Last week, legendary Texas Longhorns football coach Darrel K. Royal died at the age of 88. Royal is perhaps best known for creating the wishbone offense with the late Emory Bellard, one of his assistant coaches.
Using this new attack, Royal’s Longhorns opened up 0-2-1, but then won 30 games in a row-including the 1969 and a share of the 1970 National Championships. The wishbone was effectively unstoppable, utilizing three strong running backs and the quarterback to hit the defense in every gap and from every angle. Soon other high-profile teams like the University of Oklahoma under Barry Switzer, University of Alabama under Paul Bear Bryant, and Texas A&M University (when Bellard got the head job there) followed suit.
The wishbone was an institution for years at the high school and collegiate levels-until it wasn’t. Like all football fads, the wishbone died. Some teams continued to use the wishbone (and some do today), but no major college team does anymore (Army’s broken bone is the closest thing). However, most teams use some of the option principles the wishbone helped to institutionalize.
Each times a fad is introduced, the gray hairs in the coaching community tend to decry it as bad for the game and not the way the game should be played. Woody Hayes resisted his assistant coaches’ urges to install an I-formation offense, in lieu of his beloved “robust” or t-formation for years before installing the I and winning a national championship.
The one-back fad began to overtake the option fad in the early 90s. Then came the spread in the early to mid 2000s. Each strategic fad introduces a new wrinkle, parts of it endure (like option principles), and parts of it become nothing more than history (literally lining up your backs in a wishbone).
This, of course, happens because the defense catches up. The 46 bear forced teams at every level to rely more heavily on their passing games. The 3-4, 4-3, and 3-3-5 defenses of today present their own unique challenges for an offense.
The arch of football strategy is long, but it’s always bent toward innovation. One style dominates, it gets stopped; and then another is created.
Currently the spread offense relying heavily on an uber-fast pace, brought on by Chip Kelly and his staff at Oregon is in vogue.
And typically, it has the gray hairs like Alabama’s Nick Saban all hot under the collar.
“It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points per game,” Saban said a few weeks ago. “More and more people are going to do it … I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?”
Now let me be clear, there is nobody better than Saban at coaching football today-the man is a true maestro. His defenses are scary good. That’s why it disappoints me to see a giant like Saban criticize the newest strategic fad.
A man as smart as Saban shouldn’t be crying to the press about the unfairness of hyper up-tempo attacks-he should instead be devising ways to stop it, something Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M proved he hasn’t spent enough time doing on Saturday.
Men fear what they do not understand, and coaches complain about what they cannot stop-Alabama’s loss illustrated exactly why teams should and will continue to employ the up-tempo spread attack. It’s not bad for the game. It hasn’t fundamentally changed what football is.
Conversely, innovations like these are part of what makes football what it is. The game has always been full of drama and it’s always been fascinating to observe every facet.
So I say, Coach Saban, don’t run your mouth, instead spend some more time studying your film, get your players better prepared, and please respect the innovation that makes football the greatest game on earth.