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December 01, 2008
Never has the game circled around to its beginnings—Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams; Ricky, Pop—the way it has this fall
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December 01, 2008

Old Is New New Is Old Back To The Future With The Single Wing

Never has the game circled around to its beginnings—Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams; Ricky, Pop—the way it has this fall

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ON THE third Sunday in September, a high school football player named Jeremy Gallon was at home in Apopka, Fla., doing what America does on Sunday afternoons: watching the NFL on television. Right there in Gallon's house the Miami Dolphins dismantled the New England Patriots 38--13, ending the Patriots' 21-game regular-season winning streak. But that was just a piece of the story. Six times in the game the Dolphins lined up with running back Ronnie Brown in the position normally occupied by a shotgun quarterback. Brown ran, passed and handed off to fellow running back Ricky Williams. The Patriots played as if they had never seen such football and, in fact, they had not. But Gallon had. ¶ Eighteen months earlier, just before the start of spring football practice at Apopka High, a large suburban school 15 miles northwest of Orlando, head coach Rick Darlington had laid out the offense that the Blue Darters would be running in the coming season. There would be no quarterback per se. (Darlington almost certainly didn't say per se, because he is the kind of guy who describes his 45-minute drive to work from the edge of the Ocala National Forest to Apopka like so: "Quiet. No traffic jams. Maybe an opossum in the road.") There would be a running back who would receive shotgun snaps and just take off with the ball. Another running back would line up next to him, and sometimes he would get the snap. There would be many play fakes and many ballcarriers, but few passes. It was like nothing any of the Apopka players had ever seen. "I didn't get it at all," recalls Gallon, who would be inserted into the starting backfield and receive most of the center snaps. "It was just weird."

Darlington, 43, is a football coach to his bones. If you cut him open, you would hit a thick layer of pigskin. His first job was working with the Lakeland (Fla.) High junior varsity team when he was still in high school, and he has coached every autumn since. He won the Florida 6A (largest) state title at Apopka in 2001 and later coached three years at perennial national power Valdosta High in southern Georgia before returning to Apopka in '06. Darlington's teams have run offenses ranging from the triple option to the shotgun spread passing game, depending on the talents of his players. Here in the spring of '07, he found himself without the type of accurate passer who might play quarterback in most systems, but with a number of very good running backs. So he settled on a dinosaur.

The coach explained to his players that they were climbing into a time machine; the offense was called the single wing, and its roots were at least a century deep. Jim Thorpe once played the position that Gallon would play for Apopka: single wing tailback. Darlington played films of teams running the single wing. "He showed us guys wearing leather helmets," says Gallon, then a sophomore. ("It was some old stuff," says Darlington, "but I don't know about leather helmets. They probably looked like leather helmets to these kids.") In the 2007 season Apopka went 12--2, scored 38.5 points per game and reached the Florida 6A semifinals. Gallon rushed for more than 1,600 yards. This year the Darters are 9--2 and in the playoffs again. The time machine has worked.

Football is often hailed as a game of innovation, the product of so-called geniuses creating new and brilliant ways to play a child's game. There is truth in this, but innovation is often just imitation in spiffy new uniforms and safer helmets. In the spring of 2008 NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, just retired from his second stint as coach of the Washington Redskins, was discussing his legendary Counter Trey, the foundation of the power running game that helped the Redskins win three Super Bowls from 1982 to '91. "We stole it," said Gibbs. "We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front, and we were watching it and thought, God, that's good stuff. So we stole it. We all steal things. You can talk to me all day, and I'll never say I was the first guy to do anything. Because sure as heck there's some coach out there who did it first." The spread offense is hailed as the ultimate in modern football, yet in 1952 recently retired TCU coach Leo (Dutch) Meyer wrote a book titled Spread Formation Football, in which the first sentence is, "Spread formations are not new to football."

Every coach at every level accepts that he is walking in someone else's footsteps. But seldom has the game circled around to its beginnings—Pop Warner, meet Ricky Williams; Ricky, Pop—as it has this fall. With 2:32 left in the first quarter of the Dolphins' win over the Patriots, Brown took a snap from center and ran over right guard for the first of his team-record four rushing touchdowns. Gallon stared at his television in disbelief. "Pretty amazing," he would say later. "An NFL team running the same stuff we run." In Union, Maine, Todd Bross, 42, a single wing proselytizer who organizes an annual spring conclave of single wing coaches at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., leaped off his couch, and by nightfall the Internet single wing forum that Bross moderates was buzzing with affirmation that the prehistoric beast had finally been reborn at the highest level of the sport.

The single wing was hatched within a decade of the turn of the last century, and more than 100 years later it is experiencing a renaissance on every level from youth football to the NFL, where this season at least seven teams have used some variation of the old-school package (while calling it the Wildcat, a name whose ownership is in dispute). College football is on board as well, and has been for more than a decade. The Florida offense that 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow operates for coach Urban Meyer is, in the words of Patriots coach and football history aficionado Bill Belichick, "the perfect blend of single wing running and spread passing." And simply by speaking those words—single wing—Belichick dismisses a taboo, because coaches have long concocted strategic aliases like "quarterback run game" to avoid a name that might make them seem out of touch. In fact, they are on the cutting edge.


The best place to trace the single wing's first run through football history is an unlikely one: the 800-square-foot office over the garage of Ed Racely's stately house on a waterfront bluff on Cape Cod. Racely, age 80, worked a long and profitable career as the co-owner of a road-building business, but way before that he was a little boy with a passion for football. He played guard in a single wing offense in high school in Walthill, Neb., and growing up, he wrote to famous football coaches like Wallace Wade at Duke and Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee, requesting copies of game programs. Racely never stopped collecting: He now owns thousands of DVDs, VHS tapes and even 16-millimeter films (with five projectors), documenting the evolution of the single wing. "People ask me all the time who started the single wing," Racely says. "I tell them it was President Theodore Roosevelt."

The line is delivered like a joke, but this much is accurate: In 1905 Roosevelt advocated for college football rule changes designed to make the game safer by outlawing dangerous mass-momentum, closed-formation plays like the flying wedge. These rule changes gave rise to the game of modern football, including the forward pass, the single wing and all the formations that succeeded it.

Glenn Scobey (Pop) Warner coached at Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School from 1907 to '14. In 1908 Warner published a correspondence course for coaches, and in 1912 and '27 he wrote books outlining his football philosophy. In the '27 edition, under the chapter heading Formation A, Warner wrote, "This formation has been referred to as the 'Carlisle formation,' because it was first used by the Indians.... I have used this formation or variations of it ever since pushing and pulling the runner was prohibited in 1906." The book includes diagrams depicting what clearly came to be known as the single wing: an unbalanced line (a guard, two tackles and an end on one side of the center; a guard and end on the other); a tailback lined up in a shotgun position; next to him a fullback; up at the line of scrimmage behind the guard, a blocking back; and outside the strongside end, a single wingback, who later became the source of the formation's name.

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