Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Top Dogs Learn Old Tricks, Not New Ones

In October of 1968, the Kansas City Chiefs were preparing for a game against the Oakland Raiders, their rivals for the AFL West championship (the Raiders eventually won in a playoff). Chiefs coach Hank Stram faced about the worst problem imaginable -- all his quarterbacks were hurt.

Starter Len Dawson had an arm issue and could barely throw. Backups Jacky Lee and rookie Mike Livingston were out. There was no way the Chiefs could run their normal offense. Kansas City was screwed, or so the smart and dumb money thought.

Stram thought that while Dawson couldn't throw, he could still hand off. The Chiefs came out in the straight-T formation, which had been revolutionary when employed by the 1940 Bears, but which hadn't been seen on a pro football field for close to 20 years. It sure hadn't been seen by any members of the Raiders in their football lifetimes. The Chiefs offensive line had devastating angles on the standard 4-3 defense of that time, Kansas City ran for 294 yards and won 24-10 while throwing all of three forward passes.

That's a real football trick play for you, one hidden in plain sight. It wasn't Stram's invention, just a part of the game so old as to be unrecognizable by contemporary players. He never used the T again, either, not once, because Stram knew damn well every coach in the sport had reacted to his stratagem by going back to their dustier textbooks and boning up on the defenses that had made the T obsolete back in the no-facemask days.

Remember the Wildcat formation craze of about a decade ago? Same deal, except the Wildcat was based on the single wing, an even older offense than the T. It worked great for a few teams for a few weeks. Opponents located the appropriate reference material, and the Wildcat quickly died. It still pops up in NFL games from time to time, mostly as an indicator the team running it has serious quarterback issues, and it averages about three yards a play at best.

All this history is being cited for the benefit of Chuck Pagano. The Colts' coach's big mistake with that bizarre and comical fake punt play wasn't trying to be tricky, it was trying to be original. Surprise is a legitimate and important part of strategy. Every team has a fake punt somewhere towards the back of the playbook. But all of 'em were probably first used in 1931 or thereabouts. They'd at least had some field testing. Most of all, they don't start off looking like fakes. How Pagano expected the Pats to react with anything but cautious suspicion to his cocktail napkin doodle escapes me.

In the years I covered Bill Belichick, he employed more than a few unusual plays and formations on offense, defense and special teams. Many worked, but surely not all. However, without exception, when asked about them, he would cite their origins in football history, college and pro. The coach was building off of the work of the zillions of coaches before him, not trying to create the Pigskin Theory of Everything.

It's no accident that the topic on which Belichick is most loqacious, informative and which he clearly loves best is football history. Borrowing from the past doesn't have to be plagiarism. Done right, it's an homage.


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