Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, the T-formation and the single-wing offenses, although different in alignment and execution, were very similar in concept.
Both relied on a power running game where passing plays were few and far between. It was smash-mouth football that utilized the strength of the players instead of their speed and athleticism. The basic premise was for offenses to move their way down the field a few yards at a time. No trickery or deep passes, just a test of who was stronger at the point of attack.
The Chicago Bears’ 1930s coaching trio of George Halas, Ralph Jones, and Clark Shaughnessy disregarded these rugby-like ideals. By 1940, the three coaches had molded the T-formation into a high-powered passing attack. They still ran the ball more than they threw it effectively employing a series of misdirection and trap plays, but it was their development of the passing game that revolutionized the sport as we know it.
While coaching the Bears in the early 1930s, Jones came up with the idea of sending a back in motion toward the sidelines, essentially turning the back into a receiver. This forced the defense to spread out accordingly, opening up the middle of the field for both the pass and run. By sending one of the three backs of the T-formation in motion on nearly every play, the Bears developed an unstoppable aerial attack that sent coaches across the league scrambling to copy. Not long after Chicago’s 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL championship game, every team in the league began using the T-formation.
The natural evolution of the T led to the formation that is now used by every team at every level of football: the pro set. Instead of motioning a back to the sidelines, offensive coordinators began placing that player out wide at the outset of the play. The player was dubbed the “flanker” and soon became a staple of nearly every offensive formation.
The base formation of the pro set is often called “split backs.” It is as its name suggests: two backs split evenly on either side of the quarterback. Its first incarnation had both tight ends in close to the offensive tackles, giving the offense the option of running the ball to either side of the line with equal success. Defenses could no longer stack its players to one side of the field.
Soon offensive coordinators began splitting the weakside tight end out wide also, giving the offense two “wide receivers.” This formation allows the offense to run or pass the ball to both sides of the field. The defenses has to account for any of these four options, putting it at a previously unheard of disadvantage. A common pro set formation in today’s game replaces the strongside tight end with a slot receiver, spreading out opposing defenses even more.
Montana and Young made it to the Hall of Fame running variations of the pro set
With the two backs split in the backfield, straight-ahead running is not as effective as in the T- or I-formation where a blocker can lead the running back through the hole. But what it lacks in up-the-middle running, it more than makes up for off the edges. Since the two backs are already near the offensive tackle, pitches, sweeps, and off-tackle runs have great success.
Additionally, the backs’ positioning lets them help mightily in pass protection. If teams choose to blitz off the edges of the offensive line, the backs can stand their ground and pick up any defenders looking to crush the quarterback. Their placement also allows them fast access to the flats during pass plays. The backs can get out of the backfield quickly and easily, without having to traverse through multiple linemen. They can now act as their quarterback’s “dump off” receiver without difficulty. For this reason, Bill Walsh loved using the pro set in his version of the West Coast offense where short passes were the norm.
Another way that offensive coordinators attempt to make up for the pro set’s lack of inside running is to move one of the backs behind the quarterback. If the strongside back moves behind the QB, the formation is called pro set “far.” If the weakside back slides inside, it is called pro set “near.” By using theses two variations, teams still have the advantages of the pro set yet are better able to run up the middle. Although, depending on whether the formation is far or near, strong or weakside running is compromised slightly. Also, one of the backs will not have as easy access to the flats as in split backs.
Basically, every formation used in the current day NFL is a variation of Halas’ T-formation. Which is why its immediate successor, the pro set, is used as a “base” formation at nearly every level of the game. It opens up the field and can be run and passed from with equal success. No other formation in the game allows such flexibility.
We now wind down the fifth and final segment of our “Evolution of Offense” series. From the days of Pop Warner’s single-wing – and its A-wing and Notre Dame box variations – to Halas’ T-formation and the pro set, offensive football has come a long way. The game has changed from one of brute force to high-flying beauty. Each manifestation has come from a subtle change made by a brilliant football mind.
Which makes one wonder: who will be the next coach to take NFL offenses to the next level?
|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
07/12/2007 - T-Formation
07/05/2007 - A-Formation
06/28/2007 - Notre Dame Box
06/21/2007 - Single-Wing
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