Innovation and the Forward Pass In the NFL
Last April, the Denver Broncos used a 7th-round pick on a player who was ranked by one service as the 76th-best player in the draft (Eddie Royal was ranked by the same service as the 78th). Peyton Hillis of the Arkansas Razorbacks had blocked for two of the best running backs in college football - Felix Jones and Darren McFadden. Just as importantly, he was known amongst college ranks for his power running and his soft and efficient hands out of the backfield.
It took a little time and a false start or two, but Hillis won the hearts of a lot of players, fans and coaches with his incredibly powerful and effective runs in the third quarter of the season. Many fans forget, however, that it wasn't until Week 9 against Miami that Hillis really burst onto the Broncos' scene - not for his running, but with 7 receptions for 116 yards and a TD, including a 47-yard reception. There was much speculation as to how he would be received in new Head Coach Josh McDaniels' administration, but many saw Hillis' incredible versatility as a weapon that McDaniels would be unable to resist; we just didn't know how true that would be. The roots of that versatility, however, were planted long ago.
The earliest days of football were a golden era for the running game. According to Michael Lewis (The Blind Side, footnote, page 120) the forward pass wasn't even legal in professional football until 1906, and it wouldn't be until 1933 that you could throw a forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage without penalty. The early pros were the professionals at running the ball; suffice it to say that the terminology applied to those who concentrated on the forward pass were a clear violation of JohnnyB's Rules of Conduct. It would be a long time before the forward pass would come into its own.
It would be disdained, in part, because the entire point of legalizing the forward pass was to make the game safer. Since football at its most simplistic is unarmed territorial warfare, valuing safety seemed at odds with the game as it was then known. To balance things out, up until the mid-1940s the practice of roughing the passer was tolerated or even encouraged in order to minimize the 'wuss' factor. Even so, the pass would be used extensively at the high school and college level and increasingly in the pros.
In the early 1960s, running versus the pass was, pardoning the pun, a toss-up. The pass would gain about 4.6 yards per play versus 3.9-4.1 per play for the run, but the pass was intercepted at a rate of 6.2% of attempts, whereas the run was fumbled only about 3% of the time. It was at about this point in time that Sid Gillman strode onto the field of history. While the history of the pass encompasses a great deal that I have to leave out, Gillman changed the way that we think of it for all time.
Brought on as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Gillman also had to take over the duties of general manager during the Chargers' founding season when GM Frank Leahy became ill that year. Gillman had also coached the (then) L.A. Rams and several college programs. His ability in play design and innovations with the forward pass would have a lasting effect on the game he loved. Gillman once said this:
"A football field is 53.33 yards wide by 100. We felt that we should take advantage of the fact that the field was that wide and that long. So, our formations reflected the fact that we were going to put our outside ends wide enough that we could take advantage of the whole width of the field. And then we were going to throw the ball far enough so that we forced people to cover the width and the length."
This would have repercussions for decades, and it still does today. When I was researching the New England Patriots for the Divining Series earlier this year, one of the things I watched was the way the Patriots stretched the field horizontally and vertically. All the while, I was watching what Sid Gillman had put into motion. He is generally agreed to be the first coach in the NFL to make the forward pass the primary offensive weapon.
Three people paid the most attention to Gillman's work. The first was Al Davis who, many years ago, was a bright and fertile football mind. His love of the vertical passing game has refined in degree but it has been so strong that it still dominated this year's draft for the Oakland Raiders. The second person was Don Coryell, of Air Coryell fame. Coryell, too, loved the vertical pass. Bill Walsh was the third, and he went in a different direction - literally. Walsh preferred to let the horizontal field dominate his perspective on the passing attack, and would bring in the rhythm or timing pass and polish it to mirror brightness. But there is another aspect of Walsh's invention that gets far less interest from the football public, yet has had far-reaching ramifications.
The most simple difference between Coryell and Walsh in terms of the systems each developed is that Coryell was known for playing a high-risk, high-reward style. The Air Coryell approach produced a lot of big plays; the quarterbacks who were its recipients threw for a lot of yards. But there were two downsides to this approach. The system allowed for a higher number of interceptions and incompletions, and it also took time for the plays to develop and the receivers to get open. This laid the quarterbacks open for sacks and big hits by the defense that would currently be considered untenable. There are simply too many dollars invested and too few really top quarterbacks available to permit this as a modern football system.
Walsh's system went in the other direction entirely. Beginning with the accurate but truly noodle-armed Virgil Carter with Cincinnati in the 1970s, Walsh taught Carter to throw so well that he went from a sub-50% lifetime completion average to leading the league at 62.2%. Walsh taught his QBs to throw short passes with a very high rate of completion and very, very few interceptions. After he would leave Cincinnati, Walsh moved on to the San Diego Chargers where he dealt with the momentous issues of Dan Fouts' mechanics, decision-making and footwork before moving yet again, this time to Stanford. By the time he achieved his dream of becoming an NFL head coach in San Francisco, Walsh had worked his program out to a science.
What really made his system unique, however, in addition to the more famous timing routes, was the emphasis that Walsh placed on reducing the number of decisions that the quarterback made. For example, with Fouts, Walsh taught him to look for the open man rather than trying to read the opposing teams' defense. Howard Mudd's name has been in the news quite a bit recently - he's one of the 'coaches' for Indianapolis who will be hired back as a 'consultant' in a blatant and utterly forgivable workaround on the NFL retirement rules. At the time, Mudd was the offensive line coach for the San Diego Chargers, and he summed up this circumstance up by saying, "Bill Walsh made Dan Fouts."
How did he do this? For one thing, Walsh was a genius at developing a young quarterback's timing, flow, rhythm and footwork. He also took Steve DeBerg, a 10th-round draft choice who presided over the lowest-scoring offense in the NFL in 1978. His completion percentage was a whopping 45.4%. After a year under Walsh's tutelage, it was up over 60%. This wasn't an isolated incident, either. Jeff Kemp had completed less than 1/2 his passes during his career with the LA Rams, but when he came in for an injured Joe Montana with the 49ers he threw nearly 60% and led the league in passer rating. Such was Bill Walsh's magic.
But there was an aspect that has gotten far less notice. Walsh did not believe in the idea of the quarterback as the most important player on the field. To Walsh's mind, the head coach was the most important player and the rest production assistants on his set. He once said, "The performance of a quarterback must be manipulated. To a degree, coaching can make a quarterback and it is certainly the most important factor for his success. The design of the team's offense is the key to a quarterback's performance. One has to be tuned to the other."
To Walsh, one of the most important factors in manipulating the quarterback was reducing the number of decisions that he was expected to make. For example, in his approach (and in others') you might have 4 or 5 receivers on the field. No one, reasoned Walsh, could compute who is going to be where in such an offense, track them and make instantaneous decisions. When Walsh's QB came up to the line of scrimmage he might have 5 receivers on the field, but he will already have chosen which side of the field he is going to throw to, reducing the number of options to 3 - a primary, secondary and an outlet receiver. Just before the snap, seeing how the defense lined up and shifted, the QB could then make a decision regarding whether his primary was a serious possibility. That left (in this example) just a single decision between the secondary and the outlet. The decision could be nearly instantaneous and the pass on its way before anyone could really move, meant to arrive just as the receiver did. Additionally, certain routes were precisely timed to 3-step drops and others to 5-step drops. Done to perfection, it was almost unstoppable.
But doing it to perfection meant hour after grueling hour of timing routes and patterns, practicing until the quarterback and receivers knew each other better than they knew themselves, over and over again. Many players would object to that kind of workload. Walsh simply didn't care. They were production assistants - they were paid to produce. That was all there was, in his mind.
Other changes began to creep in about now. In 1978, offensive linemen were allowed to grab for the first time. This was a year in which NFL teams passed the ball 42% of the time and ran 58%. This changed a little more each year until the mid-1990s, when NFL teams passed 59% of the time overall and ran 41%. The overall average run was still 3.9 to 4.1 yards, but with continued changes in favor of the passing game, the number of interceptions lowered until it was not more likely that a ball would be intercepted than it would be fumbled. Just as important, the number of yards per play for passes improved to about 7. The average rate of completion increased from less than 50% in 1960 to just over 60.9% in 2005. The passing game had come to modern dominance.
As we move further into our modern era, the nature of the game will continue to change. Running backs can become wide receivers. Fullbacks can become tight ends. The Wildcat (and associated variations) is fast becoming a commonality in the NFL. Three-tight end sets have made tentative appearances and many more may occur. One thing is certain - Innovation will not stand still. The best coaches will always be searching for new ways to confound, confuse and counter the advances perpetrated by their opponents. New approaches will emerge and evolve.
Head Coach McDaniels is looking to do many of the same things that Walsh did. For example, he's teaching his quarterbacks how to function from the moment they walk onto the field, how to run the huddle, how to stand, how to lean into their stance when they are in the shotgun, hands outstretched toward the center to gain a few milliseconds by controlling the ball faster. They are learning to grip differently, move differently, think differently. McDaniels has chosen Kyle Orton as his quarterback and he's going to teach him and use him much as Walsh did his players.
With all of this in mind, there's really nothing new about using a running back as a wide receiver. New England was doing so often last year. Although the term is constantly misused, the idea of an 'H-back', a lighter TE who can line up as a receiver or ball carrier as well as a blocker isn't all that new, either. However, new ways to use them are going to constantly break onto the scene.
And Hillis? ""I'm doing a little bit of everything," Hillis said. "I'm getting snaps at running back, wide receiver, fullback and tight end." Is anyone even surprised?