To David Shaw the wide receiver, Bill Walsh’s player meetings were more than daily get-togethers to plan for the upcoming opponent. They were road maps. Blueprints. An ongoing archetype that would later be the philosophical foundation for David Shaw the offensive coordinator. And eventually, David Shaw the Stanford head coach.
“We started every meeting with the run meeting,” recalled Shaw, a wide receiver who played at Stanford for Walsh in the early 90s. “We started with how we were going to attack their front. Receivers were taught not just coverages, but fronts. We had to understand where the linebackers had to sit and where the safeties sit. He taught us the game of football.
“I was also one of those receivers that wasn’t the fastest guy, but I was a good blocker. So I was being put in the game to help the running game. I was being put in to crack linebackers and do all of that. It was just a mentality thing that we were going to be a complete offense.”
And now, two decades later, Shaw still holds those core beliefs that Walsh passed on close to him: run the football, be physical up front, and above all, have balance.
“That's who we are,” Shaw said. “It's who we've always been. When Jim [Harbaugh] first got here, we talked about establishing a balanced attack and it's been constant. It's what we've been trying to do from the beginning. Our guys know that when we can run the ball well, and be efficient with the run and run it physically between the tackles, it makes everything else go.”
Through three games this season, the Cardinal have struck that balance that Shaw so eagerly wants to see. They’ve run 201 offensive plays, 54 percent on the ground (109 rushes) and 46 percent (92 passes) through the air. They’ve totaled 1,444 yards of offense, 59 percent in the passing game (856) and 41 percent through the running game (588 yards). They've scored 17 touchdowns -- eight on the ground, nine in the air.
If anything, Shaw would probably favor things slanted a little more toward the running game.
"You run the ball and stop the run," he said. "That's where football starts."
Everyone touches the ball; quarterbacks, running backs tight ends, receivers, fullbacks. Quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Brett Nottingham and Robbie Picazo have completed 68 percent of their passes to 13 different players.
With a quarterback like Luck, it would be easy for some coaches to abandon their principals and turn the team into a five-wide spread unit for a couple of seasons. But that wouldn’t do Luck much good. NFL coaches traditionally prefer players well-versed in the pro-style offense, those who can release quick and know what it means to work under center.
And once he leaves, you're stuck installing a whole new system. No, that's not Shaw's approach.
Sure, the Cardinal have a few spread formations. But they also run out of I-backs and power-I. They have triple-I formations. And three-tight end formations. And jumbo packages with extra linemen.
They are scary multiple. And that’s what gives opposing coaches heartburn.
"They manipulated us very well," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops following his team's 37-10 loss Saturday night.
Tuesday morning on the Pac-12 coaches conference call, he reiterated just how tough it is to defend Stanford.
"They come up with new formations week in and week out with what you can do with those tight ends," Stoops said. "You see this a lot in the NFL. When they break them out, they become tough matchups for linebackers as well and then they play-action pass so well from different sets."
The tight ends have certainly enjoyed the balanced offense to date. The trio of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo have combined for 19 catches, 365 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. But they know their biggest contribution is in the run game.
"That's where it all starts and that's the mentality we have as a team," said Ertz. "The coaches do a really good job instilling that, that we are run-first team. Once we do that, the safeties slip down and it opens up the passing game. The running game sets everything up."
Aside from Walsh, Shaw also credits his time with Jon Gruden in Philadelphia and Oakland as a major contributor to his philosophy. If Walsh laid the foundation, Gruden was the mortar that solidified it.
“He always said he’s the son of a running back’s coach,” Shaw said. “We were going to run the ball. He was also proud of the fact that he was always amongst the NFL leaders in number of rushes on first down. You re-establish your mentality every drive. You establish your offense and your offensive line and you let those guys come off the ball.”
Following the Arizona game, many of the questions asked of Shaw centered around the passing game -- specifically the play-action and exactly how his players are able to get so wide open. His answer was what you'd expect.
"It's no secret," Shaw said. "You put on any of our films and we try to establish the line of scrimmage every play ... It starts with the running game. And we're going to force teams to activate the safeties and the secondary players in the running game. If they do it consistently enough, then we have play-action possibilities. It's nothing more complicated than that. We try really hard to make sure we get into formations and personnel groupings that really stretch the defense and make them try to play every gap. We'll run the ball strong, we'll run the ball weak and then hopefully we continue to get the safeties to come up and hopefully we get some play-action and get some guys open."
Just like Bill Walsh taught it.