Chalk Talk: the T-Formation

Most every team in the NFL was running the single-wing in 1940, but after Sid Luckman and the Bears destroyed the Redskins 73-0 in the NFL title game using George Halas' T-formation, things started to change. In Part IV of his five-part series called "The Evolution of Offense," Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz looks at how Halas brought the T back from the dead.

Walter Camp, known as the ‘Father of American Football,' began experimenting with the T-formation in the mid 1880s at Yale.

At the time, it was referred to as the ‘regular formation' and used by every collegiate team. The trend did not last long though, as Glenn ‘Pop' Warner's single-wing captured the fancy of coaches across the country. The T-formation was then put on the back burner and nearly forgotten by many within the game.

Skip forward nearly half a century to the Chicago Bears and its founder, owner, and head coach, George ‘Papa Bear' Halas. Although every team in the newly-created NFL used a version of the single-wing, Halas stayed true to football's original formation. He used the T with mixed results for 10 seasons before retiring briefly in 1929. Although the Bears had great success during Halas' first stint as head coach, most of it came because of their dominating defense. All that changed with the hiring of two men: Ralph Jones and Clark Shaughnessy.

Halas chose Jones as his head coach and made Shaughnessy, who was the head coach at the nearby University of Chicago, an advisor to the team. Their constant tweaking of the T-formation, along with a 1933 rule change that allowed passing from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, turned the long-forgotten formation into an unstoppable force.

The T-formation is a simple set-up that lines three backs in a row behind the quarterback. The QB takes the snap directly from center, which was a big change from the single-wing and its direct snap to the tailback, before handing the ball off to one of his backs. In this day and age, the direct snap from center to QB is taken for granted, but back in the 1930s it was revolutionary. The hand-to-hand snap sped up the action and allowed the running backs to hit the holes at full speed – in the single-wing, the tailback had to wait for the ball to get to him, corral it, and then start running. This slight change had arguably the biggest impact of any innovation in the history of the sport in shaping offense as we currently know it.

Jones and Shaughnessy began sending one back in motion toward the sideline before passing the ball to him. This was revolutionary in itself, as the man in motion up until that time had been used as nothing but a decoy. This spread opposing defenses out and allowed more room to run in the middle of the field. The two men also decided to make the splits between the offensive linemen wider, forcing the defensive line to open up accordingly. On a quick dive play, the staple of the T, the linemen did not have to double-team at the point of attack to move the defender out of the hole as they did in the single-wing. Instead, with the back now hitting the hole so quickly, all the linemen had to do was hold their opponents in place and let the runner slide through the hole already created by the wide splits.

Since most defenses were certain to react to the first move of the quarterback, Halas' coaches created a series of counter, or ‘misdirection' plays. The QB would spin away from the line and fake a dive before either handing off or pitching the ball to another back headed in the opposite direction. The fake handoff also came in handy for play-action passes, the only type of pass plays in the T-formation. Opposing defenses not only had to worry about the myriad running plays being run towards either side of the line, but they also had to account for the pass on any given play. It was a far cry from the brute-force game of years past.

Quarterback Sid Luckman was the driving force that made the T-formation go

The scheme was complicated for its time and often referred to as a gadget offense. It took Halas and his coaches nearly a decade to perfect it. The T-formation's main problem was its dependence on a quarterback who was intelligent, could throw accurately, and can handle the ball deftly. In those days and even still today, players with that skill set were hard to come by – although easier to find than the triple-threat tailback of the single-wing. Halas soon found his man when Chicago chose Columbia University tailback Sid Luckman in the first round of the 1939 draft.

Luckman was the perfect choice to quarterback the newfound T-formation. His quick thinking and ball-handling skills made him a star in the blue and orange. In just his first season, the Bears led the NFL in rushing yardage, passing yardage, and scoring. Nobody in the league paid much attention though as the Bears finished second in the Western Conference to the Packers, who went on to beat the Giants 27-0 for the NFL championship.

But in 1940, people began to notice how potent the T-formation offense was. With a newly perfected offensive scheme and a fantastic quarterback to execute it, the Bears steamrolled through the league. Their final victory that season came in the NFL championship game, where they defeated the Washington Redskins 73-0. After this unheard of blowout, every team in the league went scurrying to copy Halas' T-formation.

That year, Shaughnessy moved on to coach Stanford. He brought with him the T-formation that he had developed with Halas and Jones while in Chicago. But not everyone was impressed with the new offense. Warner, who had found much success with the single-wing, was one of its disbelievers.

Said Warner, "If Stanford ever wins a single game with that crazy formation, you can throw all the football I ever knew into the Pacific Ocean. What they're doing is ridiculous."

Stanford went on to win the Rose Bowl the following season.

Nearly every offensive formation in the current game is an offshoot of the T. Without its resurrection by Halas and the Bears, the game of football as we know it might be completely different. Which is why nearly every Chicagoan sings its praises in one of the final stanzas of the Bears' fight song, Bear Down Chicago Bears:

"We'll never forget the way you thrilled the nation with your T-formation."

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
07/05/2007 - A-Formation
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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