August 2013


I’ve been lucky recently. Bill Arnsparger’s book tends to cost closer to $100 than a penny, but an inexpensive copy appeared and I grabbed it (even the Kindle version is around fifty dollars). Compared to Homer Smith’s book, this is less a compendium of diagrams, concepts and ideas and more of a handbook on how to organize and play football defense. It is at times synoptic, at times terse, something of a densely annotated outline. Bill is fond of capital letters, acronyms, and motivational slogans. He also needs to learn to spell “Wilkinson”.

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As a defensive handbook, it’s full of fronts, pass defenses, pithy comments, and a fair amount of defensive gold. He talks about which pass defenses should be paired together. He’s good at finding ones whose reads would be the same to a QB but whose collective actions would be quite different (Cover 2 with his Two man coverage, for example).

As befits a handbook, nothing is beyond the ken of the curious mind. It’s in the depth of the material where it can be daunting. It feels like those sophomore survey courses where the instructor tries to teach everything. Clearly, a lot of time and effort have been poured into the collection of material in the book to make it a cohesive and workable system.

His approach to the history of defenses is pretty original. He starts with the wide tackle six, and between what Jones and Wilkinson have said about the wide tackle six, what Jones and Wilkinson have said about four and five spoke contain, what Homer Smith said about the evolution of the 8 man line, and this delightful Rod Rusk quote from Doctor Z’s tome:

We had trouble with Atlanta’s one back. I was very tempted, but I didn’t have the guts, to line us up in an old fashioned wide-tackle, six-man line, an old 6-2 defense. It keeps going around and around in my head. You can do it with nickel people. The defensive ends are strong safeties, then you’ve got four linemen inside them, then the two inside linebackers are, well, inside linebackers. I still might do it. You might see a lot of people going back to old ideas next year.

Is this the time when the modern 4-2-5 was conceptualized? I’m really intrigued by this train of thought.

Later he points out that the wide tackle six, if you put one of the linebackers at the nose on the line, becomes a kind of seven-diamond.

Seven-diamond, as it stems from the wide tackle six. Pull the right tackle and replace him with a linebacker, and you get something incredibly similar to the later 46 defense.

Seven-diamond, as it stems from the wide tackle six. Pull the right tackle and replace him with a linebacker, and you get something incredibly similar to the later 46 defense.

And then talks about how similar this seven-diamond is to the 46 defense.

It's interesting that Bill spends most of his time re: the flex defense discussing the play of the offside (flexed) end.

It’s interesting that Bill spends most of his time re: the flex defense discussing the play of the offside (flexed) end.

Later, he talks about the Tom Landry flex defense, and rather than focusing on the tackle up on the line, he discusses a flex strong and the pursuit play of the weakside defensive end. He never outright says it, but considering that he later discusses the development of his 53 and over/under 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, it’s hard to lose the impression that the weak side end, often handling the weak side A gap in pursuit, was a factor in his later 3-4 setups. Did he see it as a step towards a 3-4? Was the weak side flexed end a poor man’s “3-4 linebacker”?

With the notes I’ve shown so far, I’m really only scraping the surface of this book. I get the feeling a good coach could, in many ways, start and end with this book, and not suffer very much. If you’re a fan, the book is expensive enough that you should wait for an inexpensive copy. A defensive coach might actually find reason to buy this one as an ebook, and keep it around.

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I am much more of a defensive historian and front junkie than I am an offensive specialist, but all that said, if you’re like me and really want to know how the various defenses evolved, then you could do a lot worse than the first twelve pages of Homer Smith’s book. What Doctor Z did for the history of the 7 man line in professional football, Homer Smith does for both the 7 and 8 man line in both college and pro football in his first chapter.

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A page from his phenomenal first chapter.

A page from his phenomenal first chapter.

The book is worth buying for the first chapter alone.

That said, as this is a playbook, the book is dominated by diagrams and concepts. It’s a very conceptual book. It’s heavy with categories and many lists of things to know and do. As an example, it has an appendix of pass techniques you can use to achieve separation. There are, by my count, 29 listed, in three broad categories.

He talks about things like simplifying reads, so that QBs have a binary decision tree instead of a five-six part list. That sounds to me like practical advice. He discusses kinds of pass defenses and how to recognize them. There are sections on time outs and time management, and when to go for 2 points. He talks about pass protection schemes, inside and outside runs, blocking schemes, and a lot of things I’ll never have the time to delve into.

But his excellent diagrams, often of defenses, are enough for someone like me to call this book a classic, and make me recall the various philosophy lectures I’ve heard, particularly on the Greek concept of arete. This, indeed, is an excellent book.

While digging for T formation information (see my last article), I picked up two books discussing Army football. The first was Randy Roberts’ “A Team For America”, a good book that discusses Earl Blaik, his development of Army football, and ends with the 1945 season, in which Army went undefeated and beat Navy in the Army Navy game. But from the context of football history, at least as useful is Mark Beech’s book “When Saturday Mattered Most”.

This book focuses on the Black Knight’s 1958 season, the last in which Army went undefeated. So you have Earl Blaik introducing the Lonely End formation, and the effect the formation had on the game. The book touches on the problems Earl was having with depth, the majesty of Pete Dawkins’ Heisman winning season, and well, a whole lot more. The book is heavily driven by player and coach interviews, and I think, does the topic plenty of justice.

For the football historian, though, there are plenty of small comments that help establish the nature of football in the late 1950s. For example, the Black Knights had been playing the 5-4 Oklahoma, but Earl wasn’t very happy with it. (1)

Against opponents with superior size and depth, sticking with the Oklahoma seemed as self-defeating as continuing to run the offense from the T formation, since the key to the scheme was for defenders to hit and control the offensive blocker in front of him. The Oklahoma Defense, in other words, was “impact football”. Blaik instead wanted an aggressive defense that attacked the ball with speed rather than trying to control the line of scrimmage.

All I can say is that the issue of the Oklahoma being a big, powerful man’s defense is older than the mass switch to the Miami 4-3 in the 1990s.

The formation chosen for the 1958 campaign is also interesting. Earl Blaik has been experimenting with unbalanced lines, and along with the unbalanced line, they added a “far flanker”. This was a split end positioned fifteen to twenty yards away from the main formation. The backfield would be a Bears or Power T, or perhaps a brown formation, with Pete Dawkins, normally a halfback, stationed as a wingback on the strong side. Though perhaps not the original intent, this broke the “four spoke” contain strategies of the day, and led to a very powerful rushing attack.

We’re going illustrate this, so readers have a better understanding of what was going on. A 5-2, with players positioned as per assignments in Gomer and Wilkinson (up to and including the flexed nose guard), would look something like this.

A 5-2 as it would have been played versus a Power T. The cornerbacks are 3 yards from LOS and 4-5 yards laterally from the ends. It creates a de facto nine man line.

Fig. 1. A 5-2 as it would have been played versus a Power T. The cornerbacks are 3 yards from LOS and 4-5 yards laterally from the ends. It creates a de facto nine man line.

With cornerbacks 3 yards deep and within 4-5 yards of the ends, you can easily see how the Oklahoma got the game the 5-4. As Beech explained, the 5-4 against a traditional Power T gives you effectively a nine man line. (2)

The formation Earl Blaik used became known as the Lonely End formation, a phrase coined by the journalist Stanley Woodward. The flanker had to be covered or else he would run wild. A typical adjustment of 1958 would look something like this.

The far flanker of the lonely end formation, with a corner shadowing the flanker, opened up runs to the strong  side of the field, as the corner could not contain.

Fig. 2. The far flanker of the lonely end formation, with a corner shadowing the flanker, opened up runs to the strong side of the field, as the corner could not contain.

The problem now is, the cornerback is too far away to help in run contain. Yes, he can cover the far end, but he really cannot function to contain end runs to his side. Further, if the end went deep, he would take two defenders, a cornerback and a safety, with him. The four spoke contain was broken. (3-4)

The answer emerged roughly concurrently with the appearance of the Lonely End formation, as Homer Smith notes in Mark Beech’s book: (5)

I was manning the phones on the sideline in a game when I was the freshman coach at Stanford in 1958, and somone we were playing, I forget who it was, was using the inverted rotation. We didn’t know what the heck was going on; at least the coaches didn’t, and I sure didn’t. It was that new, that surprising.

In the inverted rotation, also called an overshifted secondary, a safety would drop to linebacker depth and station himself 3-5 yards outside the line, and function as a contain man. This player at linebacker depth later became known as a monster or rover back, and is commonly seen in eight in the box defenses to this day, including the Desert Swarm defenses of current Army coach Rich Ellerson.

The inverted secondary (or  overshift, or monster) was the answer to loss of contain by the far cornerback. This kind of defensive scheme became known later as the 5-2 Monster.

Fig. 3. The inverted secondary (or overshift, or monster) was the answer to loss of contain by the far cornerback. This kind of defensive scheme became known later as the 5-2 Monster.

Innovations of formation and defense weren’t the only changes Mark noted. He points out that to deal with the complexities of the line assignments, that line coach Bill Gunlock installed an area, or zone blocking scheme. This dates area blocking to a time before Vince Lombardi becomes head coach of Green Bay. (6)

So all told, in summary, this is an important book for a couple of reasons. It tells a nice story of Earl Blaik’s last season, and further, it gives enough detail about the football of the times to get in on the problems of a football coach in the late 1950s, the kinds of solution required to solve the problems of the era, and then enough detail to help piece together the evolution of both football offense and defense.

I recommend this book a lot, a worthy read.

Notes

Fig 1. The DT shade over the tackles is probably a little exaggerated. Jones and Wilkinson describe it as almost across from the tackles, but I didn’t read “outside shoulder of the tackles”. In modern notation, it isn’t quite a 4, but not quite a 5 either. The DTs above are shown as a 5, so a bit exaggerated in terms of their placement.

References

1. Beech, Chapter 3.

2. Beech, Chapter 1.

3. Beech, Epilogue.

4. “Feet plus Pete Dawkins”

5. Beech, Epilogue.

6. Beech, Chapter 3.

Bibliography

Beech, Mark, When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football, St Martin’s Press, 2012.[ebook]

Jones, Gomer and Wilkinson, Bud, Modern Defensive Football. , Prentice-Hall, 1957.

Staff, “Feet Plus Pete Dawkins”. February 2, 1959. Sports Illustrated. retrieved August 2, 2013.

Wilkinson, Bud, Sports illustrated football: defense, Lippincott, 1973 .

Wyatt, Hugh, Earl “Red” Blaik – Chapter 9 The Lonely End Excites a Nation, retrieved August 2, 2013.