Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pillars of the NFL: The Modified T Formation and 1940 Season

In Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships  he covers the ten greatest NFL coaches of all-time.  Among the pillars is George Halas who coached the Chicago Bears to six NFL Championships over forty seasons while holding the NFL together.  This post comes from Pillars and tells the story of one of Halas's season's. 


Stunning the Nation with the Modified T Formation
In sports, teams have peaks and valleys.  As the 40s approached, Halas began “retooling” by planning a new offense and by acquiring new players to run it.  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, he had a penchant for innovation.  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.  

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.  Heading into the 1940 season, Shaughnessy was hired to coach the Stanford team and was preparing for the modified T Formation there.  Shaughnessy was helping Halas prepare the Bears before he left for the west.  Ralph Jones who was at nearby Lake Forest College would also be involved.  Because new variations like the man-in-motion made the formation a much more complex offensive scheme, it was not something that Shaughnessy, Halas, and others had put together overnight.  Halas snagged heady Columbia University quarterback, Sid Luckman in 1939 to run the Bears’ version of it.  

 Bears’ 1940 Season
Halas was improving his strategy and his roster.  In addition to Sid Luckman and Bill Osmanski who were added 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.  

The rest of the NFL flocked to the new T Formation thereafter.  The trio of Shaughnessy, Jones, and Halas published The Modified T Formation with Man-in-Motion, essentially a no-frills coach’s manual with 70 diagrammed plays and brief explanatory information.  

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press