I recall a time in my early teens when I participated in a judo club, a small one whose regular competition was one of the largest and most proficient judo clubs of its era. Our competition, in a period when no one had a black belt higher than sixth degree, had a fourth degree black belt, and whose club officers tended to be officers at the national level in the United States Judo Association. Having come to my full height, but not my build, I was tall and awkward, and in matches, tended to be paired with younger members of the better club. Those men were smaller, lighter, faster, more skilled and more nimble. I lost a lot of matches before I ever won one.

When I finally won, it was because my opponent was clearly out of balance. He was afraid of my legs, and was leaning into me as we took hold of each other. It was over in seconds. I executed a clean sacrifice throw. I slipped under him, the arch of my right food cut off his left ankle and he rolled across the mat. It wouldn’t have been possible if my opponent hadn’t been out of position.

An ancient “packaged play”. You run if the cornerback follows the flanker. You pass if the cornerback forces the run.

Oversimplifiying a little, skill in judo is being able to recognize what an opponent is doing and using what he is doing against him. In a real match, seldom is it as easy as beating an opponent off the bat. You have to recognize what the opponent is doing in the match and counter appropriately. Counters in football are old, and perhaps the most accessible explanation of an offensive system and the appropriate counter responses is the set “Vince Lombardi on Football.” In it, they mention the halfback option, a single wing play carried over into the strong side offense of Vince Lombardi’s Giants and Packers teams. We’re going through this long introduction to add a nuance to Chris Brown’s phenomenal discussion of packaged plays, which take the essential idea of judo, and also the halfback pass option, and shows how using an opponent’s own reactions against him are now at the forefront of modern football.

Understand, in an traditional option, as in the modern packaged plays, which way the play goes depends on how the play turns out. There are keys and the offense is reading (keying) on the defense. This isn’t the same thing as an audible. When trying to explain packaged plays to folks who have never read Chris’s article, the most common mistake is to think these plays are audibles. An audible is a pre-snap adjustment of a play. A “packaged play” is a play with 2 or 3 options with built in reads after the play begins.

The thing that makes these plays interesting, is the imaginative combination of run and pass options, with passes to isolate and pick on the reactions of specific defenders. To imagine one combination, think of a strong side run combined with a curl in by X in a pro split T, strong right. The quarterback reads the outside linebacker and left cornerback to see which way to go. It’s potentially a way to exploit an overpursuing linebacker.

I find these notions pretty exciting, another rachet up in the cat and mouse game that dominates offense and defense. I can’t help but feel that better play design is a substantial component of the offensive explosion of the past few years. The idea that “players are getting bigger” can’t entirely account for this; they’re getting bigger on both sides of the ball. Game video should benefit both sides. But if we’re in the middle of a new kind of play design, one that can isolate players at will and make their own natural reactions the enemy, then that kind of play design could in fact be “the thing” that’s powering the offenses of the 2010s.

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

There is a sense of embarrassment that pervades Frank’s book, one that could perhaps be explained by the fact  that David Halberstam was planning on writing a book about the 1958 NFL championship game. But it seems deeper than that. He talks about the salaries the pros made in the 1950s, the failures on the field, the sense of embarrassment that he couldn’t win for his dad, his peripatetic childhood. As a focused study of the game, well, it isn’t. It’s an older man’s book, broad in scope, a little rambling and talkative.

And in that is the strength of the story, which captures a snapshot in time that doesn’t exist anymore. No, I haven’t read extensively about 1950s football, and for someone who hasn’t, it can be a fascinating glimpse at their lives, the character of 1950s New York City. Further, Frank talks candidly about the failures in leadership of the period, strips away common myths about the way the champion Giants worked, and in doing so, exposes the growing character of two towering football figures, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.

Cowboys fans might find this bit of text fascinating:

For my first two years , I played defense more than offense, which meant I was playing with Landry, who was even then a player-coach. So I knew how rigid, strict, and unyielding he was as a coach.

Actually,  in  one game against the Redskins, I made an interception and lateraled the ball to Tom, who ran it in for a touchdown. On the following Tuesday, we watched the film.

“Gifford, was that the coverage?”

“I know, Tom, but they were in a Brown right, L-split,” I started to explain, “and-”

“There are no ‘buts'”

“But what if –”

“There are no what-ifs”

If you didn’t play the defense Tom’s way, end of conversation.

“He had a computer mind”, is how Huff remembers Landry. “He studied the opposition’s offensive frequencies in various situations, and he taught them, and you studied them. He’d always say, ‘You have to believe, You  gotta believe. I’ll put you in position to make the play, trust me.’ If you weren’t in position, and making the moves he’d given you, he’d give you ‘The Look’. He didn’t have to say anything: you could read his mind, and what he was saying was ‘You dumb-ass.'”

Vince Lombardi? Gifford expresses a great deal of skepticism about Lombardi’s portrayal in Maraniss’s book, because Frank never saw Lombardi as dictator.  Lombardi was, Gifford claimed, a much more approachable man when Vince was their offensive coach.

And so it goes. The book is peppered with those kinds of details. As an example, Lenny Moore always kept a miniature bible in his thigh pad. Perhaps the most evocative writing is a description of the 1950s New York City night life, dominated by saloons, and the search for places where someone could pick up some or all of the player’s tab. After such a fine bit of work on the times, the setting, the game itself tends to fade into the background. Perhaps, this game has been so intensely covered that most of us in the hard core fan category could recite the ebb and flow of the game by heart.

Please note there is a coauthor, Peter Richmond. It’s a tribute to Peter that the book sounds as if Frank is narrating the text.

When I  was a teen, this set of books appeared, and that’s all I put on my Christmas List. My mom asked, “Are you sure this is all you want?” I looked at her and said, “If I put 100 things on a list, I won’t get this.” I ended up with the set, and I’ve kept it ever since.

It’s an after his death compilation of  notes and comments about play, 2 volumes of notes, in two leather bound books. It starts, more or less, with the Lombardi sweep and expands from there. There are pithy comments about Packers players, great photos, and really nice descriptions of when various plays were run. It isn’t just a play or two presented here, but a system of plays, with plays and then counter plays to different defensive adjustments to the first play.

A counter to certain reactions to the sweep.

In the second volume, which starts with defensive play and ends with the passing game, a theory of passing is presented, with adjustable routes. It wasn’t the fast-faster throw to the spot passing introduced by Don Coryell.

The target audience is probably the hard core fan. I’m sure coaches would find plenty in this set as well, as he goes deep into position responsibilities, especially along the line. Checking Amazon, there  are inexpensive used copies of this book out there.

Rating? Absolutely a classic. It reads simply, which is a testament to the man regarded as the best teacher of football the professional game has known.

Richly detailed and particularly good at teasing the man out of the myths, Rick Maraniss’s epic biography of Vince Lombardi is a book I consider a “must read” for the serious NFL fan.

Copyrighted in 1999, the list of praise for this book fills two pages just inside the cover, and the book was a New York Times best seller. Still relevant today, I believe, it’s as significant a book as Robert W. Creamer’s biography of Babe Ruth, “Babe”.