The Elways and the spread, Part 2

Note: This is the second of a three-part series on the history of the spread offense. Part 1 appeared yesterday, and the series will conclude tomorrow with Part 3Special thanks to TJ for providing the play diagrams that appear throughout this series.

Some coaches have argued that the development of the spread offense was inevitable. That’s not an unreasonable perspective - if the trend in football is to stack your big guys together defensively, some offensive coordinator or head coach is going to spread out their guys to force you to respond, and they’re going to use those open spaces to fling the ball right down your throat. Even so, it took both a tiger and a mouse to really bring the spread into the modern lexicon. The specific form that it took may not have survived in its early form - none of them do, really - but its influence on the game hasn’t slowed, whatever directions it may have taken. While there is nothing truly new under the football sun, Glenn Ellison challenged that axiom, and the way he went about it changed the face of football for all time.

It was 1958 and Glenn ‘Tiger’ Ellison wasn’t happy. Nothing made Ellison, one of the best of his era of high school coaches, happy except winning. His overall record was enviable, sticking to the smash-mouth approach to football that he’d been winning with for years. A former roommate of football legend Woody Hayes at Dennison University, he had taken a job as a line coach for his friend Elmo Lingrel when Lingrel took the head coaching job at Middleton High School in Ohio. He and Lingrel would stay there for 12 years, and when Elmo left, Ellison took over the program and would be there for another 18 seasons.

Ellison's halftime speeches were things of oratorical beauty, displaying his roots as an English teacher with a love of language as well as his passion as a football coach, and earning him the sobriquet ‘Tiger’. His players were known to train and lift all winter; they ran for endurance all spring and dug with picks and shovels all summer, in preparation for the pounding that they would endure in the fall. Ellison was a believer in hitting the opposition over and over again until they couldn’t stand up any longer. But like all approaches eventually do, this one caught up with him. Other teams knew what he would do, and went to great lengths to counter it.

So it was, in the 14th year of his tenure as head coach and his 26th with the program, that disaster struck. Ellison suddenly found his title-winning team in an 0-4-1 hole. The school hadn’t had a losing season since they started playing the sport back in 1911, but he only had 5 games left and was perilously close to the first losing season in school history. Something had to be done.

Ellison stayed up nights until he developed one of the strangest formations in football history. He called it the ‘Lonesome Polecat’, with the center in front of the quarterback, who was alone in a shotgun formation (Hence the ‘Lonesome’ part. But, Polecat? It still eludes me). The rest of the OL was strung out to what is usually the weakside - the left, as you face the defense - while the two receivers were bunched up on the weakside, far to the right. The QB was encouraged to scramble and to find an open receiver. No one had ever seen it that they recalled - but his team reeled off five consecutive victories. That was in 1958.

The following year, when the boys came to camp, Ellison had changed the system again and made it into a more balanced attack. The new system had 20 passes and 20 runs, whereas the Lonesome Polecat only had one passing play: the QB would run around until someone would come open and then shoot them the ball, and for that reason the play was called the run and shoot. Ellison chose that moniker - the Run and Shoot - as the name of his new system.

He kept many of the offensive line movements, pulls and traps that he had slipped into the old LP system. The formations began with two split ends, each moved out a standard 17 yards from the ball. This was done so that run and pass plays looked identical at the start, providing confusion for the defense to chew on. The blocking schemes for run and pass were also identical in the new scheme. 

It confused the heck out of the rest of the league - and the state - and in the next 4.5 years, Ellison’s Run and Shoot won 38 of 45 games. Several years later, ‘Tiger’ Ellison, still famous for his halftime rants, which fired up his team until they were incensed, furious and ready to fight in the trenches for another victory, wrote a book which he called The Run and Shoot - Offense of the Future. Ellison didn’t think small, but he did think a great deal. In his introduction (the prologue was written by none other than Woody Hayes) - he said,

This is the story of a revolution. A revolt started in the mind of a football coach and ended in a new order of things on the football field. The revolution awakened a sleepy community into wide-eyed enthusiasm and caused a veteran coach, squirming with frustration on the threshold of this first losing season, to wake up and enjoy life to its fullest.

It wasn’t that long after that someone in similar straits to those that Ellison had experienced grabbed onto the same lifeline. 

Mouse Davis was a believer in what he called ‘pissants’. At 5’5" and 135 lbs when he was in college, he still played QB and he used the description ‘pissants’ as a compliment - they were fast, smaller players who could fit into smaller holes in the field. The big guys tended to be a touch slower, and that gave Mouse’s players an advantage that he took full value from.  As the head coach at Milwaukie High School outside Portland, Mouse was running an I formation:

Basic I Formation

Davis received a copy of Ellison’s book in 1965, right about the time that he was looking for a new way to get the field spread open for his smaller players. 

He worked on developing it over the last 12 years of his career teaching high school, and won the Oregon State Championship with it in his final year at that level, 1973. He then took a job as offensive coordinator at Portland State. The following year, he was promoted to head coach. He had the good fortune to have June Jones as his quarterback, and that year, Jones threw for a Division II-record 3,518 yards, a record that stood for a decade. By the time Jones had been replaced by Neil Lomax, Portland State had been kicked up a level and was playing Division I-AA. Lomax became the all-time leader in total offense for the NCAA until Steve McNair surpassed him in 1994. 

What really makes the run and shoot offense unusual is that it’s really similar to the triple option, even though one is more heavily based on passing and the other on running. The similarity is that both have multiple reads for the QB to make. The receivers are responsible for reading the defenses, and the QB in turn is responsible for reading the receivers. In the case of the run and shoot, there are readable - in other words, option - pass routes.  Here’s an example of the old triple option running game out of a wishbone formation, to give you an idea:

Wishbone Triple Option

The response of the rest of football regarding the run and shoot? It would never work. It was a ‘gimmick’ offense that wouldn’t stand the test of time and level of play. Of course, Bill Walsh was told the same thing - how’d that work out? There was another similarity - both systems were essentially cerebral. Although the Walsh offense relied on the system to limit the number of reads that Mouse Davis loved, they were still dependent on the QB making the right reads - in the case of Walsh’s West Coast Offense: 

Standard 212 Walsh West Coast

Walsh gave the QB a limited number of options or reads to make, but they were essential and had to be made quickly. Walsh hated letting the QB make decisions, but there came a point where it was necessary. Mouse, on the other hand, loved it, and loved teaching the young QBs how to make those reads. 

There were other differences. Walsh loved spreading the field horizontally by using the short pass as a running play - he required what we now usually call ‘possession’ receivers - the bigger guys who can take a pounding going over the middle in the short passing game. The receiver knows that he’s going to take punishment, and it takes a special breed to do it well. Mouse, true to his name and background, put it this way:

The whole thing is, when you boil it down, that if I’m going to put out a pissant (smaller, faster receivers), you’ve probably got to cover him with a pissant. And, the more of the field that you use, the cleaner your reads.

Both Walsh and Davis took great resistance to their systems. In Walsh’s case, the constant refrain was, “That’s not football. That’s just a dink and dunk offense. It won’t work.” It was a ‘dink and dunk’, too, although vertical routes were part of it. Walsh dinked and dunked his way to three Super Bowl Victories, and changed the nature of the modern game in the process. Several SBs have been won using his precepts since then, including two in Denver. 

Mouse was constantly criticized because, as he relayed, “They called it flag football. You ought to be able to knock someone’s head into the dirt or you’re not a real football coach. That was the thinking.” Given the popularity of the spread - even though the run and shoot version was of limited use in the NFL, where some big guys can run 4.35-second 40-yard dashes and cover pissants just fine - Mouse had a point. While defenses are usually built upon knocking heads, the most cerebral coach on the defensive side of the ball might be Dick LeBeau right now, and his defenders are famous for knocking heads (as long as they’re not playing New England) as well as outthinking the other team. Offenses were headed down the road toward using, and often combining, the principles of Warner, Gillman, Ellison, Davis, Walsh and Coryell, all of whom were men of great intellect, as well as incredible drive and creativity. 

So, how does all of this play into the development of the single back spread, and how does it link John Elway to Kyle Orton? The answer lies in Part III - I’ll look forward to seeing you there.

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

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