I’ve spoken a lot about Dana Bible’s 1947 text called Championship Football. It was my Dad’s old book, from his days as a high school player in 1940s Texas. Because football was a lingua franca in middle and high school, once I found it alone on the shelf I devoured it. And I find it surprises me when the average sports writer, or even a coach, doesn’t know what that book knew about formations before the T (1). So we’re going to summarize.
I’ll note that Hickock Sports has a nice summary of these old formations, but be warned, their history of the old defenses is quite broken. The best summary text for pro football defense from 1930 to about 1950 is Steve Owen’s small readable text, My Kind of Football. Paul Zimmerman, the former New York Post and Sports Illustrated writer, is also quite accurate in his accounting of NFL defense history.
Strengths and weaknesses below are taken from Bible’s summary of the formations.
1. Single Wing.
This is a power formation, usually with an unbalanced line, and always with an unbalanced backfield. Everyone is on one side of the tailback. This leads to issues in pass protection, and therefore, the single wing was not considered a good downfield passing formation.
Strengths: power running, end runs, short passes, plays to the spinning fullback (spinner series), quick kicks.
Weaknesses: weak side running, unbalanced pass protection, lacks deception.
2. Double Wing.
These are formations, balanced or unbalanced, that have two wingbacks, sometimes three. The two inside men can be arrayed as a tailback and fullback, or a tailback and blocking back. Dutch Meyer had one formation where there were twin tailbacks at equal depth to the other.
Strengths: excellent passing formation, attack is balanced, deceptive, can easily quick kick.
Weaknesses: susceptible to crashing defensive ends, running plays are slow to the point of attack, weak as an inside running formation, difficult to master.
3. Short Punt.
This is a balanced formation with backs on both sides of the tailback. As in the single wing, as many as three backs can take the pass from center.
Strengths: balanced formation, deceptive ball handling, good lateral passing attack, excellent passing formation, ideal for the quick kick.
Weaknesses: lack of flankers make it hard to run off tackle, not strong weak side outside, far better passing formation than running.
4. Long Punt.
Largely when you’re in this formation you are punting. Occasionally, the center might hike it to the fullback and the punt is faked.
A short summary of the history of NFL defenses to 1960.
Before 1933, it’s the seven box and seven diamond that predominate. 1933 leads to a slimmer football and liberalized passing rules. This brings us the 6-2 as the primary defense, and the 5-3 as a passing defense/anti-T defense. In 1940, the success of Clark Shaughnessy inspired Ts brings more and more use of five man lines. The 5-3 is considered the best defense against the T by the middle 1940s. Later 1940s gives us Greasy Neale’s 5-2. Five man lines are the base defense of the NFL by 1950. 5-3 can easily been seen played in video of the 1950 NFL Championship, as Cleveland has been using it as their base defense.
Early fifties tend to 5-2s. NFL championship games featuring Detroit show good examples of 5-2 defenses. In 1956, New York uses the 4-3 throughout the NFL championship. The Chicago Bears show no sign of a 4 man line, and plenty of examples of middle guard play (that ends any claim of Bill George only playing MLB from 1954 on). By 1957, almost everyone plays the 4-3. I don’t recall Cleveland playing it, but I saw Detroit play it plenty in video of the 1957 Championship. At this point, Paul Zimmerman’s recounting of the history appears to be dead on.
1. The T formation is actually quite old, so we’re using this statement to mean before the Clark Shaughnessy inspired T formations that began to take over football in 1940.
Bible, Dana X., Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.
Lamb, Keith, The Evolution of Strategy, in Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, Carroll, Bob, Gershman, Michael, Neft, David, and Thorn, John, editors, Total Sports Inc, 1999.
Owen, Steve, My kind of football;, David McKay, 1952.
Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.