The original one-back spread offense

Before the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Airraid or the Urban Meyer spread-to-run, there was the old, original “one-back” offense. The man who is considered the father of the one-back and did the most to popularize it is Dennis Erickson, who doesn’t even run it anymore at Arizona State, having given the reins of his offense over to Noel Mazzone, who runs a kind of hybrid with the Airraid offense filtered through a former NFL assistant’s viewpoint. But the one-back has a storied legacy in football, both in that it paved the way for the 2000s, the decade of the spread, but also as an incredible offense in its own right. Erickson has explained the origins of the offense:

The one-back worked for me

“The ingenuity [Jack Elway] had offensively has spread throughout the country and has certainly had an influence on my strategy and my coaching,” Erickson said. “Obviously, he (Elway) was a pioneer of all that stuff, and used it before a lot of others.”Erickson said the first to use the spread offense was Jack Neumeier at Granada Hills, where John Elway played his high school football. Jack Elway then used it at Cal State Northridge and brought it to San Jose State.

Neumeier was a high school coach who wanted to open up his offense back in the 1970s and began splitting out extra receivers to do so. Both Jack and John Elway, then a young high schooler, wanted John to play somewhere that would showcase his talents as a quarterback in an age when everyone wanted to out-muscle everyone and so John enrolled at Granada. Granada’s offense got rolling as it was based on three excellent concepts:

  1. One-back formations with extra split receivers to open up passing and running holes in the defense.
  2. Option routes where receivers had the freedom to alter their route depending on the coverage.
  3. Having John freaking Elway as your high school quarterback.
Although undoubtedly already convinced of the wisdom of #3, Jack Elway saw the wisdom of #1 and #2 and realized that maybe the most advanced offensive mind in the game that he knew in 1976-78 was a high school coach in Granada. So Jack began spreading guys out and using what became the “one-back.”
Dennis Erickson served as Jack Elway’s offensive coordinator for three years at San Jose State, before later becoming a head coach at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and later Miami. During that time he coached with a number of other one-back gurus, including future head coaches John L. Smith, Mike Price and Joe Tiller (not to mention future NFL head coach/offensive coordinator Scott Linehan). It was during this time that Erickson solidifed the one-back’s offensive package, based on several important principles:
  1. One-back formations, with the base being three wide-receivers, one tight-end and one runningback. (Other coaches would put different spins on it, whether with four receivers or two tight-ends.)
  2. A running game consisting of inside and outside zone, Power-O and the counter trey.
  3. A heavy emphasis on the three-step drop passing game.
  4. “Option routes” as the base of the five-step drop passing game.
  5. A systematic or “constraint play” approach to playcalling.

Probably the best exemplar of the one-back in its prime was the 1997 Washington State squad led by then coach Mike Price and quarterback Ryan Leaf. History was not particularly kind to either man (though nicer to Price as after his Alabama debacle he’s been the coach at UTEP since 2004), but for that season the results speak for themselves: PAC-10 champ, 42 points per game and over 500 yards of offense per game. And let me say it again: They did this at Washington State.

That season Price employed a lot of formations but he used the “double slot” the most: two receivers to either side of the quarterback along with one running back. Many now will recognize this as the basic spread formation (though Leaf was usually under center rather than in the shotgun), but back then it was somewhat of a novelty. Price used it because of its then relative rarity, but also for practical reasons: Washington State’s fourth wide receiver was better than its tight-end.

The basic theory behind the offense is the one that has been adopted by almost all spread teams: count the safeties, identify how many defenders are in the “box” to decide whether to run or pass, and call your bread and butter stuff until defenders get of of position, then when they do hit them with the constraint plays like bubble screens or play-action.

Assume with me that the defense has just one deep safety. That means that, if the defense covers up all of the receivers, the defense has only six guys in the “box” — i.e. the interior defenders. The offense has only five blockers, and Leaf was not much of a threat to run. They did however have good matchups on the outside. So the first thing WSU looked for was the leverage of the cornerbacks: were they playing soft or tight? If they played soft, Price (or Leaf via audible) would call a quick, five-yard hitch to the outside receivers. Leaf needed only to pick the best matchup and fire the ball out there. Let the receiver catch a quick one, make a defender miss, and make a big play.

If the defense played “tight,” however, Price and Co. dialed up one of their “option routes.” The outside receivers were to run straight and try to get open deep (which happened with some regularity, as the highlight against UCLA above showed). The inside receivers were to burst upfield to eight to twelve yards depending on the call. Against man-to-man, they cut inside or outside depending on the defender’s leverage; against zone they found a void between defenders and settled in it.

What if the defense put two safeties back, to guard the deep pass and play the receivers tight? Well, then it only had five in the box, so it was time to run the ball. In 1997, Washington State had a good running back, Michael Black, who ran for over 1100 yards in 11 games.

And that pretty much covers the bases. Where it gets trickier is when defenders try to “cheat” — and that’s when you get into the constraint stuff. First, the defense might line up with two safeties back but the outside linebackers over the slot receivers will cheat in to stop the run. In that case, the offense can throw the bubble screen.

Alternatively, the inside linebackers or the outside linebackers might cheat in or be watching the run, so that’s when the bootleg is often effective. The quarterback looks to hit either the man in the flat or the slot on the deep crossing route.

Finally, if the safeties want to cheat up, well then it is home run time. The quarterback will fake it to the runningback and run the four-verticals concept or another deep attacking play.

That’s really about it. an incredible amount of their offense was spent just cycling between that sequence. And Leaf, at least that year, showed a great propensity to read defenses and make the right read on passing plays. But obviously he was helped by having a smart, simple framework to work from.

There are other one-back concepts worth mentioning briefly. One was Price’s version (or one of his versions) of the shallow cross. Price combined the shallow with the deep cross. The quarterback read the play by first looking at his deep routes as his “peek” or “alerts” — i.e. if the home-run is there, take it. If the go and the post aren’t open, the shallow cross is “hot” against a blitz, otherwise he can read the deep-cross as his “high” read and the runningback as his “low” read.

And you can see Leaf hit the deep-cross or “hunt” player against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, with heavy pressure in his face.

And another nice route is what Spurrier called the “Mills” play. It is designed to either be a simple curl-flat read, but with a post route over the top of it. In a lot of coverages — especially Cover four/four-deep across — the safeties play very aggressive, and will jump routes in front of them. This gives the play its big-play potential: if the safety jumps the curl, the post route is wide open behind the defense:

That is exactly what happened in 2002 when Washington State played Pete Carrol’s Southern Cal team. (Washington State upset USC, led by Carson Palmer, and probably cost them a shot at the national title game. WSU’s quarterback was Jason Gesser, though Price was still the coach.) See the video below.

But with the rise of the spread option and the other modern offensive attacks, isn’t the one-back dead? I mean, Erickson doesn’t even use it anymore, no? Like all great offenses, the one-back isn’t dead, but it has evolved. And if you want proof that it isn’t dead, look no further than the One Back Clinic, which goes back to Price’s time at Washington State and continues every offseason. As Bruce Feldman, who has gone to the last several clinics, explains:

[T]he Arizona State Sun Devils’ football complex overlook[s] Sun Devil Stadium[, and] . . .[c]oaches from virtually every level of college football are here, but they’re mostly from Football Bowl Subdivision schools. In addition to coach Dennis Erickson and the rest of the Sun Devils’ staff, there are coaches from the Oklahoma State Cowboys [including then offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen], Houston Cougars, Cincinnati Bearcats and New Mexico Lobos, among others. This is the annual one-back clinic, which brings together some of the more innovative offensive minds in college football. The first one-back clinic was at Washington State in 1999 and was hosted by then-Cougars coach Mike Price. It has evolved similar to offensive football and variations of the spread attack during the past decade.

New Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was there in ’99 with Gary Crowton, Gunter Brewer, Dana Holgorsen, Sonny Dykes, Larry Fedora and Mike Leach. Mazzone, who has bounced around from Auburn to Oregon State to NC State to Ole Miss to the New York Jets to ASU, has teamed with Houston Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin to take ownership of the one-back clinic and become a ringleader for the two-day event. . . . Last year, Sumlin hosted the one-back clinic at Houston. [The clinic] is invite-only, and you won’t see more than one staff from the same conference invited. . . .

The next speaker, unlike the first two, does not have a recognizable logo on his golf shirt. It has an “M,” but it’s not the Michigan or Minnesota logos. He introduces himself. “I’m Bob Stitt, with two T’s at the end of my name.”… Stitt is the 45-year-old head coach at Colorado School of Mines, a Division II school just down the road from the Coors facility in Golden, Co. Stitt is a regular to the one-back clinic and has become pals with Holgorsen and the rest of the core crowd. His teams win big despite dealing with high academic requirements…. Stitt’s topic is the pistol offense and back-shoulder throws. As you’ll find out, Stitt is a huge believer in the back-shoulder throw. He talks about it the way Jared talks about Subway. “If this stuff works with our guys, it’ll probably work with the guys you have,” he says. “We’re an engineering school, and we only have one major, engineering. Our average ACT score in math is 29.” That line draws the biggest “Oooh!” of the day. . . .

The tricky part of Stitt’s tact — as is the case with many of the things discussed here — is that it’s hard to say just how well these things could be replicated someplace else. “I love coming to this because it reinforces a lot of what we do, ” one coach says. “Sometimes you might get one or two things you can try out from a technique or a practice point.” It’s also pretty good for networking because you never know what position might open a few months from now.

That’s the lifeblood of any offense — how it evolves and is shared by coaches. What began in some high school in California remains at the center of offensive theory for major college and pro coaches. Dana Holgorsen and Bobby Petrino don’t run the exact Mike Price/Dennis Erickson offense, but they use a lot of it, and the systematic approach to calling plays — having a few base concepts, getting good at them, and being ready with the necessary counters and adjustments — hasn’t changed.

Long live the one-back.

Additional Reading:

One-back clinic notes.

Feldman at the 2011 one-back clinic.

Excellent high school/college friendly one-back playbook.

One-Back Attack: A Complete Guide to the One-Back Offense (book).

  • Anonymous

    Forgot to mention that Leach said he ran Erickson’s 3-step stuff before he joined up with Mumme and they ran their modified BYU offense.

  • Guappy

    Love this post, thanks.

  • JMVetterling

    Great stuff, but it seems like Joe Gibbs was running one back stuff in the early 80s. Won a superbowl with it in 82.

    His passing offense was different, H-back as lead blocker and more sprint out passing. But it does seem that he was doing it first.

  • Anonymous

    Different branches of a similar tree. Gibbs was a one-back guy in the early 80s, and he got it from Don Coryell with the Charges who originated the pro-style “vertical” one-back offense. The Elway/Erickson branch was undoubtedly influenced by Coryell, but their common ancestor is Sid Gillman. In any event, you’re right that Gibbs/Coryell wound up in a similar place to the Erickson/Elway version, but they were different strands with different lineages and influences.

  • brandon moore

    sounds like Tom Moore’s offense (Indy Colts) is the same thing. how does he fit into the 1 back history? 

  • Anonymous

    Tom Moore has been basically running the same offense since his days at the University of Minnesota. It’s not really the same family as either the Coryell or Erickson one-back strands, but where he wound up was a one-back focused system. The run game is basically what they got from the Colorado Buffaloes in their early 1990s/Eliot Uzelac heyday (minus the option stuff); you can find all those playbooks online. The Coryell/Martz offense is more spread (at times) and more vertical (at other times), with more motion, etc with deep combination routes, while Erickson’s was more about those option routes. Moore’s offense, by contrast, uses that Colorado Buffaloes run game and then mixes it with a very basic passing system based primarily around individual routes to the outside (go, comeback, post, corner, hitch, slant, fade) and play-action, with some other favorites mixed in like the “Levels” concept. Plus a really good quarterback.

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  • Tom Szelag

    Good read, much appreciated. Since this is my first comment here, I have to say I’ve had a much deeper appreciation for the game since I started reading your previous blog and now the Smart Football website.

    As an alumnus of Colorado (admittedly after the McCartney days!) I’ve found the mentions to the CU 1-back game and it’s connection with the Colts very interesting. I know I’ve seen this mentioned somewhere before on your blog, maybe in reference to zone run plays? 

    Regardless, all interesting reads.. much appreciated. 

  • Paul Meisel

    Loved the Washington State stuff when you first put it on your old blog, and this update makes the material better.  Seems to me that the basics still work, it’s like cajun cooking, you rearrange ingredients a bit but the principles are the same.

  • Mr.Murder

    Go back to the Gibbs days of coaching in Cali colleges and you come back to the way he influenced other Cali coaches(especially HS level) on the one back sets.

    What intrigues me is the use of trey pulling in one back. Having someone on the backside to replace or become the extra puller is a huge item.

  • Chris Vaught

    Bobby Petrino was asked this preseason about the role of the fullback in his offense and his response was that for a long time they were entirely a one back offense but the zone blitz schemes that have now become so common have resulted in him using the fullback much more.   Primarily for running the ball but he has increasingly used it in the passing game as well.  Any thoughts on that comment and why he believes it helps against the zone blitz?  

  • Anonymous

    When he was at Louisville as OC under John L. Smith, for his season and the next with Scott Linehan as OC (now the Lions OC), Louisville had zero plays with more than one runningback in the backfield — they always had one-back, except when they went empty.

    Petrino really picked up the two-back stuff in the pros, and I it does help some power running, specifically in short yardage when the defense covers your OLinemen. With a fullback you can still block the linebacker at the point of attack. (This isn’t guaranteed yardage and doesn’t mean a fullback is better, but a blocking back can really help in short yardage.)

    The reason it helps against the zone blitz is that with a fullback (or H-back) you can still man protect and use check-releases but have seven potential pass protectors, which let’s you better pick up the zone blitz stuff. If you don’t have the capability to do seven man split-flow man pass protection, you end up either having your pass pro scheme gobbled up by well designed zone blitzes or you go to a slide protection scheme and have to keep the tight-end and RB in to block, even if they end up not being necessary in pass pro. It just gives you more flexibility.

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  • Chris Vaught

    Why do you think so few NFL teams are using a fullback/h-back for pass pro then?  Better skill at blitz pickup by the quarterbacks?

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  • Mark Dickenson

    Love your site!

    I was in the stands in Pullman in 97…will never forget it

    You certainly know your history.

    Am on cloud 9 about hiring Leach. I was wanting wide splits in Pullman in 07 when we were dinking and dunking instead of utilizing all parts of the field

    So I was watching a lot of Mizzou that yr and thought maybe we could get Christianen up to the Palouse because I knew Wide splits would work up here

    Never in a million yrs did I think the creator of  the wide splits would come to town

    On another note, I think the original 1 Back would still work…and work well

    In en era of the Me-Too shotgun spread, the one back would still work

    I wanted us to run the 1 Back this yr instead of the me-too shotgun spread because I feel you can run out of it better

    I don’t know what Erickson is doing with that offense he ran this yr…running that 2 back to the sidelines every play(I know he did that out of the one back which was basically the father of the 5 wide…and it worked)

    He should have just ran his old offense…would have won more games

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  • Lorin

    Always enjoy reading your posts, Chris.  I started at center on Jack Neumeier’s 1970 Granada Hills HS team, which was the first team I know of to use the one-back spread offense.  It was a magical year, long before anyone in football had ever heard of John Elway, and we won the Los Angeles city championship that year with an undersized team against a powerhouse San Fernando HS team led by Anthony Davis, who went on to football greatness at USC.  I’m working on a book detailing that season and the origins of the one-back, and would love to discuss it with you and anyone else who is interested offline, if you’re interested.  Please contact me at lorinmf@aol.com

  • billmountjoy

    Sid Gillman, Don Coryell, & Joe Gibbs were way ahead of those guys in the early development of ONEBACK FOOTBALL.

    I have NUMEROUS articles from the early 1980’s explaining this.

    billmountjoy@yahoo.com

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