The Genius of Desperation: The Schematic Innovations that Made the Modern NFL

The Genius of Desperation: The Schematic Innovations that Made the Modern NFL


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If necessity has been the mother of invention throughout the history of professional football, it could also be said that desperation is the father. Rare are the football innovations that have occurred without an owner, general manager, coach, or player up against the wall and reaching for a way to succeed anyway. In this meticulously researched, lively book, Bleacher Report lead NFL scout Doug Farrar traces the schematic history of the pro game through these “if this/then that” moments—paradigm shifts in the game from 1920 through the present. More than just a book about schemes and strategies, The Genius of Desperation: The Schematic Innovations that Made the Modern NFL also tells the stories of the game’s most prominent innovators, the adversities they endured, and the ways in which they learned to exceed their own expectations on the path to true greatness. Everyone from George Halas to Greasy Neale, Paul Brown to Sid Gillman, Bill Walsh to Chip Kelly is featured, as well as many more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629375793
Publisher: Triumph Books
Publication date: 09/25/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 250,616
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Doug Farrar is a Seattle-based journalist who has written about football for Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, Football Outsiders, The Washington Post, and other outlets during the last 15 years. This is his first book.

After playing seven years in the NFL and spending more than a decade in NFL front offices, Louis Riddick works as an NFL analyst for ESPN. He resides in Bristol, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


Beginnings: The NFL from 1920 through 1949

"Find out what the other team wants to do. Then, take it away from them."

— George Halas

When a group of executives met in 1920 to officially form the American Professional Football Conference — what became the National Football League in 1922 — the game was a leather-helmeted, three yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, war of attrition for the most part. The T formation and the single-wing were the dominant formations in football and saw stacked defensive fronts to counter the ground game. In 1932, the first season for which there are official statistics, Arnie Herber of the Green Bay Packers led the league with 34 completed passes on 104 attempts for 639 yards, nine touchdowns, and nine interceptions. It wasn't until 1939 that any passer attempted more than 200 throws, and in that season, both Parker Hall of the Cleveland Rams and Davey O'Brien of the Philadelphia Eagles did it. For his efforts Hall was rewarded with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions, while O'Brien had six touchdowns and 17 picks.

In its early decades, the NFL's strategy was brutish and basic. Don Hutson of the Packers ran the first option routes and could be considered the first truly modern receiver because of his ability to get free with speed and agility in a route tree that — while hardly advanced at today's level — got the job done. In 1942 Hutson caught 74 passes for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns, which represented an inconceivable series of numbers at the time. Pop Ivy of the Chicago Cardinals ranked second that year with 27 receptions. The first truly organized passing game took the league by storm as the men in charge of the league narrowed the ball over the years to make it less like a rugby ball and more like the instrument we see today.

Selected sixth overall out of TCU in the 1937 NFL Draft, Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins led the league in his rookie year in attempts (171), completions (81), passing yards (1,127), and ... interceptions (14). Baugh was a great thrower for his era, but he plied his trade in an unfavorable passing era. He did throw for three touchdowns to beat the Bears in the 1937 NFL Championship, but it wasn't until 1945 that he put up a condensed version of what might be considered a modern passing season. That year he completed 70.3 percent of his passes — a record that stood until Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals broke it in 1982 — with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Passing efficiency would not be the name of the game for several decades. Even into the 1960s and 1970s, quarterbacks were inclined to hurl the ball deep to receivers running basic route concepts against rudimentary defenses.

When Baugh came into the NFL, he had to fight an uphill battle to get his passing acumen on the field. In doing so he helped change the game forever. "Ray Flaherty was our coach when I got to Washington and he was a pretty typical coach for the time," Baugh told The Sporting News. Flaherty admonished Baugh to remember that in the pros receivers expected their quarterbacks to be accurate with "none of those wild heaves you see the college boys throw."

Baugh remembered the following conversation. "They tell me you're quite a passer," Flaherty said.

"I reckon I can throw a little," Baugh replied.

"Let's see it. Hit that receiver in the eye."

"I cocked an eye toward Wayne Millner, who was running a little buttonhook pattern, and I turned to Flaherty and said, 'Which eye?'"

Flaherty, who Baugh remembered as a "mean-hot-tempered sonofabitch," didn't question Baugh too much after that. The Redskins ran the single-wing at the time, but Baugh's skill allowed them to tweak the system from tailback-based to quarterback-based. "What we did with the single-wing in Washington was to add the wrinkle of passing early in downs and controlling the clock. That's what we did at TCU, and that's really all I knew how to do."

Glenn "Pop" Warner invented the single-wing in the earliest days of the 20 century and implemented it to perfection when he coached the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Warner used sweeps, spins, and reverses, as well as the first real iteration of the forward pass, to befuddle opponents, who never quite knew whether a pass, run, or punt was coming at them. Warner then expanded his single-wing concept to a double-wing when he put two receivers to one side. (The single-wing idea can still be seen in certain power sweep and Wildcat plays.) The double-wing was in many ways the precursor to the shotgun formation. The inevitable triple-wing put three receivers to one side and was as close as anybody got to a spread offense in the game's early days.

Steve Owen's A formation had a heavy line to one side and the backs strong to the other side. Knute Rockne invented what was called the "Notre Dame Box." In this formation players would shift from the standard T Formation into a power formation designed with heavy blocking for end runs. And there was the ubiquitous T Formation, which spawned more innovations at the NFL level than any early formation — and most of it from two Bears coaches, Ralph Jones and Clark Shaughnessy. Indeed, when we turn to the idea that the old game has shaped the new game, one football mind — Shaughnessy's — did more to establish concepts that are still seen today than anybody else.

Clark Shaughnessy: The NFL's Forgotten Innovator

The most innovative coach of the pre-Paul Brown era did the most to forward professional football to the game it is today. "I always looked upon Clark Shaughnessy as a conscientious idealist who might better have followed the trail of Father Flanagan of Boys Town," football historian Roger Treat told Sports Illustrated. "He may never be entirely happy in the jovial thuggery of pro football, where every man has a little assassin in him."

Shaughnessy was a head coach for just two seasons at the NFL level with the Los Angeles Rams in 1948 and 1949. His NFL experience began more than a decade before, when he first spoke to Chicago Bears owner George Halas at a civic dinner in 1935. Shaughnessy was the University of Chicago's head coach and he told Halas that he had watched several Bears games that season and that he had some ideas regarding the use of the T formation that might open things up for Halas' team. Named this because there are three running backs behind the quarterback in the shape of a T, the formation allowed the quarterback to drop back to pass, gave different rushing options, and offered new sleights of hand.

But knowing it needed to be tweaked, Halas rearranged the place cards at his table so he and Shaughnessy could sit together, and heard him out. Halas had been working with the T formation since his freshman year at the University of Illinois in 1914, but it was time for new ideas. As happens with any static offensive scheme, defenses had figured out the T. Shaughnessy told Halas that he had some additional elements — "hidden-ball stuff, but with power" — to try out.

Halas had already employed one T formation innovator — Ralph Jones, Halas' freshman coach, who Halas later hired to coach Chicago's offense. Jones widened the offensive line and backfield splits to make the formations less compressed and more open. He also put a man in motion pre-snap, so the quarterback could hand off to one of his backs or drop back to pass, and the man in motion element added a degree of defensive uncertainty. Jones was also credited as the first coach to put together gameplans. Jones and his staff assembled specific offensive and defensive plays and drilled their players all week on those concepts above all others. He also brought a system of terminology to the game, numbering the gaps and creating basic play calls. This is where the current gap-numbering system began. Jones numbered the gaps from 0 — between the center and left guard — to 9 — outside the strong side of the formation. If the right halfback was aligned in the 4 spot, was supposed to run between the center and the right guard (or the 2 gap), the left halfback was motioning pre-snap from the 3 gap, and the snap count on two, the play call might be "42-32." Basic, but effective.

It wasn't until Paul Brown came to the NFL in 1950 that there was a truly universal and organized system for offense and defense that would resemble the modern game. Brown's offensive philosophies set the league on its collective ear, and defensive adjustments to those strategies — including by Brown himself — took the NFL into a new and more recognizable era.

But in the pre-Brown era, Shaughnessy moved the game ahead as much as anybody. "Football is a science to me, the maneuvering of men to attain an objective. It is very comparable to military strategy," Shaughnessy said in the book, The Wow Boys. "So when George Halas didn't laugh at me or my theories, I naturally warmed up to him. He didn't make fun of me and he was willing to listen. So when I'd make a suggestion, he'd listen and we'd discuss it. As I propounded some of those pet theories of mine, he would take them, try them out. Some results were apparent."

Halas invited Shaughnessy to his office to hear more and was sufficiently impressed. He offered Shaughnessy a consultant position in 1937, paying him $2,000 per year. In 1940 Shaughnessy's refinements to the T took over both branches of football — the Bears used it to demolish the Washington Redskins in the NFL championship game, and Shaughnessy's Stanford Indians went 10 — 0 on the season. "[The T] is simply, clearly, definitely, and completely a breakaway from the old power game based on blocking," Shaughnessy wrote in a 1942 article for Esquire. "Concealment of the ball by the quarterback turning around instantly, as in the early days, sets the stage for a finesse, deceptive, speed type of attack."

For Shaughnessy his "deception attack" was all about opening things up. He compared it to the advent of airplanes and light tanks in war, "making it very difficult, if not impossible, for a wide front of fixed positions to be held effectively." He also made boxing analogies, comparing his T formation to "the left jab of a boxer — the man in motion and the faking of backs to the feints, and the fullback plays to the real punch. The pass plays should be used as the unexpected sock."

In Shaughnessy's T the motion man forced defenses away from static placements and formations, forcing at least one defender to follow the moving offensive player. In addition he wanted quarterbacks to throw more than they had in previous iterations of the T formation. At the University of Chicago, Shaughnessy didn't have the players to make his advanced concepts go, so his ideas were hypothetical when he brought them to Halas. But Halas saw the genius in the man and his ideas. "Before we began collaborating," Halas said, "our T formation had two major weaknesses, which enabled other clubs in the league to get too familiar with our ball carriers. One trouble was we only had two end runs ... thanks to Shaughnessy, we have 22 maneuvers around the ends — touchdown plays. Second, the majority of our plays went to the side of the line of the man in motion. Shaughnessy designed ground-gainers that run to the side opposite to the man in motion. These counter plays were honeys."

They were, and the counters were most effective in that 1940 championship. Four weeks before, the Redskins had beaten the Bears 7 — 3, and Washington owner George Preston Marshall famously called the Bears "crybabies." That bulletin board material certainly had an impact on the 73 — 0 score in the return matchup, but it was Shaughnessy's counters — not to mention three interceptions returned for touchdowns — that made the difference on the field. "We were a pretty tense bunch," Bears legend Bulldog Turner, a rookie in 1940, told famed sportswriter Red Smith. "Shaughnessy relieved the tension. He made the pregame talk, and you've never seen anyone so calm. 'You can beat the Redskins,' he said, 'and here's how.' He outlined a play we had charted as our second of the game. 'It might go for a touchdown the first time.' Somehow, we believed him."

What Shaughnessy had on the Redskins that day was his team's reactions to Washington's predictable defenses. At the time the Redskins shifted their linebackers to the man in motion, so Shaughnessy devised counter plays that would take those linebackers out of the play. The second play of the game did indeed go for a touchdown, though it wasn't the triumph of the counter one might think. Fullback Bill Osmanski took the ball from Sid Luckman and ran to the front side. Osmanski actually ran through the wrong hole but was able to spring free after end George Wilson blocked two Redskins defenders downfield. And the 73 — 0 score was hardly all about Chicago's offense — the Bears intercepted eight passes from three different Redskins quarterbacks, returning three of them for touchdowns. But the intricacies of Shaughnessy's T did get noticed and did catch on over time. "After the Bears beat the piss out of us in that '40 Championship game ... well, you could literally see the game changing before our eyes," Baugh said. "By the next season, almost everybody in football started messing with the T. Since then about every form of pro-style offense has been a cousin of the T. The triple option, the wishbone, the veer — you name it. So, whenever you see what Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton and Dan Marino and John Elway and all those great passers were able to do, you can trace it back to 73 — 0."

The Bears then went on one of the most remarkable runs in league history. From 1940 through 1943, they amassed a 37 — 5 — 1 record that remains the best four-year span in NFL annals. They won three of the four NFL championship games and had a perfect 11 — 0 season wiped out with a 14 — 6 loss to the Redskins in 1942. Those teams that converted to Shaughnessy's version of the T formation had the advantage of the players he had taught that same formation at Stanford. Halas drafted fullback Norm Standlee, halfback Hugh Gallerneau, and quarterback Frankie Albert, though Albert signed instead with the San Francisco 49ers of the All-America Football Conference. Philadelphia Eagles head coach Earle "Greasy" Neale put his charges in the Shaughnessy T early on and took four Stanford players in 1941 alone. Through the 1940s both college and pro teams adapted to the more open and versatile version of the T formation, and this was the first example of a Shaughnessy design becoming the norm in the game.

It was not to be the last.

In 1948 Shaughnessy signed on with the Rams as an advisor to head coach Bob Snyder. During the 1948 preseason, Rams owner Dan Reeves was so impressed with Shaughnessy's football acumen that he made Shaughnessy the head coach. At first Shaughnessy ran the same formations he always had, but during that first season, he realized that speed runner Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch would be a better receiver than a running back. He converted Hirsch to a flanker and thus created the three-receiver formation as a base offensive concept.

With that offensive design, quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, and a group of track-fast receivers, Shaughnessy's Rams went from fourth to second in points scored and ranked first in points scored in each of the three seasons thereafter. Shaughnessy was gone after the 1949 season. (The Rams lost the 1949 NFL Championship to the Eagles as Neale foiled Shaughnessy with the Umbrella Defense.) But he had, in effect, built the bones of the modern passing offense.

Shaughnessy wasn't done. He returned to the Bears as Halas' schematic advisor and defensive specialist. In that capacity he shut down the early version of the shotgun formation so well that the shotgun would not return to prominence in the NFL for decades. 49ers head coach Red Hickey — another eccentric innovator — had his quarterbacks running all manner of option stuff against static lines and for a few weeks in the 1950 season he seemed to have the NFL by the tail.

Shaughnessy's counter was both old school and new school. He put middle linebacker Bill George at the middle guard position, something the league hadn't used in years. With George playing to the center's shoulder and blasting through the line of scrimmage on nearly every play, Hickey's shotgun quarterbacks couldn't run through their options. Shaughnessy also devised a 5-3-3 base defense that presented multiple fronts and was very tough to diagnose, let alone stop. At times the Bears brought pressure with seven at the line; at other times they'd drop linemen into coverage to deal with the short passes prevalent in Hickey's offense.

As had been the case throughout Shaughnessy's career, it was a triumph of preparation and innovation. According to Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule, Shaughnessy analyzed 49ers tape for more than 100 hours and was still refining his defensive strategies the morning of the game. Shaughnessy set up different defenses for Billy Kilmer — as Hickey alternated his passers. "The Bear defense was keyed to the situation, not the player," was how Maule put it. That's a fair summation of Shaughnessy's genius and why his innovations were so resonant. He was at the apex of situational football strategy, which would define the NFL far more in the 1950s and beyond.


Excerpted from "The Genius of Desperation"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Doug Farrar.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Louis Riddick xi

Introduction xv

Chapter 1 Beginnings: the NFL from 1920 through 1949 1

Chapter 2 The Game Comes of Age: The NFL in the 1950s 11

Chapter 3 Rockets in the Air: The AFL Takes Flight 29

Chapter 4 Responding with a Roar: The NFL in the 1960s 69

Chapter 5 Merged: The NFL in the 1970s 89

Chapter 6 Hogs and Geniuses: the NFL in the 1980s 135

Chapter 7 A New Level: The NFL in the 1990s 177

Chapter 8 Back to School: The NFL in the 2000s 229

Chapter 9 The NFL's Future: The Genius of Adaptation 259

Acknowledgments 273

Sources 275

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