The Elways and the spread, Part 1

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on the history of the spread offense. Part 2 will appear tomorrow (Thursday), and the series will conclude on Friday with Part 3. Special thanks to TJ for providing the play diagrams that appear throughout this series.

You’ll find very few Broncos fans who would argue that John Elway wasn’t the greatest Broncos quarterback of all time. Many fans in and out of Denver have called him the greatest quarterback of all time. That’s high praise for anyone, especially a player who was once dedicated to becoming a running back. The story of how that changed, and its link to the current Broncos QB Kyle Orton, is a tale worth telling. Settle in, and I’ll set the stage for you. The full production will begin in the second section, but without the background, you won’t catch the full effect. Let’s begin in the State of Washington. In fact, let’s begin with Washington State University.

Many years ago, Coach Jack Elway was on the coaching staff of Washington State University along with a young man by the name of Joe. They became close friends, despite an 11-year age difference. When each left, Jack Elway moved south to the LA area to coach at Cal-State Northridge, and later San Diego State - along with him he took his young son, who was about to go into high school.

Joe headed north and coached the defensive line for the Calvary Stampede of the Canadian Football League before becoming its assistant GM. He would later spend a 12-year stint as head coach of an American university, where he would teach the spread formation offense. How did they each learn the spread? That, friends, is the key question, because it links together Jack and John Elway to Kyle Orton’s performance in Josh McDaniels’ version of the spread. It took a long history of great coaching minds and the willingness to change of a certain high school coach to alter the course of modern football. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There are dozens of theories, beliefs and opinions on the development of the spread formation. A couple of years back, someone published an article claiming that Urban Meyer was the architect of the approach, and that he had taught it to Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. It was a statement that was breathtaking in its errors and utter lack of research, but it was mostly based on a simple confusion on names. Back in 1952, a brilliant football strategist named Meyer published a book called Spread Formation Football. He was decades ahead of his time, but it was former TCU coach L.R. ‘Dutch’ Meyer, not Urban, who wrote the book on the spread.

There was also a rumor that Bill Belichick - with acolyte Josh McDaniels in tow - visited Urban Meyer over the spring of 2007, and that the team’s success later that year was dependent on them absorbing Meyer’s wisdom. Again - this is absurd. Belichick and McDaniels did make a ‘Southern Swing’ that year, visiting Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, among several others. McDaniels had worked for Saban in the past at Michigan State, while Saban had been the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator under Belichick from 1991 to 1994.

There is no substance to suggest that this trip changed their basic approach to the offense, although it is true - and always will be - that coaches sit, drink beer and talk and diagram football with each other (No one else speaks their dialect), and that each year, the offense changes in degree. But, putting that on a meeting with Urban Meyer is less than realistic. They used a couple of his concepts in 2007, perhaps three or four plays out of the encyclopedic playbook, according to both McDaniels and Belichick, but that was all. The offense and defense of each team will change in degree every season, to throw new wrinkles at the opposition. There’s nothing new there.

I will, however, give Urban Meyer credit for one of the best football quotes I’ve ever heard - “I have yet to be in a game where luck was involved. Well-prepared players make plays. I have yet to be in a game where the most prepared team didn't win.” Talent plays a heck of a role too, but he’s dead on regarding preparation. Innovative coaches can maximize the playing level of the people that they have. They can’t turn a mule into a thoroughbred, but sometimes, through solid preparation, they can outplay one.

In 1965, Glenn ‘Tiger’ Ellison, a brilliant educator as well as a brilliant football mind, published Run and Shoot: Football: Offense of the Future. Along with Dutch Meyer's text, these two books formed much of the basis of modern football. Those of you who have enjoyed (or at least tolerated) my writing know that I’ve spent a lot of time on the trio of Sid Gillman, Don Coryell and Bill Walsh - and they have been worth every word I could eke out. Even so, the story of the one-back spread formation is even more complex, but is just as influential and important to the modern game.

While many other coaches - most of whom the average fan has never heard of, nor needs to - were working with similar spread approaches, these two texts listed above have already influenced generations of coaches, and their work continues to have validity today. Just as an ancient formation has suddenly been called the ‘Wildcat’ and other names and the basis of it is sometimes claimed to be a modern invention, the reality is that it’s just the old single-wing offense. The single wing was old when Glenn Scobey ‘Pop’ Warner wrote his dense and voluminous (and well worth the effort of reading and comprehending it, if you can find a copy) text on the single wing formation and systems for running it in 1908. Jim Thorpe, great man and brilliant athlete that he was, played the single wing tailback that Ronnie Brown plays for the Miami Dolphins under Pop Warner at the Carlisle Indian School, back in 1911. To reference Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Such is also true with football in general, and with the various forms of the spread.

Joe Gibbs has said repeatedly that no one should ever give him credit for running something for the first time. That’s because, he notes, that somewhere, someone that you’ve never heard of has run it before. Josh McDaniels showed his young age for the first time in Denver when he claimed that people were going to see something that they’ve never seen before in his offense. It hasn’t happened yet, but even if he shows something that no one remembers seeing, it’s unlikely to have never been done before. Gibbs, more experienced and a better historian of the game, was right. Bill Belichick didn’t comment in the media, but he’s echoed the same refrain that Gibbs has sung on many occasions.

Belichick’s contribution to football’s history, as much as anything (other than three SB titles, of course), was in the economic realm, showing the rest of the league how to handle the salary cap and to build for the longer term; something that was new to the league. Belichick’s a defensive genius who reads film brilliantly and understands the offense just as well as the D, but I’ve never heard him claim to have developed anything but a blueprint of how to build a team. It was remarkable, far ahead of its time and incredibly effective, but that’s not taking credit for a formation, system or approach. I’ve written before on the extensive education that BB had, and of how the New England systems were developed.

The story of John Elway and his link to Kyle Orton began at Washington State, with Jack Elway and his friend Joe, but this came to its true beginning when, after a three-year stint as the Stampede’s defensive line coach, Joe was promoted to assistant general manager. As is still often the case, one of the assistant GM’s jobs is to keep an eye on the scouting, but in those days in Canadian football, it was more about doing the scouting. Joe was granted funds to scout in California, which took a lot of money in those days, and he quickly went to see what his old friend Jack was doing with his team. Joe found them running all over the field in combinations that he’d never seen before. When he and Jack went out for medicinal malt libations at an establishment near the field, to regain their strength after the endless strain of practice, Joe asked Jack about it. Where the heck did he come up with that kind of offense?

Jack disavowed his own role in the play formation - which was, of course, the spread:

Jack pushed Joe toward the local high school coach, Jack Neumeier. A couple of years before, Neumeier had introduced both John and Jack Elway to the concepts of the ‘one back spread’. When John Elway reached Neumeier’s team at Granada Hills High in the San Fernando Valley, Elway was bent on becoming a running back, but Neumeier quickly changed his mind. He designed an offense around him, taught him how to play quarterback in a new way, exciting him as the son of a football family and drew the interest and compliment of imitation of a football legend in Jack. Joe turned out to be equally intrigued.

But it was Neumeier himself that had had to change his concept and approach to the game in order to coach John in the one-back spread. In our next segment, I’ll begin to sort all this out for you, trace the path that changed the game, produced John Elway as a HOF quarterback and led to Kyle Orton’s rapidly increasing success in the spread offense variation that head coach Josh McDaniels uses in Denver. See you then.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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