotgun, the first being a better view of the defense and seeing through linemen.
“Being a shorter quarterback, I feel like it helps with visibility,” said the 6-foot-2 Rodgers. “Sometimes as you are dropping back, it’s a little more difficult to be able to see the entire field. In the shotgun I’ve always felt it’s been a little easier.”
Rodgers also said he can dictate some of the pass rush lanes and affect the pass rush angles by the depth of his drop.
“Defenses are always looking at how deep they can get in the pocket,” said Rodgers. “If you’re under center, a good five-step drop will get you 7 or 8 yards back. In the gun, you can take it to 9 or 10.
"Teams do different things to combat that – stunts and bull rushes – to try and collapse the pocket, but in general, especially someone with a little bit of athleticism, you can dictate some of that pass rush.”
The shotgun isn’t for the slow-footed, aging quarterback who isn’t mobile, said Gil Brandt, chief scout of the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89, when the team was one of the first to adopt the formation on a regular basis with star quarterback Roger Staubach. It is perfect for someone with athleticism.
“And we don’t think of Rodgers as a good athlete – but he’s an excellent athlete,” said Brandt.
Rodgers likes the shotgun so much he actually practices throwing without having his fingers around the laces, just in case the snap is off or he doesn't have time to situate the ball perfectly in his hands.
“There’s times where you have to get the ball out very quickly and throw the football without having your grip exactly right,” Rodgers said.
The play is a bust if the snap is bad. And that’s where center Evan Dietrich-Smith has to be on top of his game.
“The snap has to be in an area where I can do something with it,” said Rodgers. “I have above-average hands, so I’ve been able to make some one-handed catches from time to time. But often the location of the snap can occasionally dictate where the ball goes.”
Dietrich-Smith wasn’t much of a shotgun snapper until playing for Green Bay, so he had to work on it. Assistant offensive-line coach Joel Hilgenberg offered a tip.
“He taught it like it’s a catcher throwing back to the pitcher; it’s got to become something that’s second nature,” said Dietrich-Smith. “Not something where you are thinking about it or overthrowing it.
“Screwing up a snap is a pretty big deal. You can’t have that.”
No matter what, Rodgers has to communicate to his center when he’s going in the gun.
“Sometimes I will sit there and look through my legs and see where he’s at,” said Dietrich-Smith. “I hear him calling stuff, but I’m waiting for him to tell me if he’s underneath or if he’s in the gun. So you’re looking around when he starts his cadence.”
As the Packers prepare to face the San Francisco 49ers, they could use all kinds of different attacks. The no-huddle. Balance with the run game. And more than likely, the shotgun.
“I like the shotgun with the flexibility that Aaron has, it allows us to get him the best play possible,” said left guard T.J. Lang. “I don’t really notice a difference when we’re under center or in the shotgun. It’s something that for whatever reason we like to do a lot and it seems to work out for us.”