Chalk Talk: the Single-Wing

Warner was one of the game's greatest minds

Although it is currently extinct, some coaches wonder if the old single-wing offense could have success today. Pop Warner originally devised the scheme to take advantage of his best player, Jim Thorpe. In Part I of his five-part series called "The Evolution of Offense," BearReport.com Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down the single-wing and how it dominated the early days of the NFL.

In 1906, 16 years before the NFL played its first official game, Glenn Scobey 'Pop' Warner invented an offensive formation known as the "single-wing."

While coaching the Carlisle Indian Institute's college football team in 1912, Warner further developed his run-heavy system as a way to focus his offense around star athlete Jim Thorpe. With Thorpe's outstanding ability to run, pass, and kick the ball, Pop, who earned his nickname in college for being the oldest and wisest freshman on Cornell University's football squad, perfected the scheme to utilize his best player's amazing talents to the fullest. In the days of leather helmets and rugby-like balls, Warner created a system that forever changed the way the game was played. Although mostly extinct today, the single-wing formation is widely recognized as the genesis of modern day offensive football.

Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins, in her 2007 book The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation, characterizes Carlisle as "The Team that Invented Football" due to the innovations introduced by Warner which turned the school into a national football force and opened up the game's offensive strategy significantly. With Thorpe directing the single-wing offense to perfection, the Indians amassed a 38-3 record over three seasons, including a 27-6 rout of the powerhouse team at West Point.

After the Indians showed how dominant the offense could be, the single-wing began being copied nationwide. And when the NFL played its first season in 1922, nearly every team used it. Of all Warner's football inventions – including the huddle, the spiral punt, the screen pass, the three-point stance, numbering of players' jerseys, the use of shoulder pads and thigh pads, and the Pop Warner Youth Football Program – nothing fashioned the game as we know it more than the single-wing.

The single-wing has countless permutations, but the one thing that binds each variation is the direct snap from center to tailback. Long before the advent of the shotgun formation, the single-wing called for the center to lob the ball between his legs to a player standing three to five yards behind him – only the player receiving the snap was not the QB but rather the tailback. In the early days of football, when the cumbersome ball was hard to throw further than five yards, offenses used running plays the vast majority of the time. The ball was snapped directly to the person running the ball, normally the tailback or fullback, and the rest of the team would move upfield to block. The quarterback in that day and age was hardly more than a blocker. Not until the late 1930s and early 1940s was the QB asked to be the focal point of the offense.

A standard single-wing formation is composed of five offensive linemen, four backs in the backfield, and two tight ends. The four backfield players are normally a tailback, quarterback, fullback, and wingback. Sometimes an extra wingback is substituted for the fullback or quarterback.

Jim Thorpe is still considered by many to be the greatest athlete who ever lived

In Warner's version of the single-wing, the offense always uses an unbalanced line, meaning the center switches places with the guard on either side of him. This stacks the line on one side of the formation, resulting in more blockers for the tailback. Another thing to keep in mind is the placement of the hashmarks during that time, which was much closer to the sidelines than on a current NFL field. Since the weak side or "back side" of the field is so small, most plays are forced towards the strong side or "play side." Therefore, since defenses know which direction the play is to be run most of the time, it is advantageous for the offense to line up as many guys on the corresponding side to serve as blockers.

Along with the unbalanced line, the offensive backfield starts each play with everyone on the strong side of the field. The tailback normally lines up behind the center, with the wingback just outside of and behind the tight end. Quarterbacks line up behind the guard, while the fullback stands next to or slightly in front of the tailback. Oftentimes, the back side tight end is replaced by a wide receiver or flanker, spreading out the weak side defense even further.

The backfield alignment creates a lot of deception, as the ball can be centered to either the tailback, fullback, or quarterback. After the snap of the ball, most offensive plays call for the running back to follow his large group of blockers on the strong side. But if defenses begin stockpiling players on the play side, the offense can then run a cutback, where the ball-carrier starts towards the strong side and then cuts back to a nearly depleted weak side. Another deceptive move is to have the wingback swing around towards the back side on a "wingback reverse." Warner relied on a multitude of tricky backfield maneuvers to keep opposing defenses off balance.

But it is the power running plays that are the bread and butter of the single-wing. Normally the wingback and tight end double-team the defensive end, while the quarterback and tackle occupy the defensive tackle. The fullback then leads into the hole, creating a massive lane for the tailback to run through.

With its combination of brute force and delicate trickery, the single-wing offense dominated the football landscape for nearly 30 years. It even piqued the interest of some of the greatest coaches of more recent generations. Howard Cosell writes in his 1991 book What's Wrong With Sports, "One thing I have found very interesting in my conversation with [Bill] Walsh is that he regretted he never tried the single-wing formation with the 49ers. He felt that Steve Young could have run the formation to perfection, and that the league's defenses would have had a difficult time stopping the old formation."

Even the great Vince Lombardi was scared of a possible single-wing resurrection. "What would happen if someone came out with the single-wing offense?" he once asked. "It would embarrass the hell out of us."

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
06/14/2007 - Defensive Tackle
06/07/2007 - Shotgun
05/31/2007 - Run-and-Shoot
05/24/2007 - 46 Defense
05/17/2007 - Screen Pass
05/10/2007 - Draw Play
05/03/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part II)
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

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