Evolution of the passing game

Innovators from Baugh to Gillman to Walsh kept the ball in the air, pumping up the sport's offenses and popularity

Upward spiral for NFL

September 07, 2006|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun Reporter

For football fans, the most compelling moment is the long pass as it's launched from the quarterback's hand, glides in a suspense-building parabola and descends in a dramatic denouement.

How many NFL Films productions feature a spiraling football in slow-motion, framed by a sparkling blue sky, then plucked from the air by outstretched hands?

It's a can't-miss crowd-pleaser.

In the history of pro football, no single element has done more to change the game's competitive complexion - and just as importantly, drive its commercial appeal - than the development of the passing game.

In the eons before fantasy football leagues and Madden video game mania, the unbridled brutish tactics of early-20th century football had produced an alarming number of serious injuries and deaths. Public outrage threatened the sport's very existence and, as a result, several rules changes in 1906 - including legalizing the forward pass - managed to soften the thuggish game.

While the rule involving passing seemed minor at the time, putting the ball in flight would become the magical ingredient that turned football, and the NFL, into a societal phenomenon.

It would be foolish to suggest that an evolutionary process, such as the passing game, can be credited to any single coach or player. And some important names would be barely recognizable, such as Hall of Fame quarterback Benny Friedman, the NFL's first great passer, or coaches Clark Shaughnessy and Francis Schmidt.

But a handful of innovators stand out for shaping the passing game as current NFL fans have come to know it. Among them are coaches Sid Gillman, Don Coryell and Bill Walsh, and players Don Hutson and Sammy Baugh.

After the seminal rule in 1906 that made the forward pass legal, the next benchmark changes occurred in 1933 and 1934, including one that altered the shape and size of the ball, making it easier to throw.

After the 1932 NFL championship game, which was played indoors in Chicago, still another substantial change was that hash marks - where the ball was often placed to start a play - began to creep closer to the center of the field, making it easier for offenses to operate, and certainly making direction of plays less predictable.

Passing pioneers

Then in 1935, Hutson joined the Green Bay Packers and defined the wide receiver position for decades to come. Hutson invented now-familiar tactics such as the Z-out, buttonhook and hook-and-go. Along the way, he set records that still stand, such as the nine seasons he led the league in touchdown catches.

"Hutson was so far ahead of anyone who played under the same circumstances," said Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications and exhibits at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, "and he remained so far ahead of anyone who came after him playing under much more liberalized circumstances."

In 1937, the Washington Redskins' multitalented Baugh entered the NFL as a running back but is remembered mostly for his passing. Long before rules modifications that aided receivers and pass blockers, Baugh completed an astounding 70.3 percent of his passes (128-for-182) in 1945, which is still second on the all-time list for a single season.

The virtuosity of Hutson and Baugh encouraged coaches without similarly talented players to try to replicate that quick-strike success through X's and O's.

While Baltimore Colts great Johnny Unitas was an iconoclast in the relatively stodgy NFL with his passing exploits beginning in the late 1950s, an even more sweeping football movement was taking root across the country.

In 1961, Gillman and Coryell - destined to change the face of offensive tactics - wound up coaching within a handful of miles of each other. Gillman coached the AFL's San Diego Chargers and Coryell was at San Diego State.

Both eschewed the traditional philosophy of using the run to set up the pass and did just the opposite.

"It started with an attitude," said Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, San Diego's quarterback when Coryell eventually became the Chargers head coach in the late 1970s. "There was an attitude of fearlessness that started at the top with Coach Coryell and filtered through the rest of the team."

Gillman and Coryell relied on timing routes with multiple options for the quarterback and receivers.

"The ball got thrown to where the defense forced the ball to be thrown," said Ernie Zampese, who worked as an offensive assistant with a succession of high-powered attacks in San Diego, Los Angeles, Dallas and New England.

"Each pass play had a specific person or spot where you wanted the ball. And if you got single coverage, that's what you did. But if you got a defender rolling to that side, then you simply went to the other side."

Gillman, who pioneered film study in football, is credited with popularizing if not originating the so-called receiving tree in which pass routes were numbered one through nine. And he taught that a quarterback's drop - three, five or seven steps - was linked to receiver routes.

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