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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

In Brian Burke’s recent roundup, he references a Fifth Down blog article on Rex Ryan’s philosophy of offense, one where running is heavily emphasized and the yardage? Not so much. He then says that as an offensive philosophy, it seems to be “ridiculous”, except in the metaphoric sense of a boxer, with a jab, using the run to keep an opponent off balance, so that he can lay out the “killing blow”.

I tend to think that Brian’s boxing metaphor is, at best, an incomplete picture. For one, he doesn’t see the jab as a knockout punch, but for Muhammad Ali, it was. Another point is the jab is fast, elusive, confusing. By contrast, the run is a slow play, and there is nothing particularly elusive or confusing about the run. Rex-like coaches often run when it is most expected.

The way Rex is using the run, in my opinion, is closely tied to the way Bill Parcells used to use the run, especially in the context of Super Bowl 25. This New York Times article, about Super Bowl 25, details Parcells’ view of the philosophy neatly.

Parcells' starting running backs averaged about 3.7 ypc throughout his NFL coaching career.

To quote Bill:

“I don’t know what the time of possession was,” the Giants’ coach would say after the Giants’ 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. “But the whole plan was try to shorten the game for them.”

The purpose, of course, is time control, optimizing time of possession, and thus reducing the opportunity of the opposing offense to have big plays. It’s a classic reaction to an opponent’s big play offense, to their ability to create those terrific net yards per attempt stats [1].

Note also Rex is primarily a defensive coach. If the game changing, explosive component of a football team is the defense, doing everything to suppress the opponent’s offense only hands more tools to the defensive team. It forces the opponent’s offense to take risks to score at all. It makes them go down the field in the least amount of time possible. It takes the opponents out of their comfort zone, especially if they are used to large, early leads.

The value of time, though, is hard to quantify.  Successful time control is folded into stats like WPA, and thus is highly situation dependent. The value of such a strategy is very hard to determine with our current set of analytic tools. Total time of possession no more captures the real value of time any more than total running yards captures the real value of the running game in an offense.

Chris, from Smart Football, says that the classic tactic for a less talented team (a “David”) facing a more talented team (a “Goliath”) is to use plenty of risky plays, to throw the outcome into a high risk, high reward, high  variance regime. The opposite approach, to minimize the scoring chances of the opposition, is a bit neglected in Chris’s original analysis, because he assumed huge differences in talent. However, he explicitly includes it here, as a potential high variance “David” strategy.

It’s ironic to think of running as the strategy of an underdog, but that’s what it is in this instance. New England is the 500 pound gorilla in the AFC East, ranked #1 on offense 2 of the last 4 years, and that’s the team he has to beat. And think about it more, just a college analogy for now: what teams do you know, undersized and undermanned,  that use a ground game to keep them in the mix? It’s the military academies, teams like Army, Navy, and the Air Force, using ground based option football.

[1] The down side of a loose attitude towards first and second down yardage is that it places an emphasis on third down success rate, and thus execution in tough situations.