ON THE thirdSunday in September, a high school football player named Jeremy Gallon was athome in Apopka, Fla., doing what America does on Sunday afternoons: watchingthe NFL on television. Right there in Gallon's house the Miami Dolphinsdismantled the New England Patriots 38--13, ending the Patriots' 21-gameregular-season winning streak. But that was just a piece of the story. Sixtimes in the game the Dolphins lined up with running back Ronnie Brown in theposition normally occupied by a shotgun quarterback. Brown ran, passed andhanded off to fellow running back Ricky Williams. The Patriots played as ifthey had never seen such football and, in fact, they had not. But Gallon had. ¬∂Eighteen months earlier, just before the start of spring football practice atApopka High, a large suburban school 15 miles northwest of Orlando, head coachRick Darlington had laid out the offense that the Blue Darters would be runningin the coming season. There would be no quarterback per se. (Darlington almostcertainly didn't say per se, because he is the kind of guy who describes his45-minute drive to work from the edge of the Ocala National Forest to Apopkalike so: "Quiet. No traffic jams. Maybe an opossum in the road.") Therewould be a running back who would receive shotgun snaps and just take off withthe ball. Another running back would line up next to him, and sometimes hewould get the snap. There would be many play fakes and many ballcarriers, butfew passes. It was like nothing any of the Apopka players had ever seen. "Ididn't get it at all," recalls Gallon, who would be inserted into thestarting backfield and receive most of the center snaps. "It was justweird."
This is an article from the Dec. 1, 2008 issue
Darlington, 43,is a football coach to his bones. If you cut him open, you would hit a thicklayer of pigskin. His first job was working with the Lakeland (Fla.) Highjunior varsity team when he was still in high school, and he has coached everyautumn since. He won the Florida 6A (largest) state title at Apopka in 2001 andlater coached three years at perennial national power Valdosta High in southernGeorgia before returning to Apopka in '06. Darlington's teams have run offensesranging from the triple option to the shotgun spread passing game, depending onthe talents of his players. Here in the spring of '07, he found himself withoutthe type of accurate passer who might play quarterback in most systems, butwith a number of very good running backs. So he settled on a dinosaur.
The coachexplained to his players that they were climbing into a time machine; theoffense was called the single wing, and its roots were at least a century deep.Jim Thorpe once played the position that Gallon would play for Apopka: singlewing tailback. Darlington played films of teams running the single wing."He showed us guys wearing leather helmets," says Gallon, then asophomore. ("It was some old stuff," says Darlington, "but I don'tknow about leather helmets. They probably looked like leather helmets to thesekids.") In the 2007 season Apopka went 12--2, scored 38.5 points per gameand reached the Florida 6A semifinals. Gallon rushed for more than 1,600 yards.This year the Darters are 9--2 and in the playoffs again. The time machine hasworked.
Football is oftenhailed as a game of innovation, the product of so-called geniuses creating newand brilliant ways to play a child's game. There is truth in this, butinnovation is often just imitation in spiffy new uniforms and safer helmets. Inthe spring of 2008 NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, just retired from hissecond stint as coach of the Washington Redskins, was discussing his legendaryCounter Trey, the foundation of the power running game that helped the Redskinswin three Super Bowls from 1982 to '91. "We stole it," said Gibbs."We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some reallyinnovative things with his line up front, and we were watching it and thought,God, that's good stuff. So we stole it. We all steal things. You can talk to meall day, and I'll never say I was the first guy to do anything. Because sure asheck there's some coach out there who did it first." The spread offense ishailed as the ultimate in modern football, yet in 1952 recently retired TCUcoach Leo (Dutch) Meyer wrote a book titled Spread Formation Football, in whichthe first sentence is, "Spread formations are not new to football."
Every coach atevery level accepts that he is walking in someone else's footsteps. But seldomhas the game circled around to its beginnings—Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams;Ricky, Pop—as it has this fall. With 2:32 left in the first quarter of theDolphins' win over the Patriots, Brown took a snap from center and ran overright guard for the first of his team-record four rushing touchdowns. Gallonstared at his television in disbelief. "Pretty amazing," he would saylater. "An NFL team running the same stuff we run." In Union, Maine,Todd Bross, 42, a single wing proselytizer who organizes an annual springconclave of single wing coaches at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., leapedoff his couch, and by nightfall the Internet single wing forum that Brossmoderates was buzzing with affirmation that the prehistoric beast had finallybeen reborn at the highest level of the sport.
The single wingwas hatched within a decade of the turn of the last century, and more than 100years later it is experiencing a renaissance on every level from youth footballto the NFL, where this season at least seven teams have used some variation ofthe old-school package (while calling it the Wildcat, a name whose ownership isin dispute). College football is on board as well, and has been for more than adecade. The Florida offense that 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow operatesfor coach Urban Meyer is, in the words of Patriots coach and football historyaficionado Bill Belichick, "the perfect blend of single wing running andspread passing." And simply by speaking those words—single wing—Belichickdismisses a taboo, because coaches have long concocted strategic aliases like"quarterback run game" to avoid a name that might make them seem out oftouch. In fact, they are on the cutting edge.
The best place totrace the single wing's first run through football history is an unlikely one:the 800-square-foot office over the garage of Ed Racely's stately house on awaterfront bluff on Cape Cod. Racely, age 80, worked a long and profitablecareer as the co-owner of a road-building business, but way before that he wasa little boy with a passion for football. He played guard in a single wingoffense in high school in Walthill, Neb., and growing up, he wrote to famousfootball coaches like Wallace Wade at Duke and Gen. Robert Neyland atTennessee, requesting copies of game programs. Racely never stopped collecting:He now owns thousands of DVDs, VHS tapes and even 16-millimeter films (withfive projectors), documenting the evolution of the single wing. "People askme all the time who started the single wing," Racely says. "I tell themit was President Theodore Roosevelt."
The line isdelivered like a joke, but this much is accurate: In 1905 Roosevelt advocatedfor college football rule changes designed to make the game safer by outlawingdangerous mass-momentum, closed-formation plays like the flying wedge. Theserule changes gave rise to the game of modern football, including the forwardpass, the single wing and all the formations that succeeded it.
Glenn Scobey(Pop) Warner coached at Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School from 1907 to '14. In 1908Warner published a correspondence course for coaches, and in 1912 and '27 hewrote books outlining his football philosophy. In the '27 edition, under thechapter heading Formation A, Warner wrote, "This formation has beenreferred to as the 'Carlisle formation,' because it was first used by theIndians.... I have used this formation or variations of it ever since pushingand pulling the runner was prohibited in 1906." The book includes diagramsdepicting what clearly came to be known as the single wing: an unbalanced line(a guard, two tackles and an end on one side of the center; a guard and end onthe other); a tailback lined up in a shotgun position; next to him a fullback;up at the line of scrimmage behind the guard, a blocking back; and outside thestrongside end, a single wingback, who later became the source of theformation's name.
The single wingrelied on slick backfield ball handling (including mind-boggling 360-degreespins and fakes by the backs) and precise pulling and blocking on the offensiveline. It would be the dominant formation in football for nearly half a century,employed by such legendary coaches as Knute Rockne of Notre Dame (who tweakedit with his famous box formation, in which the four backs shifted into asquare, largely to confuse defenses), Fritz Crisler of Michigan and CarlSnavely of North Carolina. Single wing tailbacks would be the glamour playersin the sport. Because of strict substitution rules and a conservative strategythat often involved punting before fourth down, single wing tailbacks were run,pass and kick athletes. Thorpe was a single wing tailback. So were George Gippof Notre Dame, Ernie Nevers of Stanford, Nile Kinnick of Iowa and Tom Harmon ofMichigan. Belichick's father, Steve, was a single wing fullback at Case WesternReserve, and Belichick played in the single wing in junior high and against itin prep school. "You found a guy back then who could do all three thingsand stay on the field," says Belichick. "And the guys who could dothose things became your All-America, Heisman Trophy single wingtailbacks."
The last of themwas Princeton's Dick Kazmaier in 1951. On Racely's big screen, Kazmaier comesto life in a 13--7 victory over Penn at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, theTigers' 16th consecutive victory in a streak that would reach 24 games a yearlater. Four years earlier Michigan had won the national championship with asingle wing backfield so dazzling in its deception that it had been nicknamedthe Mad Magicians, and Princeton was similarly remarkable. The cameraman oftenlost sight of the ball.
The last NFL teamto run the single wing was the Pittsburgh Steelers under head coach JockSutherland in the late 1940s. In the ensuing years successful college singlewing tailbacks were forced to choose a position in the NFL. Paul Hornungarrived in Green Bay from Notre Dame in 1957 and became a running back (albeitone who threw frequent option passes). Billy Kilmer, one of the last singlewing tailbacks in major college football, came to the 49ers from UCLA in '61and eventually became a quarterback with the Saints and Redskins.
When the singlewing died, it was the T formation that initially replaced it, followed by the Iformation and the various two-back pro-style offenses. The passing gamematured. Rules were altered to allow more frequent substitutions. The singlewing became a novelty. Princeton continued running it through the '60s. "Itwas so different, it gave us an edge," says Cosmo Iacavazzi, a fullback onthe 1964 Ivy League championship team, stating a theme that would be echoedmuch later.
The last outpostof the college single wing was Denison University in Granville, Ohio, whereKeith Piper ran it until 1992. Journalists would occasionally pass throughPiper's domain and chronicle the antique, as if witnessing living history. Oneof the last was SI's Rick Telander, to whom Piper said in '82, "The thingthat people don't understand about the single wing is that it was never caughtup with or overrun. It works. But football is like men's fashions. Coachesdon't run the single wing, because they don't want to be out of style."
A cold rain fallsintermittently from low clouds on an early November Saturday at WindsorLocks--Suffield High in northern Connecticut. On the muddy field theHousatonic-Wamogo Mountaineers line up unmistakably in Pop Warner's Carlisleformation. The snap goes directly to sophomore left halfback Tanner Brissett,who turns his back to the line of scrimmage (a half-spin, in single wingparlance) and fakes to senior right halfback Will Kennedy as Kennedy runs intothe middle of the line, just left of the center. Almost simultaneously, seniorwingback Sam Schwartz scoots past as if running a reverse around the left edge.Brissett fakes to him also, then turns to the line of scrimmage and runs offtackle, untouched, 70 yards for a touchdown. You can almost imagine whatMichigan's Mad Magicians might have looked like and, by God, maybe Keith Piperhad a point.
"The defensecan't figure out who has the ball," says Kennedy. "There have beentimes when I've run straight into the line with the ball and the whole defenseis running away from me to tackle somebody who doesn't even have theball."
The coach atHousatonic-Wamogo is Deron Bayer, 43, a former college player at WesternConnecticut State. He was hired as an assistant in 1997 to help coach a programthat annually dresses fewer than 35 players, and he promptly logged into hisschool's fledgling Internet system seeking an offense that might work with sucha small squad. "The search engine was Hotbot, that's how long ago itwas," says Bayer. His search led him to the single wing and eventually toBross's initial conclave in 2001, which 11 high school coaches attended. At theconclusion they took a group picture in an unbalanced-right single wingformation straight from the pages of Pop Warner's book. Bayer installed hisoffense two years ago and, like Darlington, showed his players vintage films."We watched tapes," says Kennedy, "but you could hear a projectorrunning in the sound."
From the timethat Kazmaier left Princeton through the late '90s, the single wing was kept onlife support by a small cadre of devotees like Ken Hofer of Menominee High inthe Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which won three state championships, the mostrecent in 2007; George Rykovich of Manitou Springs High in Colorado, who wontwo state championships; and Mark Bliss, who has won four state titles atConway Springs High in Kansas. They had their bibles, most notably the late KenKeuffel's Winning Single Wing Football and John Aldrich's Single Wing Offensewith the Spinning Fullback. But in the last decade the single wing seems tohave suddenly found a second life, fueled by Internet message boards on whichcoaches exchange ideas and tales from the trenches, making neophytes like Bayerfeel at home. At the last Wilkes-Barre conclave, in the spring of 2008, therewere 138 coaches in attendance. A summer symposium organized by the NationalSingle Wing Coaches' Association that started in '96 with four coaches nowannually draws more than 100.
There are fourprimary reasons for the single wing's resurgence at the high school level:
• It does notrequire a skilled quarterback, which is the toughest position to fill on anyteam.
• Its complexdouble teams, trap blocks and backfield deception allow teams that wouldotherwise be overmatched physically to be competitive.
• By snapping toa player who can run with the ball, the offense forces the defense to accountfor an extra threat (instead of dismissing the traditional quarterback as ahandoff machine).
• Even with itsgrowing popularity, the single wing is still relatively rare, which meansdefenses simply do not see it frequently enough to defend against itcomfortably. It is an annoyance, a disruption to the fastidiously organizedpractice and video regimen that fuels every week in a football season at alllevels of the game.
Unsurprisingly,these same virtues appeal to teams at higher levels. (This is the place for adisclaimer that is designed to fend off the admonitions of purists: There issingle wing football, and there is pure single wing football, which involvestight—rather than spread—formations, spinning fullbacks and old-fashionedshoulder blocking. But any offense that begins with a direct snap to a playerwho is a threat to run with it owes a debt to the single wing.)
As the singlewing reestablished a foothold in the high school game, it resurfaced at thecollege level, where running quarterbacks have always been a staple, whether inthe single wing, T formation or wishbone. But it was a form known as theWildcat that climbed from high school all the way to the NFL.
The Wildcat wasborn at Springdale (Ark.) High in the fall of 2001. Springdale coach GusMalzahn, then 35 and in his 11th year of high school coaching, had a speedyflanker named Dusty Johnson, who had been a junior high quarterback. "Wewere just trying to think of ways to get him the ball," says Malzahn, nowthe offensive coordinator at Tulsa. "We put him in the shotgun and ran thespeed sweep, reverse, quarterback power. Had some pretty good success with it.People started asking me if I had any background in the single wing. I didn'tknow what they meant."
At Springdale,Malzahn called the formation Heavy. He was hired as offensive coordinator atArkansas in 2006 and installed the formation there, with future NFL runningbacks Darren McFadden at quarterback and Felix Jones at wingback. Here the nameWildcat emerged, says Malzahn, because Arkansas already had a similar formationin place and it was called Wildcat. It later became the Wild Hog, for obviousreasons.
At least onecoach disputes Malzahn's story by claiming prior ownership of the name, and hiscase is compelling. Hugh Wyatt is an energetic, entrepreneurial 70-year-oldYale graduate who has coached high school football for 32 years (he iscurrently coaching in Ocean Shores, Wash.) and has developed a wide followingthrough clinics and the sale of DVDs explaining his double wing offense. InDecember 1998 Wyatt wrote an article for Scholastic Coach and Athletic Directormagazine, describing a direct-snap, double wing formation similar to whatMalzahn would install three years later at Springdale. In his article Wyattsuggested to coaches looking for a curveball, You might want to take a look atour "Wildcat" package, and he went on to explain that it was named forthe mascot at La Center (Wash.) High, where he was employed at the time. "Ibelieve Gus Malzahn has a selective memory," says Wyatt.
Nonplussed,Malzahn says, "I'm sure I saw it somewhere, but I can't rememberwhere."
After one seasonat Arkansas, Malzahn left for Tulsa and was replaced by David Lee, whosubsequently joined the Dolphins as quarterbacks coach at the start of thisseason. He took the Wildcat with him, and after Miami opened the season withtwo losses, offensive coordinator Dan Henning put the formation into the gameplan against the Patriots in Foxborough. "It had never come up before thatweek," says Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington. "The fact is, weneeded some offensive energy, and that gave it to us."
It gave themsomething else: a simple mathematical edge that every offense seeks. Belichick,the closet single wing historian who was beaten that day, explains, "Whenyou put a quarterback under center, you lose a blocker, you lose a gap. Youbasically play with 10 men on offense. When the quarterback is one of therunners, whether it's single wing or veer or wishbone, the defense runs out ofpeople to defend you."
While theDolphins' Wildcat has been hailed as the return of the single wing, it's moreaccurate to call it a culmination rather than a conception. NFL teams have beendirect snapping for the better part of a decade, with the likes of LaDainianTomlinson and Kevin Faulk. Belichick recalls that Pittsburgh's BenRoethlisberger ran off-tackle from the shotgun five years ago in his rookieseason. Hines Ward has also taken snaps for the Steelers.
Clearly thegrowth has ramped up this season. The Baltimore Ravens have put second-yearquarterback and 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith in the shotgun and run aversion of the zone-read option. The Kansas City Chiefs scored on Nov. 2 whentailback Jamaal Charles took a direct snap and pitched on a reverse to wideoutMark Bradley, who then threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to quarterback TylerThigpen, who was flanked wide right. "Pretty exciting," says Thigpen."When I got deep, I looked back and I was thinking, Is he throwing the ballto me? As long as I'm out there and some sort of threat, the defense can't justall-out blitz every play."
NFL defenses wereclearly caught flat-footed by the Wildcat. "We knew this stuff was outthere," says Belichick. "But until somebody shows it, you're not goingto spend practice time preparing for it. Now we will, absolutely." In themongoose-snake game between offensive and defensive evolution, the firstdefensive response has been to load up the line of scrimmage because theWildcat backs are run-first marginal passers. The offensive response isobvious: create a pass threat.
The AtlantaFalcons have run several direct-snap plays to running back Jerious Norwood, whoplayed some high school quarterback in Mississippi. "You can hear thedefenses just checking off like crazy, getting ready for the run," Norwoodsays. "But I can throw it." Imagine the threat if he could throw itlike Falcons starter Matt Ryan.
In the winter of2001, 36-year-old Urban Meyer scored his first head coaching job, at BowlingGreen University. He looked at his roster, looked at the increasingly stoutcompetition in the Mid-American Conference and concluded that he would need anedge. He borrowed the rudiments of his passing game from Scott Linehan, who wasthen offensive coordinator at Louisville. But Meyer still needed a runninggame, and he wanted to make his quarterback a viable part of it.
It was not anentirely novel concept. Back in 1991 Rich Rodriguez, then a 28-year-old,second-year head coach at Glenville State (an NAIA college in Glenville,W.Va.), had already pushed in that direction. While trying to operate arun-and-shoot offense, he put battered transfer quarterback Jed Drenning in aprotective shotgun for an October game against Wingate University, which hadbeaten Glenville 63--0 the previous year. This time the loss was only 17--15,and soon Rodriguez was tinkering with running plays from the shotgun (includingthe now ubiquitous shotgun option, which came about when Drenning dropped asnap and ran with the ball). "Whatever incarnation of Rich's offense existstoday," says Drenning, "it was born that day when we playedWingate."
But while Meyerand Rodriguez would eventually become confidants, Meyer's most directinspiration for his ground game came from Kansas State, where coach Bill Snyderhad made a direct-snap running back out of quarterback Michael Bishop andcontended for the 1998 national title. "I went out to visit Kansas Stateand saw what they were doing with the quarterback, and I came away from thereamazed," says Meyer. "That stuff really impacted me."
Snyder'sinnovation was a matter of survival on his own practice field. He had hired agroup of hungry, aggressive defensive coaches at K-State who would later becomehead coaches, including Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Mike Stoops (Arizona) and JimLeavitt (South Florida). They developed a sellout, eight-in-the-box defensethat was as difficult to run against all week as it was on Saturday. "Wehad to get better against our own defense, and the answer was prettysimple," says Snyder, who retired in 2005. "We had to involve thequarterback in the running game. We ran the same plays, but we gave ourselvesthe option of running them with the quarterback as the ballcarrier."
Translation:single wing. Simple math.
Meyerincorporated Snyder's principles—"Call it whatever you want," saysBelichick, "but it's single wing football"—and took Utah to a BCS bowlafter the 2004 season and Florida to the national championship with Tebow as afreshman in '06. Media members fell over themselves proclaiming Meyer's offensethe ultimate modern "spread" game, but the quarterback running game waspure throwback. Tebow took direct snaps and ran off tackle, just like GeorgeGipp. Single wing groupies everywhere went wild when Tebow threw a jumppass—running toward the line of scrimmage as if to carry off tackle, thenleaping into the air and tossing—for a touchdown against LSU. Dick Kazmaierused to throw jump passes. You could see them right there in Ed Racely's CapeCod garage, and here was Tebow doing the same thing.
To more universalappreciation, Tebow won the Heisman Trophy a year ago, passing for 32touchdowns and running for 23, and he is contending again this year. He is atrue double threat and, at 6'2 1/2" and 238 pounds, a durable one.
The professionalgame has evolved significantly in many ways, but the quarterback position trulyhas not. The ideal NFL quarterback remains an accurate thrower who can makedecisions under pressure and, if rushed, buy time in the pocket. For all itsadvancement, the league has not yet produced a player who is equally dangerousas a runner and passer. (Michael Vick? Vince Young? Please.) But with theinflux of single wing--based offensive packages, the door is open. And at lowerlevels of the game, the position has continued to slide closer to the Tebowmodel than the statuesque Tom Brady version. "The single wing type stuff isgoing to become more the norm in the future," says Chan Gailey, Chiefsoffensive coordinator. "Over the next 10 or 15 years, it's going to evolvebecause the runner-thrower is the kind of quarterback that the college game isproducing now. You don't find a ton of 6'3", 6'4", drop-back, stand-uppassers. They're not in college, so we're not getting them up here."
When Ravensoffensive coordinator Cam Cameron was head coach of the Dolphins in 2007, henoticed a sea change in the quarterback position at all levels of the sport."I saw little kids playing Pop Warner—seven, eight, nine years old, doingthe belly-read option from a shotgun," says Cameron. "I was absolutelyfloored by the stuff they were doing so young."
The elephant inthe room is the madness of exposing a $10 million-a-year quarterback to an NFLbruising. "The hitting really is at a much higher level than college,"says Pennington. "I don't think you would last very long [in a singlewing]."
Says Cameron,"It's one thing to have Darren McFadden back there, but your quarterback? Idon't know about that. Maybe Tebow can do it in this league."
The voices of theNFL cannot speak quickly enough in swatting aside the concept of running fromthe quarterback position. Yet coaches keep trying, whether in Lou Holtz'sfailed attempt to run the outside veer option with the New York Jets threedecades ago or the Tennessee Titans' halfhearted attempt to incorporate Young'sfeet into their offense, along with his arm. There is no debating the potentialvalue of a quarterback who can throw and run and also survive. There is onlythe issue of how to do it and with whom?
"There aren'tmany players who can run and throw," says Belichick. "Tebow, obviously,is a special one. But you've got major questions because if you're going to runhim 15 times a game, how long will he last before they break him in half? Buthe is obviously special, and it's going to be very interesting to see whathappens when he comes into this league. Do you just run your regular offenseand let him scramble when he scrambles? Do you put in a few plays just for him?Or do you really build an entire new offense around him?"
Correction.Entire old offense.
The old-school single wing featured an unbalanced line, with both tackles linedup on the right side of the center. The goal was to concentrate the force ofthe blocking in one place, clearing the way for the backs—especiallysnap-taking, slick, triple-threat tailbacks like Princeton's Kazmaier (42).
In the Wildcat, the NFL's take on the single wing, the ball is snapped directlyto a primary running threat (like Miami's Brown, 23). This makes the defenseaccount for an extra player by cutting out the quarterback. Wingbacks in motionadd deception. Reflecting the times, today's formation is more spread out.
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Read Rick Telander's prescient 1982 story on Denison University, which was atthe time the last bastion of single wing college football.