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1970s big 10 offense. The next BIG thing in today's NFL. (1 Viewer)

Wilfredo Ledezma


The Hot New Thing in the NFL: Ancient Big Ten Offenses

Jim Harbaugh (left) evidently listened well to Bo Schembechler, his coach at Michigan in the 1980s. Photo: Associated Press


In the NFL, schemes are constantly evolving. Plays can become outdated in the span of a quarter. But a handful of teams are adjusting to life in the modern game by borrowing strategies from a most unlikely source: the boring offenses of the 1970s Big Ten.

The NFL has spent the past few years getting smaller and faster, with speedy wide receivers who are as light as 170 pounds. Knowing that, NFL linebackers and defensive linemen also shed weight, creating a league of (relative) Smurfs.

But, NFL observers say, the league is now experiencing a backlash from a cabal of coaches with heavy Big Ten influences who prefer, well, heavy players. Their idea? Find the biggest players you can find and run simple, powerful schemes. It is a trend that former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said was the story of the off-seasonthe explosion of bigger players to counter the shifty speedsters.

Naturally, the revolution has been led by San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and his brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who faced off in last season's Super Bowl and whose father, Jack, was once an assistant under Michigan coach Bo Schembechler. This season, however, their philosophy has begun to spread across the league. On Sunday, the 3-1 Indianapolis Colts and their offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, a former Harbaugh assistant, used offensive tactics straight out of the Ford administration.

In the second quarter of their 37-3 trouncing of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts lined up 243-pound fullback Stanley Havili at wide receiver on a play from the Jacksonville 4-yard line. It wasn't successful; quarterback Andrew Luck's pass went off two Colts' fingertips, including Havili's, and fell incomplete. But it was an example of an idea that is gaining traction: creating mismatches with players who are up to 50 pounds heavier than the people defending them.

The Colts also have borrowed from the Big Ten teams of old with their formations. They constantly use the "I formation," with two players lined up behind the quarterback, and often keep wide receivers close to the linemen before the snap, in case they have to block. This is common when teams are on the goal linebut the Colts on Sunday were doing it 70 yards away.

It is an approach that the late Schembechler, Michigan's coach from 1969 to 1989, would've loved. When asked what Schembechler's influence on the modern NFL is, Hamilton said: "In a nutshell, the fullback." On the four times the Colts have played a fullback with six linemeninstead of the normal fivethey are averaging 6.5 yards per play.

"What the Harbaughs have brought back to the NFL is what the Big Ten used to be like," said Glen Mason, a former University of Minnesota coach. "They are running basic off-tackle plays, 'power' plays that have been around since the year of the flood, and an NFL defense doesn't have any idea how to stop it. They aren't prepared for old-school football."

There are evolutionary forces at work here. When Jim Harbaugh was the coach at Stanford, Jeremiah said, he bucked the college trend of employing smaller players four years ago, meaning many West Coast teams had to sacrifice some athleticism to keep up with the size of Harbaugh's team. Jeremiah said the huge players developed in college in response to Harbaugh's teams are now in the NFL. Harbaugh couldn't be reached for comment.

This isn't an accident, said former Stanford defensive lineman Erik Lorig, who was developed as an athlete so well in college that he is now a fullback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lorig said Harbaugh had a part of spring practice called "Bad-a-- Period," in which he would play massive players at different positions, like letting a defensive lineman take a shot at receiver.

The shift toward decades-old strategies is going well beyond the Harbaughs. Most of the "new" types of running playslike the read option, in which the quarterback takes the snap, reads a defender and either pitches the ball or keeps ittrace their lineage to the Midwest. "It is classic Michigan-Ohio State," John Harbaugh said. "They were doing this with Rick Leach and Dennis Franklin in the early 70s. Some of these things are amazingly similar.

"New England is running an inside dive that is about as Woody Hayes as you can get. They put four blockers on two inside guys and dive the ball. That's three yards and a cloud of dust, and that's Bill Belichick running it."

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I remember a couple years ago belichick was talking about this -- might've been right around when he drafted hernandez and gronk.

I don't remember if it was some random question, or chitchat on his weekly radio spot, but when asked about the growth of the spread offenses, or maybe his opinion on the success of the wildcat, he basically said that nfl defenses have been gradually evolving smaller and faster to defend these spread concepts and the general emphasis on passing, and that he expected to see teams like sf actually have success with larger guys running an old school power attack, and that he didn't think running the ball was as much a dinosaur as some people were making it out to be.

I've been saying the same thing for a couple years now and is exactly the argument I've made that IMO Tebow could start in the league and be effective. Look a Jacksonville. Their offense is flat out embarrassing to watch. Why not go out, find a mauling interior lineman or two (they can be had), stick Tebow in at QB and run the pistol / read option down their throats? Tebow can force the DE's from crashing down and also forces LB's and Safeties to play off the line a bit in case he breaks containment. That spreads the defense out, which would actually give MJD some running lanes. Protect the football, wear those lighter defenses down in that hot Florida sun and, if your D can make a play or two, you might just have a chance to win a few games. At least maybe not get blown out every week.


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