When the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl, Hank Stram attributed the victory in no small part to his tactical genius, which he called—the capital letters implicit in his tone of voice—The Football of the Future.
Although he is somewhat given to hyperbole, in this case Stram was undoubtedly right. The Chiefs dazzled the Vikings with their footwork and, because they succeeded, pro football has probably left the Lombardian block-and-tackle era and moved into a new decade that may well be dominated by the more sophisticated concept of the "moment of doubt."
The moment of doubt animates all of Strain's ideas, from the stack defense to the I formation and the moving pocket. It should be noted, however, that, with the possible exception of the stack defense, none of this is really new. The I has been around since about 1910, and the moving pocket is a roll-out pass by another name. But the Stram approach—total change and, hopefully, total confusion—will be the hallmark of the '70s.
The game has become more sophisticated off the field, too. At the beginning of the last decade football players were willing to sweat and toil at camp and in exhibition games for the honor of making a team and about $15 a week laundry money. Now they are paid to play exhibitions—or preseason games, as Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is sensitive about such things, prefers. Moreover, this year the veterans went out on strike for a week, seeking, in the main, increased pension benefits (SI, July 27 et seq.).
September 20, 1970
As far as the players are concerned, the decade of the sellers' market is over, too. The '60s were the fluid years of interleague warfare, expansion and, at last, merger. The '70s, as Rozelle has put it, will be the decade of consolidation and stabilization. "I don't foresee any more expansion in the near future," he said not long ago. "I think we will have to solidify the gains we have made so far."
Expansion probably will be postponed for at least five years, and when it comes it should come with a spate of six new teams, hopefully giving the National Football League an opportunity to change its name to the International Football League, with several teams in Canada and one in Mexico City. But until then the league will look much as it does now, with two conferences of three divisions each and a complicated playoff system in which the best second-place team in each conference goes into the playoffs. And the best four teams in each conference will, very likely, use some of the Stram ploys and stratagems that rival coaches once derided. In the decade to come Strain's I formation, moving pocket and stack defense will become as familiar as the pro set, 4-3 defense and the blitz and should generate even more exciting football.
Stram has been working on The Football of the Future for a long time. "I grew up in the shadow of Wrigley Field," he said recently. "I saw as many pro games as I could, and I found they created a feeling of excitement—and curiosity. I wondered why all the pro clubs were doing basically the same thing, running from brown or red formations, using the 4-3 defense."
Stram was in his office at the Chief training camp in Liberty, Mo., on the campus of William Jewell College. The office was roughly the size of a basketball court and deeply carpeted, and behind his massive desk the big silver trophy awarded the Super Bowl winner loomed impressively. A tape machine was playing popular music and, as Stram talked, one of his six children brought in a plate of chocolate cookies. Stram, who has a tendency to embonpoint, looked at them thoughtfully for a moment, sighed and picked one up.
"I didn't understand why more couldn't be done from an artistic standpoint," he said, regarding the cooky. "When I got a job with the Dallas Texans in 1960 I figured I'd try some of the ideas I had when I was an assistant at Purdue, Southern Methodist, Notre Dame and Miami." Stram played at Purdue, remained there as backfield coach, then moved on.
"I had tried the moving pocket at Purdue," he continued, after taking a bite of the cooky. "Len Dawson was my quarterback, and he did well with it. It put a different kind of pressure on the defense."
Stram didn't get a chance to put all his ideas into effect until 1960, when he was hired as head coach of Lamar Hunt's entry in the new American Football League.
"I traveled all over the country talking to coaches," Hunt said the other day. "The league was just starting, and most of the big names I talked to didn't want to take a chance. I had met Stram in the locker room after an SMU-Notre Dame game when he was at SMU and the Mustangs had upset Notre Dame. A lot of people recommended him to me, and I finally interviewed him on a trip to Miami when he was an assistant at the university there. He took me into a room and showed me game movies and explained his theories to me and I was impressed. And when I offered him the job he didn't hesitate."
Hunt's selection of a rather obscure college assistant as head coach for a new pro club seemed ridiculous at the time, but it worked; Stram won more games than any other coach in the 10-year history of the AFL.
"It was an advantage, growing with the team," Stram said. "We all matured together—staff, players and me. It's ideal when you all learn together and grow up in the same system."
Dawson, by Strain's evaluation, is the perfect quarterback for the intricacies of The Football of the Future, since he began learning the Stram system as an undergraduate. "The key to proper execution is that you can't ever go any faster than the quarterback's comprehension," Stram said. "Len is a coach on the field; he has a total understanding of the philosophy and principles of my system."
The basis of Stram's attack is what he calls a dictator offense. "By that I mean we dictate to the defense what it can do," he explained. "In the old offenses, operating from one or two formations, the defense had very little adjustment to make. They could use an abundance of blitzes, for instance. You can't do that against 66 different offensive formations. Then the defense has to work out one defense and try to adjust it to all of our sets, and they can't adjust perfectly to any of them. Early in a game we'll discover which of our formations they have worked on most, then we'll shift to something else. The same thing, of course, is true of defense. A good example of that is what happened in the Super Bowl."
During the regular season the Chiefs had used Stram's triple-stack defense—with the linebackers playing behind the linemen instead of in the gaps between them—only about 20% of the time. "We used the stack 95% against the Vikings," Stram said. "They had a tough time adjusting."
Stram's varied and perplexing offense was responsible for the opening touchdown in the first New York Jets game last year, which Kansas City won. The Chiefs had the ball on the Jet 18-yard line and Dawson brought his club out in the I, a formation that puts two backs and either the tight end or a wide receiver in a vertical line behind the quarterback and keeps the defense in front of him, where he wants it. When Kansas City shifted, Otis Taylor, a wide receiver who had been the up-man in the I, dropped into a slot between the offensive guard and tackle—a formation called slot over right (or left,) or the camouflage slot. The ball was snapped on a quick count, and Dawson hit Taylor for a touchdown. No defender was within shouting distance of Taylor when he caught the ball.
"After the game," said Stram, "when the reporters asked the Jet coaches who had the responsibility for Taylor, they said they wouldn't know until they saw the films." (Taylor probably should have been picked up by Safety Jim Richards.)
"The I and some of the other sets are designed to shrink the reaction time of the safeties," Stram explained. "The strong safety usually keys on the tight end. If the tight end is in the backfield, the safety has to wait for the shift until he can react, and if we go on a quick count he doesn't have much time to read his key. In effect, the multiple formations deprive the defenses of their recognition experience. They have spent years reading certain keys, reacting, pursuing. What I wanted to do—what I think the I does—is hit and go while they're still reading."
Stram's moving pocket has been just as effective in enhancing the Chiefs" passing game. Instead of dropping straight back for seven to nine yards, setting up and throwing, Dawson loops out to either side, with his offensive line moving with him, forming a mobile wall of protection against the rushers and opening up the passing lanes.
Contrary to popular belief, quarterbacks don't try to throw over the on-rushing linemen but through the gaps in the charge. In the last few years, this has become increasingly difficult as defenses have emphasized the all-out rush, in an attempt to suffocate the play at its origin. Stram calculated that ideally the defense should be kept in front of the passer and spaced out. The drop-back passer allows the rush to converge, while the moving quarterback forces the defense to hesitate and to cover more of the field, giving the offense the initiative for the first time in years.
Stram has refined the moving pocket since he first used it at Purdue with Dawson in the '50s. It's still a variation of the old roll-out pass but with more sophisticated blocking, making it a more difficult maneuver to defend against. In essence it's an application of schoolyard football, but the movement is by design, not opportunity.
"I changed the concept by not releasing the tight end," Stram said. "The defensive ends are the contain people, who are supposed to funnel everything back into the traffic in the middle. When the tight end stays in to block on the defensive end, the containing responsibility shifts to the linebacker. That takes away the possibility of the blitz, since the linebacker can't leave his position. Then the defensive line comes in at a slant, creating good blocking angles for our offensive line. They can't exert the pressure on the quarterback that they can in a straight drop-back pass play.
"The first time we used the moving pocket, holding the tight end in, was against the San Diego Chargers in 1964. They had a couple of giant defensive linemen—Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison—and Faison and Ladd were knocking down six or seven passes a game against us. From the moving pocket Len completed his first 11 passes in a row, four of them for touchdowns."
Defenses still haven't caught up with the Kansas City offense. "We have enough variety to take advantage of any overloads they come up with," Stram said. "We'll put in some more variations this year, too. The moving pocket, for instance, doesn't eliminate the drop-back pass. We still use it about 25% of the time. And we vary it with a lot of play-action passes, too."
Since Stram has absolute charge of the club in all but fiscal matters, he can try anything he likes. And he is adamant about there being but one boss. "The coach has to be supreme," he said. "I establish the ground rules immediately for our rookies. They know what's right and what's wrong. You don't win with just ability. You have to have attitude and discipline, too."
Despite his deep interest in the tactical and strategic aspects of the game, Stram realizes that this isn't the coach's main challenge. "Selling is what's vital to a coach," he said. "We're in the people business, getting the best out of players. It takes no ability at all to cut someone. The challenge is to make people express their full potential and make the sacrifices they must to do it. We're lucky here now. The veterans indoctrinate the rookies and provide them with an example. We have a reputation as one of the hardest-working teams in pro football, and I'm proud of it."
Stram has certainly sold his club on the productivity of his systems, and he has sold them on Stram, too. During the strike, when the veterans were vacillating as to whether or not they would play in the College All-Star Game, Stram hired a helicopter to take him from the Chiefs' training camp to the field where the vets were holding informal workouts. He dropped in on them on the morning of the day they were to vote and talked to them. They had already voted once to uphold the strike by not playing in the All-Star Game, but after Strain's visit they took another vote and reversed their decision.
Stram hasn't told anyone what he said to his players, but he has expressed his feeling in other contexts. "We must win," he says. "That's what this is all about. To win you have to sell your people on your ideas, and to do that you have to believe in them yourself. But the people do the blocking and tackling and execute the plays. You look for every little edge you can get, and that's why we use some things other people don't. I think there is a place for imagination in this game, and I like to think I coach with imagination. I don't claim the things I do are new, because nothing's really new in football. I expect to see a lot of clubs in the I and the stack defense, and I don't mind. Emulation is a great compliment. The sets don't win the games on offense or defense. It's how and when you use them—the imagination you show in your concepts."
Stram doesn't believe in making excuses, either. "You can't insulate yourself from defeat by saying, 'Well, I lost a receiver, or a back, or a quarterback.' Somehow, you have to find a way to win. It's just a greater challenge when you're handicapped by injuries."
Hank Stram relishes a challenge, and he's going to enjoy the challenge of the '70s immensely. After all, there is always a new Future to build a system of Football for.
MAULE'S (GULP!) PICKS