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 1947, defensive theory in football had not yet advanced to the level of offensive theory. I’m saying this because the focus of defensive line play was gladitorial in nature: you would beat the man in front of you, pursue the ball carrier and tackle, preferably with the best form possible. Adjustments were rare. People had to accommodate man in motion but that was about it. The notion of a defensive key isn’t even talked about (1).

In the late 1940s to mid 1950s, defensive linemen were somewhat interchangable, and there were no specific guidelines for the sizes of defensive tackles, defensive ends, or middle guards. The roles of these linemen weren’t as detailed and specific as they are in modern days. There were big powerful immobile linemen, and smaller, faster, more nimble linemen. And though people like to think of linemen falling back into zones as a modern invention, the tactic was used in Steve Owen’s 6-1 Umbrella, and sees time in the pages of Dana Bible’s book:

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

The idea, therefore, of a middle guard falling back into coverage wouldn’t have caused anyone in 1947 to blink an eye. So when you have a middle guard with sprinter’s speed, a guy like Bill Willis,

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter's speed.

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter’s speed (2).

the idea that he should be a part of coverage would have been expected. Good linemen would fall back from the line and into coverage when the situation demanded. Linemen rushed yes, but behaved more like modern linebackers when they had to.

“He often played as a middle or noseguard on our five-man defensive line, but we began dropping him off the line of scrimmage a yard because his great speed and pursuit carried him to the point of attack before anyone would block him” (3)

So why is this important? It’s important because the dominant defensive front from 1950 or so through 1955 is a five man front, often a 5-2 Eagle. An example comes from this screen shot of video of the 1953 NFL championship


when diagrammed, would look something like this:

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

And therefore, the appearance of 4-3 fronts, as a product of a middle guard digging into the “bag of tricks” a lineman was supposed to know, should have been expected. 4-3s would have appeared as a poor man’s prevent defense, or as a response to specific game events, like quarterbacks throwing the ball just over the head of Chicago’s middle guard, Bill George.

…in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, George made a now historic move that permanently changed defensive strategy in the National Football League.

On passing plays, George’s job was to bump the center and then drop back. George, noting the Eagles success at completing short passes just over his head, decided to skip the center bump and drop back immediately. Two plays later he caught the first of his 18 pro interceptions. While no one can swear which middle guard in a five-man line first dropped back to play middle linebacker and create the classic 4-3 defense, George is the most popular choice.

This game dates to 1954. Andy Piascik’s book claims that in the regular season game between the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns in 1952, the Lions employed a 4-3 (4). I’d suggest though, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these 4-3s fall into the form of an adjustment to the 5-2, as opposed to an integral coordinated defensive system.

The deal is, by 1956, Tom Landry, as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, has a 4-3 that isn’t anyone’s adjustment to something else. It’s a full blown base defense, a creation of his own hard work and imagination. It’s a largely 1 gap, keying defense, with distinct assignments to the linemen. Linemen have to fill gaps and keep the offensive line from getting to the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker roams, tackles, covers his two gaps. The initial Landry defenses have been lavishly detailed in the two volume text “Vince Lombardi on Football“, because these were the defenses Vince took with him to Green Bay.

And while what video I can watch in the period from 1948 to 1955 has yet to yield a single 4-3, the Giants live in it in the 1956 Championship game, and after some initial five man line in the 1957 Championship game, Detroit soon switches to a 4-3 and stays in it.

All this lends credence to the words of Paul Zimmerman (5)

Here and there the 4-3 popped up around the league. The Eagles got into a form of it when they had their middle guard, Bucko Kilroy, stand up, though at 258 pounds he hardly had true middle-linebacker responsibilities. The Redskins tried it, lifting middle guard Ron Marcinak and substituting a linebacker, Charley Drazenovich.

Landry graduated from player to player-coach to defensive coach under Jim Lee Howell. Vince Lombardi ran the offense. In 1956 the Giants drafted a tackle from West Virginia, Robert Lee Huff, nicknamed Sam, who had been born to play middle linebacker in the 4-3, and that became the Giant’s official standard defense. By 1957 everyone was in it.

So the real question is, how much of this 4-3 defensive system was prior art? Not the positions, mind you, but the components. The keys, the coordination, the pieces? I think the minimum you need to make such a defense are these three elements.

1. Film study. Without it you can’t really predict trends.
2. Two platoon football. Otherwise, you’re teaching one player offense 80% of the time.
3. A modern coaching staff, with full time assistants.

It’s very clear that Paul Brown’s staff with the Cleveland Browns has these three elements in the 1950s, but I don’t see signs that they were unusually innovative on defense. Instead, what you see are things like references to three man single safety backfields (6), and signs that they were working within the status quo of the times.

One resource I’d love to get my hands on is the writings of the former Cleveland Browns linebacker, Hal Herring (7). He played for the Browns for three years, starting in 1950. Later, he wrote a dissertation that was titled “Defensive Tactics and Techniques in Professional Football.” I’m not close enough to a research library to know if it can easily be obtained, but back in the day when I was writing my own dissertation, we had to make dissertations available to just about anyone who wanted a copy.

Update: correction on the Bill George date.


Notes and References

(1) Keys and tells are different beasts. A tell is Dan Fouts giving away run or pass in 1979 with his feet placement. An example of a key is a person whose actions tell you where to go and what role to play when you do. Tells have been part of football forever, akin to stealing signs. Keys are elements of the game that have to be built into the defense and coached.

(2) Image from Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

(3) Paul Brown, quoted by Goldstein.

(4) Piascik, Chapter 11. The exact quote is:

“I think the 4-3 defense originated with him [Parker] and his coaches,” Dub Jones said of the Detroit team that so stifled Cleveland in that first ever meeting between the two teams. “They threw that in our face in ’52 and it was tough for us to cope with, having not faced it.”

(5) Zimmerman, Chapter 6.

(6) Brown and Clary, p 220, has this interesting blurb regarding the 1951 NFL championship:

For several years, our secondary had never declared a strong side of our opponent’s offensive formation until it saw which direction the fullback was going, and though we had gotten by with this strategy, it put a great burden on Cliff Lewis, the middle safety in our three-man secondary.

(7) Piascik, Chapter 8.


Bible, Dana X, “Championship Football”, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

Goldstein, Richard, “Bill Willis, 86, Racial Pioneer in Pro Football, Dies”, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2007, accessed Jun 7, 2013.

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty [ebook]

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