Political Footballs: Teddy Roosevelt Saves the Game

Teddy Roosevelt: Rough Rider and Football Fan; photo courtesy Wikipedia.

In honor of our imminent national celebration of democracy, SLF is taking a look at one of the most famous intersections (or collisions) of politics and football. 

It’s no surprise that more than a few football players entered politics.  Just looking at presidents, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan all played college ball, and AFL Hall-of-Famer Jack Kemp was a career politician with several White House runs to his name.  A less common occurrence is a tenured politician making football a policy issue, though that’s exactly what happened to the sport during its early years.

The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were a turbulent era highlighted by a tenuous confluence of innovation and public scrutiny that was very much like today’s atmosphere.  Formative football was a rush-based game in the mold of rugby, though it eschewed free-flowing play and the gridlock of the scrum, two factors that made football far deadlier than its continental cousin.  The danger was exemplified by the “Flying Wedge,” a Harvard special-teams innovation that evolved into an offensive play where the entire team formed an inverted “V” around the ball carrier, then took a running start and crashed into a single defender.

The Carlisle Indians preparing to run a variation on the Flying Wedge for Coach Pop Warner; photo courtesy jimthorpefilm.com.

Plays like this, along with a constant stream of unregulated violence you’d expect from a game where “unnecessary roughness” was a foreign concept, took a heavy toll on players’ health.  The turning point for the sport came in 1905, when as many as 25 football players died during games across the country.  Public outrage was inevitable, and among the most incensed groups were the faculty members at Harvard University, who had collectively demanded that football be either banned from the school or made safer through a series of rules changes.

At the time, Harvard’s passion for the sport might be best described as equivalent to the pigskin fervor of an Alabama or Notre Dame today.  That passion extended to alum Teddy Roosevelt, who by then was halfway through his tenure as POTUS.  His love of football reflected the mindset of a man who in his prime saw war as an adventurous undertaking, and in his later years embarked on an ill-ending Amazon expedition that may have ultimately shortened his life: to Roosevelt, football—a slog of competitive violence ended by triumph or defeat—was an expression of the inherent virtues of the trial by fire, and unmatched by anything short of actual combat in its ability to forge men from the bruised bodies of boys.

Roosevelt wasn’t going to see his school neuter itself by ending the sport, though he also recognized there was more at stake than just Harvard’s claim to campus manliness.  Harvard’s status in the sport was so great that it was essentially football’s poster child; when coupled with growing public uncertainty over the game’s brutality and popularity, a decision to suspend the Crimson squad could very well have led to the wholesale abandonment of the game along the east coast. Leading the faculty charge was Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, who publicly lamented that football turned bright young men into “powerful animals.”  It was a formidable situation, even for the President of the United States.

Roosevelt’s method for saving the sport in many ways exemplified his motto of “walk softly, but carry a big stick.”  Rather than confronting or making demands, he worked as a deal-maker and behind-the-scenes organizer and mediator for the schools’ governing officials, with the weight of the presidency backing up his work.  He grounded his work in frequent exchanges with Walter Camp, and beginning in 1905 and working through the spate of deaths that could’ve derailed his mission, Roosevelt shuttled football experts from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House in order to lay the foundation for a safer game.  The focus was on eliminating plays that, to quote a New York Times article from 1893, relied on “a half ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds.”

Even after formal meetings ended, the President stayed in regular contact with coaches and administrators so as to guide the game’s developments.  Perhaps his most important allies were Harvard coach Bill Reid, whose work mollified Harvard’s faculty and allowed the Crimson to continue taking the field, and Paul Dashiell, an official for the Harvard-Yale game and member of the sport’s collegiate rules committee.  The football schools eventually coalesced into a more inclusive rules committee that finally began to address the sports’ safety concerns.

Successive years of discussion and modification led to the creation of something very recognizable as modern football.  Several concepts we today take for granted either came into being or saw their roots established thanks in part to Roosevelt’s work.  In a harbinger of  rules for restricting the number of offensive players in the backfield, the Flying Wedge and its variants were banned.  The line of gain was increased from 5 to 10 yards, which reduced the reward of grinding collision play.  The neutral zone was made standard, and the forward pass made legal to encourage offenses that spread the field.  Even the loose coalition of schools behind these changes has a special place in history, as it eventually evolved into the NCAA.  It’s likely none of these things would’ve happened without the intervention of Roosevelt; there’s even a distinct possibility that football would now be categorized as an American analogue to chariot races and gladiatorial combat had he not stepped in.

And here’s a final bit of trivia.  Among the university leaders Roosevelt worked with, the president of Princeton was a key figure and a spirited fan of the sport.  His name was Woodrow Wilson.

Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 5: Going Deep

The vertical passing game has had many benefactors over the years.  Thanks to the proliferation of Air Raid-inspired offenses in college, the concept of “four verticals”—simultaneously running four evenly-spaced receivers deep—has almost become an internet meme.  The coaches who got us to this point include some of the best known football strategists and lineages of all time: the Gillman/Coryell West Coast offense (not to be confused with Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense which built and expanded on these roots), Ellison and Davis’ Run-and-Shoot, and Hal Mumme’s Air Raid scheme.  For this post, we’ll look at vertical concepts in the context of four-verticals plays.

Before I get into details, I’ll say that the advancement of the deep ball hinged on a few changes in the way the game is played.  Contact rules involving holding and otherwise interfering with receivers have made it easier for receivers to get deep, particularly in the last twenty years.  Just as important is how bump-and-run coverage has turned from a devastating technique to one of the worst ways to play defense in football.  Receivers now have a bevy of special moves that’ve rendered bump-and-run almost a relic, and causes offenses to hope to see it used.

There are two major tenets to a successfully drawn deep-ball play.   Let’s use Louisville’s Switch/Stop play as an example.  This is a spread formation play, with three receivers to the wide or “field” side of the play:

Full-route diagram of Louisville’s Switch/Stop play; the running back is primarily a blocker here.

The first tenet is that the receivers are horizontally spaced to start, and their respective routes end up taking the receivers deep while roughly dividing them across the breadth of the field.  Spreading the receivers out in both planes prevents the defense from overplaying particular spots on the field.  Even though there are three receivers to the wide side of the field at the snap, their routes diverge and they can end up dividing the field into fourths.

“Can” is the operative word here.  The dashed extensions of their routes are all possible directions each receiver can take a pattern.  This flexibility is the main key to going deep with success: the quarterback and receivers have to attack the weaknesses of the defense as they see them develop.

The “X” receiver has the most flexibility here.  The primary route is a deep hitch, which he runs when the cornerback defending him plays off the ball or man.  If the corner plays a short zone, however, as in a Cover 2 or any other kind of “cloud” coverage, the receiver runs a fly route straight downfield.  The X receiver is also the play’s “hot read,” which means he has responsibility for recognizing and attacking a blitz; when he sees a blitz, he runs a quick slant that should pick up good yardage without making the quarterback hold the ball for too long.  The Z receiver has similar responsibilities, though is too far away to be useful as a hot read.

The H receiver has his own options.  After switching with the neighboring Y receiver, he focuses on how the safeties are playing.  If there are two safeties playing deep, he runs right between them where they’ll have the hardest time making a play.  If a single safety plays deep, the H receiver crosses his face and gets open on the deep corner route.  For all these routes, the quarterback is likewise watching and reading the defense; this lets QBs still throw to spots that will be open, which lets plays hit much more quickly and in places the secondary can’t defend.

To show this in action, here’s how the play would look versus Cover 2, where five defenders play short zones underneath, and two safeties have to defend deep balls; the strongest areas of the defensive zone are shown as ellipses:

Route selection of Switch/Stop versus Cover 2; note that X, H, and Z receivers all find weak spots in zone coverage.

Notice how the shallow corners leave the deep sidelines relatively open, and that the X and Z receivers recognize this and attack these openings.  At the same time, the H receiver recognizes the weak area between the safeties and runs straight for it.  Even if the corners react quickly and trail their respective receivers, their best chance at making a play is on an underthrown ball.  The result is that two safeties have to cover four receivers who are running deep at full speed.  It’s a tremendous bind to be put into.  Conversely, if the defense is set right to cover four fly routes like this, the receivers run hitching or slanting routes that are harder to stop.

This isn’t the only way to run a four-verticals style play, and these principles aren’t exclusive to spread teams. Pro teams used these concepts out of the I- and Split formation by sending receivers deep on choice routes, and a tight end downfield to react to how the safeties are playing.   Here’s a look at the New Orleans Saints running a variation, which is a little more straightforward than Louisville’s:

This ability of offenses to read defenses on the fly is a big reason why not only bump-and-run coverage is so rare, but why true zone and man defenses are becoming extinct at higher levels of play. Given that four deep threats can stress just about any defense short of a pure prevent shell, four verticals has become the chalkboard standard for deep-ball plays.  The final thing standing in its way of becoming a true football staple was a slight hindrance:  the covered deep pass is one of the hardest things to do in football, which is why it was relegated to deceptive and desperate uses.

There wasn’t a tactical approach to solve this last problem. The success of flexible all-vertical plays for today’s spread-option teams is ultimately owed to the fact that teams spend so much time practicing and using these patterns.  Though he wasn’t the first coach to get praise for leaning on these routes (Steve Spurrier comes to mind as a predecessor), Mike Leach took this to an extreme at Texas Tech, where he created a slew of record-breaking “system” QBs.

Where other used and practiced it as something situational for play-action or the two-minute drill, Leach made it a core play in practice and a staple on game day.  As he notes in his autobiography, when Leach started using his four verticals play his teams completed about 30% of their passes when running it…in practice.  A few years later versus first-ranked Texas, Leach’s team went 9-11 with the play, including a game-winner to Michael Crabtree.  Also having a measure of success with the play are Dana Holgorsen and Art Briles, two of Leach’s former assistants I’ve mentioned frequently, and Sonny Dykes, who along with offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is leading an archetype-busting attack at Louisiana Tech.

Given that the concept is most effective with true receivers running the routes, it’s become a natural fit for every spread team.  And now that teams at all levels are using it more and more, it’s become a self-reinforcing concept much like today’s most popular option play.  In the next installment, we’ll examine the use of fast tempos and what the means for opposing defenses and practitioning offenses.

Ray Lewis Out for Season

For all the problems the Ravens defense was having, I didn’t expect a Ray Lewis injury to become one of them.  Even seeing him standing dead-armed on the field–I thought it was stinger, and that’d he’d be back to normal, that he’d be kept out as a precaution if Baltimore had a faster ‘backer to sub in.  It was a torn triceps tendon, though.  A difficult injury  to a critical muscle.  It raises some questions about his career, though I think the bigger concern is for the Ravens defense.

Sure, Baltimore was having serious problems versus the run even with Lewis in the game.  The first play I saw from scrimmage had Dallas tight end Jason Witten manhandling a defensive end who I’m guessing was Haloti Ngata.  Even if Ngata was already struggling with his MCL injury, it’s probably a worse sign for the Ravens’ depth that he was in the game.  It’s also a given that Lewis isn’t nearly the player he once was; his diminished athleticism was likely a reason Baltimore shifted from a 4-3 to more of a 3-4/two-gap look, which would give him less ground to cover.  Watching the game, though, the Cowboys were having success getting bodies on him and keeping them there–and that was well before the injury, which was sudden.

All that said, there’s a reason Ray Lewis is “Ray Lewis.”  He’s a mastermind on the field and a tremendous motivator.  Even if he found his role diminished to a situational player, those elements can’t be overlooked.  Smart linebackers have a way of hanging around the league, and I think that if he wants to play again, he will.  I’m not as confident in the Ravens defense.  The second-string interior linebackers are versed in the system, though I haven’t seen anything from them to think they might be an improvement anywhere.  Maybe the young, four-year vet Dannell Ellerbee will break even with a faster first step and at least maintain the status quo between the whistles, and a guy like Ed Reed can fill the leadership void in a way he hasn’t had to do.  My guess, though, is that the pressure on Joe Flacco just went up a notch, and there won’t be anything the Ravens can do to alleviate it.

Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 4: The Screen Game

Nothing presses the edges of the defense like a screen pass to a wide receiver.  Wide receiver screens run the gamut from simple to elaborate.  On the simple end is the “quick” or “bubble” screen, which spread teams run from the slot, trips, or quad wide-receiver formations.  The outside receiver runs downfield on a fly look to either immediately block the outermost cornerback or to carry the defender downfield.  The slot receiver breaks immediately to the space vacated by the outer receiver, and gets a step or two before the ball’s delivered.  To make sure the play hits as quick as possible, the quarterback turns and throws the ball as soon as he takes the snap.

Baylor quick screen.

Teams use the quick screen as an extension of the running game or to punish teams for playing their corners deep.  Baylor’s version of the quick screen (shown above) is largely identical to other teams’ quick screens, though in this instance Head Coach Art Briles is focused on dictating opponents’ coverage.  His screen-receivers are smaller players who he instructs to pick up easy yards and avoid taking a big hit.  Baylor will also cramp their receivers close to the sidelines to further stress defenses’ ability to cover from sideline to sideline.

It’s no surprise that Oregon’s had some luck with quick screens.  In this video, they run it from trips:


On the more complicated side, we have Larry Fedora’s “slow” screen, which he uses now at UNC.  The play is a screen to the running back (traditionally used to take advantage of aggressive defensive linemen), though this play uses the threat of the quick screen game to keep defenses stretched.  Run from the split-shotgun formation, the play uses motion, play action, and a fake quick screen to one side of the field that sets up the actual screen on the opposite hash.  Here’s how it looks:

UNC slow screen.

This play takes advantage of a defense that’s stressed over the zone running game and the quick screen game.  Just before the snap, the left-side running back motions to the right like he’s going to be on the receiving end of a screen or swing pass.  In fact, the right-side running back is the intended target for the play; he’ll fake an inside run, and once the defense recognizes the fake, their attention will likely be drawn to the motion back.  This will help open the left side of the field for the screen pass.  The play-side receiver flies to the middle of the field and crack-back blocks the nearest linebacker.

On the line, the offensive tackles pass set to draw the defensive ends upfield.  The guards and center block the down linemen for a two-count before heading downfield or turning back to pick up late defenders.  The running back releases into the flat at the same time.  If the play’s run at a time when the defense is susceptible to the fakes, the play has essentially two critical blocks: the crack block and the play-side guard reaching the cornerback.

Screens like these keep the defense stretched horizontally and worried about the line of scrimmage.  In the next installment, we’ll look at how advances in the passing game have let spread teams attack downfield with tremendous effectiveness.

Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 3: More Veer Variations

Part 1:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/spread-option-basics-part-1-the-zone-read/

Part 2:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/spread-option-basics-pt-2-revising-the-veer/

We’ve seen the Veer go through two more major tweaks, both of which appeared on the scene around the same time.  The first we saw hinted at with Utah’s Shovel play.  Like the shovel, today’s veer game often uses a power-blocking scheme where pulling guards and even tackles opened up space for the play.  The use of a puller has freed most teams from running a true “triple option” with the veer, so that the QB only has to worry about a single read off the mesh.  Now with Ohio State, Meyer runs something that looks more like this now that he has shifty Braxton Miller at QB:

Power Veer, with Power-O blocking scheme; optioned defender in gray circle.

The second is the reversal of running paths for the QB and RB.  Just like the regular Veer, the QB reads the play-side defensive end.  If the end goes inside, the ball ends up with the running back going outside; if the end plays wide, the quarterback runs the ball up the gut.

Inverted Veer; optioned defender in gray circle.

Chris Brown was one of the first in the media/blogosphere to write about this change, and his term for it—“inverted veer”—has stuck.  Since the tailback is generally the best runner in the backfield, it makes sense to put him into space outside of the tackle box, where he can do more damage.  Having a running back cross the QB’s face on a fast mesh is also more threatening to the defense, and can create more problems with gap assignments than the usual veer.  The idea is even better if you have a bruiser like Tim Tebow who can lower his head and hammer linebackers, or a Cam Newton who’s big enough to take hits but athletic enough for long runs.

Today, these two concepts are pretty much always used side-by-side.  Drawn-up, the result is a “Power-Inverted Veer” that looks like this:

Power-Inverted Veer; optioned defender in gray circle.

Most teams follow the Auburn and Baylor model of giving the play a simple name like  “Power,” “Quarterback Power,” or “Dash.”  Whatever the name, the play is fundamentally sound.  Here’s Denard Robinson (who fits more the profile of a zone read or regular veer QB) keeping the ball to great effect against Purdue:


Using a puller and a read allows for different variations on the same play.  Some veer-style plays read the end’s direction, but scheme to pick him up immediately or with a backside puller.  The end result is a “read” without truly “optioning” the defender.  The outside-zone play we looked at does largely the same thing, only with a single player.

Teams will also fake the read part and draw the play as either a designed keeper or hand-off, which is easier to teach.  In the most basic version, the QB “rides” the tailback for a few steps laterally before taking the ball inside.  It’s essentially a misdirection play that stretches a defense more than a reverse pivot or a counter step.

I think it’s safe to say that the zone read is here to stay, and the veer never should’ve left.  In fact the zone read and inverted veer are terrific complements to each other.  They can be used from the exact same formation, and force the defense to be worried about option plays on either side of the formation, and both with and against run action.

These two plays, along with some more mundane runs, allow spread teams to control the tackle box without a bevy of tight ends and tailbacks.  To keep stretching the defense laterally, though, an offense has to get the ball  to the sidelines.  Next week, we’ll look at how spread teams use the screen game.

When Football Wasn’t King: Scandal at a Small School

W&L rushing vs. Wyoming in the Gator Bowl; photo courtesy mmbolding.com

I’m revisiting an earlier post on the continuing unrest in ACC leadership, which means I’m plowing through updates on scandals of every sort, and with them all the subtle (and not so subtle) ways schools try to minimize resulting punishments.  College football has turned into such a high-stakes money game that teams respond (almost invariably) to scandal by hiring lawyers, holding secret meetings, and generally closing their ranks.  It’s not just the ACC, of course.  Penn State’s name will be stained for decades, and Ohio State, Southern Cal, and other schools have been tarnished, and yet each posted vigorous defenses, or mounted promises both direct and allusive to return to the status quo.

It wasn’t always this way.  Imagine a football team at its peak, having just reached its first ever bowl game—the Gator Bowl, no less, in a time when there were only eight major bowls—deciding to throttle its football program not by submitting to NCAA demands, but by voluntarily abandoning its aspirations for the sport.

Washington and Lee University, a tiny private school in western Virginia, did just that in 1954 when it stopped awarding scholarships in sports, and a few years later moved all its teams(save for lacrosse) down to the “College Division,” now known as Division III.  It was a decision long in the making, and finally brought to a boil by a cheating scandal.

Like many older schools, the W&L Generals had a great deal of football success in the 19th century and the earliest decades of the 20th, though unlike many of its peers, it produced competitive teams at the University Division, which would be today’s FCS schools.  The school always embraced these wins, though it did so with a slight measure of distance.  The distance was owed to trustees and administrators who fought vigorously to preserve the university’s character of a small institution with an overriding focus on academics; diluting that focus with football was out of the question.  Perhaps the best example of this commitment can be seen in the frustrations of Dr. George Denny, president of W&L between 1901 and 1911, who was hampered in his efforts to raise the profile of football.  He subsequently took his talents to Tuscaloosa, and now shares a stadium name with Bear Bryant.

Despite this unease, W&L fielded high-level teams on into the 50’s, culminating in their ’51 Gator Bowl appearance versus Wyoming.  The team’s Split-T attack was one of the best offenses in the nation, and had knocked off larger schools like West Virginia, Richmond, and Virginia Tech, while holding its own against national power Tennessee before losing by a touchdown (and this despite out-gaining the Vols by a 120 yards.)  Significant internal hurdles—their QB’s father had died just days before the game, and future NFL All-Pro Walt Michaels missed the game with appendicitis—helped prevent them from stopping the Cowboys’ potent single-wing game, though to outsiders the future of the team seemed bright.

What wasn’t so apparent was that during a rough stretch in the 40’s, W&L came to realize that a school with a few hundred students, a selective admissions pool, and a reputation for serving only the well-heeled, couldn’t compete with big universities.  It would eventually have to choose between stepping down from major college athletics, or take up a full-hearted measure in the spirit of Denny’s ambitions to expand in a football-first direction.

I doubt the latter option was ever realistic, as both President Francis Gaines and prominent professor/coach Edwin “Cy” Twombly (a former MLB standout and father of the same-named painter) were aware of the changing college landscape and respectful of the schools traditions.  The decision was essentially made for them in 1954 when a cheating scandal was discovered among the football team.  Details on the scandal are scarce, though it was anathema to a school grounded in a strong honor code.  During the year, university trustees decided to stop granting athletic scholarships; current ones would be honored, though no new ones were to be given.  Sport would again become a pastime.

While public schools swelled with GI Bill enrollees and desegregation changed the talent composition of the sport, the Generals were eroding players and struggling to escape the shadow of the Old South.  W&L struggled against these programs, with thirty- and forty-point losses becoming common.  In 1958, the school dropped to College Division and exited major competition almost entirely, with lacrosse holding out until 1987.  Vocal alumni and students fought the process to a degree, but never with the vigor necessary to slow the decision, much less avert it.

I can’t imagine a Penn State, Miami, or Chapel Hill committing such an act, and these are schools more distant from dominance than W&L was at the time it gutted itself.  There are simply too many reasons (both good and ill) to keep FBS football.  For most schools hovering between levels of play, the decision is to move up in the ranks, and damn the consequences: see UConn, Charlotte, Georgia State, and other recent and pending arrivals.  The few schools that do step back have generally already stumbled into financial ruin, and slashing athletics is less an act of free will and more like turning the house over to creditors.  This may all change if the football bubble (if it’s real) ever bursts, but I doubt before then.