Never has the game circled around to its beginnings?Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams; Ricky, Pop?the way it has this fall
ON THE third Sunday in September, a high school Football player named Jeremy Gallon was at home in Apopka, Fla., doing what America does on Sunday afternoons: watching the NFL on television. Right there in Gallon's house the Miami Dolphins dismantled the New England Patriots 38--13, ending the Patriots' 21-game regular-season winning streak. But that was just a piece of the story. Six times in the game the Dolphins lined up with running back Ronnie Brown in the position normally occupied by a shotgun quarterback. Brown ran, passed and handed off to fellow running back Ricky Williams.
The Patriots played as if they 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 at Apopka High, a large suburban school 15 miles northwest of Orlando, head coach Rick Darlington had laid out the offense that the Blue Darters would be running in the coming season. There would be no quarterback per se. (Darlington almost certainly didn't say per se, because he is the kind of guy who describes his 45-minute drive to work from the edge of the Ocala National Forest to Apopka like so: "Quiet. No traffic jams. Maybe an opossum in the road.") There would be a running back who would receive shotgun snaps and just take off with the ball. Another running back would line up next to him, and sometimes he would get the snap. There would be many play fakes and many ballcarriers, but few passes. It was like nothing any of the Apopka players had ever seen. "I didn't get it at all," recalls Gallon, who would be inserted into the starting backfield and receive most of the center snaps. "It was just weird."
Darlington, 43, is a Football coach to his bones. If you cut him open, you would hit a thick layer of pigskin. His first job was working with the Lakeland (Fla.) High junior varsity team when he was still in high school, and he has coached every autumn since. He won the Florida 6A (largest) state title at Apopka in 2001 and later coached three years at perennial national power Valdosta High in southern Georgia before returning to Apopka in '06. Darlington's teams have run offenses ranging from the triple option to the shotgun spread passing game, depending on the talents of his players. Here in the spring of '07, he found himself without the type of accurate passer who might play quarterback in most systems, but with a number of very good running backs. So he settled on a dinosaur.
The coach explained to his players that they were climbing into a time machine; the offense 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: single wing tailback. Darlington played films of teams running the single wing. "He showed us guys wearing leather helmets," says Gallon, then a sophomore. ("It was some old stuff," says Darlington, "but I don't know about leather helmets. They probably looked like leather helmets to these kids.") In the 2007 season Apopka went 12--2, scored 38.5 points per game and 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 has worked.
Football is often hailed as a game of innovation, the product of so-called geniuses creating new and brilliant ways to play a child's game. There is truth in this, but innovation is often just imitation in spiffy new uniforms and safer helmets. In the spring of 2008 NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, just retired from his second stint as coach of the Washington Redskins , was discussing his legendary Counter Trey, the foundation of the power running game that helped the Redskins win three Super Bowls from 1982 to '91. "We stole it," said Gibbs. "We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative 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 me all day, and I'll never say I was the first guy to do anything. Because sure as heck there's some coach out there who did it first." The spread offense is hailed as the ultimate in modern Football, yet in 1952 recently retired TCU coach Leo (Dutch) Meyer wrote a book titled Spread Formation Football, in which the first sentence is, "Spread formations are not new to Football."
Every coach at every level accepts that he is walking in someone else's footsteps. But seldom has 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 the Dolphins' win over the Patriots, Brown took a snap from center and ran over right guard for the first of his team-record four rushing touchdowns. Gallon stared at his television in disbelief. "Pretty amazing," he would say later. "An NFL team running the same stuff we run." In Union, Maine, Todd Bross, 42, a single wing proselytizer who organizes an annual spring conclave of single wing coaches at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., leaped off his couch, and by nightfall the Internet single wing forum that Bross moderates was buzzing with affirmation that the prehistoric beast had finally been reborn at the highest level of the sport.
The single wing was hatched within a decade of the turn of the last century, and more than 100 years later it is experiencing a renaissance on every level from youth Football to the NFL, where this season at least seven teams have used some variation of the old-school package (while calling it the Wildcat, a name whose ownership is in dispute). College Football is on board as well, and has been for more than a decade. The Florida offense that 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow operates for coach Urban Meyer is, in the words of Patriots coach and Football history aficionado Bill Belichick, "the perfect blend of single wing running and spread passing." And simply by speaking those words?single wing?Belichick dismisses a taboo, because coaches have long concocted strategic aliases like "quarterback run game" to avoid a name that might make them seem out of touch. In fact, they are on the cutting edge.
SINGLE WING 101
The best place to trace 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 a waterfront bluff on Cape Cod. Racely, age 80, worked a long and profitable career as the co-owner of a road-building business, but way before that he was a little boy with a passion for Football. He played guard in a single wing offense in high school in Walthill, Neb., and growing up, he wrote to famous Football coaches like Wallace Wade at Duke and Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee, requesting copies of game programs. Racely never stopped collecting: He now owns thousands of DVDs, VHS tapes and even 16-millimeter films (with five projectors), documenting the evolution of the single wing. "People ask me all the time who started the single wing," Racely says. "I tell them it was President Theodore Roosevelt."
The line is delivered like a joke, but this much is accurate: In 1905 Roosevelt advocated for college Football rule changes designed to make the game safer by outlawing dangerous mass-momentum, closed-formation plays like the flying wedge. These rule changes gave rise to the game of modern Football, including the forward pass, 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 1908 Warner published a correspondence course for coaches, and in 1912 and '27 he wrote books outlining his Football philosophy. In the '27 edition, under the chapter heading Formation A, Warner wrote, "This formation has been referred to as the 'Carlisle formation,' because it was first used by the Indians.... I have used this formation or variations of it ever since pushing and pulling the runner was prohibited in 1906." The book includes diagrams depicting 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 on the 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 the strongside end, a single wingback, who later became the source of the formation's name.
The single wing relied on slick backfield ball handling (including mind-boggling 360-degree spins and fakes by the backs) and precise pulling and blocking on the offensive line. 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 tweaked it with his famous box formation, in which the four backs shifted into a square, largely to confuse defenses), Fritz Crisler of Michigan and Carl Snavely of North Carolina. Single wing tailbacks would be the glamour players in the sport. Because of strict substitution rules and a conservative strategy that often involved punting before fourth down, single wing tailbacks were run, pass and kick athletes. Thorpe was a single wing tailback. So were George Gipp of Notre Dame, Ernie Nevers of Stanford, Nile Kinnick of Iowa and Tom Harmon of Michigan. Belichick's father, Steve, was a single wing fullback at Case Western Reserve, and Belichick played in the single wing in junior high and against it in prep school. "You found a guy back then who could do all three things and stay on the field," says Belichick. "And the guys who could do those things became your All-America, Heisman Trophy single wing tailbacks."
The last of them was Princeton's Dick Kazmaier in 1951. On Racely's big screen, Kazmaier comes to life in a 13--7 victory over Penn at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the Tigers' 16th consecutive victory in a streak that would reach 24 games a year later. Four years earlier Michigan had won the national championship with a single wing backfield so dazzling in its deception that it had been nicknamed the Mad Magicians, and Princeton was similarly remarkable. The cameraman often lost sight of the ball.
The last NFL team to run the single wing was the Pittsburgh Steelers under head coach Jock Sutherland in the late 1940s. In the ensuing years successful college single wing tailbacks were forced to choose a position in the NFL. Paul Hornung arrived in Green Bay from Notre Dame in 1957 and became a running back (albeit one who threw frequent option passes). Billy Kilmer, one of the last single wing tailbacks in major college Football, came to the 49ers from UCLA in '61 and eventually became a quarterback with the Saints and Redskins.
When the single wing died, it was the T formation that initially replaced it, followed by the I formation and the various two-back pro-style offenses. The passing game matured. Rules were altered to allow more frequent substitutions. The single wing became a novelty. Princeton continued running it through the '60s. "It was so different, it gave us an edge," says Cosmo Iacavazzi, a fullback on the 1964 Ivy League championship team, stating a theme that would be echoed much later.
The last outpost of the college single wing was Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where Keith Piper ran it until 1992. Journalists would occasionally pass through Piper's domain and chronicle the antique, as if witnessing living history. One of the last was SI's Rick Telander, to whom Piper said in '82, "The thing that people don't understand about the single wing is that it was never caught up with or overrun. It works. But Football is like men's fashions. Coaches don't run the single wing, because they don't want to be out of style."
A cold rain falls intermittently from low clouds on an early November Saturday at Windsor Locks--Suffield High in northern Connecticut. On the muddy field the Housatonic-Wamogo Mountaineers line up unmistakably in Pop Warner's Carlisle formation. The snap goes directly to sophomore left halfback Tanner Brissett, who turns his back to the line of scrimmage (a half-spin, in single wing parlance) and fakes to senior right halfback Will Kennedy as Kennedy runs into the middle of the line, just left of the center. Almost simultaneously, senior wingback 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 off tackle, untouched, 70 yards for a touchdown. You can almost imagine what Michigan's Mad Magicians might have looked like and, by God, maybe Keith Piper had a point.
"The defense can't figure out who has the ball," says Kennedy. "There have been times when I've run straight into the line with the ball and the whole defense is running away from me to tackle somebody who doesn't even have the ball."
The coach at Housatonic-Wamogo is Deron Bayer, 43, a former college player at Western Connecticut State. He was hired as an assistant in 1997 to help coach a program that annually dresses fewer than 35 players, and he promptly logged into his school's fledgling Internet system seeking an offense that might work with such a small squad. "The search engine was Hotbot, that's how long ago it was," says Bayer. His search led him to the single wing and eventually to Bross's initial conclave in 2001, which 11 high school coaches attended. At the conclusion they took a group picture in an unbalanced-right single wing formation straight from the pages of Pop Warner's book. Bayer installed his offense two years ago and, like Darlington, showed his players vintage films. "We watched tapes," says Kennedy, "but you could hear a projector running in the sound."
From the time that Kazmaier left Princeton through the late '90s, the single wing was kept on life support by a small cadre of devotees like Ken Hofer of Menominee High in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which won three state championships, the most recent in 2007; George Rykovich of Manitou Springs High in Colorado, who won two state championships; and Mark Bliss, who has won four state titles at Conway Springs High in Kansas. They had their bibles, most notably the late Ken Keuffel's Winning Single Wing Football and John Aldrich's Single Wing Offense with the Spinning Fullback. But in the last decade the single wing seems to have suddenly found a second life, fueled by Internet message boards on which coaches exchange ideas and tales from the trenches, making neophytes like Bayer feel at home. At the last Wilkes-Barre conclave, in the spring of 2008, there were 138 coaches in attendance. A summer symposium organized by the National Single Wing Coaches' Association that started in '96 with four coaches now annually draws more than 100.
There are four primary reasons for the single wing's resurgence at the high school level:
a It does not require a skilled quarterback, which is the toughest position to fill on any team.
a Its complex double teams, trap blocks and backfield deception allow teams that would otherwise be overmatched physically to be competitive.
a By snapping to a player who can run with the ball, the offense forces the defense to account for an extra threat (instead of dismissing the traditional quarterback as a handoff machine).
a Even with its growing popularity, the single wing is still relatively rare, which means defenses simply do not see it frequently enough to defend against it comfortably. It is an annoyance, a disruption to the fastidiously organized practice and video regimen that fuels every week in a Football season at all levels of the game.
Unsurprisingly, these same virtues appeal to teams at higher levels. (This is the place for a disclaimer that is designed to fend off the admonitions of purists: There is single wing Football, and there is pure single wing Football, which involves tight?rather than spread?formations, spinning fullbacks and old-fashioned shoulder blocking. But any offense that begins with a direct snap to a player who is a threat to run with it owes a debt to the single wing.)
As the single wing reestablished a foothold in the high school game, it resurfaced at the college level, where running quarterbacks have always been a staple, whether in the single wing, T formation or wishbone. But it was a form known as the Wildcat that climbed from high school all the way to the NFL.
The Wildcat was born at Springdale (Ark.) High in the fall of 2001. Springdale coach Gus Malzahn, then 35 and in his 11th year of high school coaching, had a speedy flanker named Dusty Johnson, who had been a junior high quarterback. "We were just trying to think of ways to get him the ball," says Malzahn, now the offensive coordinator at Tulsa. "We put him in the shotgun and ran the speed 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't know what they meant."
At Springdale, Malzahn called the formation Heavy. He was hired as offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006 and installed the formation there, with future NFL running backs Darren McFadden at quarterback and Felix Jones at wingback. Here the name Wildcat emerged, says Malzahn, because Arkansas already had a similar formation in place and it was called Wildcat. It later became the Wild Hog, for obvious reasons.
At least one coach disputes Malzahn's story by claiming prior ownership of the name, and his case is compelling. Hugh Wyatt is an energetic, entrepreneurial 70-year-old Yale graduate who has coached high school Football for 32 years (he is currently coaching in Ocean Shores, Wash.) and has developed a wide following through clinics and the sale of DVDs explaining his double wing offense. In December 1998 Wyatt wrote an article for Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director magazine, describing a direct-snap, double wing formation similar to what Malzahn would install three years later at Springdale. In his article Wyatt suggested to coaches looking for a curveball, You might want to take a look at our "Wildcat" package, and he went on to explain that it was named for the mascot at La Center (Wash.) High, where he was employed at the time. "I believe Gus Malzahn has a selective memory," says Wyatt.
Nonplussed, Malzahn says, "I'm sure I saw it somewhere, but I can't remember where."
After one season at Arkansas, Malzahn left for Tulsa and was replaced by David Lee, who subsequently joined the Dolphins as quarterbacks coach at the start of this season. He took the Wildcat with him, and after Miami opened the season with two losses, offensive coordinator Dan Henning put the formation into the game plan against the Patriots in Foxborough. "It had never come up before that week," says Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington. "The fact is, we needed some offensive energy, and that gave it to us."
It gave them something else: a simple mathematical edge that every offense seeks. Belichick, the closet single wing historian who was beaten that day, explains, "When you put a quarterback under center, you lose a blocker, you lose a gap. You basically play with 10 men on offense. When the quarterback is one of the runners, whether it's single wing or veer or wishbone, the defense runs out of people to defend you."
While the Dolphins' Wildcat has been hailed as the return of the single wing, it's more accurate to call it a culmination rather than a conception. NFL teams have been direct snapping for the better part of a decade, with the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Kevin Faulk. Belichick recalls that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger ran off-tackle from the shotgun five years ago in his rookie season. Hines Ward has also taken snaps for the Steelers.
Clearly the growth has ramped up this season. The Baltimore Ravens have put second-year quarterback and 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith in the shotgun and run a version of the zone-read option. The Kansas City Chiefs scored on Nov. 2 when tailback Jamaal Charles took a direct snap and pitched on a reverse to wideout Mark Bradley, who then threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Tyler Thigpen, who was flanked wide right. "Pretty exciting," says Thigpen. "When I got deep, I looked back and I was thinking, Is he throwing the ball to me? As long as I'm out there and some sort of threat, the defense can't just all-out blitz every play."
NFL defenses were clearly caught flat-footed by the Wildcat. "We knew this stuff was out there," says Belichick. "But until somebody shows it, you're not going to spend practice time preparing for it. Now we will, absolutely." In the mongoose-snake game between offensive and defensive evolution, the first defensive response has been to load up the line of scrimmage because the Wildcat backs are run-first marginal passers. The offensive response is obvious: create a pass threat.
The Atlanta Falcons have run several direct-snap plays to running back Jerious Norwood, who played some high school quarterback in Mississippi. "You can hear the defenses just checking off like crazy, getting ready for the run," Norwood says. "But I can throw it." Imagine the threat if he could throw it like Falcons starter Matt Ryan.
BREAKING THE MOLD?
In the winter of 2001, 36-year-old Urban Meyer scored his first head coaching job, at Bowling Green University. He looked at his roster, looked at the increasingly stout competition in the Mid-American Conference and concluded that he would need an edge. He borrowed the rudiments of his passing game from Scott Linehan, who was then offensive coordinator at Louisville. But Meyer still needed a running game, and he wanted to make his quarterback a viable part of it.
It was not an entirely 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 a run-and-shoot offense, he put battered transfer quarterback Jed Drenning in a protective shotgun for an October game against Wingate University, which had beaten 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 (including the now ubiquitous shotgun option, which came about when Drenning dropped a snap and ran with the ball). "Whatever incarnation of Rich's offense exists today," says Drenning, "it was born that day when we played Wingate."
But while Meyer and Rodriguez would eventually become confidants, Meyer's most direct inspiration for his ground game came from Kansas State, where coach Bill Snyder had made a direct-snap running back out of quarterback Michael Bishop and contended for the 1998 national title. "I went out to visit Kansas State and saw what they were doing with the quarterback, and I came away from there amazed," says Meyer. "That stuff really impacted me."
Snyder's innovation was a matter of survival on his own practice field. He had hired a group of hungry, aggressive defensive coaches at K-State who would later become head coaches, including Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Mike Stoops (Arizona) and Jim Leavitt (South Florida). They developed a sellout, eight-in-the-box defense that was as difficult to run against all week as it was on Saturday. "We had to get better against our own defense, and the answer was pretty simple," says Snyder, who retired in 2005. "We had to involve the quarterback in the running game. We ran the same plays, but we gave ourselves the option of running them with the quarterback as the ballcarrier."
Translation: single wing. Simple math.
Meyer incorporated Snyder's principles?"Call it whatever you want," says Belichick, "but it's single wing Football"?and took Utah to a BCS bowl after the 2004 season and Florida to the national championship with Tebow as a freshman in '06. Media members fell over themselves proclaiming Meyer's offense the ultimate modern "spread" game, but the quarterback running game was pure throwback. Tebow took direct snaps and ran off tackle, just like George Gipp. Single wing groupies everywhere went wild when Tebow threw a jump pass?running toward the line of scrimmage as if to carry off tackle, then leaping into the air and tossing?for a touchdown against LSU. Dick Kazmaier used to throw jump passes. You could see them right there in Ed Racely's Cape Cod garage, and here was Tebow doing the same thing.
To more universal appreciation, Tebow won the Heisman Trophy a year ago, passing for 32 touchdowns and running for 23, and he is contending again this year. He is a true double threat and, at 6'2 1/2" and 238 pounds, a durable one.
The professional game has evolved significantly in many ways, but the quarterback position truly has not. The ideal NFL quarterback remains an accurate thrower who can make decisions under pressure and, if rushed, buy time in the pocket. For all its advancement, the league has not yet produced a player who is equally dangerous as a runner and passer. (Michael Vick? Vince Young? Please.) But with the influx of single wing--based offensive packages, the door is open. And at lower levels of the game, the position has continued to slide closer to the Tebow model than the statuesque Tom Brady version. "The single wing type stuff is going to become more the norm in the future," says Chan Gailey, Chiefs offensive coordinator. "Over the next 10 or 15 years, it's going to evolve because the runner-thrower is the kind of quarterback that the college game is producing now. You don't find a ton of 6'3", 6'4", drop-back, stand-up passers. They're not in college, so we're not getting them up here."
When Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was head coach of the Dolphins in 2007, he noticed 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, doing the belly-read option from a shotgun," says Cameron. "I was absolutely floored by the stuff they were doing so young."
The elephant in the room is the madness of exposing a $10 million-a-year quarterback to an NFL bruising. "The hitting really is at a much higher level than college," says Pennington. "I don't think you would last very long [in a single wing]."
Says Cameron, "It's one thing to have Darren McFadden back there, but your quarterback? I don't know about that. Maybe Tebow can do it in this league."
The voices of the NFL cannot speak quickly enough in swatting aside the concept of running from the quarterback position. Yet coaches keep trying, whether in Lou Holtz's failed attempt to run the outside veer option with the New York Jets three decades ago or the Tennessee Titans' halfhearted attempt to incorporate Young's feet into their offense, along with his arm. There is no debating the potential value of a quarterback who can throw and run and also survive. There is only the issue of how to do it and with whom?
"There aren't many 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 run him 15 times a game, how long will he last before they break him in half? But he is obviously special, and it's going to be very interesting to see what happens when he comes into this league. Do you just run your regular offense and 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.
"I've run straight into the line with the ball," says Kennedy, "and the WHOLE DEFENSE IS RUNNING AWAY FROM ME."
A quarterback running the single wing in the NFL? "I don't know about that," says Cam Cameron. "MAYBE TEBOW CAN DO IT."
ORIGINAL RECIPE The old-school single wing featured an unbalanced line, with both tackles lined up on the right side of the center. The goal was to concentrate the force of the blocking in one place, clearing the way for the backs?especially snap-taking, slick, triple-threat tailbacks like Princeton's Kazmaier (42).
MODERN CATS In the Wildcat, the NFL's take on the single wing, the ball is snapped directly to a primary running threat (like Miami's Brown, 23). This makes the defense account for an extra player by cutting out the quarterback. Wingbacks in motion add deception. Reflecting the times, today's formation is more spread out.
BREAKING NEWS, REAL-TIME SCORES AND DAILY ANALYSIS.
WING NUTS Read Rick Telander's prescient 1982 story on Denison University, which was at the time the last bastion of single wing college Football.