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December 05, 2006

Archaic Football

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

[Warning!! non-USA/Canada readers strongly urged to skip this post. Otherwise extreme irritation over the "f-word" or (especially for females of all nationalities) terminal boredom might ensue.]

The 2006 football season is over, aside from the bowl games. A few bowls feature teams with 6-6 seasons, but I'll spare you my rant about that.

Anyway, it's just about my last last excuse this year to clue you in on my dirty little passion: single-wing football.

What is that?

The "single-wing" is a type of formation used by a football team playing offense. It was especially popular during the 1920s and 30s, but rapidly fell out of favor in the 40s. College and professional teams today tend to use variations on the classic "T" formation, though a kind of "double-wing" (the "shotgun") is used in certain tactical situations.

The Wikipedia entry is here, and is useful because it contains a diagram of one single-wing formation.

In essence, the single-wing features an "unbalanced line" (more line-players are to one side of the center than the other) and the "tailback" (quarterback) stands a few yards behind the center and must have the ball "hiked" (tossed rearward from between the center's legs) to set the play in motion.

Advantages of the single-wing include (1) comparative ease of deception and (2) placing a lot of power in one locale. A major disadvantage is that a running play normally takes longer to develop than in a T-type formation where the quarterback can grab the ball from the center, pivot quickly and hand the ball to a back already on his way towards the line.

A few major colleges were still using the single-wing when I was an undergraduate. It was either my Junior year (1959) or when I was a Senior that I saw UCLA, a single-wing team at the time, play Washington. Both teams were good that season -- Washington went on the win the Rose Bowl. Between the 20-yard line markers, the Bruins were almost impossible to stop, having an especially effective power sweep (putting a lot of blockers ahead of the ball carrier). But within the 20s, their offense bogged down, another defect of the single-wing related to speed of play development and the relatively small amount of real estate defenders had to deal with. So the Huskies won that afternoon, but it was a tense time for the fans.

The Oregon State Beavers also played single-wing football in those days and made it to the Rose Bowl in 1962. Both UCLA and Oregon State abandoned the single-wing before the 60s were out.

Princeton played single-wing for many years. While at Dear Old Penn I made a point of driving up to Palmer Stadium to watch the Tigers play the Quakers and enjoy what was then obviously the last gasp of single-wing football at major colleges. Dear Old Penn was seriously lacking that year (1967, I think it was) -- its quarterback being bigger than most of his linemen -- and the Tigers destroyed them.

Enough football nostalgia for now. Well ... okay. One more item. Bonus points for readers who can identify "KF-79."



UPDATE: Before this post gets pushed down the page, here is an interesting link containing the obituary of the Columbia tailback who called KF-79 against Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl. It goes into a lot of detail so read on, football buffs!

posted by Donald at December 5, 2006


An archaic form of football that would be really appreciated is one that does *not* consist of an endless series of TV timeouts.

Posted by: Peter on December 5, 2006 1:57 PM

Monty Montgomery used that play to lift Columbia to a 7-0 win over Princeton in 1934. And how I know that I will never tell.

Posted by: annette on December 5, 2006 3:34 PM

While we are on the subject does anyone know what the announcers mean when they refer to a pass as a "fade"? I've managed to find out what the phrases "draw play" and "play action" mean but "fade" has eluded me. I'm ready to be embarassed.

Posted by: jason on December 5, 2006 4:06 PM

I'd love to see the option running offenses of 1970s college football like the veer and the wishbone come back. They put a real emphasis on small quarterbacks who were great all-around athletes like J.C. Watts, John Sciarra, and Jack Mildren.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 5, 2006 4:33 PM

It's true that it took a strong side "sweep" some time to develop. But, when executed flawlessly, what a thing of beauty it was. There was real majesty in it. Ah, the past.

Posted by: ricpic on December 5, 2006 6:47 PM

Peter -- Hearty agreement!

Annette -- Very close, but not quite cigar-worthy. I just posted an Update containing a link to Montgomery's obit.

Jason -- "Fade" means that (to buy a little time, usually) a quarterback will slowly take small back-steps, perhaps to one side or the other while he looks for an open receiver. If he has to move really fast to avoid getting sacked, they call it a "scramble."

Steve -- Hmm. If the QB was short, the coach almost had to design plays where the QB could see where to throw or otherwise direct play. Nowadays quarterbacks and the linemen they have to see over are Paul Bunyan material.

ricpic -- Amen.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 5, 2006 8:17 PM

Mr. Pittenger,

I love your writing, and, as a football fan, I thank you for this post. However, usually the fade is a pass, almost always called when in a goal to go situation, where the quarterback throws a very quick pass to one of the back corners of the end zone. The pass is typically thrown with a fair amount of loft, and the quarterback will throw the ball erring on the side of having the ball go out of bounds. Your outside receiver tries to get to the outside of his man, then win a jump ball. The play is considered relatively low risk since there is out of bounds area on two sides and only one defender in a position to make a play. Passes to the interior risk the interference of a safety in addition to the defensive back assigned to the receiver.

Posted by: Chris on December 5, 2006 8:59 PM

Chris -- You are probably right -- I didn't have a TV set for several years and seldom watch football even now (though it's still my favorite sport). My excuse is that I had the phrase "Smith fades back to pass" running through my head.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 5, 2006 9:46 PM

It's not just the plays that are different. Have you noticed the difference in uniforms and equipment? Today's players are like knights in armor compared to the way they dressed out back in the thirties and forties. Leather helmets? Ouch. I've looked at pictures of my dad on his 1940 team and the gear was pretty skimpy. I wonder if they played with as much abandonment back then as they do today?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 5, 2006 10:11 PM

When you're playing without a facemask, you're undoubtedly not playing with the same abandon.

Posted by: Frankenstein on December 5, 2006 11:14 PM

There were still a few high schools in Memphis running the single-wing when I was in high school there in the 60s, so I got to see it a few times. I remember seeing Charlie Fulton, who went on the star at Tennesse, run it as a tailback at Whitehaven High.

My school, Christian Brothers, ran an archaic version of the T formation called the wing-T that has lots of the motion, timing plays and pulling lineman that you see in the single-wing. The quickness of the pulling guards is so important that the coaches were willing to play much smaller people at guard. I remember we had some 145-150 pound guards starting on varsity. You seldom see the wing-T anymore either, though my daughter's high school in Tehachapi ran it.

Donald if you get a chance watch Arkansas when they play their bowl game. They have occasionally been using a formation they call the "Wildcat" where they direct snap to their excellent tailback McFadden. It much resembles the single-wing. I watched their game against Tennessee last month on TV and they ate the Vols alive with it.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on December 6, 2006 10:55 AM

Today's football players -- all bulked up and armored -- look like videogame villains to me. Very impressive but very cartoonish.

Which all raises another interesting question, I think: Do we love or follow sports because they show off "the best"? Maybe I'm weird, but that's seldom the case for me. I'd rather attend a minor-league game. I dream of someone starting up a tennis tour that insists on old-style, old-size wooden rackets. I'm awestruck when I watch some of today's pro sports, but I never go back and watch more, or get addicted. I just don't care (well, maybe women's tennis). There's nothing there for me to relate to. So I guess "having something there to relate to" is more important to me than "these are the best in the world" ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2006 11:01 AM

When you're playing without a facemask, you're undoubtedly not playing with the same abandon.

Rugby players would beg to disagree. As would MMA fighters.

Posted by: Peter on December 6, 2006 12:13 PM

Re: Playing without facemasks/modern helmets.

I know I wouldn't have played with the same aggression without a helmet as I did in my high school days.

On the rebuttal, I can only cite the immortal name of Bronko Nagurski, who not only routinely knocked opponents out while playing with nothing more than a sort of leather cap, but who also had the best tough-guy football name in history. (I think I might nominate him for having the most macho name in history, period.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 6, 2006 12:36 PM

Friedrich -- I'm in total agreement regarding Nagurski.

Maybe it has to do with the juxtaposition of slangy sorts of American speech with Polish last names. Calls to mind a girl I once knew named Bubbles Wilshinski (not sure of spelling) -- another classic.

Football has been a source of odd, intriguing names for almost its entire existence. One such name is Cotton Warburton, which sticks in my head like glue for some inexplicable reason. (He was the USC QB in the early 30s, then went Hollywood -- first as an actor, later as an Oscar-winning film editor.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 6, 2006 2:11 PM

In some ways facemasks and other protective gear might have contributed to *more* injuries in football by encouraging the players to hit harder. Rugby players, whom as I noted wear no protective gear, are prone to a variety of mostly superficial injuries, things like broken noses and black eyes, but they don't by and large suffer the career-ending "knee jobs" that plague football players. Without protective gear they have to show some caution in how hard they hit. Football players hit much harder in part because the gear gives them a feeling of invulnerability, but the problem is the protection is incomplete.

Something similar happens in boxing as compared to MMA. Boxers protect their hands with wraps, tape and heavy gloves, while MMA fighters wear much lighter gloves that provide less hand protection. Boxers can hit their opponents as hard as possible with little fear of hand injury, but MMA fighters cannot. The not-surprising end result is that while a lot more blood is shed during MMA matches there are almost none of the serious (and sometimes even fatal) head injuries that frequently occur in boxing.

Posted by: Peter on December 6, 2006 2:18 PM

Football has been a source of odd, intriguing names for almost its entire existence. One such name is Cotton Warburton, which sticks in my head like glue for some inexplicable reason.
Football is loaded with odd names & nicknames. Choo Choo Justice, Night Train Lane, Cadillac Williams, Swamprat Warren. I always liked Montgomery Flowers, a wide receiver at Tennessee, which sounds far too refined for a football player.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on December 6, 2006 4:50 PM

Nagurski was Ukrainian, from International Falls, MN. He was a great two-way player.

Jack Kerouac was recruited by Columbia for football, and he may have been groomed for the KF-79 play (if not that, then for some other trick play). He didn't last long at all, and he and little parted on very bad terms.

Posted by: John Emerson on December 6, 2006 10:28 PM

Keouac's version of his Columbia football career. Little's would probably be different.

Posted by: John Emerson on December 7, 2006 8:35 AM

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