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Leatherheads - AFM Goes to Hollywood

A behind-the-scenes look at the X\'s and O\'s of hollywood\'s latest football movie.
by: Michael Parker
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George Clooney recognizes that the game of football has changed over the years. His film, Leatherheads, a movie about pro football in the 1920’s, opens in theaters nationwide on April 4th. And so when Clooney was looking for someone to coordinate the football scenes for the film, he wanted one thing above all others… to stay true to the way football was in the 1920’s. Many directors like Clooney who are making football movies hire choreographers, not coaches, to help them.

As someone who has spent hours squinting in the semi-darkness at grainy old film footage of the early days of pro football and as someone who has actually been on the sidelines as a coach for many years at several levels, coach/historian T.J. Troup was perfect for the job. Fortunately, Clooney found Troup.

In order to maintain historical integrity, Leatherheads had to have someone who knew the rules of the day that made the game different than the one we know and love today. For instance, it was actually a penalty if a coach tried to call a play from the sidelines. Coaches were barely more involved than the spectators during the game. Another big difference was that the goal posts were on the goal line. This could be very dangerous – or very useful – depending on how you used them. Players played both ways, and were dog tired by the end of a game, making fourth quarter comebacks almost nonexistent. Even the football itself, with its watermelon shape, controlled the way offenses operated. Passes were uncommon and passing itself deemed almost unsportsmanlike. After all, the word ‘pass’ is a four-letter word.

And there were no hash marks. In those days, if you ran out of bounds, the next play began a yard in from the spot where the runner left the field. Thus fewer blockers could line up on each side of the center. You saw unbalanced lines nearly every play in those days. In the ‘20s, unbalanced lines were commonplace, as was the direct snap. It was used almost exclusively in the early NFL, but disappeared for a number of years before reappearing in the past couple of decades.

Two plays were used back then as much as any other. And just like those days, Troup had the actors on the set of Leatherheads run these two standbys over and over again.

First, a sweep to the tailback out of the Single Wing (See Diagram 1). The two backside blockers were largely responsible for keeping the tackle and end to their side from running down the play. “Linemen weren’t pulled very much back then,” says Troup. “Where was he going to go? The back is already kicking the end out. So if he did pull, he was going to wrap around and seal the linebacker.”

Diagram 1: Single Wing Tailback Sweep

On the frontside, it was a man blocking scheme, with a double team on the end by the wing and tight end. The front side guard pulled around end and sealed back on the linebacker inside. The two other backs in the backfield opened up the hole on the outside and the tailback followed them up through.

“The key to all this is, you want to go off-tackle and you block them all in,” says Troup. “The idea behind some of these old formations is that the end cannot be swept, so we kick him out, block down, and run in the alley. That is football in its purest form. That is Lombardi. Everyone blocks. The backs block. The ends block.”

As a changeup to this off-tackle sweep, teams would run a line buck to the fullback. Surprisingly, a team’s center was often their most gifted passer, as he had to snap the ball directionally, upside down and backwards (See Diagram 2).

Diagram2: Single Wing Fullback Buck

The line buck is meant to be a quick hitter, and only a few defenders are even in position to make the play. The center and guard work inside-out and form a little wedge with the lead back. The runner hits it up through the hole as quickly as he can.

“The most effective block in that era, when they weren’t slugging the guy in the teeth, was when they cut them” says Troup. “So that was the key block then to all those plays. Can we get off-tackle and then go straight ahead?”

Additionally for Leatherheads, Troup dusted off three popular plays from the 10’s and 20’s. “The craziest thing about that stuff back then is the line splits,” says Troup. “They’ve got these tiny little line splits, and as a result, the back-side defensive end is not that far from the hole where the ball is going to be run. But, they didn’t have the technique and they didn’t understand. They just ran over there.”

For variety, instead of the screens and draws teams use today, back then teams used reverses. Here is another play Troup used in Leatherheads (See Diagram 3). In this reverse from the double wing, teams used the same unbalanced setup, encouraging the defense to overplay the strength of the formation. The quarterback takes the snap and begins to work toward the strong side. Everyone up front blocks down; the strong side guard pulls across and leads up through the hole just as the wing comes back across the formation and takes the ball from the quarterback.

Diagram 3: Double Wing Reverse

The key to this, of course, is to sell the defense on a strong side run. For one major scene in the movie, Clooney had Troup draw up a wrinkle for this reverse play, where John Krasinski comes back across from his wing position and turns the play into a double reverse (See Diagram 4).

Diagram 4: Double Wing Double Reverse

Another interesting difference in yesterday’s game, was that there wasn’t a true quarterback in the way we view him today. The other backs would block for the ball carrier and it was often the halfback – not the quarterback – who threw the passes.

Troup laughs when he remembers the movie extras trying to throw passes with the odd-shaped ball from the 20’s. In a couple of scenes in the movie, it is actually Troup’s spiraling pass you see flying through the air to its intended target.

But teams did try to throw the ball occasionally. A typical pass was like this one Troup used for Leatherheads out of the same formation – and same initial backfield action – as the aforementioned reverses (See Diagram 5).

Diagram 5: Double Wing Tailback Pass

Most passes had some form of roll action, giving the passer a run-pass option. Pass routes were extremely simple and defensive coverages were not that organized. In this pass, the receivers to the roll side worked deep and crossed at the end to try and lose their respective defenders. The backside end ran across the field with the passer as a short alternate receiver. The wing to the backside worked deep as well and would occasionally find himself as a primary target on a roll pass throwback.

Ironically, for an era of football that seemed pretty conservative in terms of formations and plays, reverses and tricks were plentiful. The ‘Statue of Liberty’ play, one of Troup’s favorites from the time period, made it into the script of Leatherheads (See Diagram 6). “The Statue of Liberty… that is the razzle-dazzle for this era,” says Troup. “They made the defense think they were going to pass, and then handed the ball off, and it was too late. Teams weren’t scouting each other from week to week with film and all that like they do today. So this type of play worked perfectly. It was Boise State-Oklahoma every week back then.

Diagram 6: Notre Dame Box Old 83 (Statue of Liberty)

“While the passer was dropping back, there was enough time for the linemen to wrap around and crack back on the end. And they were able to get outside. It was from Amos Alonzo Stagg in the early 1900’s and kept getting reused.”

Boise State, of course, ran a modernized version in the Fiesta Bowl, out of a formation that Oklahoma had surely seen countless times on film. That is why it worked. For Troup, and for many teams in the early days, this version of that classic schoolyard play comes from Knute Rockne’s invention, now remembered as the old ‘Notre Dame Box.’

“The old Notre Dame box... four men in motion when the ball was snapped,” says Troup. “Rockne and the Irish were killing people with it and the rule was changed. That is why today you only get one man in motion. Thank you, Knute Rockne.”

Like Rockne before them, the truly great coaches adapt and continue to learn. “The man who was really ahead of his time was Pop Warner,” says Troup. “He once said that it was immoral to throw a pass. He ran out of the single wing. So when he goes to Stanford, what does he do? He changes to the Double Wing. He puts bigger splits in the line, and he has more receivers and now he can roll and pass.

“So instead of having the backs all bunched inside, now they are out wider and that forced the ends out wider. So, now he can run inside or outside. Pop Warner took what he was good at with Carlisle, and then reinvented himself at Stanford.”

Fundamentals and adaptation… maybe the game hasn’t changed that much after all.


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