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The Elways And The Spread Formation: Part I

Join Doc Bear to learn what motivated John Elway to change from the running back position to quarterback.

You’ll find very few fans who would claim that John Elway wasn’t the greatest Denver Broncos quarterback of all time. Many fans in and out of Denver have called him the greatest quarterback of all time — period. 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 it's link to Kyle Orton's time in Denver, is a tale worth the telling. Settle in, and I’ll set the stage for you. 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 named Joe. They became close friends despite an 11-year age difference. When each left, the older Jack Elway moved south to the LA area to coach at Cal-State Northridge, and later San Diego State.  He took his son John along with him. John was about to go into high school.

Joe headed north and coached the defensive line for the Calgary 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 because it links together Jack and John Elway to Kyle Orton’s performance in Josh McDaniels’ version of the spread formation. It took a long history of great coaching minds and the willingness to change by 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 who authored the book on the spread, not Urban.

I will also 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.” 

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 Spread Formations, 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 it’s 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 concepts were 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. His school, Carlisle, threw the first spiral forward pass. The offense that produced it became known as ‘the Carlisle offense’. Warner changed the name to single wing. 

Jim Thorpe played the same single wing tailback that Ronnie Brown would play for the Miami Dolphins. It was under Pop Warner at the Carlisle Indian School, back in 1911. To reference Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Such is true with the various forms of the spread. 


Joe Gibbs has said repeatedly that no one should ever take 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 arrived and claimed that people were going to see something that they’ve never seen before in his offense. It didn’t happen, but even if he showed something that no one remembers seeing, it’s unlikely to have never been done before. Gibbs was right.

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. He and Jack went out for medicinal malt libations at an establishment near the field, to regain their strength after the strain of practice. Joe asked Jack about the new offense. Where the heck did he come up with it?

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, John 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 the compliment of imitation by a football legend in Jack. Joe — Coach Joe Hill, from Fresno State — 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 Hall of Fame quarterback and led to Kyle Orton’s original success in the spread offense variation that head coach Josh McDaniels used in Denver. See you then. 

Don't miss Part II on the Elways and the Spread Formation HERE

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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