Research Notes on Paul “Bear” Bryant

I’m trying to find the time to write an essay about Bear, but until I finish, I thought people might enjoy these quotes from his autobiography, which is a great read.

“Matty Bell and Dutch Meyer and Rusty Russell started spread formations out in Texas, throwing the ball on every down, and that changed some thinking. Don Faurot and Bud [Wilkinson] and Jim Tatum came out with the split-T, which changed football, and changed me. That’s what the wishbone is today, a glamorized split-T. After that there was nothing significant until the so-called pro offense, drop back passing, and reading defenses. The pros use a two-back offense, the so-called pro set, with a quarterback who passes, period. And one back who is really just a third receiver. The only thing about the pro game that is more complex is that, within their basic four-three they play more varied defenses. They do more things with zones and coverages and keying.”

“John McKay says he’d love to spend his retirement years coaching defense in the NFL, because he would never have to defend against an option play. The option is the toughest play we have to defend. The pros never see it.”

“I don’t get to see much pro football, except occasionally on TV. I don’t see anything new in it, but if you ask me if I learn from the pros, I would say I learn from everybody. Pros, colleges, high schools. I have been watching some of these Canadian games on television lately and I’m beginning to think I like that 12-man offense. It would be interesting to see a 12-man offense against an 11-man defense.”

“The weaker you are, the more conservatively you play. You try to make fewer mistakes, and maybe then you’ll luck into a win. You try to make your team do something they’re not capable of and you get murdered.”

~ This is interesting in that (maybe due to rule changes) it’s clear that the weaker teams should be more aggressive, as that gives them a better chance to defeat a stronger opponent. 

“All else being equal, the same things still win. You’ve just got different excuses nowadays. You’re still going to win with preparation and dedication and plain old desire. If you don’t have genuine desire, you won’t be dedicated enough to prepare properly. It’s a coach’s job to get those things across. It doesn’t take a genius for that.”

“Defense starts with the kicking game. Wade, Thomas, Neyland. They all won on their kicking games. I’m talking about all of it – kicks, kick coverage, returns, field position.”

“Now..there’s more talent, and that makes it tougher to excuse yourself when you lose. I know even lately there were games I hurt us, games we won in spite of me or lost because of me. Win or lose, if you don’t recognize the mistakes – mistakes in preparation, mistakes during a game – you’re hurting yourself. I’ve been out-coached, too, and I sure don’t forget those times. Do they live as long as the big victories? No. They live longer.”

On his time at Vanderbilt:

“In Nashville you could brew a pot of coffee and bake a cake and entertain anybody. You didn’t have to put on the dog.”

On his time at Kentucky:

“We took the Kentucky team down to Mobile to practice, and they darn near killed one another. I’ve never seen a team so fired up. I had over-prepared for the Orange Bowl the year before, so I packed them up and took them home. We gave them a couple days off, then headed for Baton Rouge . . . Three days before the game we hald our last scrimmage. It was so rough we had to stop it. They were going to kill one another for sure.”

1953 Kentucky vs LSU

“Dick Shafto made a fourth and six play that got us a 6-6 tie, and I didn’t realize what down it was. If I had known, I’d have punted. After the game I chewed the team out good for losing. I was back at the hotel making a tape with our radio announcer when he mentioned “the tie.” I jumped about four feet. I called Gaynell Tinsley, the LSU coach, and asked him what the score was. He said, “You drunk this quick?”

“Everybody was having a helluva time and it got late. Finally they filed out. And when I looked on my bed somebody had left his hat. A good brown one, with a soft brim, the kind of hat a big executive would wear. I wore it for 10 years after that.”

The offenses and defenses of Bear Bryant

HC Kentucky

Ran the Notre Dame Box until ‘48, switched to the T formation

“We switched from the Box to the T formation that year, with Blanda as my first T quarterback. Bobby Dodd came up from Georgia Tech to show it to us that spring. He and Alice stayed at our house and visited for about a week, and when he left he gave me his playbook.”

1950 with Babe Parilli at QB versus LSU, Parilli injured his groin and couldn’t run much:

“I got the coaches together and we put in a spread formation, similar to what they called the shotgun later on. We set him 10 yards on a direct snap from center so he wouldn’t have to run back, and that allowed him to go back 5 yards more before he threw. The first time we had the ball we ran 17 plays – every one a pass. By the time the drive was over LSU’s big old burly linemen were worn out trying to reach him. It was 15 yards just to get in his vicinity, and they had our blockers to contend with.”

1950 season Kentucky beat Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma team in the Sugar Bowl.

The next year, with Bud Wilkinson’s help, I put in the split-T.

1953 Kentucky vs Tennessee:

“I had five simple plays that were sound and proven. This time I threw everything else out. Just three running plays – an option, a fullback off-tackle, and a counter – and two passes.

1971 learned the Wishbone from Darrell Royal

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about the wishbone, but it’s the best formation I have ever seen. In the first place, the FB is always in the same spot and it’s easy for the quarterback to get the ball to him. In the old split-T with the irregular line splits, the QB was reaching a lot of the time. Some of the best plays in the split-T were missed handoffs, when the QB had to keep it and confused everybody.  Also, in the old split-T when the QB moved out to option on the defensive end he had to pitch the ball blind, or blind behind him, to the trailing HB. WIth the wishbone the HBs line up a little deeper and closer in to the FB, and their weight is back in the stance and not forward like it was in the split-T. As a result it measures out that the HB winds up about four yards wider when the QB makes his pitch and the QB can see him.  It’s so much easier. And the big plus is that the whole thing is that much ahead of the pursuit.”

“The thing about the wishbone that I’ve worked hardest on is passing. The advantage there is unbelievable. You make them take five men to defend against the fullback. It takes five to keep the fullback contained, with all the routes he can run. That leaves three defensive players on each side – one to take the pitch, one to take the QB, and one to cover the pass. You get one on one coverage every time.”

“I better watch what I say. We were having our meetings in Dallas one time, and playing golf, and I said, “Show me a football coach who shoots good golf and I’ll show you a horseshit coach.” About that time somebody came running into the little lounge there, hollering, “Hey, Bud Wilkinson just shot a 71, and Paul Dietzel a 72!” Uh-oh.”

Money and NFL Jobs offered:

1948 and 1950 Washington. Didn’t know if he could motivate professionals, and was worried that George Preston Marshall would rule against him if Bryant was not satisfied with a certain player.

“Any team that has a coach who plays second fiddle to a player is not the team I want to work for.”

Ironically, 60 years later Washington owner Dan Snyder sided with QB Robert Griffin III over head coach Mike Shanahan and it led to disaster. A caveat is that Snyder’s tenure as owner has been a disappointment every year, so maybe this one example is irrelevant.

Green Bay tried to hire Bryant “before Emil Fisher died, and before they got Vince Lombardi.”

1966

John Plummer called about the Falcons job. Bear told him, “I appreciate your interest, but there isn’t enough money in the US Mint to got me into the same town with Furman Bisher.”

“I said that when I went to Atlanta I took my lunch bucket, because I didn’t want to spend a dime there.”

1967

“Three real singers, not offering me a job in pro football, but stock, long-term contracts, fringe benefits, a bunch of things. In the long run one offer would have amounted to around $1 million.” (Bear once turned down an offer to coach Arkansas that involved “Pete Ranay and Jack Stevens offered me stock in their oil company, Arkansas-Louisiana Gas. A chance to get in on the ground floor. If I had taken it, I’d be worth $40 million now.”)

  • A group trying to put a team in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • The New York Jets; Bear offered to buy them as head of a group for $10 million; the owner suggested Bear could buy the Dolphins for half that, but Bear didn’t consider it.
  • Oakland Athletics owner who was trying to put a football team in Birmingham. Offered Bear $100,000 per year for 10 years plus an option for 35 percent of the club.

1969

Bear’s agent Jimmy Hinton negotiated with Dolphins owner Joe Robbie.

“We put in everything I could think of, making the total value so good I’d have had to make about $1.7 million over a five year period to equal it. A stock option, a place to live, cars – the works. The most important was $10,000 for Mary Harmon (Bear’s wife) to go back and forth to Tuscaloosa during the season.”

The people at Alabama told Bear he could leave if he could find another good coach to replace himself with. He couldn’t; the Dolphins hired Don Shula.

“We’ve done pretty well, Jimmy Hinton and I. We’ve got part ownership in a meatpacking firm, Zeigler’s. And I have a small piece of a yarn-treating firm, Olympia, and a Volkswagen distributorship, and I’m on the board of the First National Bank of Tuscaloosa, Federated Guarantee of Alabama, a development company in Huntsville, and one in Houston. And I have a few stocks that keep me in debt. But most of my money is tied up, and I’m always scrambling.”

Bear also had part of a hat company that made hats like he wore, and bought land with several other people at various times. Also mentions several other failed ventures.

On Joe Namath

“The greatest athlete I ever saw.”

“A Vanderbilt tackler hit him pretty good when he was a sophomore and, according to our players, said, ‘Hey, number 12, what’s your name?’ Joe said, ‘You’ll see it in the headlines tomorrow.’ On the next play he threw a touchdown pass.”

“It was rumored that I got $25,000 for delivering Joe to the Jets, and if the guy who started it said it to my face, I’d spit in his eye.”

Namath had “Joe Hirsch, the writer for the Morning Telegraph, as his personal handicapper; Ray Abbruzzese, his old Alabama teammate and Jet defensive back, as his bartender. His apartment was decorated by the same guy who did Frank Sinatra’s. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t care what a man is as long as he treats me right. I like everybody.” That’s about as close to a personal philosophy as I could give you on Joe.”

On Air Conditioning, which Bryant seems to have been obsessed with:

While at Kentucky:

“We had the first air-conditioning unit in Lexington. We had it in the window of our bedroom, and Bull Hancock came over, and Louis Hagan, and we sat on the bed and drank whiskey and had a helluva time with that air conditioner. Even today I’m a nut for air-conditioning.”

Later in the book, after Bear got the Alabama job and the university bought him a house:

“Naturally, I had it air-conditioned. In the meantime Julian Lackey and Young Boozer, two old friends, raised more than $50,000 in private donations to air-condition the dorm the boys lived in.”

At the same time, they remodeled the football offices, and . . . 

“Then I ordered some more air conditioners. I put in nine – two of my own I’d brought from College Station, and seven I bought out of pocket, six for my assistants and one for the coaches dressing room. You say, boy, Bryant sure was a nut for that air-conditioning, and I was, ever since that night in Kentucky when we entertained Bull Hancock and Louis Hagan and Charlie Mitchell in our bedroom in front of that little old window unit.”

Later in the book:

“I’ll never forget Jim Tatum. After the war they started holding coaches clinics overseas,” [a group including Bryant and Tatum went to Japan] “Tatum had this air-conditioned room, and one night he called Duffy Daugherty and me to tell us he was dying. We went up there and he looked like he was having a stroke. We were drying Tatum’s face off with towels, trying to keep him calm, when the doctor came in and made the diagnosis. He said the air-conditioning had gone off and Tatum got so hot he almost smothered.”

On Paying Players

“You talk about paying players. That’s a form of motivation. It was very popular after the war, too, but not as popular as it is today. Buying players is at an all-time high. Well, I’ve done that, or at least let some of my alumni do it.”

“I’m not sure how many of our boys got something; I guess about four or five did. I didn’t know what they got, and I didn’t want to know, but they got something because they had other offers and I told my alumni to meet the competition.”

Bryant also writes that he was paid while he played at Alabama in the 1930s.

On Alabama vs Tennessee 1935, the Tide won 25-0:

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s true. The night before the game we anted up our nickels and dimes and quarters, accumulated the grand total of about five bucks, and bet it on ourselves. We were big underdogs. We made a killing, about a buck apiece.”

“Before the war it wasn’t uncommon – it was unethical, but it wasn’t uncommon – to raid another campus, drive right in and talk a guy into your car and drive him to your school. Virtually kidnap him. I can’t recall the names, but it happened at Alabama. Guys you were counting on were suddenly somewhere else. Those were the days of the so-called tramp athletes. Raiding was a way of life. We all did it.”

“I used to get a kick out of listening to Coach Thomas, Harry, Mehre, Hunk Anderson, and those former Notre Dame players talking about sneaking off to Calumet or someplace to play in pro games on Sunday, the day after they had played for Notre Dame. One game in particular Coach Thomas always talked about. They had played one of the big Midwest schools on Saturday. He was the Notre Dame quarterback. I don’t recall which team, but it had been a dogfight. The next day six or seven of the Notre Dame players got in cars and went to Gary for a pro game. And when they lined up and looked across the field they were facing the same team they’d played the day before.”

“Another guy who is a head coach in the NFL right now was with us at Kentucky one day, then in the Detroit Lions camp the next, then back with us again.”

~ Note: The only person I can find that played for Bryant at Kentucky and then was a HC in the NFL is Howard Schnellenberger. He was the head coach of the Colts in 1974. Bryant’s book was published in 1975.

Random asides:

During WW2, Bryant knew he was shipping out the following day, had no idea where the military would send him, spent all night drinking cheap champagne and boarded the military plane:

“When I got on the plane I was sleepy from the champagne, and scared. I remember sitting next to an army officer, a full colonel, but I didn’t know the insignias and I kept calling him “lieutenant.”

The transport was a big old prop that droned along, and I fell right to sleep. I dreamed I was in a big meadow with only one tree in it. And the Germans were strafing me. I kept running and they kept strafing. I knew I was a goner. I don’t know how long they kept it up, but when I woke we were landing. I could see the lights. If they were enemy lights, we were mighty close to the front. Then I saw a big sign,

“Welcome. La Guardia Field.” I wasn’t going overseas right away after all.”

1950 Sugar Bowl Kentucky vs Oklahoma

Bear Bryant versus Bud Wilkinson (Oklahoma had won 31 straight games)

“I was trying to decide on a defense for his split-T and coming up empty. And you won’t believe this, but I had a dream. I dreamed we had a four-tackle scheme with certain keys, and beat Oklahoma. The next day the more I thought about it the more I liked it. And that’s what we did – we played four tackles:

Yaworsky, John Ignarski, Bob Gain, and Jim McKenzie. Yaworsky took the place of an end, Ignarski a middle guard (modern nose tackle).”

~ I think this means it was a 5 man DL, with the weak side DE plus four DTs.

~ I assume it was either a 5-3-3 or a 5-2 Monster, I haven’t found any pictures.

~ Multiple articles about the game say that Kentucky played 3 DTs instead of 2.

At Texas A & M:

“We went to his [Jones Ramsey’s] house and polished off a bottle of bourbon. I’m a Scotch drinker myself, but Jones couldn’t beg any in the neighborhood, and he came up with the bourbon. I made believe I didn’t know the difference. We drowned our sorrows pretty good, and I think I converted old Jones that night. We talked for about four hours. Years later, before he went to Texas to be Darrell’s PR man, he named his last son after me.”

“People ask me if I ever kicked a guy. Yes, I have. And if a boy lets me kick him and slam him around and he doesn’t kick back I have said I don’t want him. I’d demonstrate on a boy, show him how to block or do this or that and really let him have it, and then say, “Now you show me,” and lots of times they bellied up and really dehorrned me. One boy did it at A&M and, realizing what he’d done, started running off, and I had to call to him, “Hey, come back. You’re my kind of player.”

1960

Alabama vs Georgia Tech game, “I’m dodging liquor bottles from the Tech stands, for one thing.”

1961

“Darwin Holt would go in for QB Pat Trammell when we went on defense. That was about all the substituting I did in 1961.” (From 1953 to 1964, college football was “one platoon” with a caveat that they allowed one player to be substituted between plays, otherwise all players played both offense and defense).

1962

The Post published a story that said Bear had rigged games. Bear eventually got some money in a settlement.

1962 Alabama vs Georgia Tech, a game Bear was later accused of rigging:

Down 7-6 with about a minute left, first down on the Tech 14, threw a pass. The receiver was wide open, the ball hit him in the hands and bounced up in the air and was intercepted.

“We were a passing team that year. We had Namath, and what runner can run better than Joe can pass? But as often happens in a case like that, your blocking suffers. You do a lot of backing up and rubbing bellies, trying to pass protect. You’re not down there knocking them out of the way like you do with a ball-control team.”

On Bear’s Playing career

Rarely mentioned, Bear’s playing career involved him being one of 2 Ends, the other being Don Hutson, famous as one of the first receivers to really develop route-running. Many people claim Hutson “invented” timing routes.

Bryant played Right End in ‘33, ‘34, ‘35 at Alabama.

“Alabama has tremendous strength at the ends. They have, in Paul Bryant and Don Hutson, as fine a pair of wingmen as ever played in the South. Bryant weighs 200 pounds and can step the century in 9.8 seconds.” (Danzig, 324)

Bryant, Paul “Bear” and John Underwood. Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Paul “Bear” Bryant New York: Bantam, 1975

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Notes on the Forward Pass

For a long time Walter Camp opposed adding the forward pass to the game. But according to Danzig:

“The earliest mention of the use of a forward pass in a game is found in Athletics at Princeton – A History (1900) as pointed out by Dr. L. H. Baker. In the 1876 Yale – Princeton game, it states, Walter Camp, when tackled, threw the ball forward to Oliver Thompson, who ran for a touchdown. Princeton protested and claimed a foul. The referee tossed a coin to make his decision and allowed the touchdown to stand.” (Danzig, 32)

No one man should be credited for the forward pass. Teddy Roosevelt began agitating for change in 1904. Between the 1905 and 1906 seasons, the forward pass was legalized. An incompletion or pass out of bounds was a turnover, and the forward pass was classified by most coaches and fans as a “trick” play. According to Danzig, “it appears that the man who first had the idea and took it to the Rules Committee” was John Heisman. Heisman got the idea while he was in attendance at the 1895 North Carolina vs Georgia game. A North Carolina fullback in punt formation was rushed, and threw the ball “out to the side and forward” to a teammate who scored a 70 yd touchdown. The Georgia coach protested; the referee said he had not seen it and allowed it to stand. The Georgia coach at the time was none other than Pop Warner.

1906 St. Louis University head coach Eddie Cochems has his team throw, and deep.

Referee H. B. Hackett, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, article by Ed Wray, November 30, 1906:

“What struck me the most in the work of the St. Louis University team this afternoon was the perfection which the eleven has attained in the forward pass. It was the most perfect exhibition of the possibilities in the new rules in this respect that I have seen all season and much better than that of Yale and Harvard. St. Louis style of pass differs entirely from that in use in the east. There the ball is thrown high in the air and the runner who is to catch it is protected by several of his teammates, forming an interference for him. The St. Louis University players shoot the ball hard and accurately to the man who is to receive it, and the latter is not protected. With the high pass protection is necessary as the ball requires some time to reach its goal, time enough for the defensive side to mix in. The fast throw by St. Louis enables the receiving player to dodge the opposing players and it struck me as being all but perfect.”

Note: At the time “interference” was used to refer to what is now called blocking.

In 1906 Massillon, OH pro team coach Eddie Stewart went to Cleveland to recruit “Peggy” Parrott, a well-known basketball player, “because the pass was becoming so popular.”

In 1906 Stagg had 64 pass plays the first year of the forward pass. Stagg wrote:

“We used to throw the ball around in practice, but coach Walter Camp wouldn’t let us do it in a game because he thought it was too dangerous.” 

After the 1906 season, Camp (as Editor) updated his Spalding’s football manual for the forward pass, and the person he selected to write the 10 page article was Cochems.

In the article, “The Forward Pass and On-Side Kick,” Cochems wrote:

“The brevity of this article will not permit of a detailed discussion of the forward pass. Should I begin to explain the different plays in which the pass could figure, I would invite myself to an endless task.”

So . . . he didn’t write much. We must move on.

1907 Carlisle vs Penn Carlisle was 8 for 16 passing, including a pass thrown by Jim Thorpe.

The New York Times wrote “The Forward Pass, Perfectly Employed, Used for Ground Gaining More Than Any Other Style of Play” and “forward passes, end runs behind compact interference from direct passes, delayed passes and punting were the Indians’ principle offensive tactics.

1909 Washington Post headline “Football Like an Airship Would Open Up the Game”

In the article, Cochems says the football should be more aerodynamic and easy to handle.

“The story in a nutshell is this. The ball is too large and too light. Some of the best teams in the country find it impossible to use the pass owing to lack of players who can make it. Since it is impossible to grow larger hands and it is possible to make the ball conform to human dimensions, why not make the ball fit the needed conditions? With a ball such as I have proposed, longer, narrower, and a bit heavier so that it would carry in the face of a strong wind, I firmly believe that the game of rugby would develop into one of the most beautiful and versatile sports the world ever saw. With the new ball, deeper offensive formations could be logically planned and carried into execution.”

1910 The rules were changed, there were less repercussions. A forward pass that was incomplete or out of bounds was no longer a turnover. This is what really opened up the game.

1910 Stagg wrote he had “50 or more pass patterns in my repertoire.” 

1912 Carlisle Indian School versus Army both teams “used the forward pass to great advantage.”

Carlisle had Jim Thorpe, Pete Calac, and Joe Guyon, who could all run and throw, and ran the Head Coach Pop Warner’s Single Wing and Double Wing. One of the players injured trying to tackle Thorpe in the 27-6 Carlisle victory was a young Dwight Eisenhower.

Note Thorpe played for Carlisle from 1907-1912; he became an Olympic legend also in 1912.  

And then on a Saturday in 1913 Notre Dame played Army and the forward pass took over the American imagination. Notre Dame End Knute Rockne running timing routes (mostly the button-hook) as the ND QB went 14-17 for 243 yards and 3 TDs in a 35-13 win that would have still meant nothing but for the New York writers in attendance. I think Rockne was almost always the Strong Tight End, but maybe some Weak Split End. The forward pass excited the writers, and the stories of the forward pass fascinated readers.

Legend has it that Notre Dame HC Jess Harper and QB Gus Dorais and End Knute Rockne unveiled downfield passing on November 1, 1913 versus Army. Later that year Army upset Navy with passing. Prichard to Merrilat (often spelled Merillat) one of the first great passing combinations in college football, Prichard and Merrilat also passed and won in 1914 as “the Western game” I think mostly referring to Notre Dame, it seems the “eastern” teams were the last to move to the forward pass.

1931 Knute Rockne says Cochems deserves the credit.

“One would have thought that so effective a play would have been instantly copied and become the vogue. The East, however, had not learned much or cared much about Midwest and Western football; indeed, the East scarcely realized that football existed beyond the Alleghenies.” 

Later in 1931, Rockne’s death in a plane crash gets much publicity, most of which mentions the passing game and his career at Notre Dame. His legend grows throughout the 1930s. In 1940 the movie Knute Rockne, All American cements Rockne’s legend as father of the forward pass in the minds of the American public.

1932 Cochems says Harvard, Princeton, Yale all called him to explain the forward pass to them. (In an interview with a Wisconsin sports columnist.)

1940 Bradbury Robinson wrote that he saw the 1904 efforts of Roosevelt and began practicing passing in Wisconsin and then taught it to Cochems in 1906, when Bradbury started playing for Cochems.

1952 Gus Dorais says Cochems deserves the credit.

1954 Stagg says Cochems’ claims are untrue, and that “after the forward pass was legalized in 1906, most of the schools commenced experimenting with it and nearly all used it.” 

1994 David M. Nelson’s excellent history of football rules, Anatomy of a Game, agrees with Rockne:

“Eastern football had little respect for football west of Carlisle, Pennsylvania . . . [they] may not have recognized what was happening in the West, but the new forward-passing game was off to an impressive start.” 

2008 Murray Greenberg, in his excellent biography of Benny Friedman, writes:

“Cochems and his St. Louis eleven aside, rarely during the early part of the century’s second decade did a team try to dominate the game through the air.” (Greenberg, ~ page)

So, some still credit Rockne, while Rockne and some experts credit Cochems, but maybe we should credit Robinson and Stagg. Regardless, the people in charge eventually changed the shape of the ball to make it easier to throw, and the passing game exploded, and ever since they’ve often changed rules to increase passing and scoring and rarely changed rules to help the defense.

Note: I believe “eastern” teams refers to Army, Navy, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Rutgers, Syracuse but I’ve never found a clear definition of this. I’m not sure how many people called passing a “western” thing or not. Certainly, many referred to pass plays as “trick plays”. Army’s 9-0 1914 team was voted National Champion. The “east” and “west” thing lasted a while. In multiple articles around the 1940 NFL Championship between the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins, famously won 73-0 by the Bears, the Bears are referred to as “westerners”.

Sources:

I’ve gotta find the page numbers for some of the sources…

Cohen, Richard M., Jordan A. Deutsch, and David S. Neft. The Scrapbook History of Pro Football Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis/New York, 1979

Danzig, Allison. The History of American Football Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1956

Danzig, Allison. Oh, How They Played the Game Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971

Greenberg, Murray. Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football 2008

Nelson, David M. Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who Made the Game 1994

The Mass Momentum Era of Football

Terminology note: In the early years, “interference” was used for what now would be  called “blocking”. In old books, it can be a bit confusing, as the text will say, “So and so was great at interference.

Football is descended from both soccer and rugby, and these are basically rugby scrums. A mass of people surrounding the ball, ramming into a mass of people trying to hurt the guy with the ball. Many coaches began building formations that created a mass of strength.

The first, in 1884, was the V Trick aka the Wedge. There were no rules about how many had to be on the line of scrimmage. The V Trick put 4 blockers on each side. The center snapped the ball behind him, and that player then handed it behind him as everyone charged forward. It was created at both Princeton and Lehigh around the same time. It wasn’t used much, then Princeton used it in 1888 versus Yale to much acclaim. It’s more commonly known as the Wedge.

V Trick aka Wedge from a standing start:

formation_wedge

1890 – Stagg’s Ends Back Formation. The backs would criss-cross, sometimes hand off the ball. This possibly introduced the End Around, Reverse, Double Reverse. But the main play was “off-tackle”. The Guards Back formation by George Woodruff of Penn created too much power, so the rules committee required 6 men on the LOS. This led to the Tackle Back formation. (Danzig, 52)

formation_playerback

Many sources credit Henry L. Williams and/or Walter Camp with Tackle Back and/or Tackles Back, but Danzig says Stagg did both several years ahead of them. Stagg created the Turtleback Formation which was even tighter around the ball-carrier. Most sources say it was first used in 1893. But According to Pa Corbin, it was 1891 YMCA vs Harvard:

Ten men formed in a mass, with the bodies bent over each, forming a “turtle back” several yards back of the center of the field. The ball was snapped back and disappeared into the middle of the mass. Soon all but one of the bunch started toward the side of the field in what appeared to be a “flying wedge” then much in vogue . . . A minute later an unnoticed man on the ground, who all the time had the ball concealed under him, got up and ran down the other side of the field for a touchdown, much to the discomfiture of their opponents. (Danzig, 23-24)

Note: The comments say “then much in vogue” but Corbin seems to have written this in 1939 and referred to the general period. If the Turtleback was in 1891 it was definitely before the Flying Wedge. Stagg says early versions of the Turtleback were used in 1890 and 1891. (Danzig, 24)

It seems in 1891 Harvard created a similar play to the Turtle Back the same season, no one has proven who used it first or exactly when.

Harvard definitely created the Flying Wedge and introduced it in the second half versus Yale in 1892. It was an idea by student Lorin F. Deland, a fan, chess player, military buff. The “flying” part meant they would get a running start of up to 25 yards before the snap. There were 5 players on each side of the ball; the heavier ones were closer, the faster ones were farther. In 1926 (34 years later), Stagg called it:

“probably the most spectacular single formation ever opened as a surprise package. It was a great play when perfectly executed, but, demanded the exact coordination of eleven men, extremely difficult to execute properly. By 1893 everyone was using his flying wedge and the mass momentum principle, and the game so increased in roughness and injuries as a consequence that the season ended in an uproar, and the Army and Navy Departments abolished the service game. – Stagg (Danzig, 26)

“By the time they arrived at the ball, they had worked up a stupendous mass momentum, and the interference they gave for the runner was something wonderful to behold, and terrible to stop.” – John Heisman (Danzig 1971 p 71)

It’s unclear, but these two plays seem to have been very similar:

  • Henry L. Williams created the Revolving Wedge in 1892
  • Stagg’s Turtleback, which he refers to as a “revolving oval”

All mass momentum plays were outlawed after the 1893 season. So while football from 1869 – 1904 was a rough game, the flying wedge era was only 2 seasons long. So it was gone well before the famous Teddy Roosevelt rule changes.

Stagg’s book has the Princeton wedge, both of Harvard’s wedges, a feint wedge, the flying wedge, and the line wedge. Note: I’m trying to insert all these images.

Sources:

Baker, L. H. Football: Facts and Figures New York: Rinehart, 1945

Danzig, Allison. The History of American Football Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1956

Danzig, Allison. Oh, How They Played the Game Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971

Heisman, John. Principles of Football 1922

Heisman, John M. with Mark Schlabach. Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy 2012

Stagg, A Alonzo and Henry L Williams. A Scientific and Practical Treatise on American Football 1893

 

The Glorious Rise of Chickenshit Football

In the beginning, all players were required to play both ways. For decades coaches debated the pros and cons of substitution. Many believed that like baseball, basketball, hockey, etc, all players should play both offense and defense. Often called “one platoon” or “single platoon” or “iron man” football, this led to the positions on offense and defense having the same names and delayed innovation and specialization.

For years, players who exited the game were not allowed to enter the game again until the following quarter. Knute Rockne used what he called “shock troops” – a group of players who would play for five minutes or so (at the start of the game or half). Countless inaccurate sources say this was done to wear down the opposition, but Rockne explained otherwise:

“I start them so my regulars – and particularly my quarterback – can have a chance to study the formations of the opponents and spot their strengths and especially their weaknesses.” (Bennett, 52)

Soon, teams were using one group of players for the first and third quarters and another group of players for the second and fourth quarters. Then the powers-that-be made it legal only to substitute during timeouts. In 1941 college football allowed unlimited substitution because of the difficulty in finding good players during the war. This rule lasted until 1953, then the rule was changed and the arguments returned.

There was a series of articles on substitution in the 1953 Pittsburgh Press by Stan Opotowsky, United Press Staff Writer. One Opotowsky article notes that “In 1941 Fritz Crisler had offensive players and defensive players, and he didn’t mind breaking the rules whenever he wanted because the penalty for illegal substitution was just five yards.”

So, some began using some players one way in 1941, but the turning point came in 1945:

“The first known use of the “two-platoon” system was by Michigan head coach Crisler in 1945 versus Red Blaik’s Army team when Crisler used only three players both ways.” (Danzig, 115)

Michigan lost that 1945 game 28-7 but Crisler’s strategy impressed Blaik so much he installed it for his team and won the National Championship; a former soldier, he introduced the “platoon” terminology. Blaik’s team was dominant with the strategy. Many coaches feared, as Crisler said, “it will make changes in football rules we don’t want.” But many more coaches loved the idea of specialization, with a QB who only played offense, kicking teams and field goal teams and punt teams, etc.

1946 NFL withdrew unlimited substitution and allowed teams to only substitute 3 players at a time.

1949 NFL returned to unlimited substitution for good in the NFL.

1953 College Football required one platoon teams again (they allowed just one player to be substituted between plays). University of Tennessee head coach “General” Robert Neyland, an opponent of substitution, called the return to one platoon football “the end of chickenshit football.”.

For the 1964 season college football returned to unlimited substitution and has never looked back.

Every once in awhile, someone will argue football should return to the single platoon.

A 1990 article in Sports Illustrated by Douglas S. Looney titled “One Is More Like It” was subtitled, “Want to know how to make the college game better in almost every way? It’s easy. Just return to one-platoon football.”

The author writes, “One-platoon football would decrease the game’s alleged sophistication and bring it back to basics.”

Among other nonsensical quotes are the following:

“It would get us back to a lot of basic values.”

– Penn State head coach Joe Paterno

“It would do away with the hot reads and safety blitzes and all that stuff . . . Blocking doesn’t teach you to tackle, so what two-platoon football does is make a man a lesser player.”

– Iowa State head coach Jim Walden

“We have these kids who have never blocked and the other half who have never tackled.”

– Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine

Unless you think bad players are fun to watch and the playbook should be boring, it’s indefensible. Specialization is what makes football unique; it’s what makes the strategy so fascinating. Two-platoon football prevents the QB from having to be a defensive back. It prevents the defensive end from having to be an offensive tackle, etc. It prevents the fourth quarter from being a slog with exhausted players on each side. Yes, it’s admirable that players could do it, but few of them did it well. “Concrete Charlie” Chuck Bednarik was the last, and when he retired after the 1962 season, football was just a part-time job. He wasn’t called “Concrete Charlie” because he hit hard; he did hit hard, but he had a job selling concrete.

I’d like to think Looney’s use of “sophistication” means “lots of awesome things going on” which is always a good thing. I assume “alleged sophistication” means Looney doesn’t understand much about football. The beauty of football is there are 22 players on the field, and they can all be doing something different, and a few seconds later it happens again, and this happens 150-200 times over the course of a game.  Whether you consider that “sophistication” or not is your business. But “basics” definitely sounds boring. If you really want to know what it would look like, you can watch rugby or Australian rules football.

A description of this era, with the offensive Center spending every play with a defensive Center in front of him (similar to the modern Nose Tackle), and both players playing both ways the entire game, by Ernest Hemingway [in his parody novella] The Torrents of Spring describes the job of a Center:

“When you had the ball he had all the advantage. The only good thing was that when he had the ball you could rough-house him. In this way things evened up and sometimes even a certain tolerance was achieved. Football, like the war, was unpleasant; stimulating and exciting after you had attained a certain hardness, and the chief difficulty had been that of remembering the signals.” (Hemingway)

Thankfully, chickenshit football is here to stay.

Sources:

Bennett, Tom. The Pro Style: The Complete Guide to Understanding National Football League Strategy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976

Danzig, Allison. The History of American Football Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1956

Hemingway, Ernest. The Torrents of Spring New York: Scribner, 1926

Looney, Joe. “One Is More Like It” Sports Illustrated, September 3, 1990

Mike Tomlin Still Doesn’t Understand

Mike Tomlin struck back at his critics today, saying this about his stupid onside kick which reduced his team’s chances to win the game:

“If I err, I’m always going to err on the side of action in an effort to win…I’m going to do what’s required to pursue victory, even if it comes across as unconventional. I’m certainly not going to steer away from decision-making for fear of ridicule.”

The problem is he doesn’t understand HOW to pursue victory. He’s saying he’s “unconventional” when he’s being ignorant. He thinks the “ridicule” is baseless, even though it’s just facts. And he thinks he’s making “decisions” when he’s just making fuck-ups. Let’s go through a few examples from his history to examine his “decision-making”:

2010 postseason – In the single worst challenge I’ve ever seen, Tomlin used one of his two challenges in a playoff game on the spot of the ball on the opening kickoff. With 59 minutes and 55 seconds to play, he’d given up one of the two most valuable tools the coach has. Yes, he was correct that the returner should have been ruled out at the Baltimore 35 instead of the Baltimore 49, but 14 yards of field position on the OPENING DRIVE OF THE GAME are not worth a challenge. He used his second challenge in the first quarter of the game, on a play he had to challenge, as the Ravens seemed to score a defensive touchdown which was overturned. So, less than 15 minutes into the game, Tomlin was out of challenges. His team won, and none of the idiots who run the Steelers cared. 

2014 Week 4 Steelers vs Bucs – Needs one first down, doesn’t try to get it. RB Le’Veon Bell was averaging 3.6 ypc, didn’t give him the ball on 1st down. Didn’t give him the ball on 2nd down. Gave him the ball on 3rd and 5 when the defense loaded up against it. Loss of 2. 

2014 Week 5 Steelers v Jaguars – Leading 17-9 at the 2 minute warning with the opponent out of timeouts, the only way to lose is to throw the ball. Tomlin of course called a pass play.

2015 Week 1 Steelers v Patriots – Tomlin’s team never leads against the Patriots, and on multiple plays doesn’t even put a defender on Rob Gronkowski. After the game Tomlin whines about the headsets (which are bad in all stadiums because the NFL sells the marketing rights to Bose but the system is garbage).

2015 Steelers v Ravens – Refused to give ball (or even fake the ball) to Le’Veon Bell on 2 key plays. On the last play, Bell wasn’t even in the backfield. Nantz and Simms explained on the broadcast (while saying Tomlin should trust a kicker who’d already missed) that Tomlin “trusts his gut” – his wallet is glad his gut doesn’t get him fired.

2015 Steelers v Seahawks – Tomlin gives a halftime sideline interview where he responds to a typical sideline interview question with “We will live in our hopes, not in our fears.” Then made a simple mistake that pretty much killed his team’s chance of winning. Needing a TD, he kicked a FG on 4th and Goal.

Lots of examples from 2015, playoffs repeatedly putting Marcus Wheaton back to return punt after punt. You don’t have to put anyone back there. Instead, Tomlin put Wheaton back there, just to show he wasn’t paying attention to Wheaton’s play.

2016 Week 7 Steelers v Patriots – Tomlin’s defensive coordinator Kevin Butler is so bad at his job that he was making excuses in the week before the game, claiming the Patriots “do things that aren’t legal.” Then the game happened, and all the Patriots had to do was be competent. 9 minutes left in the game, down 27-16, Tomlin chooses to kick a 54 yard FG instead of go for a 4th and 3. The kick missed. Getting the ball back with same score and only 3:02 left, Tomlin doesn’t run a hurry-up offense.

Tom Brady is undeniably great but Tomlin has used the same game plan every time. With a Super Bowl on the line in the 2016 AFCGC, Tomlin does it again, using soft zone coverage, often matching LB Timmons on WR Edelman. The Patriots run the same play over and over and win easily. Part of the game, the Patriots run their hurry-up Empty formations. The Steelers check to the same coverage almost every time, so Brady keeps running the same play over and over, successfully. The play was Hoss Y-Juke, a Hitch outside of a Seam to each side, with an option route in the middle.

Tom Brady career stats versus Tomlin thru 2016: 7 Games, 22 TDs, 0 INTs, 6-1 record.

2017 Week 5 Steelers v Jaguars – Against the best pass defense and worst run defense in the NFL, Tomlin has a game plan built on passing and not running. Big Ben throws 55 passes, 5 of which are intercepted, 2 for touchdowns. 

2017 Week 14 Steelers v Ravens – End of game, got in FG range. Instead of getting all his opponent’s timeouts and kicking the game-winning FG with no time left, stopped the clock and then called timeout and kicked it with 40 secs left – leaving the opponent with a timeout and a possession they shouldn’t have had.

2017 Week 15 Steelers v Patriots – Another disaster of game planning, tactical mistakes and bad situational football. Losing Antonio Brown forced the Steelers to play ball control, which they should have known already. On Steelers next to last drive, up 5, didn’t try to get a first down. On Patriots final drive, Tomlin refused to give Sean Davis help covering Gronk. On one play they didn’t cover Gronk at all, blitzing the player aligned over him, giving him a free release and a 26 yard gain on an easy catch.

End of game, had no timeouts, then during a free 3 minute timeout didn’t prepare his team, and only called one play from the wrong spot. On NFL Films, could be seen saying to OC Haley “give him (Ben) a play” when Tomlin should have already given Ben two plays during the timeout. Then ran a fake spike and inside throw.

Then, this weekend’s game, which has been covered. After the game, in which he mismanaged several situations, he said, “They (the Jaguars) won the moments.” I don’t know what he’d define as a “moment” but I’d define the same thing as “coaching situations”.

He says things like this:

“I make a conscious effort not to live in fear but to aggressively take the calculated risk associated with seeking victory.”

That sounds great in a vacuum but it means nothing. He either needs to get new definitions of fear, aggressively, calculated, risk, seeking, victory, or he’s just full of shit. The proof is in every game he coaches.

Plenty of clowns on Twitter say “but if Tomlin was fired, other teams would hire him!” SO WHAT? Mike Mularkey has had 3 head coaching jobs. John Fox has had 3 head coaching jobs. Teams don’t want great head coaches. They want a head coach who won’t ask for too much money, who won’t try to organize a coaching union, who won’t do anything to slow down the revenue train. NFL owners don’t try to win – in fact, one former owner Gene Klein wrote a book in which he disparaged owners who would spend to win, as if it’s uncouth. They try to increase revenue (which is unrelated to winning, see Cowboys revenue versus Patriots revenue), they badger their “partners” into raising prices to further increase revenue, and they hope they win somewhere along the way.

Mike Tomlin might be a decent person. I doubt it, because he didn’t seem to have much of a problem with what Big Ben was accused of doing to women back in the day. He may be good at the unseen parts of coaching. But he doesn’t build the roster (the Steelers have always had separation between the coaching staff and the front office, even when Chuck Noll was there), he’s not doing anything special on offense, defense, or special teams, and he’s garbage at situational football. His team ALWAYS looks confused in big moments and at multiple moments Sunday, he seemed just as confused as the rest of them.

He probably thinks it was a great idea to assume he’d be coaching in the AFCCG, just because he did last year. But the game will be played this weekend, with his team’s season over. Another year of disappointment that the Rooneys will overlook.

 

 

Situations and Moments

Yesterday was a momentus day. as Mike Mularkey paid for his sins of bad situational football with his job. A sad day for his staff, but a great day for football justice.

It won’t shock you to learn the weekend was rife with bad situational football. Ever thus to deadbeats, eh?

The worst, as usual, was Mike Tomlin. Still doing a great job of resembling Omar Epps and piss-poor job of in-game coaching. According his QB, Tomlin won’t give Ben the permission to audible to a QB sneak, even when the defense is aligned to allow it. At least once, Ben could have easily gotten it.

Tomlin doesn’t even understand the “trailing by 10, kick the FG so you’ll have more time for the TD drive” situation. The Steelers got to the 5 yard line with :47 left, but instead of kicking the FG, they ran the clock out scoring the TD. They finally got it, with :01 left, ensuring that they’d lose. After the game, he said the Jaguars “won the moments” which is just more Tomlin rhetoric. If you watched the game objectively, you’d just see that the Steelers lost the situations.

Speaking of the Jaguars, they have more discipline than under Bradley but not enough. Going up 28-7, they got a flag for taunted. Marrone then decided to kick it short. So instead of pinned deep with only 2 mins left in the first half, the Steelers got the ball at midfield and scored a TD. At the end of the game, Marrone seemed to think a 10 point lead was insurmountable. It was, but only because Tomlin was on the other sideline.

Let’s journey to the NFC, where the Falcons had a chance to win. But they ran 4 bad concepts versus a defense clearly expecting all of them. The final play’s formation screamed “Sprint Right Option.” Maybe you’re old and thinking, hell, it worked for Joe Montana. And it did! But the Falcons ran it essentially as a 1 man play for Julio, who would probably have been out of bounds when he came down with it. Further, before that snap, Matt Ryan’s numbers this year when throwing to Julio in the red zone were 1 for 17. THAT’S NOT THE PLAY TO CALL WITH YOUR SEASON HANGING IN THE BALANCE.

Doug Pederson did what he always does. Some good 4th down and 1 conversions, some good play design. But also, some new coach bullshit where he runs the same play again and has it shut down as if he doesn’t think a defense will adjust. The Fake Toss Jet Sweep behind the pulling OT was great the first time, with a big play. But it’s like Jeff Tweedy sang about another trick play in Wilco’s “Kingpin”: “The Statue of Liberty Play only works once, don’t throw it away.”

To Vikings v Saints we go. Mike Zimmer left too much time on the clock, and Drew Brees took the lead. Sean Payton left too much time on the clock, and Case Keenum took the lead. But the final “miracle” play wouldn’t have happened if Payton had called a logical defense. Instead, he played 3 defenders over Trips, so when the deepest player caught the ball, there was only 1 defender. When that defender missed, it was over. But missed tackles happen, and you shouldn’t give up a TD just because you were determined to not give up a FG try. The previous play, the Saints played 4 on 3 and 3 on 2. The same call would have been fine but instead, Payton and Allen phoned it in, thinking the game was over. It’s been revealed that during this time, Payton was talking shit to the Vikings fans, imitating their SKOL chant. As if nothing crazy ever happened at the end of a one score football game?!

Back to Mularkey, who’s epitaph may well read “kept putting Mariota in the shotgun, even though Mariota was better under center.” It seems GM (and Belichick disciple) Jon Robinson and the other football people wanted to fire Mularkey long ago, but the owner thought everything was going fine. All you have to do is watch Game Pass to see the offense was boring and the situational decisions garbage. Thankfully, Robinson won.

Will Mularkey get a fourth NFL head coaching job? Will Tomlin get yet another season to show he doesn’t value situational football? Will Sean Payton be forced to come up with an end of game plan? The worst case scenario will probably play out for many teams again next year, as Homer Smith rolls over in his grave.

Back in Black: Gruden and the Raiders 2.0

Pros:

He’s no longer on Monday Night Football, spending all that time “studying” yet providing no real insight on the broadcast. And even better, no more hackneyed articles every year about whether or not he was coming back.

Cons:

He’s not as good as people think. If he was, he’d have never been fired by Tampa Bay.

But whether he’s getting 10 years and 100 million or a piece of ownership or just lifetime meals from Lena’s Soul Food, the worst thing about the hiring is the hot takes. Many of these are centered around “how fast the game changes” and “how long he’s been away.” He hasn’t been away that long. He got fired during the Patriots dynasty, and here we are in the Patriots dynasty.

What’s changed in football? Not much. More shotgun, but that’s nothing new and plenty of teams still have plenty of success from under center (Gruden’s preference). Most defensive fronts still have a 1 tech and a 3 tech and 2 edge defenders. Pete Carroll’s Cover 3 has spread like wildfire, but it’s not completely unrelated from the Tampa 2. I’ve gotten the side-eye from several people for saying that, as ignorant “fans” can’t comprehend a Cover 3 being similar to a Cover 2, but guess what?! The most influential person in Pete Carroll’s defense was Monte Kiffin, and Gruden’s defensive coordinator was MONTE KIFFIN. Both defenses use lots of Under fronts, some Over fronts, mostly 4 man rushes, physical corners, rangy linebackers. One of the best play-action passes when Gruden left was Spider 2 Y-Banana, and guess what? It still is, and variations on it are seen every Sunday. I’m pretty sure Gruden can keep up.

One problem is Gruden wakes up at 3:17 am. If that matters, he’s too late, as Sean McVay is up at 3 am. It probably doesn’t matter, and just leads to poor decisions from an exhausted mind, but I can’t prove that because I can’t find a coach more recent than Paul Brown who got enough sleep.

The Raiders are gonna be a disaster the next couple years because they overpaid Carr, their best receiver can’t catch, Mack is their only great defender, they’re disrespecting their fans by moving to Las Vegas, and their owner is bowl-cut aficionado Mark Davis, who, if he had any power, would have gotten what he wanted – a move to Los Angeles.

It doesn’t matter if Jon Gruden is there. But it will be more entertaining than Jack Del Rio, who should have never been hired in the first place. But it’s not because Gruden was gone for a while. It’s because Gruden is just another coach, like all the others not named Belichick.

Note: Many ignorant people ramble on and on about how Super Bowl winning coahces can’t win again with another team just because none have. But plenty could have. Dungy could have won in Tampa, Holmgren could have won in Seattle, Parcells could have won in New England, Belichick could win anywhere with a decent owner. Football isn’t absolutes, it’s a season of attrition and a post-season of randomness. Gruden probably won’t win in Oakland, but it’s not BECAUSE he won in Tampa. That’s nonsense.