The Pro Pistol at Work


Alfred Morris' counter-pistol run.

On the stat sheet, it’s a ten-yard touchdown for the Redskins over NFC East rival Philadelphia.  In action, it’s a look at how the pro game is incorporating the best parts of college ball.

‘Skins Head Coach Mike Shanahan is no stranger to cutting-edge offense–his Broncos team made zone blocking schemes the tactic dujour at all levels of the game.  Melded with Shanahan’s West Coast background, the resulting offense earned John Elway his first two Super Bowls.  It was the perfect combination of old and new.  Neither Shanahan nor his staff have much in the way of recent college experience, unlike the 49er’s combination of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, for example.  This hasn’t stopped Washington from adopting all manner of spread-option plays and tweaks (particularly from Baylor’s playbook) to put rookie star Robert Griffin III in a position to maximize his talents.  The emphasis has been on using spread-option plays and the Pistol.  It seems to be working–at the time of writing, Washington is the league’s top rushing team and they’re a win away from claiming the East title.

Alfred Morris’ touchdown exemplifies the old-meets-new attitude of today’s run game, with college influences coming more and more to the forefront.  The play starts with a bunch-pistol look with the run-strength to the left and the line showing a pass-protection look.  The Eagles are aligned to match the run threat to the left, and as the play unfolds, it’s obvious they’re expecting pass.  Combined, the Eagles are poorly positioned to take what Washington throws at them.

Morris and RGIII make a reverse pivot/jab-step hand-off combo that gets the defense looking in the wrong direction, while the backside tackle pulls around to lead block.  This is a classic counter play and evocative of a Joe Gibbs squad at its finest: Morris runs to daylight almost unthreatened.  Of course, the classic counter plays all came from the I-formation, and usually had a backside duo pulling behind a mass of linemen looking to mow down anyone in its path.   While it doesn’t have any option aspects, this Pistol-formation play has the playside tackle pass-set while only the backside tackle pulls to hit an isolated linebacker feels like a pistol/pro adaptation of Rich Rodriguez’s Dart play.  Sharper eyes will notice that Morris is aligned a yard deeper than is standard in the Pistol; this is probably to give him more room to sell the counter and get to full speed.

However you peg its influences, the Eagles didn’t know how to handle the play.  The playside defensive end is best positioned at the snap to gum things up, and even better positioned (by default) an instant later when his colleagues get washed away from the play.  The DE reads the pass-set of the guy in front of him, though, and runs himself out of the play.  The backside ‘backer plays the pass, the Mike wanders into the line of scrimmage, and the playside ‘backer reacts too slowly to have an impact.  Out of the entire secondary, only the safety recognizes run, though even if he had a chance of playing force versus a pulling, full-steam tackle, there’s no one to fill in around him.

If it makes Eagles fans feel better, you aren’t alone.  Teams across the league are struggling to stop all manner of college imports and their resulting hybridizations.

Remembering the Immaculate Reception

Pittsburgh's Franco Harris wards off Raiders DB Jimmy Warren on his way to the endzone.
Called by some the greatest play in the history of the NFL, the Immaculate Reception is nearing its 40th anniversary.  While Franco Harris’ improbable touchdown catch had no major impact on the playoffs that year (the Steelers later lost to Shula’s perfect Dolphins in the AFC championship), it was the highlight of a game that signaled the start of four consecutive playoff matches between the two teams, and in retrospect heralded the imminent Steeler’s dynasty.  Forty years later, the play still stands as one of the most dramatic moments in American sports.

It was an exciting play by anyone’s standards, especially for television audiences.  The game was already a classic 7-6 slugfest featuring John Madden and Chuck Noll on the sidelines, and Terry Bradshaw, Kenny Stabler, George Blanda, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Joe Greene, Jim Otto, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount on the field.  It was 4th and 10, 22 seconds left on the clock, with the Steelers down by a single point and stalling on their own 40 yard line.  Folks at home saw Terry Bradshaw elude two rushers and heave a desperation pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua, only to have feared-hitter Jack Tatum level the intended receiver.  The ball was knocked out of view.

Then Harris flashed into the frame, a defender trailing him.  He had made a shoestring catch of the deflection and was running down the sideline.  The only player capable of stopping him–Jimmy Warren–was caught so off-guard that he was two steps late in taking what would’ve been a makeable tackling angle.  Harris stiff-armed Warren and stepped into the endzone to win the game.

The play’s controversy came from a now-stricken rule: at the time, receivers couldn’t catch mid-air balls that had deflected off a teammate.  If the ball had touched Fuqua before Harris’ catch, the play would be dead by rule; if it had instead bounced off Tatum, it would’ve been a live ball.  The refs ruled on the side of the Steelers and history was made.

Not surprisingly, there’s debate to this day as to who the ball actually hit.  A woozy Fuqua told listeners after the game that the ball had struck his chest.  John Madden says he still can’t figure out what happened, and has sworn off making comments about the play.  While today’s high-speed/hi-def cameras and instant replay might’ve made a conclusive statement, the grainy footage of yesteryear doesn’t clearly show who caused the deflection, and never shows if Harris caught the ball without it touching the turf.  Some have likened NBC’s footage of the play to a sports version of the Zapruder film.

The deflection has been the biggest source of contention–not even the Raiders argue much that Harris failed to make a clean catch.  The clearest indicator of who caused the deflection is the speed at which the ball bounced away.  Carnegie Mellon physicist John Fetkovich determined that only Tatum, who was rushing full-speed towards the in-flight ball, could’ve deflected it so forcefully.  That’s good enough for me, though I imagine even decades after the fact more than a few Raiders fans unconvinced.

Give the Finger, or Save It?

If there was an award for “Most Valuable NFL Receiver of the Past Few Weeks,” Dallas’ Dez Bryant would probably win it.  His touchdown catch versus the Steelers this weekend helped add a fifth win to the Cowboys’ recent 4-1 run and kept the team’s playoffs chances viable.
A pre-injury Dez Bryant warming up; image courtesy

Bryant’s done this with a broken index finger on his left hand.  Even though the finger needs surgery to heal, he’s stated his intent to play until the Cowboys’ season is over.  He played the Pittsburgh game with a splint that he’ll wear until the operation date.  More than one media outlet has praised Bryant for this decision, calling his choice to play through the injury a sign of maturity from a volatile player. They say he’s learning from his teammates, who’ve played through torn spleens and punctured lungs.

That said, their declaration might be mistaken.  Bryant could be sacrificing an irretrievable measure of talent just to help an inconsistent and injury-riddled squad, one that seems as likely to lose the remainder of its schedule as it is to win it.  To put things another way, the Cowboys aren’t going to win a Super Bowl this year because the “Mayan Apocalypse” will happen first.

Make no mistake about it: football is hell on fingers.  They get caught in jerseys and facemasks.  They get cleated.  They take crown shots from helmets.  They get pinched and sometimes the skin “de-gloves,” which is exactly what it sounds like.  They get cut and slashed over and over until the scabs finally have time to settle into mottled scars.  They get twisted and bent backwards beneath piles.  It can be unpleasant.  Ask Anthony Munoz, Brian Baldinger, or Torry Holt.  Or if you can’t, let them show you:

Anthony Munoz


Brian Baldinger


Torry Holt.
Damage the tendons, ligaments and joint surfaces enough, and eventually those fingers will stop popping back in place and start sticking out sideways.  Along the way, you can get arthritis and bone cysts, among other pleasant side effects.

The most famous situation is the tale of 49ers’ safety Ronnie Lott, who in 1985 shattered the tip of his pinky finger while making a tackle.  His options were to get a bone graft to repair the finger (and miss the post-season) or to get a third of the ragged digit amputated (and miss part of his finger.)  Lott went with the amputation and added more mystique to his Hall-of-Fame career.

Football is hell on fingers, and more often than not, injured ones just get in the way.  Willie Young, a current defensive end for the Detroit Lions, thought seriously about amputating part of his middle finger.  Heck, a few years ago an o-lineman for D-II Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) opted to have a dislocated pinky removed rather than wait for it to heal.  Football isn’t unique, by the way.  It happens in rugby, mixed martial arts, and other sports, too, with non-essential fingers and toes ending up on the chopping block.

Notice that I didn’t mention basketball players.  While they probably get more jammed fingers than anyone (including nasty avulsion injuries where tendons tear and take pieces of bone with them), their hands are so important that protecting them is a must.  The same is true for wide receivers.  A working index finger is essential to excelling as a wide receiver, and by forgoing surgery Bryant may be hurting his career down the road.  Doctors have warned him that his finger could stiffen without surgery.  That may not sound like much–I imagine plenty of readers would trade their back, hip, knee, or shoulder problems for an uncooperative digit–though when it comes to handling a football, the index fingers are critical.

The index finger is the key finger for securing the football when a player’s running down the field.  It hooks over the end and helps pin the ball against the runner’s forearm and upper arm.  Hooking prevents defenders from grabbing the tip and ripping it out, while pinning keeps swats and punches from dislodging the ball. If the finger can’t contract against the ball then it’s useless on either account.  Probably more important to Bryant, though, is that the index fingers are the first to make contact with the ball on any passes caught while facing the quarterback.  That’s about 90% of the passing tree.  If that finger doesn’t give or flex like it needs to, it could pretty much act like a pinball flipper and knock passes away.

A semi-functional finger might not be a big deal when he’s open and gets a lob to the chest (like his touchdown catch this weekend), but it could become a very big deal when he’s covered in defenders and has a spiral screaming in on him.  And any lingering health issue he develops now is going to loom larger later in his career when he’s slower and can’t beat guys one-on-one like he used to, or pull away from guys who are trying to tomahawk a fumble.

My thought is that he’ll be okay.  He hasn’t fully tapped his talents, the season will end more quickly than America’s Team hopes for, and Bryant will have surgery before he ends up with an arthritic club on the end of his hand.  He also plays for a team with plenty of weapons on offense, so he won’t find himself put in positions that play against the injury.  If anything, Bryant’s career probably rests more on this assumption that he’s grown up in the last few weeks.  That, and the blessing of fortune every football player needs in order to avoid career-ending injuries and the pitfalls of fame and wealth.

When Cornerbacks Weren’t Cornerbacks

You might recognize the still below.  It comes from the same presentation by Don Faurot that I used in my post on how he developed the concept of the option (found here:

For the Faurot piece, I chose a pic that obscured an old convention of the game. Here’s a clearer view:

Missouri Coach Don Faurot lectures on option plays.

That’s a classic 5-2 front, which is historical in its own right, with a nose tackle designated as a “center,” which is old, too.

For my money, though, the biggest eye-catchers are the “H” defenders lined up on each side of the defense.  As you probably guessed, those defenders are “halfbacks,” though we’d call them cornerbacks today.  Halfback was actually a common name for the position well into the 1960’s, which is when cornerback began taking hold.

Like many of football’s rules and conventions, this old use of halfback is owed to the fact that rugby football played a great role in shaping the game.  This is especially true with position names.  Center, wing, flanker, halfback, and fullback are all rugby positions that made their way onto the gridiron.

Being a continuous game without separate offenses and defenses, rugby players kept the same positional title regardless of which team had the ball. This trend carried over to the original, rugby-like versions of football.  As football evolved, the names became more specialized or were changed entirely.  Halfback was one of the last to change, probably because it was still a fairly useful descriptor, since one such defender would be found on each half of the field.  My guess is that “cornerback” became the favored replacement as the position began aligning closer to the line of scrimmage.

Canadian football deserves the last note here.  Like the American game, the Canadian version saw the same evolution in position names, though in contrast to their neighbors, Canadian coaches kept “halfback” with the defense.

This was likely because Canadian rules allow an offense only three downs to advance the ball.  The rule demands such an emphasis on the forward pass that it made little sense to have more than one running back and just as much sense to call the position anything but “running back.”  This defensive halfback is a secondary player roughly analogous to a nickel or dime back in the American game who lines up around the edges of the tackle box.