I’ve spoken a lot about Dana Bible’s 1947 text called Championship Football. It was my Dad’s old book, from his days as a high school player in 1940s Texas. Because football was a lingua franca in middle and high school, once I found it alone on the shelf I devoured it. And I find it surprises me when the average sports writer, or even a coach, doesn’t know what that book knew about formations before the T (1). So we’re going to summarize.

I’ll note that Hickock Sports has a nice summary of these old formations, but be warned, their history of the old defenses is quite broken. The best summary text for pro football defense from 1930 to about 1950 is Steve Owen’s small readable text, My Kind of Football. Paul Zimmerman, the former New York Post and Sports Illustrated writer, is also quite accurate in his accounting of NFL defense history.

Strengths and weaknesses below are taken from Bible’s summary of the formations.

1. Single Wing.

Single wing,  based on diagrams in Dana Bible's book. 6-2 set up as best I can with only diagrams and without video.

Single wing, based on diagrams in Dana Bible’s book. 6-2 set up as best I can with only diagrams and without video.

Notre Dame box, based on diagrams in Dana Bible's book.

Y formation, unbalanced line, based on diagrams in Dana Bible’s book. By mistake I originally called this a Notre Dame box.

This is a power formation, usually with an unbalanced line, and always with an unbalanced backfield. Everyone is on one side of the tailback. This leads to issues in pass protection, and therefore, the single wing was not considered a good downfield passing formation.

Strengths: power running, end runs, short passes, plays to the spinning fullback (spinner series), quick kicks.

Weaknesses: weak side running, unbalanced pass protection, lacks deception.

2. Double Wing.

There were many double wings back in the day. This is one with an unbalanced line, obtained by moving a single wing blocking back to the left wingback position.

There were many double wings back in the day. This is one with an unbalanced line, obtained by moving a single wing blocking back to the left wingback position.

These are formations, balanced or unbalanced, that have two wingbacks, sometimes three. The two inside men can be arrayed as a tailback and fullback, or a tailback and blocking back. Dutch Meyer had one formation where there were twin tailbacks at equal depth to the other.

Strengths: excellent passing formation, attack is balanced, deceptive, can easily quick kick.

Weaknesses: susceptible to crashing defensive ends, running plays are slow to the point of attack, weak as an inside running formation, difficult to master.

3. Short Punt.

Bears shift into a short  punt formation, 3rd quarter, 1956 NFL championship.

Bears shift into a short punt formation, 3rd quarter, 1956 NFL championship. Note they didn’t shift into a single wing.

Short punt, often described as the shotgun of its day. This formation was favored by NFL star Benny Friedman.

Short punt, often described as the shotgun of its day. This formation was favored by NFL star Benny Friedman. Recognition points for coaches: balanced line, backs on both sides of the tailback.

This is a balanced formation with backs on both sides of the tailback. As in the single wing, as many as three backs can take the pass from center.

Strengths: balanced formation, deceptive ball handling, good lateral passing attack, excellent passing formation, ideal for the quick kick.

Weaknesses: lack of flankers make it hard to run off tackle, not strong weak side outside, far better passing formation than running.

4. Long Punt.

Long Punt formation. Similar but not identical to short punt. Backs are tighter to the line to black, ends are more spread, tailback is 10 yards behind line. Based, as all diagrams here are, on Dana Bible's book.

Long Punt formation. Similar but not identical to short punt. Backs are tighter to the line to black, ends are more spread, tailback is 10 yards behind line. Based, as all diagrams here are, on Dana Bible’s book.

Largely when you’re in this formation you are punting. Occasionally, the center might hike it to the fullback and the punt is faked.

A short summary of the history of NFL defenses to 1960.

Before 1933, it’s the seven box and seven diamond that predominate. 1933 leads to a slimmer football and liberalized passing rules. This brings us the 6-2 as the primary defense, and the 5-3 as a passing defense/anti-T defense. In 1940, the success of Clark Shaughnessy inspired Ts brings more and more use of five man lines. The 5-3 is considered the best defense against the T by the middle 1940s. Later 1940s gives us Greasy Neale’s 5-2. Five man lines are the base defense of the NFL by 1950. 5-3 can easily been seen played in video of the 1950 NFL Championship, as Cleveland has been using it as their base defense.

Early fifties tend to 5-2s. NFL championship games featuring Detroit show good examples of 5-2 defenses. In 1956, New York uses the 4-3 throughout the NFL championship. The Chicago Bears show no sign of a 4 man line, and plenty of examples of middle guard play (that ends any claim of Bill George only playing MLB from 1954 on). By 1957, almost everyone plays the 4-3. I don’t recall Cleveland playing it, but I saw Detroit play it plenty in video of the 1957 Championship. At this point, Paul Zimmerman’s recounting of the history appears to be dead on.

Notes.

1. The T formation is actually quite old, so we’re using this statement to mean before the Clark Shaughnessy inspired T formations that began to take over football in 1940.

Bibliography.

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

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.

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

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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

In the first part of this series, we talked about creating football fields, and provided code that would create fields whose hash marks were at high school width, college width, and pro field width. We provided the code as a Windows Batch file that used the command line tool Image Magick to do the actual graphics manipulation. In this part, we’ll talk about taking a field and drawing offenses onto the canvas.

Most offensive players are drawn by using circles (and was done so even in the days of Dana Bible). Since the fields we have drawn are colored a light green, for contrast we’ll want the circles filled in white and with black as the paint color. There may be other circles you might want drawn, ones shaded on one side with black, and perhaps you want the offense going down the field instead of up. We’re not going to worry about orientation finesses, as you can use any number of graphics tools to flip and rotate the image however you want. But we will talk about ways to make other kinds of images.

Defensive code setups, to some extent, are going to be OS specific. That’s because people like to use fonts, and the fonts on Windows aren’t entirely mirrored by the fonts in MacOS or Linux.

We’re also going to start introducing some Perl into the mix of code we show. This is because Perl’s ability to create functions and subroutines will actually simplify the task of creating a graphics code library, for those skilled enough to use the approach.

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