Friday, December 26, 2008

Wildcat offense is actually a form of the single wing

by David Waldstein/The Star-Ledger
Friday December 26, 2008, 11:08 AM

Like most NFL fans, Billy Granville heard all the hype about the Dolphins' Wildcat offense back in September. So as an ex-NFL player, he was naturally curious to see exactly what it was all about.
When the former Lawrenceville School star and Bengals linebacker finally saw replays of Miami running back Ronnie Brown taking a direct snap, spinning to his left, faking a handoff to Ricky Williams and then running up the gut for a touchdown, Granville first smiled to himself.

Then he thought of Dr. Ken Keuffel, the legendary Lawrenceville coach who single-handedly kept the single wing alive and thriving in New Jersey for a half century.

If anyone would have immediately recognized those plays and understood their genealogy, it would have been Coach Keuffel, who passed away in 2006 at age 82.

"They were calling it the Wildcat," Granville said from his home in Houston. "They can call it whatever they want. But that's the single wing. They resurrected Dr. K."

The single wing is an offensive football formation based on precision timing, deception and power. In its traditional form it's an almost paradoxical combination of razzle-dazzle and power in which the ball is snapped directly to a tailback, which was Granville's offensive position at Lawrenceville.

He can then hand off to another back, pass, spin, fake, run or do all of the above. No one on the planet knew the offense better than the influential Keuffel (pronounced koy-ful), who played it at Princeton, coached it for 30 years, wrote two books about it, and dissected it with a host of other coaches, including his friends Joe Paterno and Bill Belichick.

The Dolphins don't run the single wing in its purest form, which has an unbalanced offensive line designed to muscle through one side of the defense, a highly skilled center snapper, and no traditional quarterback.

But what Miami runs is clearly a second cousin of the single wing, and as such has its foundation in New Jersey high school and college football.

When Brown and the Dolphins line up in their Wildcat formations against the Jets Sunday in East Rutherford, they will bring back to Jersey a style of football that was sustained, nurtured and perfected here by Keuffel.

"He was the Godfather of the single wing," said Jim Benedict, the Watchung Hills coach who became a Keuffel disciple and friend when he was coaching at Summit High School. "He knew as much about it as anyone because he played it and coached it all those years, and he was so passionate about it."

Once the dominant offense of the 1930s and '40s, the single wing eventually fell out of favor across the country -- replaced mostly by the Wing T with the quarterback over center. It was kept alive in pockets for more than a half-century by a substrata of devotees, primarily high school coaches and football eccentrics spread across the country in a loose network of loyal adherents.

Lawrenceville was one of the places where the single wing survived, like a classic piece of living art in a museum, and Ken Keuffel was its curator.

Born in 1924, Keuffel grew up in Montclair and played in the single wing at Princeton in the late 1940s, where Dick Kazmaier would later become the last single wing Heisman trophy winner in 1951.

Keuffel learned at the knee of another single wing master, the great Princeton coach Charlie Caldwell. Boston psychiatrist Phil Isenberg was a linebacker at Harvard from 1948-50 when they played big-time college football, and was charged with stopping Kazmaier and the single wing, and he said Caldwell was an underrated coach.

"They were the best-coached team we ever played," Isenberg recalled. "They were disciplined and just lined up and played with tremendous power and precision."

After graduating from Princeton, Keuffel had a brief stint as a kicker with the Eagles before going to Pennsylvania to get his doctorate in English literature. He coached Penn's freshman team, then went to Lawrenceville in 1954, to Wabash College from 1961-66 and then back to Lawrenceville, where he coached from 1967-82 and 1990-99 until he retired with a record of 151-89-8. But wherever he was, he coached only one offense.

"Football is all about copycats and the flavor of the month," said Ed Racely, a single wing historian and one of Keuffel's best friends. "Whatever is in vogue, well, everyone usually switches to it. But not Ken. He was true to the single wing forever. He never gave up on it, and he was always willing to help anyone who wanted to learn it."

Benedict was one who learned from the master. In 1992 he drove down from Summit to Lawrenceville to learn a couple of plays for short yardage situations. He spent hours upon fruitful hours with Keuffel and came away mesmerized and excited. As he drove back along route 206 he had a revelation. Why not adopt the single wing as our entire offensive system?

"I called Ken and he actually tried to talk me out of it at first," Benedict said. "He wasn't sure I was committed, and to run the single wing offense, you have to be committed. I assured him I was, and he finally agreed."

Shortly thereafter Benedict drove back down to Lawrenceville and got the full treatment -- books, film, charts, diagrams over a 16-hour crash course. That fall Summit instituted the single wing offense and went 8-3 and lost in the state finals. The next year they went 11-0 and beat Mendham for the championship.

One of his assistants, Bill Tracy, won a state championship this year with Livingston using an admixture of wing T, shotgun and the single wing he learned from Keuffel via Benedict.

Benedict, who went on to coach at Westfield, Rutgers and now Watchung Hills, made a tape of Summit's highlights from that undefeated season and, unknown to him, it began to circulate around the single wing community across the country.

Years later Paul Shanklin, a single wing convert in the 1990s who was a volunteer assistant for Benedict at Watchung Hills, told Benedict that highlight tape had become a well-known artifact in the single wing community, although no one even knew who it was. They were simply called: "The Strangers from the East."

Keuffel and his son Ken Jr., who played the critical center position for his dad's teams in the late 1970s, were in the stands when Summit completed its undefeated season, and the coach couldn't have been more pleased to see his offense run to perfection.

That's why Ken Jr. believes his father would have been so excited to see the Dolphins and Brown run their variation that first time in Foxborough. Brown ran for four touchdowns that day and threw for another.

"My dad was a huge Patriots fan and he had the NFL package, so he watched every one of their games," Keuffel, an art reporter in Winston-Salem, said this week while on vacation in Mexico. "I know he would have been watching, and would have gotten such a kick out of seeing it in the NFL, even if it was against Belichick."

Belichick's first encounter with Keuffel came in 1970 while he was at Andover Academy in Massachusetts. He and his teammate, Ernie Adams, who is still one of Belichick's closest advisors, were both early admirers of Keuffel, who also went to Andover in the early 1940s.

As a kind of teenage football nerd, Adams had not only read Keuffel's 1964 book "Simplified Single Wing Football," he had it in his locker when Keufel brought Lawrenceville to play Andover in 1970. After the game Adams ran back to his locker, grabbed the book and had the legend himself sign it for him on the field.

Years later Belichick, whose father Steve played and coached the single wing, kept in contact with Keuffel, and spoke at his clinics. He also wrote a testimonial to Keuffel's updated 2004 book, "Winning Single Wing Football -- A Simplified Guide for the Football Coach." According to Ken Jr., book sales are up with the revival of the single wing through the Wildcat and Miami's remarkable run this year.

"When you think about the Dolphins season, there's no doubt the Wildcat had a lot to do with their success this year," Granville said. "I think it gave them a lot of confidence and momentum when they beat New England. Even though Coach (Keuffel) was friends with Belichick, I know he would have loved to have seen it."

The Star-Ledger