This year, Paxton Lynch has the most direct link to the Wing T system—the team he quarterbacked in high school ran it. During a 2010 interview, back when he was Denver's defensive coordinator, Wink Martindale commented that the Broncos were seeing a lot of Wing T running plays that year. It still happens, although it’s not as common.
Little known to many fans, the Wing T is still a very viable, deception-based passing offense. It’s the rushing aspect that seems to predominate when it’s used in modern times. With NFL games available on NFL Game Pass, more and more fans are enjoying watching and learning from film. I want to give you an overview of the system and what to look for.
It was originally developed, as so many are, out of sheer necessity—you could even say desperation—by Coach Dave Nelson, along with Harold Westerman and Mike Lude. Many authorities would tell you that Coach ‘Tubby’ Raymond brought it into it’s modern form. Let’s take it from the beginning, to small Hillsdale College and onward to the University of Maine, the University of Delaware, and the Hall of Fame careers of Dave Nelson and Tubby Raymond.
David Nelson was a brilliant football mind with a knack for success. Like many of his era (back in the 1940’s), he was a single wing specialist, originally learning it at the University of Michigan where he shared a backfield with Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon in 1940. Nelson was a rarity—5-foot-7, 155-pound halfback.
Needless to say, Harmon tended to take the majority of snaps and carries in the season they shared the backfield. There’s something that you still need to run a single wing/Wildcat system—a Ronnie Brown-type halfback with multiple skills, who can hurt you in many ways. The following year (1941), however, saw Nelson leading the team in rushing with an average of 6.3 yards per carry. He was, as Mouse Davis liked to say, one tough pissant.
The single wing uses extremely deceptive blocking schemes, with pulling and trapping on nearly every play. Stopping it is often a matter of figuring out who had the ball and where they were going with it. It isn’t easy; hence the slowly increasing use of it in colleges and in the NFL during that era. It’s more common in high school and some college teams today. It’s no longer a system that you use predominantly (for reasons that I’m about to make clear), but it packs a hefty punch as a change of pace.
Nelson went on from Michigan to coach at nearby (100 miles west) Hillsdale College, where he had a talented two-way guard by the name of Mike Lude. It was just toward the end of the two-way player era, in 1946, and both men had recently returned from their military service in WWII. Hillsdale ran the system with success and Nelson’s record over two years was an enviable 14-1-2.
After graduation, Lude provided him with a knowledgeable and talented line coach during Nelson’s second year there. After serving one year as an assistant coach at Harvard, Nelson was promptly poached by the University of Maine, and he brought Lude there with him. Their backfield coach was a man named Harold Westerman, and together they installed the single wing. Their first season, however, ended in only a 2-4-1 record, and the coaches put their heads together. What was going wrong?
The problem was, in the end, a simple one. The single wing requires a Tom Harmon/Ronnie Brown level of tailback, and the coaches already knew that they didn’t have one. In addition, as Denver's Tim Tebow found out on a TD run using a similar play, the single wing can be very hard on the ball-carriers. Frequent injuries and a lack of the appropriate personnel required a change—but to what?
At that time, the T formation was in vogue among the upper tier of football, both on the college and on the pro level. It’s what the Chicago Bears used to dominate the Washington Redskins in the most lopsided Championship victory in NFL history, 73-0. The top colleges of the era were Notre Dame and Army, and both of them were running the T. Nelson sent Coaches Lude and Westerman to Notre Dame to learn it from Coach Frank Leahy.
Unlike the single wing, the T didn’t have much of anything in the way of deception—the blocking was straight-ahead from a balanced line. It’s a very old system, though, often considered the offspring of football legend Walter Camp, back in the 19th century.
Most fans don’t know this, but Walter Camp was the dominant force in systematizing American football, back in and around 1879. It was derived from rugby and soccer, but it was Camp—who had studied both business and medicine at Yale and who headed a clock company before becoming the athletics director for Yale in 1888—who had played football at Yale and who helped evolve the rules of the game away from rugby and soccer rules into the rules of American Football as we know them today. Camp’s legend lives on in the foundation that still bears his name.
Nelson and his team were facing what they considered as two considerable problems. The first was that the T called for a quarterback to take the snap under center, and they’d never coached that. They decided to go with it anyway. The second was that Nelson wanted to keep the level of deception that the single wing provided, but also wanted to employ the simpler backfield system that the T makes use of. Nelson, Lude and Westerman worked feverishly through the summer of 1950, and they eventually came up with a hybrid of the two systems.
There’s no evidence that they called it the Wing T at the time, but the name eventually emerged out of simplicity. The approach combined the highly deceptive single wing blocking approach with the T backfield.
Stay tuned for Part II.
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