Bill Parcells has an enormous hold on the hearts and souls of football fans, ranked, for example, in this poll as the sixth best coach of all time. People take his declarative statements as edicts. Parcellisms, made more accessible to the masses, comprise a substantial part of Pat Kirwin’s book, “Take Your Eye Off the Ball”. And one of the notions of that’s beginning to take hold is that Parcell’s theories of how the 3-4 should be played are getting etched in stone as the way it always was played. Without proving it, people are labelling the two gap 3-4s as the “true” 3-4. Other 3-4s are somehow, “not true”.
The origin of the 3-4 is well known. It’s a 5-2 Oklahoma where the defensive ends can stand up and have pass responsibilities. The differences between the two are merely semantic. So if you want to know what the true 3-4 is, you need to know what the true 5-2 is, and the best place for that is the 1957 text of Gomer Jones and Bud Wilkinson, labelled “Modern Defensive Football.“
In it they describe some amazing defensive concepts. They are excellent teachers, and I’ve never seen anyone explain force and contain concepts as well as they do. They do it for four man backfields and three man backfields (what they called the four and five spoke contain units). And they also describe the 5-2, which they call defense 72.
Some things to note about these older defenses. Linebackers are much closer to the line of scrimmage, pretty tight in fact. This can more easily be seen in old newsreel footage. If you can find, say, video of early 1950s Oklahoma and Notre Dame, linebackers are often within a couple yards of the line of scrimmage. An Oklahoma from this period looks something like this.
Now, what about the gap assignments? We’ll note that the modern notion of gap control is a relatively recent phenomenon. I explored this in a letter exchange with Coach Hugh Wyatt. He would date the phrase to about 1979, with Monte Kiffen the first known user of the term. The phrase “gap responsibility” is used by late 1960s, so notions of gap management in the late 1950s are stated in terms of things the offense must never do.
And other than the nose guard, what must never be done is the opponent must never block you in. This makes it clear: of the 7 line assignments, 6 are one gap assignments. The original 5-2 is largely a one gap defense.
It is interesting to look at the responsibilities of the nose guard, the only one with responsibilities on both side of his opponent. As Jones and Wilkinson say (note that since they labeled all the players as if they were in a 6-2 front, the nose guard is called the right guard in this scheme):
Right guard: Line up head up with the offensive center about 2 to 2 1/2 feet off the line of scrimmage. Vary the strength of your charge from play to play. Occasionally, charge hard into the center and attempt to knock him back. Most of the time, charge with enough force to control the offensive center. Basically, you must never allow the center to cut you either way. You must control both sides of the center, maintaining your ability to move to either side.
Not only is the original 5-2 largely a one gap defense, the center is flexed. This is a far cry from the modern version of 300 to 340 pound behemoths maintaining gap control across the whole front. In other words, the two gap 3-4 was an evolution from the original 3-4, and further, the one gap 3-4s are more in tune with the original 5-2 than is the “true” 3-4.
So when did the two gap 3-4 evolve? Now, I’m curious. It’s documented, for example, that Parcell’s notion of outside run contain isn’t the same as older notions. Older contain strategies (such as the one in Jones and Wilkinson) tend to keep runners inside the contain unit. Parcells was content. however, to run the sweep or pitch out of bounds.
Did Parcells invent it? Or was it already common in colleges by the time he arrived in the NFL? Going from one one gapper to three isn’t that much of a reach, especially if your team has three large powerful linemen. But glancing at a couple articles in AFCA’s “Defensive Football Strategies”, articles on the 5-2 originally published in 1974 and 1980, you see one gap responsibilities being taught, even for the nose guard.
I’m not an old coach, who would have this information buried in his bones. But there is more to college football defense than a two gapping 5-2, and the paths from the past to modern times more complex than many realize.