Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Aug 2010

Origin of the Species: Zone Blocking

In two recent books about schematic development in the NFL, the origins of zone blocking in the NFL seem to have come from two different places. Blood, Sweat and Chalk, written by Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden, makes Howard Mudd the personification and central figure of a scheme that seems to have no true origin in the professional game. Layden puts some nebulous stuff together about how the single-wing was based on double-teams and trap blocking. Therefore, everything old is new again, and there are no real blocking innovations in the NFL, etc. And on and on. Layden also writes that “through the 70s and 80s … as defenses became so much more sophisticated – linemen slanting and stunting in ever more unpredictable ways – it became nearly impossible for an offensive lineman to simply block the man across the line because that man wasn’t rushing directly at him.”

Layden brings up the 1980s Bengals, who were indeed one of the better series of zone-blocking teams of their era. However, the book barely mentions Alex Gibbs, except to say that Gibbs doesn’t give interviews, and the zone blocking chapter fails to mention Vince Lombardi at all. That’s where things get a little goofy. Layden’s book is very enjoyable and sometimes enlightening, but the Lombardi exclusion is absolutely inexcusable.

In Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, NFL.com columnist and former coach/front office exec Pat Kirwan credits zone blocking to Gibbs, writing that the ZBS was Gibbs’ brainchild … in the mid-1990s.

With all due respect to Kirwan, that’s more of a braincramp than anything else. One of the problems with understanding the history of football is that schematic timelines aren’t always easy to trace. We seem to have a much better feel for when certain pitches, field changes, or rule alterations developed in baseball, for example. And as a result, the schematic children of the pro game appear to have too many fathers in some cases. I have as much respect for Alex Gibbs as anyone, but to give full credit to Gibbs in the mid-1990s is the rough equivalent of insisting that the Big Bang happened around the same time as the Civil War.

In the case of zone blocking as a concept (if not in name), Vince Lombardi may not have invented it, but he certainly was the first NFL coach to detail it – in actual practice and in writing after the fact. Lombardi’s Packers were known above all for the power sweep, but in the posthumous book Vince Lombardi on Football, the “Do-Dad” block was explained in great detail. The alpha dog of NFL coaches detailed it this way:

The guard and the center do-dad, or area-block, the defensive tackle and middle linebacker. Do-dad blocking is used against stunting lines or lines that stack one defender behind the other. In the case where the defensive tackle has the inside charge and the middle linebacker is keying the fullback and has the outside responsibility, the middle linebacker will, with the snap of the ball, move immediately to the hole, making it impossible for the center to cut him down because of the middle linebacker's key on the fullback. In this case, we will use do-dad blocking.

The center is the lead blocker -- the apex. He will lead-step, the same technique as for the down block, for the crotch of the defensive tackle. The offensive guard, using the same technique as he does in the drive block, will aim for a point which is outside the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle has an inside charge, the guard immediately releases the tackle, picking up the middle linebacker who would be moving with the key of the fullback toward the hole. The center, since the tackle is moving into him, would pick him off.

Lombardi also explained that these concepts were transferable with different combinations up and down the line.

I own two great books written specifically on offensive line play: Coaching Offensive Linemen by Dave Christensen and James A. Peterson, and Playing the Offensive Line by Karl Nelson and Bob O'Connor. The second book has a foreword by Bill Parcells, who is believed by some to be this era's Lombardi in terms of style, personality, and the ability to mold successful teams out of undisciplined disasters. Nelson played right tackle for Parcells' New York Giants from 1984 through 1986, and again in 1988, starting a total of 51 games. Here's how Nelson's book describes zone blocking:

The problem being solved by zone blocking is that if the defensive end over the tackle takes an inside move and the linebacker fills in where the tackle was, even if the tackle blocks the defensive end, the guard will not be able to block the linebacker because the defensive end will be in his way. To solve this, the guard and tackle work together to block the linebacker and defensive end. The tackle can take a hard step with his outside foot and aim for the end's outside number. The guard takes a slide step with his outside foot, being ready to take on the end if he slants to the inside. If the end is playing it straight, his job is to not get hooked, so he will try to work outside when he feels the outside pressure. The guard, seeing that the end is not coming inside, should then step up and take on the linebacker as if there was no combination block.

Different gaps and specific responsibilities, but the same concept. Each lineman has an area as opposed to a defender as his key. You can call it zone-, area-, or do-dad blocking, but the specific NFL roots go back to ideas espoused by Lombardi in the 1950s and 1960s, and published in 1973. It’s not that Lombardi invented zone blocking; like many concepts, the ZBS’ true origins most likely lie in the advancements of several different coaches. But Lombardi had very detailed descriptions of the concept – he specified how certain players would do it in his system as a change-up from the typical power sweep. Unless and until someone else can be revealed to be running an earlier version of zone blocking that wouldn’t look totally out of place in the NFL of 2010, Lombardi should be seen as at least the uncle of zone blocking in the NFL, if not the father.

Lombardi’s legend doesn't need that addition; when the Super Bowl trophy is named after you, it’s safe to say that you’ve received fair credit. But it’s worrisome that the development of a concept with a fairly detailed family tree can be so misrepresented. Interviewing Alex Gibbs would be neat, but if he won’t talk to you, it’s easy enough to go online and order DVDs in which Gibbs explains his inside and outside zone concepts over several hours to a room full of coaches. If you want to know about Lombardi’s thoughts on zone blocking in his era … well, I picked that book up in a used bookstore for 12 bucks.

It ain’t that hard, guys.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 12 Aug 2010

28 comments, Last at 10 May 2013, 2:30pm by InsultComicDog

Comments

1
by bingo762 :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 11:55am

Pwned

2
by brophy (not verified) :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 1:00pm

Great, insightful article!

3
by DFJinPgh (not verified) :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 1:25pm

Can anyone speak to how successful the book _Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look_ is to its topic?

4
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 1:51pm

I guess I have to ask this. If a team is in the standard offensive formation that was run way back when...and the defense ISN'T putting exactly that same number of guys on the line, isn't zone blocking the defacto responsibility of a blocker without a guy in front of him?

Dug up a 1940 youtube clip of Tom Harmon...and it sure looks like the blockers are doing zone blocking on these plays. Not a lot of footage before then (didn't have all day to look). Some clips from circa 1904 looked more like rugby scrums...

Are there specifics that you're referring to Doug that go beyond what's in the clip about the origin of zone blocking? Attributing anything to Vince Lombardi seems like a stretch after seeing these clips. The NFL started in 1920. The clips of Harmon are in 1940. Lombardi started his pro career in 1954 at the age of 41.

Here's the footage of Harmon:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAmliH79D6Q&feature=related

5
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 2:22pm

Well, as I wrote, I wasn't giving Lombardi credit for the invention of zone blocking per se -- I said that the concept most likely came from several sources over a period of time. That's generally how things seem to happen from a schematic standpoint in this game. The point I was trying to make is that, going back to at least the early 1960s, there is a direct line between Lombardi and zone blocking in the NFL (not at Michigan or Ohio State), and that I have not seen film or read accounts of any earlier zone blocking taking place at the professional level. Doesn't mean that it didn't happen; maybe Paul Brown was blowing people away with it in the AAFC. I honestly don't know. Brown seemed to invent most everything else -- why not this? I'm just saying that there is a direct link which precedes Alex Gibbs by at least two decades, and makes the genesis of the ZBS in the NFL much clearer than Layden makes it out to be.

And if you're going to do a chapter about the development of the ZBS in the NFL, and you leave Lombardi out entirely, that's just flat-out wrong.

27
by fd (not verified) :: Tue, 08/24/2010 - 8:57am

Just got around to reading the Layden book. I think you're being a little unfair to him, here.

He does talk about elements of Zone Blocking in the chapter about Lombardi's power sweep. . .that the play-side tackle and guard are basically responsible for sealing off areas while the off-side guard pulls around.

You might not have noticed it when you read that chapter (which precedes the chapter on ZBing), but I was tuned into it because I'd read this article first.

So, he might not have thrown Lombardi into the actual chapter on ZBing, but it's not fair to say that Layden didn't give credit to Lombardi for using it.

Otherwise, I loved the book. Your point here notwithstanding. . .it struck me as very well researched. He was always aware that the origins of schemes and names are difficult to nail down, and that most new ideas came from incremental changes from previous coaches. You single out (Alex Gibbs) just about the only living coach/player in the world the guy DIDN'T talk to. I think readers of this site would like it, too.

15
by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 6:26pm

That was great, thanks for the clip. There is definitely zero zone-blocking in it, though. I spent the past 20 minutes looking at each snap, watching each lineman, over and over.

The closest thing to a zone block is on Harmon's 2nd goal-line TD, the right tackle appears to just be drawing back into pass protection (they clearly didn't engage in full-on hand combat as blockers, but really more appeared intent to serve as literal blockers -- brief impediments to any pass rusher) and the defender seems to choose to run into him. It appeared he didn't necessarily have an assigned guy to block. Just was awarded one, by the defender himself.

Maybe it looks like zone to you because more eligible receivers are in 3-point stances and actually tight against the end of the line, who have a man in front of them but go out for a pass. And it would seem difficult to see a distinction anyway because each guy has a defender lined up in very close proximity to him. But, in the few cases where a blocker doesn't have a defender directly in front of him after the snap, they all a)give up, even abandon their space, b) abandon their space to go and block a guy, or c) go out to receive. I saw one double-team, not a do-dad, and the left guard curiously wouldn't have had anyone to block even if he hadn't been clearly assigned the double-team. Saw 3 pulling linemen, usually with a blocking back.

Clearly not zone, not blocking space, not passing a defender to another man to move into the second level. Nothing designed to counter a stunt or defensive line trick to beat "hat-on-hat" blocking.

But thanks, I loved watching it.

17
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 6:54pm

Thanks for the analysis and explanation JS...

20
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 8:13pm

The same YouTube guy, WolverineHistorian, has uploaded a bunch of Michigan football videos. Most aren't quite that old, but he's put up a lot of stuff from the 1980's and earlier.

6
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 2:53pm

Appreciate the response.

Are you suggesting that Michigan and Ohio State were way ahead of the NFL schematically in 1940...and that the NFL didn't start doing zone blocking like we saw in that footage until Lombardi came along in the 1950's?

I know footage isn't all that easy to track down in volume. Typed in "old NFL footage" and found this at youtube from home movies taken in 1929. More defenders on the line of scrimmage at that time...but it would still seem that blockers would be doing defacto zone blocking if they didn't have somebody in front of them. (Go about a minute in, then you see some good angles on plays from scrimmage)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SitUbhD_sw0

This is 25 years before Lombardi became an assistant. It's hard to imagine that the NFL in 1940 was much different than Ohio State and Michigan in 1940...making it tough to assume that Lombardi was an integral part of the evolution of zone blocking, or any part of the "origin of species" in the title. He definitely utilized it very well with the personnel he gathered. He definitely emphasized trying to reach perfection in the execution of it from what I remember in old tributes to how he practiced. He may not deserve much (or any) credit for being an architect (or "uncle").

Writing a book about how you built a house with available blueprints and talent is not the same as writing up the blueprint in the first place.

7
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 3:05pm

"Are you suggesting that Michigan and Ohio State were way ahead of the NFL schematically in 1940...and that the NFL didn't start doing zone blocking like we saw in that footage until Lombardi came along in the 1950's?"

No. Again, I am only saying that there is a direct and documented link between Lombardi and the concept of zone blocking as it applies to the NFL today. I didn't say that there aren't NFL zone concepts that don't precede Lombardi; only that there are no other documented examples I'm aware of. And before I would give specific credit to anyone else as the guy who brought the concept to the NFL, I'd want to see some kind of documentation that it was a designed idea as opposed to a blown assignment or a simple combo block. I would love to know who brought zone blocking to the NFL, whether it's Lombardi or not.

More specifically, my point in the italicized comparisons is that the 'do-dad' blocking Lombardi used had a lot in common with what recent NFL players have to say about zone concepts.

8
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 3:33pm

Sounds like it would make for an interesting NFL Films piece...showing the similarities/differences between the Packers sweep and the single wing from earlier times...then how those fundamentals are still in play today...

9
by Basilicus :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 4:04pm

Maybe I'm just adding my own sepia-tone here, but it seems like these kinds of oversights are a direct link to the popularity of the league. I remember detailed, historical, wonderfully annotated books about football when I was younger. I know they're still out there, but - like most reporting these days - the goal now is to create product that directly links to something popular. It doesn't matter the quality of the product itself; it just matters that it's saleable.

It's disappointing, especially because I know many commenters on this forum go out and do some research to back up claims that take a mere paragraph to describe. So how does a reporter pass up this basic, easily discoverable research when you and I would do it for a simple, anonymous comment on a website?

26
by zlionsfan :: Mon, 08/16/2010 - 4:37pm

Maybe it's because the environment in which he or she writes encourages that behavior ... not an excuse, merely an explanation. That's still odd, though, given that one of the the authors in question works for a company that's been publishing for decades. Hell, Dr. Z's "A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football" was revised in 1971 ... but then I guess that doesn't mean the people working there today necessarily acknowledge what came before them.

Maybe the book is simply a product of the Internet Age, where content so often comes before quality. Of course it's much harder to update a physical book after it's been published. At least if it's online, a deluge of snarky posts can trigger subsequent updates and releases. :)

10
by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 4:23pm

As a football fan/psychadelic drug user, it was worth clicking the link to Gibbs' instructional DVD... The C.O.O.L. Mushroom Society?

he mushroom logo signifies the similarity between the "O-Line" coach and the fungus. Both are kept in the dark and fed garbage yet continue to flourish! C.O.O.L. (Coaches of Offensive Linemen) are proud to be mushrooms.

"Just look at that pumpkin."
-John Madden, looking at the moon.

11
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 5:09pm

Is it "zone blocking" on a trap play, where the pulling guard leads the ball carrier through the hole...knocking out whoever gets into that zone? Or is that too simplified for what we mean here?

Seems like some of this is terminology...with perhaps the basics of zone blocking going back to Pop Warner and the single wing (I've been googling), but Lombardi potentially being credited for "advanced zone blocking" because he added innovations...then other guys later adding more innovations to counteract what defenses were doing...and the debate's about how the "evolution of ADVANCED zone blocking" proceded rather than the "origin" of zone blocking, if that makes sense.

Blocking an area rather than a person seems fairly fundamental when the players aren't lined up helmet to helmet. Nobody would really "invent" that because it had to happen at the point a preponderance of defenders backed off the line.

Looks like traps were very common in the 40's according to Marion Motley bio stuff that popped up. Does a trap have zone blocking?

12
by tuluse :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 5:22pm

From what I know, trap blocking is actually more associated with man blocking schemes. Most zone blocking schemes in the NFL today don't do a lot of pulling or trapping.

I could be wrong, but I do remember the Steeler's under Cowher used a primarily man blocking scheme and loved the trap play (it works very well against penetrating 1-gap schemes and I vividly remember them tearing the Bears apart), while Denver was the epitome of zone block and it seemed like they were much more inclined to just leave their linemen in the same order.

14
by Jerry :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 5:54pm

The Noll teams were famous for trap blocking. "They trap you coming off the bus" was some opponent's comment. (When Steeler linemen from that era are asked whether a similar trapping scheme would work today, their answer is invariably that the modern turnover in offensive lineman would make it impossible to develop the necessary timing.)

16
by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 6:49pm

It's tricky timing but it seems to me it's more out of use due to being more or less obsolete by the use of a lead blocking back. More effective, not as challenging. Maybe not as much potential for surprise. But LBs key on the back a lot now so any surprise is a crapshoot.

A trap is just a pulling guard, lead blocking for the back. It's value was likely mostly in what LBs of the day expected when a guard and tackle opened a hole like that.

24
by Jerry :: Fri, 08/13/2010 - 1:28am

You're oversimplifying. Doug's quote from #13 below is a more accurate description:

"Get a big guard with some speed and have him obliterate the deffender on a pull after he's sucked in where you want him."

Now put in plays where any of your linemen might make that trap block, and use a trap block on most of your running plays, and you're starting to describe Noll's offense. A couple of advantages were that (1) a defender with a clear path to the ballcarrier would become suspicious, and (2) the scheme was different enough that it would be difficult for opponents to simulate with their scout teams.

25
by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Fri, 08/13/2010 - 1:10pm

Yes, I am definitely simplifying. Not trying to define, but just explain for the context of making my point. I don't mean to say it wasn't effective, but as I say below, was effective at that time, I think, because of what a lot of offensive play led a LB to expect in that event.

19
by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 7:07pm

Incidental lack of a meaningful defender in your vicinity to block =/= designed, contiguous teamwork as directly opposed to individual assigned defenders to block. Some of the fuzziness of the distinction may indeed be an issue with semantics, but I think it's only that fuzzy if we look at zone vs. man as different actions, fully distinct, rather than different schemes, with a lot of overlapping and shared techniques and actions.

but I am with you a little, on terminology stuff. I'd read an article Doug wrote on Yahoo that cited the Lombardi do-dad block and it's place in the ancestry of zone blocking. I think it's clear that it was one piece of innovation that the evolution of zone blocking borrowed. The practice of doubling a defender, specifically in a way to move one blocker out to block a linebacker, is very inegrated into zone blocking, as a modern scheme. That's not to say a man scheme team couldn't fit it in. But it's clearly an antecedant of ZBS.

But the do-dad isn't really an antecedant of zone blocking, as a concept, as a response to defensive trickery designed to get a guy past hat-on-hat assignment blocking. For clarity for casual fans, the distinction between man and zone blocking is man=assignment and zone=space. And in that light, do-dad isn't part of the evolution of the concept of blocking space.

That's the minor issue I have with terminology, and I think that's where some of the hangups are. But do-dad was a blocking trick that ZBS pulled from and uses today. Your spectacular YouTube clips (thank you! But no more work for me today) don't show designed tricks, except for pulling trapping, and chipping (receivers initiating a block and then going out to receive). I wonder if they even had blocking assignments. It looks like they just lined up and lurched forward. Blocking because there's a guy there, and it's how it's done. No schematic design, strategy or any of that stuff.

21
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 8:26pm

Right. Specifically, the do-dad as Lombardi described it is a two-on-two responsibility concept, and it's probably best described as a man-zone hybrid in concept (if not execution) because there are player assignments as well as area hybrids. If the defender with inside responsibility does X, we will do Y. But Lombardi's do-dad also had elemts of immediate second-level blocking upon the ascent from the backfield of the fullback (a much more prevelant position in his day), in which the tackle would head up on assignment as opposed to how a play might dictate after the fact.

Also, Lombardi described the long trap (log block, it's often called today) as a seperate idea in his book.

13
by Doug Farrar :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 5:54pm

There are some pulls in zone blocking -- Gibbs loves tackle pulls, where the tackle extends out quickly to block outside the edge -- but it sounds like the trap stuff you're talking about would have its roots in man blocking. Get a big guard with some speed and have him obliterate the deffender on a pull after he's sucked in where you want him. IIRC, the Steelers also used to run that with Franco all the time. I've been out at Seahawks camp a couple times in the last week, and what Gibbs is doing now in Seattle is a lot more about getting guys to the second level a lot of times. As it has been before.

Also IIRC, the draw came about when an Otto Graham-to-Marion Motley handoff went wrong, Motley was late with the ball, and the results were surprisingly good. One of those, "Oh yeah, I meant to do that" moments.

18
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 6:59pm

Thanks DF...getting a much better sense of what Lombardi did that was new and different thanks to this discussion and some googling. Can understand why you think his contributions in this area should be better showcased...

22
by Theo :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 9:51pm

Really, there's a big difference between run zone blocking, and pass zone blocking. You can run both of them easily.
On run plays, you normally take your play side defender and block him low when he's away and high when he's near.
On passes, I can see a roll out to the right, having a pulling guard protect the QB on zone block.
Don't know who started it. But I'd wonder who in the world uses man blocking.

23
by drobviousso :: Thu, 08/12/2010 - 10:14pm

Franco, and pretty much every back since then. Parker's long run in the Superbowl was on the same trap they've been running since then, and were running last year when Kemowhatshisname was healthy.

See Chris Browns break down here:
http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/28/smart-football-with-chris-...

28
by InsultComicDog (not verified) :: Fri, 05/10/2013 - 2:30pm

I realize this is a very old article, but I was just watching a bunch of old Dan Marino Dolphins highlights. I thought, back in the day, that some of the lines in front of him were very porous and that it was just by virtue of his quick decision making, dancing ability, field vision, and quick release that he was able to make all these plays. And I would not want to take any of that away from him. He was a great quarterback. However, the line play in front of him wasn't anywhere near as bad as I thought... on a lot of occasions, it looked exactly like today's zone blocking systems.