Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Single-Wing Offense is Alive

Single wing offense is alive at some schools
Old school formation became mostly extinct after World War II

By Sarah Larimer
Article Launched: 10/27/2007 03:00:20 AM PDT

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The cult meets Friday nights. In red and black, its members take a soggy grass stage under bright white lights. These are the Port St. Lucie High School Jaguars -- true believers all.

Their Bible: Pop Warner's playbook. Their religion: The single wing.

Heard of it? The single wing is an offense that came on the scene about a century ago but faded after World War II. It is found on black-and-white highlight reels and was used when players could fold their helmets.

No team in the NFL runs it, nor does any major college. But like some ancient sect, it's still alive, its priests a small, determined cadre of 50 to 100 high school coaches throughout the country who fight to keep it on the field.

Some find great success -- Giles High School in Virginia has won state championships. Others, like the Jaguars (2-4), are just trying to be competitive.

"You can make a normal team into a single-wing team," said John Reed, an author who has written about the formation. The first obstacle is telling the players that passing will be all but passe. "You just have to tell the quarterback, 'Son, we're going to make you the waterboy.'"

The Jaguars, like other single-wing teams, use a wonky, lopsided line -- the center isn't always in the middle, but sometimes where one of the guards would normally be. The four backs are stacked in places that backs simply do not go -- two, for example, might be staggered directly behind a tackle. There are usually no wide receivers. The snap darts 3 to 5 yards to one of two backs behind the center, and the cunning misdirection begins.

The backs crisscross and converge. Like a rabbit bow on a shoelace, one back sprints one way while the other slinks in the opposite direction.

Not only is the defense often confused, but fans sometimes can't follow the action. Port St. Lucie coach Doug Kerr can recall a touchdown greeted with silence from band members because they didn't realize the team had scored.

The direct-snap offense is oriented toward running, not passing -- created for teams with speed, not necessarily size or power. It is the offense of illusionists, built on deceptive plays and do-it-all backs. It is a dying art, existing only because of the few who trust its befuddling scheme.

Glenn S. "Pop" Warner developed the single wing, which dominated football in the early 1900s after the legalization of the forward pass. Before the single wing, former Baylor coach Grant Teaff said, teams ran a wedge offense, which led to too many injuries.

"Single wing was the origin of the modern-day running game, because it was primary based on the ability to run. ... Every detail of the game, it was able to do," Teaff said. "Pretty well everything sprang from the single wing."

From the early 1900s to around the mid-century mark, it was in fashion.

The string of players and coaches who used the attack weaves through decades. Princeton's Dick Kazmaier. Reds Bagnell of the University of Pennsylvania. Tony Hall of Denison University found fame with the single wing before he found it in the U.S. House of Representatives. Nile Kinnick of Iowa. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Jock Sutherland.

Then came the T-formation and its variations, with its snap from the center directly to the quarterback. By the end of the 1960s, the single wing all but disappeared.

"It sounds like you're running something that's old-fashioned," East Lee County High coach Jim Ahern said. "But I think like everything, the cycle goes around, and a lot of the things we're running now are things that were successful in the '40s and '50s."

Coaches estimated the single wing is used by 50 to 100 high school teams around the nation. Only a handful of high school teams in Florida run it -- and that has its advantages.

Coaches say because of the single wing's uniqueness, opponents enter games unprepared. They cannot possibly learn the formation's feints and twists in a few practices and often have trouble keeping up.

"We'll be better as a running team and a passing team, because most people in the state of Florida really don't run this offense," said Travelle Davis, a fullback at Apopka High, which runs the wing. "It'll open up a lot. It'll make us a better team."

The flip side is that it takes an offense time to master the deceptive plays and maneuvers. And the complexities also make it a bit of a hard sell for players accustomed to throwing the ball.

"I was confused. I was like, no quarterback? What kind of offense is this?" Apopka running back Jeremy Gallon. "But then as the days went on and we started to play ... I started to like it."

Giles High coach Stephen Ragsdale started running the single-wing 30 years ago because he knew it best, learning it from a rival coach -- his father.

"It's what I knew and it's all I knew so that's what we did," Ragsdale said. "My third year, we won a state championship and the best record that this school had ever had prior to that was like 7 wins and 3 losses. We had success with it right away, so we just stuck with it."

Coaches who share the common bond of this decidedly uncommon offense travel from across the country each year for a single-wing clinic.

"Everybody speaks the same language," Kerr said. "If you go to a regular football clinic, people don't know what you're talking about."

Denison started to use the single wing in the 1970s because former coach Keith Piper had a triple-threat player who could pass, run and punt -- single wing teams sometimes quick kick. Its obscurity gave the team an advantage of unprepared opponents.

"It was different. People didn't get to see it week in, week out." former offensive coordinator Jack Hire said. "They hadn't played against it. They hadn't practiced against it."

But Hire said Denison also limited its recruiting to players who were up to an offensive challenge. The school abandoned the formation in the 1990s.

The Port St. Lucie Jaguars still cling to the faith, however, even if times are troubled.

"The only way it works," fullback Danny Byrne said, "is if you think it's going to work."


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