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.