Chalk Talk: the A-Formation

George Halas is largely credited with inventing the T-formation, which became the standard on offense for quite some time. But the Giants' Steve Owen created the A-formation and had success. In Part III of his five-part series called "The Evolution of Offense," Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down the A-formation and how Owens used it to win a pair of NFL titles.

Steve Owen earned a ticket to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

After a highly successful playing career, Owen went on to coach the New York Giants in 1931. He held that position until 1953. In his 23 seasons as coach of the G-Men, Owen brought his team to eight NFL championship games and won two titles. Only six of his teams had losing records.

Besides being one of the most successful coaches in Giants history, Owen was also a football innovator. One of his creations was a variation of the single-wing known as the "A-formation." According to Owen, the A combined "the essentials of the T-formation with the power blocking of the single-wing." Unlike the "I," "T," and "Y," the A-formation's name had nothing to do with the shapes formed by the backs' positioning. Owen called this formation the "A" and the single-wing the "B," but after seeing the possibilities with the A, he said, "We forgot about B and the other 24 letters, as well."

Owen began experimenting with the A in the early 1930s but didn't use the formation full-time until 1937. "In 1937, Steve came up with the A-formation," recalled Hank Soar, a former back for the Giants. "He split his linemen and placed four on the right side of the center and just and end and tackle on the left. He put the wingback behind the weakside end, the blocker behind the weakside tackle, the tailback four yards behind the center with the quarterback a yard in front of him and to his right."

The main difference between the A and the single-wing is that the wingback and blocking back were placed on the weak side of the formation and not the strong side. When the line forms right, the backs are strong left; when the line forms left, the backs are strong right. This allowed the offense to run plays just as effectively to the weak side of the formation. In the single-wing, plays were always run to the strong side. The A-formation did away with that disadvantage.

Owen's Giants were the only team in the NFL to run the A-formation. This meant that opposing teams had to prepare for an entirely different offense than the rest of the league ran, giving New York a serious advantage. Another benefit of the A was the ability of the center to snap the ball to the fullback, quarterback, or blocking back. This wrinkle required a talented center, which probably explains why no other teams used the A. Luckily for the Giants, they had an All-Pro center named Mel Hein who could feed the ball to any of the three backs.

Charley Conerly (42) and Mel Hein were key members of the Giants' A-formation

In the A-formation, the quarterback, not the tailback, is the primary passer. But he is not the sole passer, as the fullback often slung the ball as well. This meant that opposing defenses had no idea who would be throwing the pigskin on any given play. With all of these differences from the single-wing, Owen's Giants became an offensive powerhouse.

The A-formation was not without its drawbacks, though. Recalls former Giants back Charley Conerly, "The A was a powerful formation up the middle, and fellows like Bill Paschal and Eddie Price won rushing titles going right up the middle. However, it was a little weak going around the end." Because of this, the Chicago Bears and George Halas' T-formation beat the Giants and their A-formation for the NFL championship in 1941 and 1946. With the retiring of Hein in 1945 – he proved impossible to replace – Owen had no other choice but to change over to the T for good in 1948. He was the last coach to make the switch.

Owen, always a pragmatist, realized that the T-formation was the future of football but also knew that fundamentals were the key to any team's success. "There is no mystery to football," he said, "but no easy way to play it either. Some teams claim to use hundreds of plays, and that sounds mighty impressive and awful difficult. But fundamentally, every football club operates with six to ten basic plays. All the rest are variations. In fact, the most brilliant set of plays won't mean much if a team cannot gain off-tackle. That is the essential bread-and-butter play.

"In my time, I have seen the rudimentary game of the early twenties, a smash-and-shove affair of brute force, grow into the streamlined, exciting, scientific, long-scoring football of today (1952). But the fundamentals are unchanged – block, tackle, and practice."

After 23 years of coaching, Owen had this to say about the game he so adored:

"I started in football by knowing nothing at all about it. The longer I've been in it and the more football I've seen, the more convinced I am there is always plenty more to learn."

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
06/28/2007 - Notre Dame Box
06/21/2007 - Single-Wing
06/14/2007 - Defensive Tackle
06/07/2007 - Shotgun
05/31/2007 - Run-and-Shoot
05/24/2007 - 46 Defense
05/17/2007 - Screen Pass
05/10/2007 - Draw Play
05/03/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part II)
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

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