Green Bay Packers


I’ve been reading a ton of books. One of these is Robert W. Peterson’s “Pigskin”, which has been an interesting read so far. I’m roughly in the late 1940s in this book, which starts with the beginning of professional football and ends with the NFL championship in 1958. What has caught my eye are Mr. Peterson’s comments about the spread of the T formation in the 1940s. He describes the Bears 73-0 NFL Championship victory over the Redskins. Later, when describing the switch of the Redskins to the T in 1944, he gives this accounting of the state of the football world in 1944: (1)

By that year, more than 50 percent of college teams has converted to the T formation. So had most pro teams. Henceforth, the old single-wing formula of “three yards and a cloud of dust” as the ideal offensive play would go the way of the rugby ball in pro football

The adoption was not immediate upon the end of the 1940 season, however, and teams, coaches, and whole conferences that were successful with the single wing (or Southwestern spread) tended to stick with it. For example, in Tom Landry’s autobiography, he notes that Texas made the switch in 1947, after Dana Bible retired.(2) Y. A. Tittle’s memory of the conversion is (3)

If I remember correctly, the first Southwestern conference team to switch to the T formation from the single- and double-wing formations was Rice University, followed by Georgia and Louisiana State.

The quote above mixes the SEC and the Southwest conference, but still.. LSU switched in 1945. I’m just not sure which of the 50% of college football teams were converting. Army and Notre Dame are well known early adopters, but as a counterexample, in 1947, Fritz Crisler won a national championship with a single wing offense at Michigan.

Dan Daly, when discussing the effects of the 73-0 Bears win over the Redskins, noted:(4)

Only one other NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles, switched to the T the next season. And as late as 1944, both clubs that played in the championship game, the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, used the single wing or some variation.

Paul Brown, the head coach of Ohio State from 1941 to 1943, was the first coach to see Don Faurot’s split T in action, in his very first game as Ohio State’s head coach, but then says of his game with Clark Shaughnessy’s Pittsburgh squad in 1943 (5)

It was my first real look at the T formation with flankers and men in motion, however, and it was the kind of football I later assimilated into my own system with the Browns.

So from 1941 to 1943, the “Bears” T was largely unknown in the Big 10. Paul Brown then learned the T while serving in the armed services. In 1946 and 1947, in the first two AAFC championships, Brown’s T was pitted against the single wing offense of the New York Yankees.(6)

As Dan Daly notes, the lack of players trained in the new offense slowed the T formation’s spread.(7)

In the early ’40s, the Bears and the Eagles – the only two T-formation teams – drafted an unusual number of Shaughnessy’s Stanford players because the Cardinal were the lone major college team using the offense.

Dan Daly later writes (8)

By the end of the decade, though, five out of seven college teams played some form of the T. Suddenly it was the single-wing Steelers who were having trouble finding players to fit their system.

And it does make sense. There were some early adopters who ran into Luckman, or Shaughnessy, or former Bears quarterbacks and coaches, but a lot of coaches learned the T while serving in the armed services during the war, coaching or playing in service teams. So it wasn’t the early 1940s when the transition occurred, as far as I can tell. Instead, it was the mid to late 1940s when the T became dominant. The conversion was not “immediate”. It took 3-4 years to gain steam, and a decade for it to dominate.

Notes

There were only ten pro teams in 1944, and it’s entirely possible that most NFL teams were running a T by 1944 (By my count, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and Cleveland are using the T by 1944. Green Bay and New York are not. The other four – Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, and Card-Pitt – I’m not sure of). Green Bay switches to the T in 1947, New York in 1949.

Army’s first use of the T is in the 1941 Army-Navy game.(9) Notre Dame had Halas’s players assist with the conversion in 1942. Clark Shaughnessy coaches Maryland in 1942 and then Pittsburgh in 1943.

1944 is an unusual year to use as a baseline, because so many coaches and players were in the armed services. That may in fact have aided the transition, as so many coaches with a traditional single wing background found themselves coaching alongside experts in the T on service teams.

For those who have never read Ron Fimrite’s article in Sports Illustrated about the Stanford Indians’ 1940 season, just do it. It’s one of the great short articles on football. The link is given in the bibliography.

References

1. Peterson, Chapter 8.

2. Landry and Lewis, p. 74.

3. Tittle, Chapter 5.

4. Daly, Chapter 3.

5. Brown and Clary, p. 101.

6. Brown and Clary, pp. 181-182.

7. Daly, Chapter 3.

8. Daly, Chapter 3.

9. Roberts, Chapter 2.

Bibliography

Brown, Paul, and Clary, Jack, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum 1980.

Daly, Dan, The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years, University of Nebraska Press, 2012. [ebook]

Fimrite, Ron, “The Melding of All Men, Suited to a T”, September 5, 1977. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Holland, Gerald, “The Man Who Changed Football”, February 3, 1964. Sports Illustrated. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Johnston, James W. ,The Wow Boys: A Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point in College Football , University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Landry, Tom, and Lewis, Gregg,Tom Landry: An Autobiography, Harper Paperbacks, 1990.

McGarr, Elizabeth, “The Top 20 Greatest Moments”, August 20, 2008. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Peterson, Robert W., Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football, 1997. [ebook]

Roberts, Randy, A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation at War , Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, reprint ed 2011. [ebook]

Tittle, Y. A, and Clark, Kristine S.,Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football ,Triumph Books, 2009. [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, in “Letters”, December 22, 1997. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Both the Giants and Denver have won today, eliminating all wild cards and leading to two #4 seeds playing at the #1 seeds. In the case of the Giants, using my formula, we have the question of whether they truly have playoff experience. If they do not, then Green Bay is favored, on average, by 56%, though the relative error of strength of schedule results allow for Green Bay being favored by as much as 73% to the Giants being favored by 63%. If the Giants are treated as if they have playoff experience, then there is a wide range of results, from Green Bay being favored by 55% to the Giants being favored by 78%, with the average result being the Giants favored by 63%. Note that home field plus Pythagoreans would favor Green Bay by 83%.

In the Case of Denver versus New England, New England has playoff experience and home field in their favor, and Denver played a tougher schedule. New England is favored by my scheme by 69%. Home field plus Pythagoreans would favor New England by 88%.

It’s an easy thing to say and claim, that any offense that has a quarterback 4-5 yards back from the line of scrimmage and that has a running orientation must descend from the single wing formation. In the case of the spread option, I don’t know how comfortable I am with this idea. For one, the name spread option suggests a lineage that comes from the spread itself, or the shotgun, which Y.A. Tittle once compared to the short punt formation.

Many teams had put the quarterback in a Short Punt Formation before, but Hickey’s version apparently caught everyone’s fancy. It was an overnight sensation.

That, in a nutshell, is the idea I’m interested in developing, that shotgun + option = spread option, and signs of single wing descent aren’t in any sense as easily proven as people claim.

A point, critical in thinking about this, is how someone like Urban Meyer or Gus Malzahn could have been taught single wing principles in the first place. By the early 1970s, when I first became aware of football, the single wing was a dead offense. The single wing was functionally obsoleted by 1940. Fritz Crisler and the invention of platooning notwithstanding, Clark Shaughnessy’s version of the T was just too explosive for the old single wing to survive. By the 1970s, the only formation where the quarterback wasn’t behind center was the shotgun, and the shotgun, in those days, was primarily a passing formation.

Single Wing ca 1945. Line spacing 6 inches, except for wingback and ends.

By contrast, the single wing was a poor downfield passing formation. Linemen were all squished together,  perhaps 6 inches apart. A “flexed” end, as Knute Rockne might have put it, was no more than a yard away from this compatriots. Play development was slow, as plays couldn’t begin until the ball actually reached the tailback. The centers of the 1930s hiked the ball with their heads down, looking at the person they hiked it to. This was necessary because they could hike it to any one of three people. Blind hikes, freeing the center to block, weren’t common until the Shaughnessy T. And to quote Dana X. Bible:

Except for the spinner cycle, it does not afford much opportunity for deception.

Now, to note, as the site Hickock Sports points out, there really were 5 formations in common use before the Shaughnessy T came into prominence, and those included the double wing, the short punt, the Notre Dame box, and the old T formation (played largely by the Chicago Bears). We’ll show some photos of the double wing and the short punt from Dana’s book, followed by a sample of a spread option formation.

double wing formations

Short Punt formation

A modern spread option formation

So of the formations above, which does the modern spread option most resemble? The “A” version of the double wing, by my eyes.

What passing trends are of note between the 1930s and today? A more aerodynamic ball, and the ability to pass anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (rule change, 1933) helped power a ever growing passing explosion into the 1940. In the 1950s, Paul Brown introduced timing patterns, by carefully watching how Don Hutson played. The late 1950s gave us, via Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry, the 2 minute drill. The 1960s gave football Sid Gillman and his foray into attacking the whole field. In the 1970s, the Dallas Cowboys revived the shotgun, and one of the elements introduced then was a blind shotgun hike. Get to the early 1980s, and the more wide open passing games of the San Diego Chargers and later, the Washington Redskins, and formations (pro I, pro T) that were almost etched in stone begin to evolve. Also, in the 1980s, the West Coast Offense emerged, and the ideas of stretching a passing defense horizontally, and further, that passing can substitute for running as a ball control weapon.  By the late 1990s and into the 2000s, “ace” backfields became more common, the shotgun was used more and more. And as teams pushed for more and more wideouts, to spread the defense, to get  defenders to cover more and more of the field, the counterbalancing question began to emerge: how do I get more running out of an essentially passing formation?

Consider the running game, from single wing to now. The single wing excelled in power off tackle running, perhaps exemplified by the cutback. Blocking was sustained, double teams by the wingback and tackle forming a crucial part of the game.  Once the Shaughnessy T was introduced, blocks weren’t nearly as enduring. Away from the play, brush back blocks were enough. Because the blocks were fast, and the play started earlier (blind hikes), the game became faster.

The single wing cutback later formed the archetype for the Green Bay sweep. But nuances introduced around this time span include area or do-dad blocking, and the whole notion of running to daylight.

The option itself dates back as far as Don Faurot and the Split T offense he developed for Missouri. With Don’s notion of keying off unblocked defenders, and getting the ball to the man the opposition can’t defend, football now had a running game that resembled a 2 on 1 fast break in basketball. This was only reinforced when the wishbone triple option, created by Emory Bellard, became a dominant offense in the late 1960s – early 1970s. Adding zone run concepts a la Alex Gibbs (check out, for example, John  T Reed’s zone run entry in his dictionary) to unblocked keys leads to the zone read:

The first read of a “zone-read,” it will be recalled is by the quarterback: he reads the backside defensive end, who typically goes unblocked in a zone-rushing scheme to free up blockers for double-teams on the frontside. If the defensive end sits where he is or rushes upfield, the quarterback simple hands the ball off to the runner. But if he chases the runningback, the quarterback pulls the ball. On the base zone-read, the quarterback just looks for any crease to the backside.

The zone read is the backbone of the spread option, and simply put, the option, much less the blocking patterns of the zone read, didn’t exist back in 1936.

Q: If the two offenses don’t come from a common origin, why so many apparent commonalities?

In explanation, consider how in biology there are cases of convergent evolution.  Though of unrelated origin, the eye in squids and mammals are very structurally similar, with the interesting exception that the squid eye, nerves are wired to the retina in the back, while with mammals, the retina is wired to the nerves in the front.  Often, little details tell the story when distinguishing lineages.

Or, as Chris Brown, of Smart Football, has said when examining pretty much this same question:

Certainly, the coaches who developed today’s modern offenses, like Rodriguez and Malzahn, did not spend their time meticulously studying the single-wing tapes of yesteryear. Instead, if there are similarities it’s because those coaches stumbled onto the same ideas through trial and error.

Update: Coach Wyatt has a nice summary of direct snap formations (and some history) at this link

In the first part of this article, we talked about the context in which Don Hutson played, posted some stats, and then said we would  “translate” his stats into modern terms. We’re going to do this by calculating  his percentage catches and percentage yardage per year, tds per catch, and  then “implant” those into the statistics of the average team of 1995, the average team of 1999, the average team of 2010, the 1995 Dallas Cowboys, and two Green Bay teams, the one of 1995 and the Super Bowl winner of 2010.

We’re using the average stat initially to make a point, which is that Don Hutson’s average year translates into a better year than most modern receiver’s best year. This is especially true of his prodigious scoring rate. Deal is, he did play in a pre-modern era where

  • Coaches didn’t throw much behind the 50 yard line.
  • The Packers threw to score.
  • Don Hutson was used as a scoring machine

To factor out some of these effects, we created a set of modified stats for Don where

  • We reduced the number of catches by 20%. Some possession catches would be given to tight ends, backs, and #2 receivers if Don were to play a modern game.
  • Consequently, we increased his yardage by 20%, since people would be throwing longer passes to Don.
  • On top of the scoring loss caused by the decreased catches, we then subtracted his scoring by another 20%, to account for more distributed passing and better defenses in the modern era.

These are ad hoc correctives. Don’t assume I’ve justified these on statistical grounds. Nonetheless, the resulting stats look pretty real, for a typical receiver’s best year of all time.

In this context, and shorn of the crazy throwing rate of 1942, Don Hutson’s best season (also calculated in multiple offensive contexts) doesn’t look all that much better than Don Hutson’s typical season. His best season was partly a product of the team’ s extraordinary emphasis on passing that year.

Finally, if you’ll compare Don in the passing context of, say, the 1995 Green Bay Packers to that of, oh, the average team of the 1999 season (ironically the season the 1999 St Louis Rams, The Greatest Show on Turf won the Super Bowl), then the value of playing for a team with a high powered offense is clear. Jerry Rice openly benefitted in being in the #1 offenses of the San Francisco 49ers.

Using these same techniques and translating every season of Don Hutson’s career into modern terms yields the results above. The  shortening effect of using team stats (team YPC over the years has grown shorter, as passing became possession oriented) and the tendency to use Don as a scorer creates a year, 1935, whose stats aren’t as reasonable as Don’s average stats. To some extent,  you can’t take the 1935 out of 1935 stats and fit them into a 1995 or 2010 context.

Despite any flaws, I’d suggest the above approaches are far better than the typical translation, which multiplies Don Hutson’s 1942 season by 1.6 and then assumes they’ve accounted for all the differences between 1942 and 2010. They haven’t. All they’re doing is one of the greatest touchdown scoring receivers of all time a serious injustice.

Finally, I  think these results suggest that GOAT at receiver is a two man race. While I’d concede that anyone who looks at the length of Jerry Rice’s career and says, “This guy can’t be beat” has a point, it’s my contention that Don Hutson’s performances, especially in the 1940s, are so exceptional relative to his competition that they will be very hard to match.

Getting across how freakish Don Hutson was in his day is difficult to a typical modern football fan. They’ve been told since Day 1 that Jerry Rice is unquestionably the best receiver of all time, and so their brain cells turn off and they don’t question the notion. And yes, in at least one respect, Jerry was the best of all time, in the sense that no one had as long a productive career. The idea that someone could play at such a high level for 18 of his 20 years at a position  that demands athletic excellence is the foundation of the respect that the man has gathered.

However, in any discussion of the best of the best at WR, Don Hutson (see also here and here) has to be in the mix. Back when wide receivers were lucky to get 1 pass a game, he was catching 3 and 4. Back when scoring was difficult, he led the league in scoring 8 times. His YPC is decent but  hardly extraordinary. What Don Hutson was — is a ball catching freak, and a scoring freak.

It’s not entirely noticeable in the stats of the day, compared to modern football, because modern football is a more pass oriented game. It has specialists, guys who play one way, instead of two ways, and in particular, someone who specializes in just throwing the ball. It has a more aerodynamic football (see here and here) than the one those guys used to toss (check out Bill Belichick talking about Sammy Baugh, roughly a contemporary of Hutson’s, in NFL Network’s top 100). Passing was just primitive: the league completion percentage was 33.9% the year Don Hutson entered the league. When he left, it had risen to about 45.6%.

Because passing was primitive, the strategies of the day were not to pass until you reached the 40 yard line. Inside the 20, teams would run perhaps one play and then punt.

But in those days, and by the standards of the times, Green Bay was a passing offense. They featured Johnny McNally, a gifted tailback and receiver who scored 11 touchdowns through the air in 1931. Those two did team up effectively in 1935, when the two were clearly the star receivers for the club. But McNally moved on after 1936 and Don stayed put.

1942 is an exceptional year, and the year in which Don put up his best numbers. To note, Green Bay passed 330 times that year, when most clubs were throwing about 220 times. To place Green Bay’s relative passing frequency and success into a modern context, transferring its ratiometric advantages into the year 1995 would create a fictional team that passed 51 times a game and completed 69.8% of its passes. Don would be almost half that passing offense (43% of the catches, 50% of the yards), and he would score almost every fourth time he touched the ball. The resulting numbers would be freakish.

1995 is a good point in comparison. That’s one of Jerry Rice’s best years. The run to pass ratio that year is about 0.79. Green Bay of 1942 — a pretty wide open passing offense – was 1.29. How could we go about embedding the stats of Don Hutson into the year 1995 in such a way that it makes sense? That will be done in a following post.

There is a sense of embarrassment that pervades Frank’s book, one that could perhaps be explained by the fact  that David Halberstam was planning on writing a book about the 1958 NFL championship game. But it seems deeper than that. He talks about the salaries the pros made in the 1950s, the failures on the field, the sense of embarrassment that he couldn’t win for his dad, his peripatetic childhood. As a focused study of the game, well, it isn’t. It’s an older man’s book, broad in scope, a little rambling and talkative.

And in that is the strength of the story, which captures a snapshot in time that doesn’t exist anymore. No, I haven’t read extensively about 1950s football, and for someone who hasn’t, it can be a fascinating glimpse at their lives, the character of 1950s New York City. Further, Frank talks candidly about the failures in leadership of the period, strips away common myths about the way the champion Giants worked, and in doing so, exposes the growing character of two towering football figures, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.

Cowboys fans might find this bit of text fascinating:

For my first two years , I played defense more than offense, which meant I was playing with Landry, who was even then a player-coach. So I knew how rigid, strict, and unyielding he was as a coach.

Actually,  in  one game against the Redskins, I made an interception and lateraled the ball to Tom, who ran it in for a touchdown. On the following Tuesday, we watched the film.

“Gifford, was that the coverage?”

“I know, Tom, but they were in a Brown right, L-split,” I started to explain, “and-“

“There are no ‘buts'”

“But what if –“

“There are no what-ifs”

If you didn’t play the defense Tom’s way, end of conversation.

“He had a computer mind”, is how Huff remembers Landry. “He studied the opposition’s offensive frequencies in various situations, and he taught them, and you studied them. He’d always say, ‘You have to believe, You  gotta believe. I’ll put you in position to make the play, trust me.’ If you weren’t in position, and making the moves he’d given you, he’d give you ‘The Look’. He didn’t have to say anything: you could read his mind, and what he was saying was ‘You dumb-ass.'”

Vince Lombardi? Gifford expresses a great deal of skepticism about Lombardi’s portrayal in Maraniss’s book, because Frank never saw Lombardi as dictator.  Lombardi was, Gifford claimed, a much more approachable man when Vince was their offensive coach.

And so it goes. The book is peppered with those kinds of details. As an example, Lenny Moore always kept a miniature bible in his thigh pad. Perhaps the most evocative writing is a description of the 1950s New York City night life, dominated by saloons, and the search for places where someone could pick up some or all of the player’s tab. After such a fine bit of work on the times, the setting, the game itself tends to fade into the background. Perhaps, this game has been so intensely covered that most of us in the hard core fan category could recite the ebb and flow of the game by heart.

Please note there is a coauthor, Peter Richmond. It’s a tribute to Peter that the book sounds as if Frank is narrating the text.

You would think that when Dom Capers and Rex Ryan clash, and play in a 9-0 defensive slugfest, that the NFL network could find interesting film for both coaches. In this particular game, they largely showed highlights of the frustrations of the Jets offense. No matter, Dom Capers can make very subtle changes to very ordinary looking defenses. This shot for example: looks like a 3 man front on first glance. But is it that? For that matter, is  it even a psycho (1 man in 3 point stance) or just a very well disguised cloud?

This is typical of the fronts you can find throughout the video of this contest. This nickel front is very ordinary by Dom’s standards.

This front, I’m hard pressed to classify. Look at the defensive line splits; almost purely geared for an outside pass rush.

We’ll end with this one, a far more standard psycho front.

For those less familiar with the various kinds of modern fronts, I can suggest this article on Rob Ryan from this blog, and perhaps checking out the very excellent Blitzology sometime.

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