Alex Gibbs didn’t invent zone-blocking, but he did turn it into a brutalizing art that revolved around undersized linemen, cutback runners and essentially two running plays.
What resulted from his innovations to a system first made popular by Cincinnati Bengals’ line coach Jim McNally in the 1980s was a demanding and disciplined approach to opening holes that produced 1,000-yard rushers as consistently as the sun produces heat.
Gibbs, who passed away this week at the age of 80 from complications following a stroke, once told a room full of young coaches seeking his counsel at a clinic that, “We run zone wide and zone tight, and that is it. If you want to run something else, do not call me and ask for help.”
Often bombastic and profane, Gibbs’ hard-ass approach to coaching the linemen under his direction was nearly as legendary as the production of his lines. During most of his 14 years in Denver, for example, the Broncos made a point of keeping his coaching sessions as far away from the public as possible during training camp to avoid offending customers shocked by his colorful language while correcting and cajoling his linemen.
Basically, Gibbs zone-blocking system asked those linemen to step laterally when the ball was snapped rather than firing out and trying to blow defensive linemen off the line of scrimmage. Instead, his linemen on the front side of the play were asked to initially occupy the defender in front of them or, if uncovered, double-team with a teammate, and then peel downfield.
Meanwhile, blockers on the back side of the play would cut block defenders as they tried to follow the flow of the line, thus creating cutback lanes which are critical to the zone-blocking scheme.
Backs in Gibbs’ system were expected to read those blocks quickly, and by their third step either to take the play wide if blockers had taken the defense flowing to one side or to stick their feet in the ground and cut back into running lanes on the backside opened by those cut blocks.
Gibbs loved the cut block best of all because it negated the natural advantage of size. But it infuriated helpless defensive linemen knocked off their feet, often with their knees imperiled, by undersized defenders whose advantage was quickness and agility.
That system brought two Super Bowl championships to Denver with Hall-of-Fame running back Terrell Davis piling up 6,413 rushing yards and 56 rushing touchdowns in four seasons, including 2,008 yards and 21 rushing TDs on the way to being named the league’s MVP in 1998. During that stretch, eight different linemen started at least 14 games for the Broncos, and all weighed less than 300 pounds, bucking what had become a growing trend of massive blockers overpowering the line of scrimmage rather than taking it by guile and ingenuity.
The beauty of Gibbs’ zone-blocking system was that it didn’t require a Hall-of-Fame back to succeed. It required quick-footed linemen and a quick-thinking back willing to commit within three strides to a hole often on the backside of the play. Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Reuben Droughns all cracked 1,000 yards rushing as relative unknowns easily replaceable because Gibbs’ zone system worked everywhere he went ... regardless of the back.
Dan Reeves first brought Gibbs to Denver in 1984 after he’d spent over a decade as a college assistant. But Gibbs left four years later for the Raiders, thus beginning two-year hiatuses in Los Angeles, San Diego and Kansas City plus a year directing the Colts’ line before returning to Denver in 1995 for what would become a nine-year stint. It was during this stretch that Gibbs became known as one of the NFL’s best assistant coaches.
In 2004 he left Denver for a three-year stint in Atlanta, where he would again build an overpowering running game. During those years, the Falcons would rush for over 8,100 yards, leading all NFL teams in rushing yardage during that stretch.
Always a fiery personality, Gibbs was blunt and always forceful. He wanted his line to be the same. According to the linemen who played for him, his favorite saying was, "Get good or get gone.” Gibbs was not a hand-holding kind of coach. Nor did he see himself as some strategic wizard. His philosophy of run blocking could be summed up by a phrase his linemen heard often: “Get people on the ground.”
Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking system did that as well as any scheme ever created, and he didn’t need giants up front or Hall of Fame runners behind them to do it.
“They say I would have f—ked up (Gale) Sayers and that guy from Detroit (Barry Sanders),” Gibbs once told that room full of young coaches. “Woulda coached them right into the Hall of Shame. But you know we’ve had a lot of runners who’ve had lots and lots of yards. We get ‘em right up in there before everything falls apart.”
That was his firmly held belief when it came to running the football: “Get ‘em up in there before everything falls apart.” Few offensive line coaches ever accomplished that more consistently than Alex Gibbs.