Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Bears' Spread Offense, 1950 edition

Don Faurot's 1950 book on the Split-T formation1 is a classic of offensive philosophy.  The offense he invented ("football's newest development") was both highly successful in its own right and led directly to the creation of the triple option, one of the major evolutionary moments in football history.  But the book is more than just the introduction of a new offense or the seeds of a future breakthrough.  In over 350 pages it also covers the kicking game, the leadership challenges of coaching and administration, football watching tips for novice fans, and defensive strategy for combating the popular offenses of the 1940's.  The defensive chapter in particular shows how wide open some of these older offenses were, and how much today's spread offenses owe to schemes developed before World War II, or earlier.

On page 273 he describes how to defend against the "Bears' Spread," which he attributes to legendary Chicago Bears player/coach/owner George Halas.  Here's the formation, and the defense he suggests:

Whoa.  Now that's a spread formation.  The tailback is ten yards deep, 3 or 4 yards deeper than a modern quarterback in the shotgun, but otherwise, this looks ready to use.  Faurot doesn't give much detail on the offense, other than to be prepared for a tailback sweep in either direction, a screen to the tight end on the left, and a pass to the snapper, who is eligible because he's also the right end.  To contain this attack, he suggests a 4-4 defense in a Cover 3 zone, putting two linemen over the main offensive line, one over the snapper, and one in the massive right A gap.  The defensive ends (we would call them outside linebackers) cover down on the widest receivers and take the flats in the zone.

From a modern perspective this defense looks comically soft.  The pass defense isn't even close to properly covering down on the three receivers to the right, a defensive guard is covering the snapper despite Faurot's warning, and the numbers on the screen to the left tight end still look pretty great.  Even for an era before the option, before pass routes were timed with the QB's drop, before the wide receiver screen or even the wide receiver as we know it, it's hard to see how this would be sound defense.  If you lined up in this formation this Friday night, here's one guess at what you might see instead:

Now there are six defenders for the six man offensive line, the snapper has a legitimate undercoverage defender on him, and each receiver has a defender in position to discourage the hot throw or quick screen.  The defense is slightly outflanked to the tight end side by a fraction of a man, since the Will LBer doesn't want to align too far to either side of the snapper, but it's reasonably sound given the challenges it's facing.  There are plenty of other fronts and coverages possible here, (Cover 0 comes immediately to mind), but the threats to the defense remain obvious: five immediate receivers (including a quads set), the QB sweep, and those wide open A gaps.  For a team that already uses the shotgun, this formation could be an easy addition that would drive opposing teams nuts.  Here are a few possible plays that seem like natural fits:

  • QB sneak/sweep (blocked to both sides at once, QB chooses), with snapper pop pass
  • Quick screens to the WRs or the left TE
  • WR fly sweep, or read option, or inverted veer, to the left
  • Quads passing game, e.g. flood route plus whip
  • Slow screen to an ineligible lineman (must be a backward pass)
An hour or two of practice seems like enough to install this changeup formation with two or three plays, but the defense would likely spend several hours preparing for it, and opposing coaches many more hours thinking about it, instead of the base offense.  In a game, it could be deployed like any other changeup: right before halftime (to steal the other team's halftime adjustments) or right after (to steal their second half timeouts).  

If anyone dares to use this in a game, two reactions from fans and opponents are fairly predictable.  First, that anything so unusual is "not football" and that it is not sportsmanlike to create something new or use a tactic isn't already common on Saturdays or Sundays.  Second, that this is obviously just the next evolution of the modern game as it becomes ever more wide open and oriented toward skill and speed.  Either way, you can refer them to Don Faurot, creator of football's newest development of 1950.

1 Faurot, Don. Football: Secrets of the "Split T" Formation. Prentice-Hall, 1950.


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