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.

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Bill Parcells has an enormous hold on the  hearts and souls of football fans, ranked, for example, in this poll as the sixth best coach of all time. People take his declarative statements as edicts. Parcellisms, made more accessible to the  masses, comprise a substantial part of Pat Kirwin’s book,  “Take Your Eye Off the Ball”.  And  one of the notions of that’s beginning to take hold is that Parcell’s theories of  how the 3-4 should  be played are getting etched in stone as the way it always was played. Without proving it, people are labelling the two gap 3-4s as the “true” 3-4. Other 3-4s are somehow, “not true”.

The origin of the 3-4 is well known. It’s a 5-2 Oklahoma where the defensive ends can stand up and have pass responsibilities. The differences between the two are merely semantic. So if you want to know what the true 3-4  is, you need  to know what the  true 5-2 is, and  the best place for that is the 1957 text of Gomer Jones and Bud Wilkinson, labelled  “Modern Defensive Football.

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In  it they describe some amazing defensive concepts. They are excellent teachers, and I’ve never seen anyone explain force and contain concepts as well as they do. They do it for four man backfields and three man backfields (what they called the four and five spoke contain units). And they also describe the 5-2, which they call defense 72.

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Jones and Wilkinson’s Defense 72. Players are named as if they are playing a 6-2 defense, which was the recommended front for a single wing opponent. Note the hybrid defense end/cornerback in this scheme.

Some things to  note about these older defenses. Linebackers are much closer to the line  of scrimmage, pretty tight in fact. This can more easily be seen in old newsreel footage. If you can find, say, video of early 1950s Oklahoma and Notre Dame, linebackers are often within a couple yards of the line of scrimmage. An Oklahoma from this period looks something like this.

524_Okie

Now, what about the gap assignments? We’ll note that the modern notion of gap control is a relatively recent phenomenon. I explored this in a letter exchange with Coach Hugh Wyatt. He would date the phrase to about 1979, with Monte Kiffen the first known user of the term. The phrase “gap responsibility” is used by late 1960s, so notions of gap management in the late 1950s are stated in terms of  things  the offense must never do.

And other  than the nose guard, what must never be done is the opponent must never block you in. This makes it clear: of the 7 line assignments, 6 are one gap assignments. The original 5-2 is largely a one gap defense.

It is interesting to look at the responsibilities of the nose guard, the only one with responsibilities on both side of his opponent. As Jones and Wilkinson say (note that since they labeled all the players as if  they were in a 6-2 front, the nose guard is called the right guard in this scheme):

Right guard:  Line up  head up with the offensive center about 2 to 2 1/2 feet off the line of scrimmage. Vary the strength of your charge from play to play. Occasionally, charge hard into the center and attempt to knock him back. Most of the time, charge with enough force to control the offensive center. Basically, you must never allow the center to cut you either way. You must control both sides of the center, maintaining your ability to move to either side.

Not only is the original  5-2 largely a one gap defense, the center is flexed. This is a far cry from the modern version of 300 to 340  pound behemoths maintaining gap control across the whole front. In other words, the two gap 3-4 was an evolution from the original 3-4, and further, the one gap 3-4s are more in tune with the  original 5-2 than is the “true” 3-4.

So when did the two gap 3-4 evolve? Now, I’m curious. It’s documented, for example, that Parcell’s notion of outside run contain isn’t the same as older notions. Older contain strategies (such as the one in Jones and Wilkinson) tend to  keep runners inside the contain unit. Parcells was content. however, to run the sweep or pitch out of bounds.

Did Parcells invent it? Or was it already common in colleges by the time he arrived in the NFL? Going from one one gapper to three isn’t that much of a reach, especially if your team has three large powerful linemen. But glancing at a couple articles in AFCA’s “Defensive Football Strategies”, articles on the 5-2  originally published in 1974 and 1980,  you see one gap responsibilities being taught, even for the nose guard.

I’m not an old coach, who would have this information buried in his bones. But there is more to college football defense than a two gapping 5-2, and the paths from the past to modern times more complex than many realize.

Dan Daly’s “National Forgotten League”: Just buy it. Read it. If you’re a historian, you’ll like how he tries to put each decade in context. If you’re an analytics guy, then his analysis of scoring patterns over the decades will come as a pleasant surprise. Dan Daly has a Twitter account and it is worth following.

Zone blitzes before the word “blitz” was coined.

In this passage in the Sammy Baugh biography Slingin’ Sam, Baugh recalls the 1935 TCU-SMU game (1):

They did some things I hadn’t seen before. They’d throw up a six-man line with two linebackers, so they had eight guys pretty close to the front. If they all came, they had a pretty good pass rush, but you had to call your blocking for six men coming. Sometimes the linebackers would come, but someone else would drop back. They usually had four men  protecting that short, eight-or nine-yard area, But we never knew which ones.

The emphasis in the quote is mine, but it sure sounds like a zone blitz to me.

The Wikipedia and the 5-3 defense.

I’ve been sticking my nose into the Wikipedia, cleaning  up their entry on the 5-2 defense, and also trying to fix situations where statements are outright incorrect (No, Tom Landry did not invent the 4-3 to stop Jim Brown.  Tom used the 4-3 as the Giants’ base defense in 1956. Sam Huff’s bio, “Tough Stuff”, makes it clear that both the 4-3 Inside and 4-3 Outside were in place by 1956 (2).  Jim Brown entered the league in 1957. Let’s just not go there, even if there are sites that claim otherwise).

But as it turns out, the Wikipedia has no entry for the 5-3 defense, which I’d like to add, and I’m faced with a quandry. Who invented it: Steve Owen, or Clark Shaughnessy? I’m not sure. The Wikipedia entry for Clark Shaughnessy claims he did, giving a reference to the book “Wow Boys”. Steve Owen claims he did in his autobiography, and gives dates (first used 1933, in a game against the Bears)(3). I have “Wow Boys” on order, so we’ll see.

5-3-3, circa 1947. Dana Bible described it as the best defense against the T formation.

5-3-3, circa 1947. Dana Bible described it as the best defense against the T formation.

Deal is, by 1947, it was regarded, by Dana Bible no less, as the best defense to the T formation. The Cleveland Browns used it as their base defense at least as late as the year 1951 (4).  Steve Owen refers to the 5-3-3 as the Browns base defense in his 1952 autobiography. The  book “Total Football II” claims the Browns were using the 5-2 as their base defense by 1954, so sometime between 1952 and 1954 they switched.

On the origin of the 5-2 Oklahoma

“Total Football II” has this interesting passage (5):

After their first championship, the Eagles played the annual College All-Star game and won 38-0. The All-Stars’ coach was Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson, who took Neale’s defense back to the Big Eight and tinkered with it. Eventually, Wilkinson’s 5-2 had the ends standing up like linebackers.

The interesting thing about this claim is that it is falsifiable. If Oklahoma played the 5-2 Eagle as late as the 1948 season, they already knew about the defense. If the Oklahoma was played before 1949, then the story above is false. Partial confirmation of the date, though really not indicative of prior knowledge, is this quote from “Forty-Seven Straight” (6):

It was in 1949 that Bud and Gomer devised the Oklahoma Defense, a 5-4 that was a completely new concept. “It has since been used extensively in professional football, and still is today,” says Pop Ivy. “We had been in the Eagle Defense, named for the Philadelphia Eagles. In it the linebackers played on the offensive ends. But it was Bud’s idea that, since linebackers, playing on tight ends, can’t see what’s going on, no key is given. ‘Let’s move our linebackers in on the offensive guards and move our defensive tackles on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles and key on the offensive guards’, Bud proposed. ‘The guard will pull, or double-team, or do something to tell us what the play will be.’ As soon as the offensive guard moved, we know what to do.”

This passage is useful in a lot of ways. It establishes that the Oklahoma is a keying defense that was in use in 1949, 7 years in advance of Landry’s 4-3. It also suggests that reading keys is prior art, something people were already doing at the time. It suggests a way to falsify the claim of Total Football II: find video somewhere of Oklahoma football in 1948, and look for a 5-2 Eagle.

The 5-4 before there was a 5-4.

Bud Wilkinson’s 5-2 is often referred to as a 5-4. Bud himself often called it a 5-4. But in Dana Bible’s book there is this short passage, showing a noticeably different 5-4.

5-4-2, circa 1947. Note the wide spacing of the linebackers, compared to the Oklahoma.

5-4-2, circa 1947. Note the wide spacing of the linebackers, compared to the Oklahoma.

Notes from the book ’63

The book ’63 is an oral history of the 1963 Chicago Bears. Maury Youmans did the interviews, Gary stitched the interviews into a comprehensible narrative. Because it’s largely an oral history from a lot of perspectives, it’s terrifically useful as a snapshot into what was happening at the time.

Mike Ditka on the 46 defense (7):

Buddy Ryan had a system; it was the 46 defense. You basically are coming with eight men up front. You’re playing an 8-3, that’s what you’re playing.

Ritchie Petitbon on George Allen becoming defensive coordinator late in 1962, replacing Clark Shaughnessy (8):

I thought when George Allen took over it was a good move. Clark was a genius, but he was so smart that most of us didn’t know what the hell was going on. George simplified things, and we obviously had a lot of talent on that team. I think it made all the difference in the world.

In my opinion, George Allen relates to Clark Shaughnessy as a defensive coach in much the same way Joe Gibbs is indebted to Don Coryell. Both showed the systems of their mentors could win big in the NFL.
~~~

Notes and References.

1. Holley, Chapter 4.

2. Huff and Shapiro, p. 50.

3. Owen, p. 178.

4. Brown and Clary, p. 220.

5. Carroll et al., p 463.

6. Keith, p. 55.

7. Youmans and Youmans, p. 209.

8. Youmans and Youmans, p. 11.

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.

Holley, Joe, Slingin’ Sam: The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game, University of Texas Press, 2012 [ebook].

Huff, Sam and Shapiro, Leonard, Tough Stuff, St. Martins Press, 1988.

Keith, Harold, Forty-seven Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

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.

Youmans, Gary, and Youmans, Maury,’63: The Story of the 1963 World Championship Chicago Bears, Campbell Road Press, 2004.

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