75 for 75: The Shotgun Formation

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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November 27, 1960

At first glance, the 49ers new shotgun formation seemed to be an act of desperation. San Francisco traveled to Baltimore's Memorial Stadium with a 4-4 record and struggling offense to take on the NFL champion Colts. They were 16-point underdogs and quarterback Y.A. Tittle was nursing a knee injury. 

It was time for 49ers head coach Red Hickey to pull a rabbit out of his hat. 

"A coach keeps things in the back of his mind sometimes for years," Hickey said to the San Francisco Examiner. "Sometimes you never use it."

Hickey installed the shotgun offense in the week leading up to the game and the 49ers upset the Colts 30-22. They did it with the late game heroics of third string quarterback Bobby Waters, who came off the bench in the fourth quarter.

"Anything we could do to change their defense had to be in our favor," Hickey said. "We decided to go to this formation because we didn't feel we were strong enough to beat the Colts doing the ordinary."

Baltimore seemed befuddled from the start. With John Brodie at quarterback, the 49ers marched 53 yards on their initial drive before settling for a Tommy Davis field goal. 

"You've got to be willing to try anything to win in this game," Hickey said. "We didn't change any blocking assignments and our patterns were the same, so the offense isn't a drastic change."

The Colts wickedly fierce pass rush, featuring future Pro Football Hall of Fame tackles Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti, seemed to be neutralized until massive defensive tackle Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb got loose late in the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-6, 290-pounder crushed Brodie on a sack, knocking out the quarterback's front tooth and leaving him temporarily unconscious.

Trailing 22-20, Hickey sent Tittle into the game, but after two plays, it was clear he was still hobbling.

That set the stage for Waters, who had yet to take a snap in an NFL game. Operating from the 49ers 39 yard line, he needed just two plays, the only two he participated in all season, to complete two passes and the winning touchdown. 

The game winner came with 1:30 remaining when Waters connected with tight end Dee Mackey for 17 yards at the Colts 23. Mackey then lateraled to receiver R.C. Owens, who was trailing the play and the speedy wideout sprinted to the end zone.

In the postgame interviews, there was confusion over the name of the 49ers new formation. Colts skipper Weeb Ewbank called it a flood right formation. Football beat writers called it a short punt formation. Hickey cleared it up by saying it was the shotgun and it was not really anything new. 

But the 49ers demonstrated the formation's potential. In 1961, they refined it and posted 35 points or more in six games. The shotgun formation soon became an essential part of every NFL offense.

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