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Sundays with Sacco: The first quarterback revolution

Posted Mar 13, 2016

Jim Saccomano takes you back to the early annals of NFL history to learn about the first quarterback revolution, far before Peyton Manning would change the game.

One of the most frequently stated things about Peyton Manning is that he revolutionized the way the quarterback position is played — presuming, of course, that a player has the abilities, work ethic, drive and intellect of Manning.

Denver Broncos Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway made several notable comments at the Manning retirement press conference, noting the difference from when he played.

"When we'd get the snap, we'd try to figure out the coverage on the way back, making our reads there and then go from there. Peyton Manning revolutionized the game. We all used to think a no-huddle was a fast pace, get to the line of scrimmage and get people off balance. Peyton revolutionized it. We're going to get to the line of scrimmage, take our time, I'm going to find out what you're doing and then I'm going to pick you apart."

That was the brilliant Elway commenting on the brilliant Manning, one Hall of Famer on a future Hall of Famer.

Manning truly revolutionized quarterback play, but the game never stops evolving, and the evolution began a long time ago.

Way before Manning set all the records now, Bill Walsh was designing the West Coast offense (with a huge aid in the birthing by Elway's high school coach, Jack Neumeier, but that is another column) in the 1980s.

Johnny Unitas thrust football into the television era with he Greatest Game Ever Played, the iconic NFL title game win over the New York Giants in 1958. That one is the subject of entire books, and it hard to imagine today how much influence Unitas had on the position.

But that was not the beginning.

I would argue that the first revolution of the quarterback position came at the hands of Clark Shaughnessy (right), Frankie Albert, George Halas and Sid Luckman.

That would be the revolution of the T formation, the time of football history from which we all can recognize what is happening on offense as the modern game.

The development ties the Chicago Bears and Stanford University together in perhaps the biggest development in the history of football.

Basically, before 1940 the primary offense was the single wing (although the T had been invented, and long abandoned, way out of fashion), and the quarterback was mostly a blocking back.

Any passing was done by the tailback, and then almost exclusively on third and long, and the visual equivalent of heaving a watermelon downfield.

Clark Shaughnessy was a much-traveled coach, mostly at the college level. He even had a stint at the University of Hawaii, which is amazing to ponder for the 1930s, given the difficulties of travel and communication at that time.

He is widely regarded as the founder of the T formation and was one of those coaches always tinkering with something on offense.

In 1939, Stanford had what many have said was the worst team in school history (a real bad 1-7-1), and Shaughnessy was hired in 1940. He had been around so much, without great success, that his hire was extremely unpopular. Some actually thought this was a subtle way for Stanford to abandon football.

But Stanford had a player named Frankie Albert, who could pass, and Shaughnessy thought this was the time and the place for the T formation. He put it and the passing game into practice (actually, his practices were long and involved everyone grasping that they would have motion, pass block instead of driving forward to run block, and focus everything downfield).

Albert was a southpaw, and it must have been doubly confusing for opposing teams to not only face the T formation for the first time, but with a left handed passer running it as well.

Even he did not know if it would work. Shaughnessy secretly had a single wing playbook ready in case his T flopped.

Albert and the T opened with a shocking upset over the University of San Francisco Dons, and Shaughnessy threw away his single wing playbook.

Stanford was the talk of college football. The Indians (not the Cardinal, a that time) rolled to a tremendous season and played in the Rose Bowl.

But meanwhile, back in pro football in the Midwest, George Halas, who was way more inventive than generally given credit for, had felt that the T formation was right for pro football too, but that you had to have the right guy running it.

The quarterback.

He scouted Sid Luckman at Columbia and believe it or not, Luckman was more interested in going into the trucking business as opposed to that goofy pro football, but Halas persuaded him with a reported $5,000 contract, a crazy amount at the time. Then as now, money talked.

But the Bears still ran the single wing in 1939 when Luckman went to Chicago.

Now we come to that moment in time, in 1940, when the Bears would eventually play Washington for the NFL championship and Stanford was heading for the Rose Bowl.

In the period before the Rose Bowl, Halas had Shaughnessy work with him and the highly intelligent Luckman--amazing, really, for a college coach to be intensely consulting with a pro team on an offensive change this dramatic when both organizations had huge games facing them.

The Bears went on to beat Washington in the NFL championship game, 73-0 (a Redskin receiver dropped a touchdown pass early in the game, and when asked if things might have been different had he caught it, the reply was, "Yes, it would have been 73-7.").

That remains the single most one-sided championship game score in NFL history.

The NFL would move from the single wing to the T immediately, and forever.

That Stanford team became known as "The Wow Boys," and Shaughnessy, who continued to consult for Halas and the Bears for a decade, eventually was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Frankie Albert was regarded as the greatest left-handed quarterback anyone ever saw and also was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

And Luckman played for the Bears from 1939-50, leading Chicago to four NFL titles and was recognized as the first completely modern pro quarterback as well as the first great T formation signal caller.

Luckman was certainly the greatest long-range passer of his time and was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1943.

He led the league in average gain per pass seven times, still the NFL record, and his average gain per pass mark of 8.42 still ranks second all-time, trailing only Otto Graham of Cleveland.

Not bad for a guy whose career ended over 65 years ago.

Many great players and coaches have had and continue to have tremendous influence on the game, but the beginning only happens once.

And that was the beginning of the T, the first quarterbacking revolution in NFL history.

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