In honor of the new NFL season I am taking a break from writing about obscure points of baseball history and instead writing about an obscure point of football history. Specifically, the flying wedge, the greatest play in football history. OK, it isn’t totally obscure. Many football fans are aware that there was a play called the ‘flying wedge.’ After all, this is a totally cool name for a play. But few actually know what it was.
First we need to introduce the concept of a mass play. This arose in response to two developments. The first was the de facto abandonment of the traditional offsides rule. In modern American football the offsides rule is reduced to requiring that players on offense not cross the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. Originally it was the Rugby rule, that any players ahead of the ball were offside, and could not participate in game play until they were onside. This meant no offensive blocking. The American version abandoned this restriction for interesting reasons I might write about some time, resulting in the obvious tactic of having blockers run ahead of the ball carrier. The second change was a loosening of restrictions on the legal tackle. Formerly the tackle had to be from the waist up. There was a rule against tripping the ball carrier, and this included tripping with the hands and arms. A tackle below the waist was included in this prohibition. This was changed in the late 1880s to allow tackling above the knee. The response to this new advantage to the defense was for the attackers to mass around the ball carrier and prevent any defenders from reaching him. This was the wedge: a mass of players pushing forward against the defense.
A Scientific and Practical Treatise on American Football for Schools and Colleges is a marvelous book by the great Amos Alonzo Stagg written in 1893, when he was making the University of Chicago into a football powerhouse. It includes diagrams and descriptions for a huge variety of plays. The diagrams which follow are all from it.
Here is a basic wedge the middle:
Stagg titles this “Running mass wedge through the center.” Note that “center” here refers not only to the center of the field, but to the player. We don’t talk about a defensive center nowadays, but everyone played both sides back then, and the position names were the same on either side. Here is Stagg’s description of how to run the play:
To send FB through the center on a running mass play directly behind C, the ends and backs start forward the instant the ball is snapped.
The guards lift their men back and out from the center, while C endeavors to force his man straight ahead of him.
LH and RH dash in and attach themselves behind C on either side of him.
FB springs forward at the same moment, and receiving the ball on a pass at X from QB, who slips to one side, dives in directly behind C with head down. At the same instant that FB reaches the line, the ends close in on either side of him directly behind the half-backs. QB throws himself in the rear of FB, and all push forward with the greatest possible force in a solid and tightly formed mass.
The vital point in the play is that all strike the line at as nearly as possible the same instant and form a tightly massed wedge, which is driven directly through the line.
Note: By drawing the ends in to LE(2) and RE(2), they may be enabled to strike the line ahead of the half-backs, in which case the latter will attach themselves on either side of FB as he rushes forward. The wedge must never cease pushing until the man with the ball is actually downed and absolutely held.
When Staggs wrote of the players being tightly massed, he meant this literally. The players weren’t merely in proximity. They were holding onto each other. They sometimes equipped themselves with leather straps on their backs for the person behind to hold onto.
Note also that the initial formation has the ends positioned behind the line of scrimmage by about two yards. This was Stagg’s innovation and he used it a lot. It allowed for more flexibility, as the ends could quickly shift to wherever the play demanded.
The wedge did not merely go straight up the middle. The variations were endless. Here it is aimed at the defensive tackle:
Here it is shifted all the way to the side:
The defense might get complacent and simply converge on the wedge. Then run this play, in which the wedge is formed but then the fullback hands the ball back to the quarterback, who pops out from the back of the wedge and along with the halfbacks and right end runs around the end:
These wedges are all quite lovely, but they aren’t flying wedges. The basic wedge is a mass play. The flying wedge is also a momentum play. The idea is that form the wedge on the run so as to have momentum when it hits the defensive line. Here is one aimed between the center and guard, with Stagg’s description:
The instant the ball is snapped the three backs and the ends dash forward for the point between RG and C, in the lines indicated.
C lifts his man back and to the left, while RG endeavors to force his man back and to the right.
FB and RH plunge through the opening abreast, and close together. LH follows directly behind FB and throws in his weight as he strikes the line, while RH is followed by RE in the same manner.
LE works in slightly to LE(2) before the ball is snapped and receives the ball from the hands of QB as he passes him; LE then turns in immediately behind and between LH and RE, carrying the ball in the same manner as shown for FB in play No. 1 diagram nine [i.e. with his head down, and the ball clasped at his stomach with both hands]. A flying wedge is thus formed as the men strike the line at the point between C and RG. (See cut B.) QB falls in immediately behind LH and LE, while LT, who leaves his man almost instantly follows directly in the rear of RE and pushes forward as the wedge strikes the line. (See cut B.)
Note: A vital point in the play is that LE be close in behind his interferers, and that the wedge, preserving its form as far as possible, strike the line with dash and force.
Much of the difference in practice seems to be that his flying version is aimed between two defenders, giving it a chance to get a running start before the defense can concentrate to stop it.
This is all very nice, but you can only get so much momentum on a play from scrimmage. The flying wedge in its ultimate form is a play on kickoff. Note that kickoffs at this time were more like soccer kickoffs. The modern rules require the ball go at least ten yards before anyone on the kicking team touch it. There was no such rule back than. The kicker did an “inch kick” and the kicking side immediately retrieved the ball and moved forward. Here is the “Princeton wedge,” with the wedge formed before the ball is kicked:
And finally we come to the flying wedge from kickoff, known as the “Harvard wedge,” because nothing says “gentlemanly play” like “Harvard”:
QB stands with the ball in the center of the field. FB stands from five to ten yards behind QB and a little to the right. The remainder of the team is divided in two sections.
Section No. 1 is composed of the heaviest men in the line and is drawn up from twenty to thirty yards from the center, back and to the right, facing QB.
Section No. 2 is composed of the lighter and swifter men, drawn up five or ten yards back and to the left of QB.
Section No. 1 has the “right of way,” the others regulating their play top its speed.
At a signal from QB, section No. 1 dashes forward at utmost speed passing close in front of QB.
At the same moment FB and section No. 2 advance, timing their speed to No. 1.
Just before the sections reach the line QB puts the ball in play, and as they come together in a flying wedge and aim at the opposing RT, or straight down the field, passes to RH and dashes forward with the wedge.
A slight opening is left in front of QB to draw in the opposing RT. (See small cut.)
As opposing RT dives into the wedge, LH and QB take him. RE and LE swing out to the left to block opposing RE. At the same moment RH puts on utmost speed and darts through opening between LH and RE.
Note: The arrangement of the men is arbitrary. The wedge may be directed against any point desired. Its strength lies in the fact that the men are under full headway before the ball is put in play.
The most impressive part of this is the assumption that the opposing Right Tackle, on seeing this mass of humanity charging down on him at full speed, will leap forward at it. Truly they were giants!
But surely this was dangerous, right? You bet it was dangerous! The problem wasn’t too many injuries. It was too many fatalities. A series of rules revisions were designed to abolish mass plays. It wasn’t easy to come up with rules that allowed for desired plays while not allowing mass plays. Consider when you are watching the game and a team is penalized for illegal formation. The formation rule seems like arbitrary nitpicking, but it was integral to eliminating the mass play. I noted earlier how Stagg moved the ends back two yards. They was key to setting up a wedge. This is why the offense has to have seven men on the line of scrimmage. This also is why there are restrictions on what motion is allowed in the backfield. Then there is the forward pass, which was instituted more or less as compensation for removing the mass plays from the offensive repertoire. Now the fatality rate has been brought within acceptable limits. Go, team!
Postscript 1: The University of Chicago was founded by John D. Rockefeller, who wanted it to be tops at everything. He recognized football as a recruitment tool, so having a top football team was part of the package. He recruited Amos Alonzo Stagg for just this purpose, and Stagg made it so. We don’t, however, think of the University of Chicago as a football powerhouse today. What happened? The university realized that it was becoming a football team with a school attached, rather than the other way around. So in 1939 (two years, not coincidentally, after Rockefeller’s death) it abolished its football program. How times have changed! I grew up reading about science and military history long before I knew anything about football history. I read about how the Manhattan Project included a nuclear pile built at the University of Chicago under the stands of an abandoned football stadium. I vaguely wondered how it was that they had a vacant stadium so conveniently at hand. It was an “Aha!” moment when I started reading about football history and put two and two together.
Postscript 2: I have a particular affection for Stagg due to a personal connection. He left Chicago and in 1933 became head coach at the University of the Pacific. He left there in 1946. That is the end of his career as a head coach, but he actually co-coached with his son at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania until 1952. His wife was his advance scout. In this capacity she scouted the team of Gettysburg College. This included a mention of one of the tackles, John Hershberger. Word later got back to him that she said he was pretty good. Decades later, Dad was still giddy.