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  Pro Formations (Part 2) - by Ralph Hickok

Pro Formations (Part 2)
Originally Published by NFL ProWeb
Animations by Ken Crippen

Football underwent a sudden sea change in 1940, thanks to Clark Shaughnessy, one of the game’s true geniuses.

After successful stints coaching at Auburn and Loyola of the South, Shaughnessy took over at the University of Chicago in 1933. He wasn’t very successful there, because the school was de-emphasizing football and he couldn’t land many players.

But, as an offshoot of that job, he also began working as a consultant to the Chicago Bears, tinkering with the T formation to make it more effective.

T-FormationIn 1939, Shaughnessy went far beyond tinkering to make two major changes to the T. First, he introduced the hand-to-hand snap from center to quarterback. Until then, the quarterback was stationed a half-yard to a yard behind the center, and the snap was a short toss of the ball. The hand-to-hand snap speeded up the action a lot, because the quarterback no longer had to wait to make sure he had control of the ball. Now he could simply take the snap blind, pull away from center, and get the offense going immediately.

Second, Shaughnessy created ready-made holes between the ends by simply splitting the offensive linemen by about a yard. That forced the defensive line to open up, too. Suddenly, the T had a new threat as the opening play in its standard series: The quick opener, or dive, on which the quarterback would take the snap, turn, and hand the ball to a halfback running at full speed toward the hole between guard and tackle.

The offensive linemen didn’t even have to open the hole. At the point of attack, they merely had to keep the defenders in place for the split-second that it took the back to burst through. Away from the ball, linemen could be content with mere brush blocks and could then head downfield to block on linebackers or defensive backs.

Basic Running SeriesThere were two other running plays in the basic series: A fake dive, followed by a hand-off to the fullback running a slant between the tackle and end on the same side (usually with a short trap block); and a fake to both halfback and fullback, followed by a pitchout to the other halfback going around end.

Counter SeriesSince defenses were bound to react to the first movement of the quarterback, Shaughnessy also designed a basic series of counter plays, with the QB doing a reverse spin and handing to the fullback, driving between guard and center on the other side of the line; handing to the opposite halfback on a counter dive; or faking to the fullback and throwing a quick toss to the opposite halfback.

Those running plays, of course, also set up play-action passes. Shaughnessy’s system required an intelligent quarterback who could throw accurately and handle the ball deftly--not exactly a common sort of athlete, but easier to find than the triple-threat tailback of the single wing. The quarterback at least didn’t have to be a runner or a kicker (although he did have to play defense in those early years).

Sid Luckman, a Columbia University tailback, was chosen by Halas and Shaughnessy to be the NFL’s first true T-formation quarterback. Picked in the first round in the 1939 draft, Luckman was the perfect choice for the job.

However, he had to be brought along slowly in 1939. He actually shared the position with two veterans of the old T in the early part of the year. The Bears lost three of their first seven games. Then, with Luckman pretty much taking over as the starter, they beat the Packers 30-27, the Lions 23-13, the Eagles 27-14, and the Cardinals 48-7 to finish with an 8-3 mark.

The new version of the old formation revitalized Chicago’s offense. The Bears led the NFL in rushing yardage, passing yardage, and scoring. They averaged 4.7 yards per rush, compared to 3.6 in 1939; 22.1 yards per completion, compared to 17.0; and scored 319 points, an average of 29 a game, the highest in NFL history at that time.

Nobody paid a lot of attention, though, because their defense faltered and they finished second in the Western Conference to the Packers, who went on to beat the Giants, 27-0, for the championship.

But 1940 was the breakthrough year for the new T-formation. Shaughnessy became head coach at Stanford, where he took over a team that had gone 1-7-1 in 1939. Using the T, Stanford won all nine of its games and was ranked second in the nation. Meanwhile, the Bears won the NFL title by devastating the Redskins, 73-0, in the championship game.

Suddenly, college and professional teams rushed to adopt the T, and several variations were developed almost immediately, notably the split T at Missouri under Don Faurot and the wing T at Columbia under Lou Little.

World War II and the resultant manpower shortage interrupted the formation’s development for a while, but also led eventually to unlimited substitution, which in turn created the specialist quarterback we all know and love.


The Modern Passing Attack

While Shaughnessy’s modification of the T formation immediately created a much improved running attack, its biggest long-term effect on pro football was the development of the modern passing game.

The first two coaches who really exploited the T as a passing formation were Paul Brown and --who else?--Clark Shaughnessy.

Brown was a very successful coach at Massillon, Ohio, High School for 12 seasons before taking over at Ohio State in 1941. A real student of the game, Brown often borrowed game film from professional teams and he saw two things that especially interested him: The Bears’ new version of the T formation, and the way Don Hutson ran pass routes for the Packers.

While a senior at Alabama, where he was an All-American end in 1934, Hutson had worked with his passer, tailback Millard 'Dixie' Howell, on timing passes. The idea was simple but revolutionary. Hutson would run a very precise route, taking a pre-determined number of steps and then cutting at a precise angle toward a specific spot on the field. Howell would throw the ball to that spot just as Hutson made his break--sometimes even before.

When he joined the Green Bay Packers in 1935, Hutson brought the idea with him. However, it wasn’t until Cecil Isbell of Purdue became the team’s passer in 1938 that the Packers really began to use timing patterns. Hutson and Isbell worked in the same paper mill for a couple of years during the off-season, and they often spent their lunch hours practicing timing passes in the company parking lot.

With his great speed, great moves, and great hands, Hutson was an exceptionally dangerous receiver. The timing pass made him even more dangerous. But other NFL teams didn’t adopt the idea, probably because teams simply didn’t put in enough practice time in those days to develop timing passes effectively.

Paul Brown liked the idea, but he didn’t use it at Ohio State, because he was busy just trying to rebuild a faltering program. He had pretty well accomplished the rebuilding when he entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 and became coach of the powerful Great Lakes Naval Training Station team for two seasons. In that position, he got a chance to meet and talk with a lot of coaches and professional players, including George Halas, who was also in the Navy.

When the war ended, Brown became coach and part owner of a team named for him, the Cleveland Browns, in the new All-America Football Conference. It was the perfect opportunity for him to try out some things he’d been thinking about.

Brown introduced a lot of innovations into pro football, and he gets full credit for most of them. The one least often mentioned is his creation of a precision passing attack.

Cleveland receivers not only learned to run very precise routes, a la Hutson, they worked together on very precise pass patterns. Until 1946, a pass pattern was simply the receiver running a route while another receiver or two were decoys whose sole job was to keep defenders away from the predetermined target.

Cleveland Pass PatternBrown’s pass patterns were very carefully designed to give the quarterback a secondary receiver if his first receiver wasn’t open, and often a third receiver to throw to if the second wasn’t open. They were also set up in a very logical sequence, so the quarterback didn’t have to look all over the field. For example, he’d look left for an end running a quick out. If that wasn’t open, he’d move his line of sight slightly to the right to look for a slotback, running an outside slant. And if that wasn’t open, he’d look a little further to the right for the other end, running a crossing pattern.

As designed by Shaughnessy, the T’s passing attack was based almost entirely on play action. Brown introduced the straight dropback pass, with the QB sizing up the defense while back-pedaling. That enabled him to throw the ball quickly, after a drop of just two or three steps, to a receiver running a quick slant or a quick out--both routes invented by Brown.

Cleveland Double SlotbackTo make the passing attack even more effective, Brown created a multi-formation offense that was designed primarily to get receivers into their patterns quickly. He often split both ends and slotted both halfbacks, leaving the quarterback and fullback alone in the backfield. Sometimes, he used both halfbacks as flankers, with the ends split only a yard or two. Or he’d split the end and slot a halfback on one side while flanking the other halfback on the other side of the formation.Cleveland Double Flanker

Perhaps most important, the Browns used the pass the way other teams used the run, to advance the ball steadily downfield on relatively short gains. Other NFL teams had featured the pass, but the emphasis was usually on the bomb--strong-armed Sammy Baugh throwing to speedy Wayne Millner, Herber and Isbell throwing to Hutson. Cleveland used timing patterns on quick, short passes to keep the defense off balance.

When the secondary tightened up to stop the short stuff, the Browns would strike deep with a pump fake and a double-move route that often resulted in a wide-open receiver running downfield.

Cleveland’s running game was created by the passing attack. It featured a bewildering variety of traps and draw plays. Charging defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers would come rushing after the quarterback, only to find that the fullback was already three yards past them, carrying the ball toward a surprised secondary.

This offense wasn’t created all at once, of course. It developed over a period of four years, during which the Browns dominated the AAFC, compiling a 51-4-3 record and winning all four of the league’s championships.

The AAFC essentially folded before the 1950 season. Formally, it merged into the NFL, but only three AAFC teams survived. The Browns, of course, were one of them. Most observers felt that they would have a difficult time adapting to the NFL, but it turned out to be the other way around.

In their first regular-season NFL game, the Browns totally dominated the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, 35-10. The Eagles were known for their great defense, but the precision of the Cleveland passing attack had the Philadelphia defenders completely befuddled most of the afternoon.

The Browns went on to win the NFL title that year. In fact, they went to the league championship game each of their first six years in the league, and won three of them.

Of course, it wasn’t just the system. Brown had also recruited outstanding players to make it work. Otto Graham, as accurate a passer as Sid Luckman and gifted with greater mobility and a stronger arm, was the quarterback. Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, both quick, intelligent receivers with sure hands, were the ends. The halfbacks at various times were Edgar "Special Delivery" Jones, Ken Carpenter, and William "Dub" Jones. (Dub, whose son was NFL quarterback Bert Jones, in 1951 caught 30 passes out of the backfield for 570 yards, a 19.0 average, and 5 TDs.)

And at fullback there was the incomparable Marion Motley. At 6-1 and 232 pounds, Motley had speed and an explosive first step, ideal for running Brown’s traps and draw plays. He was also bigger than most linebackers of the period, and he was so good at stopping blitzes that he was known, in some circles, as "Otto Graham’s bodyguard."

Throughout the NFL, coaches consumed enormous amounts of chalk diagramming defenses that they hoped might at least slow the Browns down. And, while they were at it, they also tried to figure out ways to stop the Los Angeles Rams’ passing attack.

Here’s where Clark Shaughnessy re-enters the picture. In 1948, he took his only NFL head coaching job, with the Rams. After they went 6-5-1 in his first season, the Rams acquired halfback Elroy 'Crazy Legs' Hirsch, a 6-2, 190-pound breakaway runner who had spent two seasons in the AAFC.

Shaughnessy thought that Hirsch could be a great receiver, but the Rams already had two fine ends in Tom Fears and Bob Shaw. Fears was a big, possession type receiver blessed with great hands, while Shaw was not only bigger than Fears, at 6-4 and 226 pounds, but he was also considerably faster. The Rams also had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, veteran Bob Waterfield and rookie Norm Van Brocklin.

Los Angeles Three-End FormationSearching for a way to get Hirsch into the lineup as a third receiver, Shaughnessy decided to use him as a flanker. That was the beginning of the three-end formation, which became known as the pro set, because all of the pro teams soon adopted it.

The Rams’ passing attack didn’t have the precision of Cleveland’s, but it was just as frightening. With Hirsch flanked to one side and an end, usually Shaw, split to the other side, Los Angeles stretched defenses to the limit and often beyond. While deep defenders back-pedaled furiously to prevent the bomb, the sure-handed Fears could go over the middle, where he was often covered by a linebacker.

Like Brown, Shaughnessy based his running attack primarily on traps and draws set up by the passing threat. He had two 220-pound fullbacks, Dick Hoerner and Tank Younger, to do the running. And, like Motley, they were both very good at picking up blitzes.

The Rams won the Western Conference title in 1949, but they had to play on a muddy Philadelphia field in the championship game. With their passing attack literally bogged down, they were shut out, 14-0.

For all his strategic and tactical genius, Shaughnessy wasn’t very good head coaching material. He was a hard taskmaster of the sort that players usually dislike, and he was also abrasively undiplomatic in his dealings with owner Dan Reeves. Shaughnessy was fired after the 1949 season and Joe Stydahar replaced him.

Stydahar not only kept the three-end formation, he refined it considerably. Shaw was traded to the Chicago Cardinals and Hirsch moved from flanker to split end. Glenn Davis, the 1944 Heisman Trophy winner, joined the team as a 26-year-old rookie after his obligatory military service.

Davis split his time between flanker and running back, alternating with a 5-8, 175-pound scatback, 'Vitamin' Smith, and Stydahar also alternated his quarterbacks, Waterfield and Van Brocklin.

The Rams put up unheard-of numbers in 1950, with 64 touchdowns and 466 points in 12 games. Van Brocklin was the league’s top-rated quarterback and Waterfield finished just behind him. Fears set an NFL record with 84 catches, while Hirsch and Davis had 42 apiece.

In the championship rematch against the Browns, the Rams opened scoring with an 82-yard touchdown pass from Waterfield to Davis and they went on to win the title, 30-28. In 1951, Hirsch was spotlighted, setting a new NFL record with 1,495 yards on 66 catches and tying Don Hutson’s mark with 17 TD receptions. Again, the Rams beat the Browns for the title.

Success breeds not only success, but imitation. Even though Shaughnessy had originally gone to the three-end formation because of his personnel, other NFL teams quickly adopted it, then tried to get the personnel to make it work. By 1952, it was pretty much standard throughout the league.


Defensive Answers

Umbrella DefenseThe 6-2-2-1 hung on as the base NFL defense into the early 1950s, but there were two important variations. Steve Owen, the defensive genius who coached the New York Giants from 1931 through 1953, devised the 'umbrella defense' in 1950 specifically to stop Cleveland’s passing attack.

Owen started with the 6-2-2-1, but dropped both ends into shallow coverage, with the linebackers somewhat behind and inside them and the defensive halfbacks deeper. The result was something like a two-deep zone, with the safety free to roam into any area. The ends and linebackers were positioned mainly to cut off passing lanes for the quick slants and outs, while the defensive halfbacks still had primary responsibility for covering the ends one on one in the deep areas.

It worked pretty well. The Giants held Cleveland to just 21 points in three games in 1950. Unfortunately, their offense wasn’t very good, so they lost two of these games, including an 8-3 defeat in the American Conference playoff.

Eagles 5-2-4 DefenseAnother defense-minded coach, 'Greasy' Neale of the Eagles, developed the 5-2-4 setup in 1949. Neale also introduced the idea of having the defensive ends 'chug' the receivers at the line of scrimmage, that is, blocking them to keep from getting quickly into their pass routes.

But the architect of the standard NFL defense of the 1950s was none other than Clark Shaughnessy. Operating on the 'set a thief to catch a thief' principle, George Halas hired Shaughnessy in 1950 to develop ways of defensing the T formation that he had done so much to create.

Bears 5-3-3 DefenseBorrowing from both Owen and Neale, Shaughnessy first created the 5-3-3 defense. He gave the linemen basic responsibility for filling the holes between the tackles, with the outside linebackers protecting the outside areas and the middle linebacker free to move quickly to the point of attack.

Against the pass, he usually dropped the linebackers quickly into coverage to block the short passing lanes, while the defensive halfbacks played the offensive ends one on one in deep areas, as in the umbrella defense. The safety was sometimes free to help either halfback; at other times, especially against teams using the three-end formation, he had specific responsibility for the third receiver, usually the tight end.

4-3-3 DefenseLater, as the three-end set became standard, Shaughnessy turned the 5-3-3 into the 4-3, which is still the NFL’s basic defense. That allowed one safety to cover a receiver, or to come up quickly for run support, while the other remained free to move to the ball.

The 4-3 was actually very similar to Neale’s 5-2-4, in that the strongside linebacker was on the line on of scrimmage, and his first responsibility was to 'chug' the tight end to keep him from releasing quickly.

Formations aside, Shaughnessy approached overall defense in a new way. Until he went to work, the offense attacked while the defenders essentially waited to see what was happening, or what they thought was happening, and then reacted.

Shaughnessy came up with ways for the defense to attack. During the late ‘40s, teams used only one kind of blitz, the 'red dog', with the middle linebacker rushing right up the middle. Shaughnessy introduced a variety of blitz packages. He also added stunts and loops by defensive linemen, along with sophisticated zone defenses and combo (for combination) coverages in the secondary.

But many of Shaughnessy’s defensive innovations were responses to the new style of offense created by Vince Lombardi, which is the next chapter in this saga.


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Copyright 1998 Ralph Hickok