Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sid Luckman and the Mighty Chicago Bears Thrilled the Nation with the Modified T Formation

In Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL, the football lives of the top 10 coaches in NFL history are explored.  By now most of their approaches and ideas are in some ways standard throughout the NFL.  But understanding the approach of one great coach and matching it are two different things.  In this post, we look at George Halas and his great quarterback Sid Luckman who was able to thrill the nation with the modified T Formation in the 1940s.

The Bears really did "thrill the nation with the T Formation" but it was a modified new version of the old one that been popular decades before.   But Bears' owner and head coach George Halas needed the right people to put it all together.  Handsome and intelligent, Sid Luckman from Columbia University, was the quarterback Halas neededBrooklyn born Luckman took up the game at an early age encouraged by his father, a Jewish immigrant from Germany.  Luckman was gifted physically--an excellent passer and runner.  Perhaps like many college men of the day, Luckman was not predisposed to play professional football.  For many, the game did not show much promise as a secure career choice.  But George Halas convinced him it could work for him and he signed on to the Bears.

The Hall of Famer would play 12 years for the Bears; lead in most every passing category for at least one season; and hold many Bears’ passing marks for the second half of the 20th Century.  In fact, decades after the great quarterback's retirement, Bears fans could still answer most any question on leading quarterback statistics with "Luckman." 

Halas and some of his gifted coaches set about developing the new modified T Formation and once Luckman was under center, they continued to perfect it.

In sports, teams have peaks and valleys.  As the 40s approached, Halas began planning a new offense and “retooling” his team by acquiring new players.  Knowing the tough nature of the game first hand, Halas certainly signed on more than his share of hard men.  But at the same time, the engineer George Halas had a penchant for innovation and he knew that he needed both physical toughness and intelligence in his players to carry out the new complexities.  And when it came to developing the plays and strategies needed to move forward, what Halas could not develop himself, he sought from the best minds in the game.  

Although the T Formation had been one of the oldest formations in football, Halas and his coaches had been experimenting with modifications in the 1930s.  Halas was a friend of Clark Shaughnessy who had been coaching at the University of Chicago.  Halas hired Shaughnessy as a consultant.  Shaughnessy helped design and implement a version of the T Formation that would make use of man in motion and other elements that made it much more difficult to defend.  Heading into the 1940 season, Shaughnessy was hired to coach the Stanford team and was preparing for the modified T Formation there.  Shaughnessy helped Halas prepare the Bears before he left for the west.   

Ralph Jones who was at nearby Lake Forest College would also involved deeply.  Jones role was also critical.  Because new variations like the man-in-motion made the formation a much more complex offensive scheme, it was not something put together overnight.  Hunk Anderson a contemporary of George Halas in his playing days, was one of the most innovative coaches in football--and a terrific strategist on both sides of the ball.  His blocking techniques and schemes helped further improve the Modified T formation for many years.

The T Formation uses a quarterback directly behind the center, a fullback behind the quarterback and two halfbacks on either side of the fullback all forming a “T” behind the line of scrimmage.  With four men in the backfield, the formation allowed for a seemingly infinite number of variations on handoffs, fakes, pass patterns from the backfield, etc.  The quarterback in other formations was often the play caller and director, but with the T Formation, the quarterback would also hold the central position as ball handler and passer.  In other formations, the halfback was often the passer.  The T Formation would challenge defenders more than other formations to hold their position to make sure they understood where the play was headed because any one of four backs might be getting the ball. The essential weakness in the T Formation had been the fact that defenses could focus on the center of the field; the T Formation was not as effective outside the opponent’s ends.

The new version of the T Formation was wildly successful and elevated the game of football.  Halas, Shaughnessy, and Jones  published a book on their new formation called  The Modern “T” Formation with Man-in-Motion in 1941--essentially a no-frills coach’s manual with 70 diagrammed plays and brief explanatory information. By adding a man in motion and other elements that spread the field, Halas and others were able to shore up the formations' weaknesses while still taking advantage of its strenghts.

On the threshold of the 40s, Halas was also improving his roster.  In addition to Sid Luckman, he added a tremendous fullback, Bill Osmanski in 1939.  Hall of Famers center and linebacker Clyde “Bulldog” Turner and George McAfee were acquired in 1940 prior to the season.  Turner played center on offense, but also played guard and tackle as needed.  As a linebacker on defense, Turner showed great speed.  McAfee was a halfback, kick returner, and a defensive back.  McAfee was a break-away threat who scared the opposition every time he touched the ball.  Halas called him “one of the best players to every wear a Bear uniform.” With a powerful lineup and new offense, the Bears were commanding, but not invincible.  During the 1940 season they were 8–3, good enough to win the Western Division and battle the Washington Redskins for the championship.  

1940 NFL Championship Game 

The Bears clobbered the Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship game.  Three Bears’ scores in the first quarter, including a Bill Osmanski 68-yard touchdown run, set the tone for the game.  In the second quarter, Sid Luckman hit Ken Kavanaugh on a 30-yard scoring play to give the Bears a 28–0 lead heading into the half.  Ray Nolting scored on a 23-yard run in the third quarter, but the Bears wowed the Washington crowd when they scored three more times that quarter on interceptions.  Three rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter gave the Bears a final 73–0 win—the highest score in NFL history. 

Bears' Greatest Period 

The rest of the NFL flocked to the new T Formation thereafter.  From 1940 through 1946, the Bears with Sid Luckman and many other great players were the best team in football.  They won championships in 1940, 1941, 1943, and 1946. Sid Luckman would play for 12 seasons.  He completed 904 of 1,744 passes for 14,686 yards for a completion rate of 51.8 with 137 touchdowns and 132 interceptions.

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Read more about George Halas and the other nine pillars of the NFL in Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL

 Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.