Xs and Os

I know I’m passing a judgement on fragments of two games I’ve watched, but this is a view commonly held among my peers, a bunch of generic football fans (Update: not just generic fans. See here and here and here and here and here). People feel as if a light has been switched on in their brains, and they can see a lot deeper into the games they watch. I didn’t have a feel that Tony has a mature style just yet. He’s still trying to figure out how best to get his information across. But his ability to break down plays on the fly is far above the average. The only one in Atlanta who can come close to Tony is David Archer, who coincidentally, was also an NFL quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons.

Tony is an analyst, a job separate from a play by play man. What he does generally could not be done by anyone short of a smart player or a good coach. That said, he appears to elicit quite a bit of jealousy among broadcasters, who quite simply, must have wanted the job themselves.

One example is Rick Kamyla of NBA-TV and 92.9 The Game, who upon hearing about Tony getting the gig, immediately announced that “Tony Romo is the most overrated quarterback in NFL history”, when, as far as I could tell, he could have cared less about Tony (unless he was on one of Rick’s fantasy teams).

Then there is Brent Musberger. Best I can fathom, he is of the opinion that the play by play guy runs the show in the booth, and the analyst is there to fill in audio gaps that the play by play guy cannot handle by himself. Maybe that’s the way it was back in the day, when Brent Musberger and Bryant Gumbel and Bob Costas were a trio of young “Turks”, arrogant and full of themselves. Over time most of this bunch mellowed. Perhaps Brent has been bothered enough to feel 30 all over again. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be best known for making a fool of himself over Katherine McCarron. I’m partial to the idea he clings to a notion of HOW THE SHOW SHOULD BE that’s defunct, or as Mark Twain might put it, ‘bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez’.


It is going to be near-impossible for me to be objective about Dak Prescott. He is a Dallas Cowboy and he graduated from the same high school I did. He’s probably the biggest sports star that part of Louisiana has had since Joe Delaney.

In recent years, Chris Brown of Smart Football has been talking plenty about package plays and after Dak’s performance in the first preseason game of the year, he analyzed one play from the game. It’s good enough I recommend it. Please read, it’s worth your time.


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”.



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.

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.


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.


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.


1. Beech, Chapter 3.

2. Beech, Chapter 1.

3. Beech, Epilogue.

4. “Feet plus Pete Dawkins”

5. Beech, Epilogue.

6. Beech, Chapter 3.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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 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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