"Football may be a
team sport, but it is a coach's game," Steve Sabol observed in The Games That Changed The Game: The Evolution of the NFL in
Seven Sundays. "They are constantly innovating and
embracing every new technology."
The coach who turned football into a technological competition between coaches
was Army's Earl "Red" Blaik. He did it by emphasizing technology,
particularly film study, and specialization. While Blaik did not invent either
film study or specialization, his adoption of these technological concepts
brought their use into the mainstream.
In 1948, Blaik hired Sid Gillman as Army's offensive line coach. Gillman was a
pioneer in film study and Blaik embraced the technology. Film study enabled
football design architects to verify that their abstract "X and
O" designs worked.
"Game film is the great truth teller," Ron Jaworski wrote in in
The Games That Changed The Game. "Every
play puts responsility on the athletes on the field--eleven on offense, eleven
on defense--and all must do their jobs in order for a play to be successful.
The only way to accurately see and evaluate each player's performance is to
watch what is referred to in the coaching profession as the 'All-22' tape. In
these tapes, every player is visible, and they are filmed from sideline and end
zone angles. If you study and interpret them correctly, they reveal
Today, the value of film study is unquestioned. Indeed, the most successful
coach in the game today, New England's Bill Belichick, is defined by his
commitment to film study. Belichick's first job in the NFL came at the age of
23 when the Balitmore Colts' Ted Marchibroda hired him to break down film.
"As head coach, Bill has to deal regularly with public relations and
marketing aspects of the game, stuff he really doesn't care about. They're
necessary, but a distraction from what he enjoys best. Belichick loves coaching
football players and has as much respect for the game's history as anyone I
know. But Bill is happiest when he once again becomes that
twenty-three-year-old kid down in the basement of Memorial Stadium. When he's
alone in the dark, projection clicker in hand, studying game tape, watching
tiny flickering football images on a blank wall, in search of the next
innovation that will someday help his team win."
While film study enabled coaches to verify the success and cure the failure of
their play designs, specialization in the form of free substitution of distinct
"platoons" of offensive and defensive players enabled designers to
achieve increasing returns from their designs. While military governor in Japan
in 1948, General Douglas MacArthur, Blaik's mentor and a die-hard Army football
fan, prophetically wrote in a letter to Blaik:
"The introduction of the new substitution system opens up a wide range of
ramification in the tactical handling of a football team. In effect it makes
possible the more or less complete use of specialists in applying the various
features of the game.
"Specialization under skillful guidance from the bench now will exercise a
tremendous influence upon the final results. Heretofore, only eleven men could
be on the team and each had to represent so much of a general development that
specialization was really only incidental to natural ability. All of this is
now changed. It gives almost unlimited selectivity to an entire squad whose
members can from the very beginning be developed for special phases of attack
Football fans, however, initially did not like this new specialization. Of a
43-0 slaughter of Stanford in 1948, Blaik wrote: "Our brand of football
did not please much of the crowd of 47,000 in Yankee Stadium. As the score
mounted and our platoons moved in and out, the Army team, for the only time in
history to my knowledge, heard itself booed continually for trying to play the
But the success that resulted from the design advantage of specialization soon
won over the game's customers by creating a more liberated offensive game.
Long-time Los Angeles sports writer Bob Oates noted: "The two-platoon
revolution, which disrupted the defense-dominate mindset that still hobbles
soccer and other sports, revised football into a series of contests, between,
for example, fast talented contingents of wide receivers and defensive
backs--the kinds of athletes who rarely had the size to fit anywhere on a one
platoon football team."
Today, as with film study, specialization is unquestioned. "In this era of
specialization and rotating personnel packages, defenses are in trouble if they
can't get the right people onto the field to combat what the offense is
doing," Jaworski wrote in
The Games That Changed The Game. "'Late
in my career, it became more of a hassle matching up your personnel with
opponent's,'" former Denver defensive coordinator Joe Collier told
Jaworski. "'It got to be so that you had a coach up in the booth whose
sole job was to spot their substitutions, then relay them back to us on the
bench, so we could put people in to get a more advantageous matchup. The
changes were so wholesale that it became a rat race on the sidelines. Today you
need a lot more good defensive backs to compete with all the wide receivers on
the field, and finding good secondary help is tough. They're a rare breed. With
spread formations, it's a different game.'"
It may be a different game, but it still is a game that has its roots in
Blaik's idea that the best way a coach could attain a design advantage for his
players would be to provide them with options. In 1948, using the new research
(film study) and development (specialization) tools, Blaik and Gillman began
developing a new design of blocking known as "option blocking." (The
captain of Blaik's 1948 team was Bill Yeoman, who later would invent the
triple-option at the University of Houston.) In 1949, Gillman became the head
coach at the University of Cincinnati and Blaik hired Vince Lombardi to replace
him as the Cadets' offensive line coach. Blaik and Lombardi spent the next 5
years developing the option blocking design.
Football historian Ed Gruver observed that in the option blocking design, at
the critical point of attack, the blocker was given the option of taking the
defender in whichever direction offered the easiest block. For example, if the
play was designed to go over the right tackle, the blocker at the point of
attack normally would be expected to take the defensive tackle to the inside.
But, if the defensive tackle aggressively charged or slanted to the outside,
then the blocker could take the defender in that direction instead. The running
back would "read" the block and adapt to the hole.
At its root, the option blocking system incorporated the opposing coach's
design as part of Blaik's offensive design. Because Blaik could not be
certain ahead of time what the opposing coach's defensive design would be, he
gave his blockers options as a hedge against the uncertainty. By doing so,
Blaik nullified the impact of the opposing coaching design.
Conceptually, Blaik's option blocking design is the foundation of modern
technological football. In pro football, Lombardi would go on to design the
"run to daylight" architecture for which he would become famous and
Gillman would go on to design the sophisticated pass protection and pass route
combinations upon which Bill Walsh built the West Coast Offense. At the college
level, Yeoman would go on to design the triple-option that was the dominant
college offensive design for nearly 20 years.
But Blaik has been overlooked by current historian's like Ron Jaworski and
Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden.
It is a significant oversight.
West Point was the exchange where football ideas were traded on a daily basis
in the post-World War II era. A little more than a decade later, pro football
would follow Lombardi and Gillman in one direction while college football would
follow Yeoman in a slightly different direction. But Lombardi's, Gillman's, and
Yeoman's inventions all had one thing in common: They all based their
innovations on the principle that the team that held options had an edge over
its opponent and they all used the tools developed under Blaik (film study and
specialization) to acquire those options for their players.
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