Philadelphia Eagles


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.

In 1947, defensive theory in football had not yet advanced to the level of offensive theory. I’m saying this because the focus of defensive line play was gladitorial in nature: you would beat the man in front of you, pursue the ball carrier and tackle, preferably with the best form possible. Adjustments were rare. People had to accommodate man in motion but that was about it. The notion of a defensive key isn’t even talked about (1).

In the late 1940s to mid 1950s, defensive linemen were somewhat interchangable, and there were no specific guidelines for the sizes of defensive tackles, defensive ends, or middle guards. The roles of these linemen weren’t as detailed and specific as they are in modern days. There were big powerful immobile linemen, and smaller, faster, more nimble linemen. And though people like to think of linemen falling back into zones as a modern invention, the tactic was used in Steve Owen’s 6-1 Umbrella, and sees time in the pages of Dana Bible’s book:

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

The idea, therefore, of a middle guard falling back into coverage wouldn’t have caused anyone in 1947 to blink an eye. So when you have a middle guard with sprinter’s speed, a guy like Bill Willis,

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter's speed.

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter’s speed (2).

the idea that he should be a part of coverage would have been expected. Good linemen would fall back from the line and into coverage when the situation demanded. Linemen rushed yes, but behaved more like modern linebackers when they had to.

“He often played as a middle or noseguard on our five-man defensive line, but we began dropping him off the line of scrimmage a yard because his great speed and pursuit carried him to the point of attack before anyone would block him” (3)

So why is this important? It’s important because the dominant defensive front from 1950 or so through 1955 is a five man front, often a 5-2 Eagle. An example comes from this screen shot of video of the 1953 NFL championship

defensive_front_1953_NFL_championship

when diagrammed, would look something like this:

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

And therefore, the appearance of 4-3 fronts, as a product of a middle guard digging into the “bag of tricks” a lineman was supposed to know, should have been expected. 4-3s would have appeared as a poor man’s prevent defense, or as a response to specific game events, like quarterbacks throwing the ball just over the head of Chicago’s middle guard, Bill George.

…in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, George made a now historic move that permanently changed defensive strategy in the National Football League.

On passing plays, George’s job was to bump the center and then drop back. George, noting the Eagles success at completing short passes just over his head, decided to skip the center bump and drop back immediately. Two plays later he caught the first of his 18 pro interceptions. While no one can swear which middle guard in a five-man line first dropped back to play middle linebacker and create the classic 4-3 defense, George is the most popular choice.

This game dates to 1954. Andy Piascik’s book claims that in the regular season game between the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns in 1952, the Lions employed a 4-3 (4). I’d suggest though, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these 4-3s fall into the form of an adjustment to the 5-2, as opposed to an integral coordinated defensive system.

The deal is, by 1956, Tom Landry, as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, has a 4-3 that isn’t anyone’s adjustment to something else. It’s a full blown base defense, a creation of his own hard work and imagination. It’s a largely 1 gap, keying defense, with distinct assignments to the linemen. Linemen have to fill gaps and keep the offensive line from getting to the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker roams, tackles, covers his two gaps. The initial Landry defenses have been lavishly detailed in the two volume text “Vince Lombardi on Football“, because these were the defenses Vince took with him to Green Bay.

And while what video I can watch in the period from 1948 to 1955 has yet to yield a single 4-3, the Giants live in it in the 1956 Championship game, and after some initial five man line in the 1957 Championship game, Detroit soon switches to a 4-3 and stays in it.

All this lends credence to the words of Paul Zimmerman (5)

Here and there the 4-3 popped up around the league. The Eagles got into a form of it when they had their middle guard, Bucko Kilroy, stand up, though at 258 pounds he hardly had true middle-linebacker responsibilities. The Redskins tried it, lifting middle guard Ron Marcinak and substituting a linebacker, Charley Drazenovich.

Landry graduated from player to player-coach to defensive coach under Jim Lee Howell. Vince Lombardi ran the offense. In 1956 the Giants drafted a tackle from West Virginia, Robert Lee Huff, nicknamed Sam, who had been born to play middle linebacker in the 4-3, and that became the Giant’s official standard defense. By 1957 everyone was in it.

So the real question is, how much of this 4-3 defensive system was prior art? Not the positions, mind you, but the components. The keys, the coordination, the pieces? I think the minimum you need to make such a defense are these three elements.

1. Film study. Without it you can’t really predict trends.
2. Two platoon football. Otherwise, you’re teaching one player offense 80% of the time.
3. A modern coaching staff, with full time assistants.

It’s very clear that Paul Brown’s staff with the Cleveland Browns has these three elements in the 1950s, but I don’t see signs that they were unusually innovative on defense. Instead, what you see are things like references to three man single safety backfields (6), and signs that they were working within the status quo of the times.

One resource I’d love to get my hands on is the writings of the former Cleveland Browns linebacker, Hal Herring (7). He played for the Browns for three years, starting in 1950. Later, he wrote a dissertation that was titled “Defensive Tactics and Techniques in Professional Football.” I’m not close enough to a research library to know if it can easily be obtained, but back in the day when I was writing my own dissertation, we had to make dissertations available to just about anyone who wanted a copy.

Update: correction on the Bill George date.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Keys and tells are different beasts. A tell is Dan Fouts giving away run or pass in 1979 with his feet placement. An example of a key is a person whose actions tell you where to go and what role to play when you do. Tells have been part of football forever, akin to stealing signs. Keys are elements of the game that have to be built into the defense and coached.

(2) Image from Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

(3) Paul Brown, quoted by Goldstein.

(4) Piascik, Chapter 11. The exact quote is:

“I think the 4-3 defense originated with him [Parker] and his coaches,” Dub Jones said of the Detroit team that so stifled Cleveland in that first ever meeting between the two teams. “They threw that in our face in ’52 and it was tough for us to cope with, having not faced it.”

(5) Zimmerman, Chapter 6.

(6) Brown and Clary, p 220, has this interesting blurb regarding the 1951 NFL championship:

For several years, our secondary had never declared a strong side of our opponent’s offensive formation until it saw which direction the fullback was going, and though we had gotten by with this strategy, it put a great burden on Cliff Lewis, the middle safety in our three-man secondary.

(7) Piascik, Chapter 8.

Bibliography

Bible, Dana X, “Championship Football”, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

Goldstein, Richard, “Bill Willis, 86, Racial Pioneer in Pro Football, Dies”, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2007, accessed Jun 7, 2013.

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

I believed, in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 season, that with Jason Peters at left tackle, the least of Philadelphia’s worries would have been the tackle position. Instead, he was injured in the off season. In September, Philadelphia center Jason Celce went down with a season ending injury. In the New Orleans game, Todd Herremans suffered a season ending injury, and going into the Dallas game, starting guard Danny Watkins had been out with a sprained ankle.

Losing Todd Herremans: deal breaker for the Eagles? (Image from Wikimedia).

So, in week 10, the Eagles had one healthy starting caliber player, and 4 backups playing on the offensive line. This loss of talent was profound, even in comparison with Dallas, which had 1 backup on the line – though Dallas RG Mackenzie Bernadeau has been pretty marginal as a starter. Simplified, losing tackles is much worse than losing a guard and a center. Result? A markedly ineffective Vick, a thoroughbred offense reduced to dog-sled pace.

No wonder announcers were hyping this as the “end of a season” for one of these teams. Most any cold blooded announcer could have figured out what was about to happen. The only question was how best to pitch it so people would actually watch.

Atlanta: I’ve been comparing the 2012 Atlanta Falcons to the 1976 Oakland Raiders, to make the case that Atlanta has a chance. But the 1976 Raiders had made it to three previous Conference Championship games, while the Mike Smith squads have never gone that far. They lack the deep playoff experience of those 1970s Raiders squads.

The fact is, all scoring stats suggest Atlanta has benefited from plenty of luck. I think, because of a better Julio Jones, that this is a better Falcons team than the 2011 team, but the coaching changes in New Orleans markedly benefited this squad. Yes, Atlanta can be beaten.

Week 9 scoring stats:

Week 10 scoring stats:

If we use the median point spread as a measure of how good Atlanta is, and select the teams within 2 points of their value, you end up with a group that includes San Francisco, New England, Minnesota, and the New York Giants. That’s a talented group of teams, but perhaps not as terrifying as Green Bay, Houston, Denver, and Chicago. Pythagoreans point out three elite teams in Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco, while simple rankings prefer the quartet of Houston, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco.

At this point, perhaps the more appropriate past comparison for the Falcons would be the 1973 Oakland Raiders. Atlanta needs to make some noise in the playoffs first.

Should anyone be worried about the Giants mid season slide? No. They always do this. The question is, will they fully recover in time to make a playoff run. That’s not something that will be entirely answered until week 17.

There were eight trades in the first day involving the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Most of them involved small shifts in the primary pick, with third day picks added as additional compensation. The one outlying trade was that of the St Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, which involved a substantial shift in  the #1 pick (from 6 to 14) and the secondary compensation was substantial. This high secondary compensation has led to criticism of the trade, most notably by Dan Graziano, whose argument, boiled to its essence, is that Dallas paid a 2 pick price for Morris Claiborne.

Counting  picks is a lousy method to judge trades. After all, Dallas paid a 4 pick price for Tony Dorsett. Was that trade twice as bad a trade as the Morris Claiborne trade?  The Fletcher Cox trade saw Philadelphia give up 3 picks for Fletcher Cox. Was that trade 50% worse than the Morris Claiborne trade?

In order to deal with the issues raised above, I will introduce a new analytic metric for analyzing trade risk, the risk ratio, which is the sum of the AV values of  the picks given, divided by the sum of the AV values of the picks received. For trades with a ratio of 1.0 or less, there is no risk at all. For trades with ratios approaching 2 or so, there is substantial risk. We are now aided in this kind of analysis by Pro Football Reference’s new average AV per draft pick chart. This is a superior tool to their old logarithmic fit, because while the data may be noisy, they avoid systematically overestimating the value of first round picks.

The eight first round trades of 2012, interpreted in terms of AV risk ratios.

The first thing to note about the 8  trades is that the risk ratio of 6 of them is approximately the same. There really is no difference, practically speaking, in the relative risk of the Trent Richardson  trade, or the Morris Claiborne trade,  or the Fletcher Cox trade. Of the two remaining trades, the Justin Blackmon trade was relatively risk free. Jacksonville assumed an extra value burden of 10% for moving up to draft the wide receiver. The other outlier, Harrison Smith, can be explained largely by the noisy data set and an unexpectedly high value of AV for draft pick 98. If you compensate by using 13 instead of 23 for pick #98, you get a risk ratio of approximately 1.48, more in line with the rest of the data sets.

Armed with this information, and picking on Morris Claiborne, how good does he  have to be for this trade to be break even? Well, if his career nets 54 AV, then the trade breaks even. If he has a HOF career (AV > 100), then Dallas wins big. The same applies to Trent Richardson. For the trade to break even, Trent has to net at least 64 AV throughout his career. Figuring out how much AV Doug Martin has to average is a little more complicated, since there were multiple picks on both sides, but Doug would carry his own weight if he gets 21*1.34 ≈ 28 AV.

Four historic trades and their associated risk ratios.

By historic measures, none of the 2012 first round trades were particularly risky. Looking at some trades that have played out in  the past, and one  that is still playing out, the diagram above shows the picks traded for Julio Jones, for Michael Vick, for Tony Dorsett, and also for Earl Campbell.

The Julio Jones trade has yet to play out, but Atlanta, more or less, assumed as much risk (93 AV) as they did for Michael Vick (94 AV), except for a #4 pick and a wide receiver. And although Michael is over 90 AV now, counting AV earned in Atlanta and Philadelphia, he didn’t earn the 90+ AV necessary to balance out the trade while in Atlanta.

Tony Dorsett, with his HOF career, paid off the 96 AV burden created by trading a 1st and three 2nd round choices for the #2 pick. Once again, the risk was high, the burden was considerable, but it gave value to Dallas in the end.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison is the assessment of the Earl Campbell trade. Just by the numbers, it was a bust. Jimmie Giles, the tight end that was part of the trade,  had a long and respectable career with Tampa Bay. That, along with the draft picks, set a bar so high that only the Ray Lewis’s of the world could possibly reach. And while Campbell was a top performer, his period of peak performance was short, perhaps 4   years. That said, I still wonder if Houston would still make the trade, if somehow someone could go back in to the past, with the understanding of what would happen into the relative future. Campbell’s peak was pretty phenomenal, and not entirely encompassed by a mere AV score.

Which of these players was drafted at a premium?

Sebastian Vollmer, drafted in the seond round in 2009.
Wikimedia image.

Derrick Burgess
Second round choice by Philadelphia in 2001.
Wikimedia image by BrokenSphere.

In my  mind, the answer is “both of them”.

One of the meatier passages in War Room comes in chapter 14, where Bill Belichick discusses the thought processes behind his selection of Sebastian Vollmer in 2009:

“Sebastian Vollmer is a good example”, he says of the Patriots’ starting right tackle, one of the team’s four second-rounders in ’09. “There’s no way he was really a second-round pick. Based on film or really based on the player he was at the end of the ’08 season. You know, East-West game and all  that. We knew there would be an undertow of Vollmer. And it was just a question of, ‘When’s this guy going to  go?’

“He should have been a fourth or fifth-round pick, by the film, by his performance. But  you saw him as an ascending player and he had rare size, and  there were a lot of things that you had to fix and all that. But it was clear the league liked him. Now,  the question is always, “How much do  they like him and where are they willing to buy?’ I’m sure for some teams it was the fourth round. For some teams it was the third round. But we just said, ‘Look we really want this guy. This is too high to pick him, but if we wait  we might not get him, so we’re going to  step up and take him.’

“And sometimes when you do that  you’re right and sometimes when you do  that  you’re wrong and everybody looks at you like, ‘Damn, you could have had him in the fourth.’

The Patriots aren’t the only team that practices the overdraft or the premium draft. If the Eagles really like someone, they tend to take them a round ahead of where he is commonly valued. Odd that teams that maintain plenty of draft picks practice this.  Offhand, I can recall the Eagles doing this for Derrick Burgess (generally viewed as a fourth rounder). The Steelers have done this as well;  they drafted Casey Hampton a full round above his common valuation.

In the 2012 draft class, players who appear to be attracting premium attention (we’re a day before the draft, mind you) are Ryan Tannehill (late first by talent, thought to be going to Miami at #8), Stephon Gilmore (drafted #3 in a mock draft by Greg Cosell), Fletcher Cox (mid first talent, seen as high as #5 in respectable mocks), Kevin Zeitner (mid second round talent, often in mocks with Pittsburgh in the first round), Chandler Jones (appearing in the first in some mocks), and Mark Barron (some people claim he’s the #7 now, often ranked as a mid first rounder).

If you feel you need the player, sometimes you have to just go out and get him.

The biggest fish in free agency was Peyton Manning, and now that fish has been landed, by the Denver Broncos. Peyton arriving now leads to speculation about Tebow leaving, and some Dallas media sorts have suggested that he might land with the Cowboys. My general feeling is possibly, if he ends up being cut, but since Dallas already has a serviceable backup in Kyle Orton (one of their first free agent pickups), I’m not sure I see the need.

Peyton Manning is now a Denver Bronco. Image from Wikimedia.

However, Tebow has what former Falcons QB David Archer calls “no off switch”. He doesn’t quit, even under conditions where most people give up.  This “never say never” attitude will land him a job somewhere. His will to win, will to work, and totally improbable ability to win games will land him somewhere. I’m sure of it.

It seems to me the team that could handle Tebow best would be the Carolina Panthers. With Cam Newton already using spread and zone concepts, it would be much less effort for that team to accommodate Tim. The question, of course, is whether they would want to.

Important in the NFC East scheme of  things was the Redskins trade for the #2 draft choice. They are almost certainly going to draft RG3 with that pick. For some years now, the Skins have lived with an unsettled QB situation, and now that is over. The question on their plate is how to accumulate talent with the draft deficit  they face.

The Eagles signed WR DeSean Jackson to a long term contract, and if I recall, have traded for DeMeco Ryans as well. Is this the end to their linebacker woes?  Now, the free agency linebacker market, as noted by such sources as Pro Football Focus, has been stolid. The general consensus is that the best linebackers had very high salary expectations. Clubs are just waiting for the talent that is there to be affordable.

Dallas, of course, faces the same issue on their offense as they did before free agency. If their biggest problem is Phil Costa at center, what have they done to fix that? They have picked up two free agent  guards, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, neither of which is regarded as a great player, but then again, they didn’t pay much either. The most important pickup was CB Brandon Carr, who replaces Terrance Newman. Also useful was QB Kyle Orton, and the LB Dan Connor (insert Terminator joke here).

Anybody who says without qualification or categorization that “Eagles fans are scum” has never seriously read or listened to Ray Didinger. The book, “The Eagles Encyclopedia” is excellent, thorough, well researched, and better than any single book written about the history of a football team that I’ve read so far. And it does it by going about the subject in as many different ways as you can imagine, and with an acute eye for detail. There is a general history of the team. There is a section that highlights the important players on the team – guys like Steve Van Buren, Norm van Brocklin, Chuck Bednarik, Tommy McDonald, Tom Brookshier. There is a section for the coaches, especially valuable is the coverage of Earle (Greasy) Neale, but also including Buddy Ryan, Andy Reid and Dick Vermiel. They talk about every championship team  the Eagles have ever had. There is a section that talks about each and every playoff game for the team. The year to year details are stuck in the back, in an appendix.

Because the authors touch the team in multiple ways, you have the effect of many different lenses into the history of the Eagles. It makes them accessible, it shows sides of the team you might not have expected. The legendary Minnesota coach Bud Grant is an example: he spent some time playing for the Eagles, and he was good. He was just proud, and wanted to be paid in an era when players weren’t paid very much. So he left, to play for years in the CFL.

Back in the day, Bud Grant was an Eagle.

Roman Gabriel played for the Eagles for a while. That’s discussed in depth. The  two years that Herschel Walker played for the Eagles is discussed, Terrell Owens, and Jevon Kearse. Hugh Douglass, an underrated end, also comes to mind. Wilbert Montgomery, whom I saw play in his freshman year in the NAIA championship in Shreveport, has some excellent coverage.

The section on Bosh Pritchard caught my eye: he was a halfback who played alongside Steve Van Buren on the Earle Neale teams of the late 1940s. This Boss Pritchard quote is worth mentioning.

It’s such a different game now. Our tackles averaged 220 pounds. Today, they’ve got fullbacks who weigh 250.  These players work out with weights all  year. Our coaches wouldn’t let us lift weights. They said that weights made you muscle-bound. Of course, no one ever said that about me.

Not only is the “Eagles Encyclopedia” a good oversized hardback, you can get it for about 2 dollars on Amazon these days. It’s cheaper than a drug store paperback. And if there is any downside to the book, it ends in the 2004 season. So, it’s a few years behind the current state of the Eagles.

As John Reed points out , the phrase “Eagle” is abused, inconsistent, and overused. And even though Earle Neale’s “Eagle” defense is celebrated, it’s hard to know exactly what it is. Jene Bramel’s excellent series on pro defenses shows something akin to a 5-2-4 Oklahoma (father of the modern 34), but the diagram of Neale’s Eagle defense in Ryan and Walker’s 46 book (page 10) looks something more like this:

According to Ryan and Walker, Earle Neale's Eagle looked something like this.

This latter diagram is more believable, since people do claim that dropping the nose guard in Earle’s defense led to a kind of 4-3 (Or in Steve Belichick’s notation of the time, a 45 – back in the 1950s, corners would be sometimes be counted as linebacker depth players).

The three players in the middle – the diamond – are a 0 technique nose tackle, and two 3 technique tackles. The 3 technique tackles can also be called eagles – terminology used in odd front 4-3s and also certain derivatives of the 46. These sons of the 46 are often called double eagle defenses because of the 46 “diamond“, which they inherit from Buddy Ryan’s defense.

The most important of these defenses is called the Desert Swarm defense, made famous by Dick Tomey during his period as Arizona’s head coach. This defense lives on in college through the work of Rich Ellerson, currently the head coach at Army, who was a defensive staffer during Tomey’s run at Arizona. Though a number of sources call this defense a 4-3, it’s more an 8 in the box defense of the Ryan family, with the strong safety playing more of a linebacker technique, and the alignment to me looking quite a bit like a 5-3. To note, in the Desert Swarm, one of the 3 techniques (usually the weak side tackle) is a flexed tackle. Ironically, in the photo below, the flex tackle is on the strong side of the formation.

Literature on this defense is a little hard to come by. Some links that you might find useful are given below.

To summarize: a double eagle defense is one with a nose guard and 2 3 technique tackles. A double eagle flex has one flexed tackle. A double eagle double flex has two flexed tackles. Earle Neale’s Eagle appears to be a double eagle, though no one is 100% certain. These defenses should not be confused with the 34 Eagle of Fritz Schurmer, which is an eagle of an entirely different color.

Update: a more nuanced look at Fritz Schurmer’s Eagle can be found here.

I’ve had this book a while, but really haven’t had a chance to show it off.

Hail Victory” is an oral history of the Washington Redskins, written by Tom  Loverro, a writer for the Washington Times. It’s smaller than Pete Golenbock’s oral history of the Cowboys, by a few hundred pages, and as a consequence, coverage of certain periods can be spotty.

But to give an example of the kinds of insights this book does have, here is a quote from page 180 talking about the beginnings of the 1982 season.

Gibbs made it clear he was going to use youngsters over veterans who didn’t produce. He cut running back Terry Metcalf, whom  he had been close to from their days in Saint Louis. He made backup linebacker Rich Milot a starter, as well as rookie cornerback Vernon Dean. He cut receiver Carl Powell, a top draft choice, in favor of unheralded Alvin Garrett. He brought in veteran defensive end Tony McGee to replace Mat Mendenhal and shore up the pass rush.

I bought “Hail Victory” initially to help answer the question of George Allen’s five man line back in 1972, but it was no help there. It’s going to be a terrific help as I chase down information on my next element of interest, Bobby Beathard. And he’s interesting because Washington is the ultimate counter example of the group “A” teams I’ve been so fascinated by recently.

What’s a  group “A’ team?  It’s one of the four I’ve circled on this plot:

I’m thinking now there are clusters of teams with draft strategies. The four in group “A” are New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. I spoke about their apparent habits here. The groups “B” and “C” are unstudied so far. Group B  teams are Denver and Indianapolis. Group C teams are Minnesota and the New York Giants. Left of group B are a cluster of 8 teams, that might as well be named group D for now. And down by its little lonesome, right at the 6.5 player/year line, is Washington.

My guess is that Bobby Beathard, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins, is the ultimate counterexample for the type “A” team.

Some things to note. Bobby was quarterback in college, and then a scout before he entered the NFL. He scouted for Kansas City in the later 1960s, was the director of player personnel for the Miami Dolphins during their peak, and in 1978, when Jack Kent Cooke was the majority owner of the Skins, he became their general manager.

There is an excellent interview of Bobby Beathard on the site Burgundy and Gold Obsession. There is a section from that interview that really stands out, and it’s the same kind of emphasis  that Bill Billick  has attributed to the Belichick era with New England. Bobby is responding to a question in this excerpt (emphasis is mine).

There should be a relationship where the personnel people and the coach are really together. We knew exactly what type of player each Redskin position coach wanted. We knew what kind (offensive line coach) Joe Bugel wanted, we knew what kind (linebackers coach) Larry Peccatiello, (defensive coordinator) Richie Petitbon wanted. I think on our first Super Bowl team we had 26 kids who weren’t drafted, we just signed them as free agents. It didn’t matter who we brought in. Those guys coached the dog out of them. When I was with (head coach) Kevin Gilbride in San Diego, he’d make up his mind before he even got to minicamp, `I don’t want that guy, I don’t want this guy, I don’t want that guy.’ And it became impossible to satisfy him with anybody. The exact opposite was Joe and his staff. Having a staff like that really helps the organization.

What’s very intriguing is this emphasis on the “back end” of the draft, or in this case, post-draft free agents. It’s also the notion that the coaches tell the scouts what kind of players to get, and the scouts go out and  get them exactly those kinds of players. The fit helped make the Redskins of the 1980s successful. And in another form, it’s the same back end emphasis you see in the type “A” teams.

With regard to the best possible athlete versus need question, Bobby said this:

Sometimes you get into that situation when you have the philosophy which we did, you have to take the best one on the board, regardless of position. We always hoped when we picked there would be two or three good players available at different positions, so you’d at least get to take closer to your need. But if there’s just one there, and he’s outstanding, and you have a great grade on the guy and the next athlete on the board doesn’t have that kind of grade, you have to go with the highest-graded player.

And that seems to be a common theme, BPA of course, but need when there are two or three attractive alternatives.

In late 2007 I had grown interested in what positions were drafted where, and posted some results on a football forum, derived from the draft data on drafthistory.com. It’s 2010 and I recalled that there was a result that didn’t get published on the forum — or maybe it did, it’s been a while –a ranking of teams by the number of total draft picks they had. In this study, we’ll be considering the period  from 1994 to 2010, as that 1994 is the beginning of the seven round draft. Data again come from the pages of drafthistory.com.

To  note, 1994 to 2010 is a 17 season span, in which 272 regular season games were being played.

We’ll pick four teams out of the 32, and consider their records in that span of time.

New England Patriots: 180-92, 12 seasons 10 wins or more (8 consecutive), 15 seasons 8-8 or more.

Tennessee Titans: 143-129, 6 seasons 10 wins or more, 10 seasons 8-8 or more.

Green Bay Packers: 170-102, 11 seasons 10 wins or more, 15 seasons 8-8 or better.

Philadelphia Eagles: 154-116-2, 10 seasons 10 wins or more, 12 seasons 8 wins or better.

What do these four teams have in common? They accumulate draft choices, and they do so better than almost all teams in football. When I recharted the same data above in terms of teams (as opposed to positions), those four were at the top 5 of the chart, and Pittsburgh wasn’t very far behind.

Old chart. Now obsolete.

New chart, ordered by draft picks per year, and with win-loss-tie data

Now, there are some winning teams down at the bottom. The Vikings and Giants come to mind. But not so many, and if you look at teams that are noted to be consistent winners, they all seem clustered at  the top.

What other trends appear in this chart?

  • The four teams don’t care much for #1 draft choices.
  • The four teams care a fair amount about 2nd and 3rd round draft choices.
  • The four teams care a lot about late round draft choices (181 or lower).

What’s the advantage in second and third rounders? Cost, for one, and successful draft picks in these rounds are potential starters. They make the backbone of teams, if not the preponderance of All-Pros.

These kinds of teams pay a lot of attention to the seventh rounders. You can often get a 7th as a throw in in a trade. It’s the “additional value” you want whenever you swap players back and forth. Seventh rounders supply depth, supply bodies for special teams, and occasionally yield a starter or perhaps an All-Pro. Bill Parcells tended, in these kinds of picks, to look for people with raw skills and prototypical size and then give them time to develop. The kid with great measurables and a coaching deficit is a much better risk at 7th than higher rounds. Put simply, sheer numbers count.

Note: Updating this post as I’m getting better info. Please be patient.

A new sheet has been added above, sorted by picks per year. This more accurately reflects the drafting habits of teams that didn’t have a 17 year history during the period in question. 1994 was picked as a start because that’s when the 7 round draft began.

Trends to notice. Teams 1-10 have 6 winning teams, and 4 losing teams. Teams 11-20 have 6 winning teams, and 4 losing teams. So it’s entirely possible to win, and win a lot, in the middle “third” or so. The bottom 12 have a success rate of 4 winners to 8 losers. It’s not the best place to be.

Ranking draft position by total wins, and then adjusting the Ravens for their 15 seasons, results in a top 10 list as so:

  1. Patriots. 1st in draft.
  2. Steelers. 8th in draft
  3. Colts. 18th in draft.
  4. Packers. 3rd in draft.
  5. Broncos. 17th in draft
  6. Eagles. 5th in draft
  7. Vikings. 28th in draft.
  8. Cowboys. 16th in draft.
  9. Ravens. 21st in draft.
  10. Giants. 27th in draft.

The Giants beat out the Titans for the 10th slot by half a game.

Update: on this blog in this article, we show a statistical correlation between winning and draft picks/year.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 244 other followers