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.

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.


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.

It’s an easy thing to say and claim, that any offense that has a quarterback 4-5 yards back from the line of scrimmage and that has a running orientation must descend from the single wing formation. In the case of the spread option, I don’t know how comfortable I am with this idea. For one, the name spread option suggests a lineage that comes from the spread itself, or the shotgun, which Y.A. Tittle once compared to the short punt formation.

Many teams had put the quarterback in a Short Punt Formation before, but Hickey’s version apparently caught everyone’s fancy. It was an overnight sensation.

That, in a nutshell, is the idea I’m interested in developing, that shotgun + option = spread option, and signs of single wing descent aren’t in any sense as easily proven as people claim.

A point, critical in thinking about this, is how someone like Urban Meyer or Gus Malzahn could have been taught single wing principles in the first place. By the early 1970s, when I first became aware of football, the single wing was a dead offense. The single wing was functionally obsoleted by 1940. Fritz Crisler and the invention of platooning notwithstanding, Clark Shaughnessy’s version of the T was just too explosive for the old single wing to survive. By the 1970s, the only formation where the quarterback wasn’t behind center was the shotgun, and the shotgun, in those days, was primarily a passing formation.

Single Wing ca 1945. Line spacing 6 inches, except for wingback and ends.

By contrast, the single wing was a poor downfield passing formation. Linemen were all squished together,  perhaps 6 inches apart. A “flexed” end, as Knute Rockne might have put it, was no more than a yard away from this compatriots. Play development was slow, as plays couldn’t begin until the ball actually reached the tailback. The centers of the 1930s hiked the ball with their heads down, looking at the person they hiked it to. This was necessary because they could hike it to any one of three people. Blind hikes, freeing the center to block, weren’t common until the Shaughnessy T. And to quote Dana X. Bible:

Except for the spinner cycle, it does not afford much opportunity for deception.

Now, to note, as the site Hickock Sports points out, there really were 5 formations in common use before the Shaughnessy T came into prominence, and those included the double wing, the short punt, the Notre Dame box, and the old T formation (played largely by the Chicago Bears). We’ll show some photos of the double wing and the short punt from Dana’s book, followed by a sample of a spread option formation.

double wing formations

Short Punt formation

A modern spread option formation

So of the formations above, which does the modern spread option most resemble? The “A” version of the double wing, by my eyes.

What passing trends are of note between the 1930s and today? A more aerodynamic ball, and the ability to pass anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (rule change, 1933) helped power a ever growing passing explosion into the 1940. In the 1950s, Paul Brown introduced timing patterns, by carefully watching how Don Hutson played. The late 1950s gave us, via Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry, the 2 minute drill. The 1960s gave football Sid Gillman and his foray into attacking the whole field. In the 1970s, the Dallas Cowboys revived the shotgun, and one of the elements introduced then was a blind shotgun hike. Get to the early 1980s, and the more wide open passing games of the San Diego Chargers and later, the Washington Redskins, and formations (pro I, pro T) that were almost etched in stone begin to evolve. Also, in the 1980s, the West Coast Offense emerged, and the ideas of stretching a passing defense horizontally, and further, that passing can substitute for running as a ball control weapon.  By the late 1990s and into the 2000s, “ace” backfields became more common, the shotgun was used more and more. And as teams pushed for more and more wideouts, to spread the defense, to get  defenders to cover more and more of the field, the counterbalancing question began to emerge: how do I get more running out of an essentially passing formation?

Consider the running game, from single wing to now. The single wing excelled in power off tackle running, perhaps exemplified by the cutback. Blocking was sustained, double teams by the wingback and tackle forming a crucial part of the game.  Once the Shaughnessy T was introduced, blocks weren’t nearly as enduring. Away from the play, brush back blocks were enough. Because the blocks were fast, and the play started earlier (blind hikes), the game became faster.

The single wing cutback later formed the archetype for the Green Bay sweep. But nuances introduced around this time span include area or do-dad blocking, and the whole notion of running to daylight.

The option itself dates back as far as Don Faurot and the Split T offense he developed for Missouri. With Don’s notion of keying off unblocked defenders, and getting the ball to the man the opposition can’t defend, football now had a running game that resembled a 2 on 1 fast break in basketball. This was only reinforced when the wishbone triple option, created by Emory Bellard, became a dominant offense in the late 1960s – early 1970s. Adding zone run concepts a la Alex Gibbs (check out, for example, John  T Reed’s zone run entry in his dictionary) to unblocked keys leads to the zone read:

The first read of a “zone-read,” it will be recalled is by the quarterback: he reads the backside defensive end, who typically goes unblocked in a zone-rushing scheme to free up blockers for double-teams on the frontside. If the defensive end sits where he is or rushes upfield, the quarterback simple hands the ball off to the runner. But if he chases the runningback, the quarterback pulls the ball. On the base zone-read, the quarterback just looks for any crease to the backside.

The zone read is the backbone of the spread option, and simply put, the option, much less the blocking patterns of the zone read, didn’t exist back in 1936.

Q: If the two offenses don’t come from a common origin, why so many apparent commonalities?

In explanation, consider how in biology there are cases of convergent evolution.  Though of unrelated origin, the eye in squids and mammals are very structurally similar, with the interesting exception that the squid eye, nerves are wired to the retina in the back, while with mammals, the retina is wired to the nerves in the front.  Often, little details tell the story when distinguishing lineages.

Or, as Chris Brown, of Smart Football, has said when examining pretty much this same question:

Certainly, the coaches who developed today’s modern offenses, like Rodriguez and Malzahn, did not spend their time meticulously studying the single-wing tapes of yesteryear. Instead, if there are similarities it’s because those coaches stumbled onto the same ideas through trial and error.

Update: Coach Wyatt has a nice summary of direct snap formations (and some history) at this link