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.


Chris Brown, of Smart Football, has written a book.

I caught wind of it in a blurb by Doug Farrar, and bought it. I, for the most part, recommend the book. It’s an easy long afternoon read, and there is plenty to digest. Chris has forgotten more offensive football than I’ll ever know, but on the other side of the ledger, defense, his acumen isn’t quite as sharp. The essay I have issues with is also posted on Grantland, and the central passages that bother me are as follows. The first is an explanation of the defensive reaction to the T formation.

Defenses needed an answer. The response was the “5-2 Monster” defense, which essentially dominated football for the next two decades. The 5-2 Monster involved five defensive linemen, each playing a 2-gap technique over a specific offensive lineman. This allowed linebackers to roam free and match the offense’s ball carriers. The “Monster” referred to the safety who came down and created one of the first true eight-man front defenses. The combination of five two-gapping defensive linemen with three second-level defenders, each attacking the ball and following the potential runners, helped counteract the T formation offenses’ misdirection.

In the NFL, defenses varied more owing to the need to stop passing teams, but even those variations typically relied on Monster-based principles.

This whole quote is misleading in the extreme. Bud Wilkinson is the father of the 5-4, as he called it, also known as the Oklahoma. As he wasn’t coaching at Oklahoma until 1947, the T had been around for at least 7 years before any sign of the 5-4 ever appeared (there is, for example, no mention of the 5-4 in Dana Bible’s book, copyright 1947, but plenty of mention of the ‘T’). Further, the 5-4 was essentially a college defense, favored in particular by the Big Eight conference.

In the pros, the first move was to Clark Shaughnessy’s 5-3 or perhaps to Earle Neale’s 5-2-4 double eagle. Steve Owen then started experimenting with the 6-1 “Umbrella”, because his team received a windfall of good defensive backs (including one Tom Landry) when the AAFC collapsed (Dr Z, New Thinking Man’s, Chapter 6). This then evolved into the 4-3 defenses that dominated pro football from the middle 1950s into the early 1980s, when the 3-4 became fashionable.

The most common pro 4-3 defenses from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s were the 4-3 Inside and the 4-3 Outside. Exhaustive coverage of the line positions and linemen responsibilities of these two defenses are a part of the set “Vince Lombardi on Football“, and it doesn’t take good eyesight or the brain of a rocket scientist to note that these are one gap defenses.

The classic Tom Landry 4-3 defenses, which Vince Lombardi used his whole career, were one gap defenses. You either took the solid line or the dotted line gaps.

Therefore, the whole premise of the above quote is flawed. The 4-3 of the 1960s isn’t a 5-2, and doesn’t partake of the two gap tendencies of Bud Wilkinson’s creation.

As we pointed out here, the 4-3 Flex is derived from the Inside and the Outside, and thus is also a one gap defense. The flex can be described as a 4-3 inside on the weak side of the formation, and a 4-3 outside on the strong side of the (offensive) formation.

So, now that Chris has “proven” that professional 4-3 defenses are two gap defenses, he then goes on to claim:

Johnson’s response was to reinvent the 4-3 defense with an almost entirely new underlying framework. And although this new 4-3 began at Oklahoma State, it is now known for the school Johnson brought it to next: the University of Miami. The 4-3 had been around for a long time. Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry even had his own variant named after him, the “Landry 4-3 Flex”; but Johnson concocted his version as anti-wishbone medicine. Instead of telling defensive linemen to 2-gap and watching them get fooled by the option on every play, he switched entirely to a 1-gap system.

The premise, is, more or less, that 2 gap football is all that existed until Jimmy Johnson invented the 1 gap defense out of the blue. Except, of course, no one else says that, and they don’t say it because 1 gap 4 man line defenses were both popular and in common use since the middle 1950s, as the New York Giants won a championship with one in 1956.

Now, if the context is narrowed to Big Eight football, then all the discussions begin to make sense. The Big Eight was the hotbed of the 5-2, and it was Big Eight coaches that brought the 5-2, in the form of the 3-4, into professional ball. In the Big Eight, two gap approaches were popular, and Jimmy Johnson coming up with a penetrating one gap scheme must have been quite a shock to his opponents.

And that’s the flaw of the essay. It starts with a Big Eight centric view and expands it to cover the whole of football. But the whole of defensive football from the 1940s to Jimmy Johnson’s innovative 4-3 is more than Bud Wilkinson’s 5-4, and this essay doesn’t present it in that way.

Consequently, this whole non-discussion could have been better. It could have dug deep into the specific assignments of the Miami 4-3 on a per position basis and shown us just how it differed from previous 4-3s. But the article ducks all that by a sleight of hand, by pretending that if you know the Monster 5-2, you know all you need to know about NFL style 43 defenses.

Just to make it clear, 4 man ‘odd fronts’ predated JJ and Belichick. What kind of scheme did Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs run? Was Buck Buchanon a 1 gap or 2 gap tackle?

Now, back to Belichick’s front: Is it as innovative as Chris claims? I’ll note that odd front 4-3s were often seen in the 1960s, particularly by AFL teams, the Kansas City Chiefs being one of them. How do we know, in the absence of good video study, just what kind of scheme Buck Buchanon was playing? The answer is, we don’t. And I’ll save that thought, as money is tight, and I’m not quite sure where to get a copy of Kansas City Chief highlights just yet.

Further, by the early 2000s, the kind of Tampa 2 style defenses that teams like Dallas, under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer were running had a odd front. The nose tackle was a 2 gapper, a strong side 3 technique tackle was covering one gap. And whether the ends were 1 gap ends or 2, they’re just one assignment away from the alignment Chris talks about as so brilliant.

And this isn’t to take anything away from Chris’s final diagram of Belichick’s 4-3, which is pretty cool. The symmetry is dynamically pleasing. But the history of football defense he concocts is so mangled as to deserve not only comment, it deserves to be condemned.

Update: Chris’s book is availahle now as a Kindle ebook.

The Stathead blog is now defunct and so, evidently, is the Pro Football Reference blog. I’m not too sure what “business decision” led to that action, but it does mean one of the more neutral and popular meeting grounds for football analytics folks is now gone. It also means that Joe Reader has even less of a chance of understanding any particular change in PFR. Chase Stuart of PFR is now posting on Chris Brown’s blog, Smart Football.

The author of the Armchair Analysis blog, Jeff Cross, has tweeted me telling me that a new play by play data set is available, which he says is larger than that of Brian Burke.

Early T formations, or not?

Currently the Wikipedia is claiming that Bernie Bierman of the University of Minnesota was a T formation aficionado

U Minnesota ran the T in the 1930s? Really?

I’ve been doing my best to confirm or deny that. I ordered a couple books..

No mention of Bernie's T in this book.

I've skimmed this book, and haven't seen any diagrams with the T or any long discussion of the T formation. There are a lot of unbalanced single wing diagrams, though.

I also wrote Coach Hugh Wyatt, who sent me two nice letters, both of which state that Coach Bierman was a true blue single wing guy. In his book, “Winning Football”, I have yet to find any mention of the T, and in Rick Moore’s “University of Minnesota Football Vault”, there is no mention of Bernie’s T either.

I suspect an overzealous Wikipedia editor had a hand in that one. Given that Bud Wilkinson was one of Bernie’s players, a biography of Bud Wilkinson could be checked to see if the T formation was really the University of Minnesota’s major weapon.