Did the spread really evolve from the single-wing?

Brian Cook thinks so, but I’m not so sure. The idea that the spread, or, even just Gus Malzahn’s offense in particular, “is a modern-day version of the single wing” is overdone. (To be fair, the Judy Battista’s NY Times piece focuses on the wildcat, which I do think has a great deal in common with the single-wing.)

But Cook’s point is broader and, I think, flawed. He gives several reasons why Malzahn’s O in particular is like the single-wing, saying the single-wing

  • incorporates many possible different ball carriers that head in different directions.
  • uses misdirection as the primary way to acquire big plays. It’s not “keeping the defense honest” so you can run your bread and butter without the opponent cheating, it’s an attempt make the defense confused on every play.
  • often features a primary ball handler who spins wildly to set up playfakes heading in opposite directions.
  • depends on sowing confusion and can be vulnerable to teams that are well-drilled at stopping it.

These reasons assuredly apply to Malzahn’s offense, but do they apply to the single-wing? Not really, or at least they aren’t its foundation. The single wing was primarily (though not always, of course) about using overwhelming force to one side of a formation. So the spread’s major similarity to the single-wing is mostly relegated to the shotgun and the fact that the quarterback is not an irrelevant handoff man, but instead has an active role in the run game. (H/t for the image FootballBabble.)


And the rest of Brian’s points don’t seem to apply. The single-wing was not a big play offense (have you seen the scores from back then?), instead relying on steady gains from its power runs. Indeed, most plays resembled rugby scrums, which made sense given football’s original roots. Some single-wing teams used a lot of ballcarriers — and I guess everything uses “a lot of ballcarriers” if the comparison is a Woody/Bo I-formation offense where one guy gets 35 carries a game — but it wasn’t a major feature. Playfaking was important but no more so than in other offenses, and certainly not as much as it is to offenses like the Wing-T. (And I don’t know about  the single-wing being known for fakes involving “spinning wildly,” though various forms of the “spin” offense were invented decades later). And, although defensive discipline is helpful against any offense, the cornerstone of the single wing was the “student body right” type play behind the unbalanced line and blocking backs to the “single wing” side. There’s no misdirection to be snuffed out by a disciplined defense there; it’s called bowl your opponent over to get four yards. Below is video of an older school single-wing; I think it’s evident that it’s a little more straightforward than Brian’s four points would imply.

The upshot is that yes, the single-wing was a shotgun formation, yes it used some misdirection (all offenses do), and yes it’s old, but that doesn’t make it the sole inspiration for today’s spread or even Malzahn’s offense. Modern fans, including Brian, have understandably mapped their understanding of the offenses they see on a weekly basis onto the past and see a direct correlation, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Certainly, the coaches who developed today’s modern offenses, like Rodriguez and Malzahn, did not spend their time meticulously studying the single-wing tapes of yesteryear. Instead, if there are similarities it’s because those coaches stumbled onto the same ideas through trial and error.

So where did the spread come from? The basic answer is simple, though to catalogue all the influences would go on for days: the spread is a synthesis of most of the great ideas that came before it. It owes some principles to the single-wing, but it also owes its debts to the double-wing, a few Wing-T principles, the veer option squads, the run and shoot, and modern pro-style passing attacks. This makes sense, given that defenses, once they have countered something, do not forget, though at the same time an offense’s effectiveness is often contingent on how experienced the opponent’s coaches and players are to facing it. The “spread,” which is an overbroad term anyway, puts a new twist on a lot of what came before it.

But to say it is confined to being the “modern day version” of any one of those past offenses ignores too much football history to be a plausible interpretation. Like much football commentary, the analysis isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete.

  • I agree Chris.

  • Patrick

    I’m going to disagree with you. I played high school football in a Single Wing system and then came back after college to coach the offensive line. When the head coach left for another school, the JV coach became the head coach and installed a Spread Offense. We left the numbering system intact, as well as the blocking schemes.

    From our 3, 4, and 5 WR sets, we still ran direct snaps to the running backs with the QB leading, counters to wingbacks (they became slot receivers) and even a buck lateral play. The only difference between the single wing we ran under the old coach and the spread we ran under the new coach was the personnel and the sophistication of the passing game.

    The transition was much easier than it would have been had we switched from a Wing-T, or a Pro Set to the Spread. We ran the same base plays (off-tackle power, QB wrap, speed option/quick pitch, WR counter) and just added a couple of basic 3-step reads (all slants, slant-shoot, FSU shallow cross) and some run n’ shoot (sprint smash, levels, go). Our running game took 3 days to install in preseason practice because it was so similar to the Single Wing the kids had already run since 6th grade.

    I left the staff last year, but in the 3rd year in the system, they were able to score 30+ points per game and win the district. I think the program will continue to succeed, in no small part because the feeder schools still run the Single Wing at the 5th/6th grade and 7th/8th grade level because the head coach feels it’s good training for the Spread system.

  • Jim Urban

    I think it’s interesting how the clipping from 1936 describes how the T formation was junked for the single wing. However, a few years later, the T made a comeback and eventually surpassed the single wing. Then, as teams started splitting backs and ends out, the T evolved into the West Coast, which in turn evolved into the modern “spread” which is arguably just another form of the single wing. I realize that the history isn’t nearly that simple, but that’s pretty much the gist of it right? It’s all cyclical.

  • Ted Seay

    Chris: Not so fast, my blogging friend.

    Although originally deployed in 1906 (in a version resembling one of Thornhill’s two diagrams) as a power attack, dedicated to prying open the off-tackle hole at all costs, the single wing quickly developed into a myriad of versions. Brian Cook is correct in all his points about the offense, given that there were many more flavors than the Gil Dobie/Jock Sutherland Pound-the-C-Gap-or-Die version. And notice he says the single wing “uses misdirection as the primary way to acquire big plays,” as a complement to the power attack in even the trickiest versions.

    Spinning maneuvers by tailback and fullback of the full-, half- and quarter- variety were already common by the 1920’s, and were soon joined by the buck lateral series as primary means of misdirection to complement the thundering-herd “straight series” core attack.

    >The single-wing was not a big play offense (have you seen the scores from back then?), instead relying on steady gains from its power runs.

    See above. Have you seen the 1948 Rose Bowl?


    The first Michigan series is instructive — the wingback goes in motion in both directions on the first two (pass) plays, spreading the defense laterally and opening up big coverage gaps — catching a swing pass for 15+ yards the first play, opening up coverage for a TE grab-and-lateral on the second. The only straight-series play comes at the USC 6, and gets Michigan down to the SC 1, where they run the buck lateral trap to the FB for their first of 7 TD’s.

    >Playfaking was important but no more so than in other offenses, and certainly not as much as it is to offenses like the Wing-T.

    History check. Nelson and Evashevski were both Michigan Wolverines under single wing guru Fritz Crisler, took the numbering and nomenclature from Crisler’s system directly to their Wing-T creations at Maine, Iowa and Delaware, and have long credited the single wing as the fountainhead of the Wing-T, especially its deceptive spinning aspects:

    “The finest series in single wing football, or all football for that matter, is the complete spin with the fullback.”

    In short, sorry, but there was and is much more to single wing football than you portray. And don’t even get me started on spread football dating back to the 1920’s…


    Ted Seay
    Brussels, Belgium

  • Mike

    But defenses do forget. That’s why GT was able to run the triple option so effectively last year. Of course, they can relearn it, but that takes time, hence the bowl loss when Iowa had time to look up the old play books teach the kids about it.

  • Spread offense is so simple a concept that I don’t think it can be rightly said to have evolved from anything.

    At Delphi there’s a forum called “single wing, etc.”. And people do have a pretty good idea of the “etc.” There’s a characteristic of that style of offense that few consider, yet is more basic than the presence or absence of any number of wingbacks, and that is that the snap is usually taken by a player who moves to meet it rather than taking it flat footed.

    That’s it. On one hand you have systems where there’s a QB with hands under center, or a player in shotgun who stands and waits for the snap to arrive before making a move — except sometimes he backpedals for a pass drop as the ball arrives. On the other hand you have single wing, short punt formation, various box style offenses, and some types of double wing, where the snap leads its receiver at least a little, sometimes just out in front. Usually, though not always, that means the snap is delivered by a snapper while looking between his legs, and frequently, though not always, that also means a choice of 2 or more receivers of the snap in the formation.

    Doesn’t matter whether the rest of the formation is spread or tight — that’s a completely separate consideration. Also separate considerations are whether the line or entire formation is balanced or unbalanced, and whether the flavor of the system in use is more power or deception oriented. None of those characteristics can rightly be considered to distinguish “single wing etc.” from other systems. The association in some people’s minds arises from changes in tendencies of the game over the times between when one type of system or the other was more popular.

    If you’ll notice, current pro and college wildcat systems just use a shotgun formation with a running back taking the snap — flat footed.

    There’s one currently popular intermediate case I can think of: the Wyatt wildcat, which got its name before the current popularity of packages with that name. In Wyatt’s wildcat, the snap can be taken by either of 2 side-by-side backs who, however, are so close to the snapper (almost under center) that the snap has no time to lead them. It’s a double wing version of the double T or dual T, i.e. 2-QB formations.

  • benny beaver

    “The single-wing was not a big play offense (have you seen the scores from back then?), instead relying on steady gains from its power runs.”

    I guess that I would disagree with this generality. UCLA, under Red Sanders, ran a single wing for some years after others moved on to the split-T based offenses. In 1954, UCLA beat Oregon State 61-0, beat Stanford 72-0, Oregon 41-0, and USC 34-0 using the single wing offense. They were National Champs according to UPI, and second in AP voting. UCLA assistant, Tommy Prothro (who later became SD Chargers coach in early 70’s) was then hired by the Oregon State Beavers in 1955. He installed the single wing at OSU, and went to the Rose Bowl in 1956.

    My point is that I remember seeing big plays from scrimmage during those games. Wingback reverses and misdirection from tailback and fullback contributed to making those big plays. Big plays and big scores are the result of superior football talent and coaching, not the formation you run.

  • Mr.Murder

    Single wing basically runs its wares in a zone blocking set. Instead of position blocking and running a wave of people at the edge they isolate one guy and spread the line out to let him pick a crease.

    Sprint option/west coast teams replaced a sniffer back with a fullback who could become a bootleg pass catcher. This was combined with an emphasis on identifying the force defender and making him play on skates in a slant window. Crossing routes vs. man teams and floods( the passing version of wing T’s run blocking)against zone defenders.

    Your post upstairs takes on splits and formations determining defensive back leverage for the pass game.

  • Mark

    Played in a single wing in the late ’60’s. Basic concept on running plays was block down and the blocking back, situated behind the guard, kicked out the defender in the hole. The spinback (tailback) would usually receive the ball. There were some direct snaps to the fullback and also reverses to the wingback. The tailback was the passer. The blocking back never touched the ball but called plays and hike counts; he was a glorified guard. I can see that the shotgun may have evolved when someone who knew single wing principles realized that if it was apparent to everyone that a pass was coming why force the QB to backpedal with the ball when he could be standing there surveying the field. I think the new thing about the spread is the use of multiple receivers to create more play in space and force the defense to defend more of the field. The “knock em off the ball, knock em off the ball” philosophy still works for some teams (Wisconsin, Nebraska, ?).

  • Keith
  • Dallas

    That play at the beginning with the fullback and tailback running what at least looks like an option is quite sexy. Since this clip is of Michigan’s 1947 offense, was that something that they co-opted from the already-existing option offenses (like Faurot’s) or was it something that had been in the single wing playbook before that? Also, whoever made that video had much better music taste than the cut-ups of modern games that you find on YouTube. đŸ˜€

  • Mr.Murder

    There i9s a consideration to perhaps place a sniffer back in our shotgun formation. The line is very light and we cannot risk getting pushed into ma passer’s dropback. So, we will try and go with the gun, start from deeper in the backfield, and use horizontal actions, similar to your Mahlzahn thread.

    To prevent runthroughs on the line that cave the pocket we may have to install a sniffer back.

  • Bill Mountjoy

    In my humble opinion, running a true (tight) Single Wing formation (no split ends or flankers), with shoe to shoe O-Line splits, & shoulder blocking (as opposed to the legalized use of the hands) would be like driving a “Model-T” Ford in the 2011 Indy 500!!!

    Nostalgia is great, but you are not giving your players a full arsenal of offense seen in TODAY’S football. My good friend, Dr. Ken Keuffel, recognized that fact, & MODERNIZED his Single Wing into a thing of beauty!

  • Drew

    Actually, you’re completely wrong… Yes, the (original) single wing used an unbalanced line, but it’s purpose WAS NOT to bring overwhelming numbers to one side… Quite the contrary, actually.. The single wing was actually the first offense to employ deception, as opposed to the “wedge” style of play..

    The spread option, wildcat, and even the modern day shotgun all evolved from the single wing..

  • Coach Beller

    Ummm… OK. So some of you (including Chris I suspect) have never seen or run a TRUE single-wing attack.

    The SW is NOT a zone blocking system. If anything, the flying wedge was the precursor to the ZBS.

    The SW is meant to force the defense to “over-defend” the middle-to- strong side, then hit buck laterals and sweeps, reverses, then passes. This especially becomes devastating to a defense when all 11 defenders have flowed hard to the strong side, only to be hit with a quick pass to a very wide-open Short End.

    Dont get me started on the Arkansas/Miami Dolphin “Wildcat”, or the several copy-cat bastardizations thereof. The SW is a whole offense, which must be dedicated to by every coach and player; not a lazy man’s “package” that you just throw in there.

    If you don’t think the Spread Option came from the single wing, take a look at Auburn this year. Man what I’d give for a “Mini-Me” Cam Newton!

  • Mr.Murder

    Well the Wildcat is more or less a buck series with the keeper read usually being the man to stop after keying one defender. It still uses the directional stuff to see how a defense keys and then operates against those tendencies. Where it has evolved, is on line splits and depth.

    Was misspoken about the zone emphasis then, but if you cover every lineman to a side on a zone front it ends up looking about the same. That is where zone converts to man blocking rules on covered down linemen. That is where the wedge did precede the zone, climb on a track and help the player beside you on the way there, their era was tighter splits.

    Your statement about being dedicated to the Single Wing reminds me of Huey’s comments regarding the option. You either are an option team, or you are not. If you flirt with the option your share of fumbles occur. You have to hammer it down so everyone knows and tracks along the line and at the mesh, or bad things happen for running teams.