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  Pro Formations (Part 1) - by Ralph Hickok

Pro Formations (Part 1)
Originally Published by NFL ProWeb
Animations by Ken Crippen

In the beginning was the single wing. . .

That’s the way the standard football version of Genesis begins. The 1920s and 1930s are generally viewed as a monolithic era in which every team used the same formation.

The real story is quite different. There was much more offensive variety in the NFL during at least the first fifteen years of its existence than there is now. In fact, five different offensive formations were used by various teams at one time or another.


The Single Wing

The single wing, invented by Glen "Pop" Warner at Carlisle Indian Institute in 1912, was the most popular. The hero of the era was usually the tailback, who took most of the snaps from the center and had to be a triple threat—able to run, pass, or kick.

Single WingThe strength of this formation was power, created by an unbalanced line, double-team blocks and pulling blockers. The quarterback, more often called the blocking back, could line up behind either guard, or between them, or sometimes between the strong-side guard and the tackle. From any of those spots, he could help a lineman on a double-team block or free a lineman for a double-team. He could also operate much like a pulling guard, helping to lead interference on a play to the outside.

Similarly, the wingback could line up just outside the tackle or just outside the end on the strong side. From the first position, he could help double-team on either the defensive tackle or the defensive end. From the second position, he could block down on the end either alone or as part of a double-team, swing past the end to block a linebacker, or get quickly into a pass pattern.

Single Wing CutbackThe bread-and-butter play was the cutback, on which the tailback ran to the strong side behind the blocking of a pulling guard and his quarterback (who was usually used as a blocking back).

The cutback put tremendous pressure on the defensive end, whose responsibility was to keep the runner from getting to the outside. If the end wasn’t quick enough getting outside, the tailback would simply go around him and turn the corner to go upfield.

More often, though, the end would get too far outside in his zeal to protect the sideline and the tailback would then simply cut inside him—hence the name of the play.

Defenses naturally over-shifted and over-reacted to the cutback play, so the single-wing used two other basic plays to counter. One was a simple fullback run up the middle. This play was similar to the fake punt on which the ball goes to the short man instead of the punter. While the tailback pretended to take the snap and ran to the right as on the cutback play, the snap would actually go the fullback, who would then head into the line. Since he was starting from only five yards back, he could get there quickly and often catch defenders on the wrong foot as they reacted to the strong side.

And then there was the dreaded wingback reverse, which often broke for long yardage, especially if the defenders over-pursued to stop the cutback play.

The single wing wasn’t much of a passing formation. Its most dangerous pass play was actually an option off the cutback. While the tailback went to the right, as usual, the wingback would fake a block and go downfield, while the quarterback pulled off his block and ran a route into the short area. If one of the men was open, the tailback would throw the ball; if not, he’d continue with the run.

The other commonly used pass plays out of the single wing were really trick plays of one sort or another. For example, there was the original flea flicker, on which the fullback would take the direct snap, head toward the line, then spin at the last moment and toss the ball to the tailback. And there was the running pass by the tailback off the reverse.

Rarely did the tailback simply take the snap, stand back there and throw. For one thing, it wasn’t easy for his receivers to get into pass routes, because offenses and defenses both lined up so tightly. For another, until 1933 the ball was considerably rounder than the modern ball, and it was impossible to throw a tight spiral to keep it on target over any distance. It was more commonly thrown rather high into the air, almost like a shot put, and most passes were little more than jump balls.


The Short Punt Formation

When single wing teams really wanted to pass, they often went to the short punt formation, which was sort of the shotgun of the day. It could be fairly effective, because it wasn’t unusual to punt on third, or even on second down, so the defense had to protect against that possibility. The tailback often had an option out of the short punt formation. If a safety man didn’t drop deep, he would punt. But, if the safety did guard against the punt, the tailback would throw to the open man.

Short PuntIn 1931, when the New York Giants had Benny Friedman at tailback, they used the short punt as their basic offensive formation because Friedman was such a great passer. However, they did go to the standard single wing in short yardage and goal-line situations, or when they simply wanted to consume time to protect a lead.


The Notre Dame Box

The single wing’s major rival was the Notre Dame box. Several NFL teams used the formation at various times, most notably the Green Bay Packers. Their founder and coach, Curly Lambeau, learned the box while playing for Knute Rockne at South Bend in 1918 and the Packers used it exclusively throughout the 1920s and into the ‘30s.

Notre Dame BoxActually, the box was just one of three different formations that an offense could shift into after lining up in the T formation, but it was the most commonly used. It was similar to the single wing, but the line was balanced, so the strength of the formation was determined by how the backs shifted.

The Notre Dame system relied more on deception than power. The quick shift of the backs was designed to keep defenses off balance. Another element of deception was the way in which backs changed their positions within the formation.

For an end run, the team’s speediest player would shift into the tailback spot; for a pass play, the best passer would move there, while the speedy player went to wingback; for a power run, the player who was normally the fullback could move to tailback. Single wing teams were usually ineffective if they didn’t have a true triple-threat tailback, but the Notre Dame box didn’t have to rely on one multi-skilled player.

A couple of other things are worth noting about the Notre Dame system. First, Rockne was the first coach to split an end (he called it "flexing"). Other coaches generally believed in keeping linemen virtually shoulder to shoulder, but Rockne saw that having an end split (not far, only a yard or two) gave him a good blocking angle on the defensive end, and also made it possible for him to release quickly from the line of scrimmage to run a pass route. If the defensive end adjusted by moving out to stay opposite the offensive end, it opened up a natural hole outside the tackle.

Second, the quarterback in the Notre Dame box could take a direct snap from center (though not a hand-to-hand snap; it was a short, angled toss of a yard or so). This led to a series of plays very similar to modern T-formation plays, with the quarterback handling the snap and bringing the ball back to hand it off to the fullback or tailback. Most important, he could fake the ball to one or both backs and then throw it.

That was a much more effective way of passing than the single wing could offer, even with the rounder ball. The Packers threw the ball a lot for that era, and most of their passing was done by the quarterback, using what we now call play action.


The Double Wing

After "Pop" Warner invented the single wing, he came up with its companion, the double wing. Actually, he created two variations of the double wing. The first was pretty straightforward: The quarterback moved over to become a wingback on the weak side.

Double-WingThis type of double wing was just a change of pace, used occasionally by single wing teams, most often in passing situations. But the double wing that Warner developed during the early 1920s was a primary offensive set, though it was used by only two NFL teams, so far as I know: the Duluth Eskimos and the Chicago Cardinals.

The 'Stanford double wing'; as it was sometimes called because that’s where Warner brought it to its peak, used both halfbacks as wingbacks and kept the quarterback near the line of scrimmage, as in the single wing. That left the fullback as the tailback.

The line was usually balanced, but it could be unbalanced to either side by simply moving both guards to that side of the center. The double wing, though, was based on deception, through multiple handoffs or fake handoffs, rather than power. The fullback took every snap and ran with the ball, while the other backs went through an often bewildering variety of moves.

Stanford Double WingFor example, the fullback, apparently running off tackle, might slip the ball to the quarterback, who would then start around one end or the other. But he might give it to the wingback on that side for a reverse. And the wingback might then hand the ball off to the other wingback, criss-crossing with him, to make it a double reverse. Of course, some or all of these handoffs might be fakes. Most often, the fullback really did run off tackle, but the defense always had to be aware of, and worried about, who really had the ball.

The Stanford double wing was also a better passing formation than the single wing, since both wingbacks could get quickly into a pass pattern, and they often ran combination patterns with the ends.

Ernie Nevers was a two-time All-American fullback at Stanford, and he was the player who really made the formation work. He was a big, strong, fast runner, one of the better passers of the era (he once threw 17 completions in a row for the Duluth Eskimos, which was unheard of in the 1920s), and he was also an excellent kicker.

It was no accident that the Duluth Eskimo used the Stanford double wing when Nevers played for them in 1926 and 1927, or that the Chicago Cardinals used it during Nevers’ tenure with them, from 1929 through 1931. It was also no accident that teams who didn’t have Nevers didn’t use the formation.

(Nevers set a rather remarkable record in 1929, scoring all of his team’s points in a 40-6 victory over the Bears. That feat is fairly well known, but it often goes unnoticed that, four days earlier, he scored all of the Cardinals’ points in a 19-0 win over Dayton. So, in a five-day period, Nevers outscored the opposition, 59-6.)


The Original T Formation

There’s one other formation to discuss—the good old T. The T is actually the oldest formation in football. Walter Camp used a version of it at Yale in 1882 and, when the seven-man line was mandated by the rules changes of 1906, it became the standard starting formation for most offenses. In fact, it was often called "regular formation."

T-FormationBut teams almost always used the T formation simply as a starting point, and then shifted into something else. There were a few exceptions to that rule. One of them was the University of Illinois, under Bob Zuppke. George Halas played for Zuppke at Illinois and, when he became a player-coach in the NFL, he used what he had learned—just as Curly Lambeau used the Notre Dame system in Green Bay.

Despite a lot of tinkering, including the addition of the man in motion when Ralph Jones temporarily replaced Halas as head coach from 1929 through 1932, the T was never a really effective formation during the 1920s and 1930s. Because linemen on both offense and defense were packed in tightly, runs between the tackles didn’t offer much of a threat. The typical plays were tosses and pitchouts to the outside, so the formation demanded two fast, breakaway halfbacks, who were no easier to find in those days than they are now. Even in their best years before 1940, the Bears won primarily with defense.

With all this said, it must be admitted that offenses tended to be very stodgy by modern standards, at least until 1933. Field position was even more important than it is now, partly because of field conditions and partly because of the ball. Rain was often a factor, since games were played in the Northeast and Northern Midwest, primarily in October and November. Fields got chewed up quickly and, as the game wore on, the ball tended to get even rounder and considerably heavier as it soaked up more water. (The rule in football, as in the early years of baseball, was to use one ball for the entire game, if possible.)

Ball handling, as well as passing, could be an adventure. The snap from center, to a tailback typically seven yards in the backfield, was no easy matter. Teams often punted on first or second down when deep in their own territory, and on third down until they safely crossed midfield. This was conservative, but smart. If the punter got a bad snap, he could at least track the ball down and try it again on the next play.

Shutouts were common and scoreless ties were frequent. When the Packers averaged 21 points a game in 1931, it was a remarkable accomplishment. A year later, the Bears won the NFL championship by averaging only 11 points a game.

Things began to change in 1933, with the slimmer football. (Another important rule change that year allowed passing from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage; until then, the passer had to be at least 5 yards back.)

Although the Bears clung doggedly to the T formation, other teams began to use the single wing almost exclusively. Even Lambeau and the Packers made the transition from Rockne’s Notre Dame system. The main reason, I believe, is that most of the good passers had been single-wing tailbacks in college. Until 1932, the Packers’ top passer was quarterback Red Dunn, who had played in the Notre Dame box at Marquette. He was followed by Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell, both single-wing tailbacks.

The game did open up somewhat in the mid to late ‘30s, mainly because of passers like Herber, Isbell, Sammy Baugh, and Ed Danowski. However, when the Packers won the 1939 NFL title, they led the league with just over 20 points a game, so pro football still wasn’t what you would call high scoring--especially since there were some teams averaging little more than 10 points a game at that time.


Early Defenses

There’s not a lot to say about defenses during this period. They were very unsophisticated. For about 15 years, the seven-man line was standard. Offensive linemen were usually shoulder to shoulder, so the defense followed suit. On the interior, a lineman’s chief responsibility was simply to hold his own. If he could push his would-be blocker into the backfield, that was a bonus.

The keys to a good defense were the tackles and ends, particularly the guys lined up opposite the strong side of the offense. The end, as already noted, had to protect the outside. If a play was meant to go around him, he was supposed to string it out, fighting off blockers and working to the outside the keep the runner from turning the corner.

The tackle’s main responsibility was to avoid being "boxed"--that is, blocked to the inside. As the end moved laterally to protect the corner, the tackle also had to move laterally to protect the widening area inside the end.

Linebackers were, for the most part, non-aggressive. They functioned almost as shallow safety men, following the play but waiting. If a linebacker made a tackle, the runner had almost always gained three or four yards already, if not more.

7-Box DefenseThe standard defense until about 1935 was the seven-box, in which there were two linebackers (usually the fullback and quarterback) and two deep backs. The defensive backs were there mainly to keep a run from breaking for a really long gain if the runner got past the linebackers.

7-Diamond DefenseIn passing situations, the defense generally shifted into a seven-diamond, with one linebacker, two defensive halfbacks, and a safety man. The safety played anywhere from 15 to 30 yards deep, because there was always the possibility of a punt rather than a pass. Each halfback covered the end on his side and the linebacker had to cover a back--usually the wingback, but occasionally the quarterback.

Defenses did sometimes change up a bit in passing situations, though. A defensive end might drop into coverage, picking up the end on his side, while the defensive halfback covered the wingback. But that was about as sophisticated as defenses got.


The 6-2-2-1 Defense

As passing became more common, the 6-2-2-1 developed as the standard defense. The center and fullback were usually the linebackers in this set, although some teams used a guard rather than the center. Typically, the halfbacks were defensive backs, while the quarterback was the safety man.

6-2-2-1 DefenseAs with the 7-man lines, the ends almost always had outside responsibility in the 6-2-2-1, while the linebackers were expected to help support against runs between the tackles. Against the pass, the defensive halfbacks were still usually responsible for covering the ends one on one, while one linebacker would pick up the first back into the the pattern and the other would pick up the second back, if there was one.

Defenses became a bit more sophisticated in the late ‘30s. A few pass receivers were routinely double-covered, sometimes with a defensive end dropping back to help out. Green Bay’s great Don Hutson was usually triple-covered, by an end or linebacker, a defensive back, and the safety man.

Against the run, line slants were fairly common. Sometimes, the defensive tackles and ends slanted to the outside, with the linebackers shooting the gaps inside, much as in today’s run blitz. At other times, the defensive tackles and ends pinched in toward the middle, while the linebackers assumed outside responsibility.

In general, linebackers became more aggressive. Instead of waiting for the runner to come to them, they now began to move up quickly to make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.

But the blitz was unknown and the only zone defense used was a rather basic prevent defense to protect a sizeable lead late in the game.


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Copyright 1998 Ralph Hickok