In a previous post, we noted that the “two gap” 3-4 doesn’t extend back to the origin of the 5-2 Oklahoma, as Jones and Wilkinson, 1957, didn’t coach a pure two gap system. It was a hybrid 1 gap 2 gap system, with only the nose guard two gapping.

Looking for post-Wilkinson 5-2 Oklahoma philosophies is difficult. The article by Norris and Harper in Defensive Football Strategies (American Football Coaches Association), dated 1974, already shows the influence of Jimmy Johnson’s “upfield pressure” philosophies. Linemen 1 gap to the play side and purse from the offside. Jimmy Johnson was the Oklahoma defensive line coach from 1970 to 1972. Fogie Fazio’s article on the 50, dated 1980, in the same book, has clear 1 gap responsibilities.

Since we know Parcells coached a two gap 3-4, that’s our starting point. We’ll consider Parcell’s career, using Bill Gutman’s biography as a reference.

The first mention of a defense is on page 36, where they discuss the 52 Invert Defense. Quoting Tom Godfrey

It was a defense that dictated to the offense, not a traditional sit-and-read defense. When the ball was snapped we were moving, and that caught people off guard. All five linemen were moving one way or the other, and the secondary moved opposite to them.

Bill Parcells was an assistant at Wichita State at the time, and he taught this defense to his old high school. But confusing, slanting, pressure 5-2s aren’t read-and-react two gap 3-4s. This isn’t the defense he took to the Giants.

His next stop is at Army, where his old high school coach had assembled a terrific staff, and where he meets Bobby Knight. From there, he goes to Florida State, where he runs into Steve Sloan, whom he follows for some time. There is a stay at Vanderbilt, and then three years at Texas Tech (1975-1977). In discussing the middle of this period, Steve Sloan says

In 1976 he became more creative. He went to an even front, something not many college teams were doing then. He ran a lot of slants and gave the offense different looks.

Needless to say, the 3-4 isn’t an even front.

Parcells then spends a year at the Air Force academy as their head coach, spends a brief period as a linebacker coach with the Giants, gets out of football briefly, and then in 1980 joins Ron Erhardt with the Patriots, where Hank Bullough was the defensive coordinator, and one of the architects of the conversion of the Pats to the 3-4. This moment seems seminal to me.

As Bullough says of the Pats introduction to the professional 3-4,

We were the first. We had gone through a tough season in ’73 and our defensive line wasn’t very good. We had drafted Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt and they were two good-looking kids at linebacker, and I said to Chuck, “Let’s go to the 3-4,” and that’s what we did.

I believe the trail of evidence now moves from Bill himself to something known by the awkward phrase Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defensive system, a kind of gobbledegook that makes “arm talent” seem svelte by comparison. Again, the questions that come to mind are: did it start out as a pure two gap 3-4 or was it a hybrid 1-gap 2-gap system, like Bud Wilkinson’s? If the latter is true, when did it evolve into a two gap 3-4? Could there have been prior art?

If we just Google’s ngram viewer to investigate, we see that the phrase “3-4 defense” first appears in 1970.

The phrase "3-4 defense" enters the corpus of books that Google has scanned  in 1970, and then steadily gains usage.

The phrase “3-4 defense” enters the corpus of books that Google has scanned in 1970, and then steadily gains usage.

There isn’t a lot of time to develop prior 3-4 art, if the ngram is correct. And for all we know, the ngram is initially tracking the discussion of three man lines in prevent defenses.


Cardofo, Nick, “Recurring Scheme“, September 5, 2003, Boston Globe, retrieved July 14, 2013.

Gutman, Bill. “Parcells: A Biography“, Carroll and Graf, 2000.

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