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THE MODERN "A" FORMATION

A Playbook

by Ted Seay

Copyright © 2006 by Edmond E. Seay III
TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction Page 3
The “A” Formation System Page 5
The Run Game - Straight Series Page 8
The Run Game - Half-Spin Runs Page 18
The Passing Game Page 23
Attacking with the “A” Page 29

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INTRODUCTION: Taking the “A” Train

This is the sequel to a brief paper I wrote in 2004 on one of the most
interesting direct-snap offenses I have yet encountered -- the "A" formation
that Steve Owen invented and coached with the New York Giants from the late
1930's to the early 1950's.

In his 1952 autobiography My Kind of Football, Coach Owen described how the
A formation came about:

I had the idea for the A formation from the first time I saw Link
Lyman [a tackle for the Chicago Bears in the 1930's who
experimented with varying his splits when he lined up on defense]
slide off from the customary tackle position. He showed me what
line splits could achieve.

I worked out the formation first in 1935 but did not use it until
1937, against the Redskins in Washington...we finished second in
'37 and went with the A all the way in '38 to win the world title by
defeating Green Bay 23-17. But I am not going to claim the A did
it all -- we had a bunch of mighty good players, who would have
been stars in any formation.

My theory behind the A was this: I wanted to spread without
losing concentrated attacking power, and yet keep the defense
scattered along a wide front so that it could not jam in on us at
any point.

To do this I hit on the idea of deploying my line strong to one
side, and my backs strong to the other side. So far as I know this
was an original formation.

In the A, the line shows four men to the right of center and two to
the left. But in the backfield the weight is to the left of center,
with the wingback out on the left flank. The formation can be
run in the other direction, with line strong to the left and backs
heavy to the right. The A exaggerates the effect of a split line, to
carry the spread into the backfield.

When first introduced, we did not use the man-in-motion before
the snap, but that factor was soon developed for Ward Cuff.


Steve Owens won the Heisman Trophy for Oklahoma in 1969; Steve Owen coached the New York Giants
from 1930-1953. While there is a book which includes information about the “A” formation and which
spells the coach’s name as “Owens”, that is incorrect -- Owens was the player, Owen was the coach.

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From wingback he moved toward the slot between left half
[quarterback] and fullback, with the timing to arrive there as the
left half spun to make his fakes or hand offs. This reverse alone
made Cuff one of the great backs of football.

When we first experimented with the A we had used the standard
single wing, and in practice we called my new system A and the
single wing B. After noting the possibilities the new formation
opened up, we thought it should rightly head the alphabet as A,
and we forgot about B and the other twenty-four letters as well.

Coach Owen added that the “A” formation was also excellent for quick-kicking.
(My Kind of Football - Joe King, ed.: David McKay, New York, 1952.)

Steve Owen's teams were always known for their defense, and were generally
composed of two-way players. Both of these facts limited his capacity to
explore the outer limits of “A” formation football, in my opinion. I have taken
his concepts and added some modern passing ideas from the Mouse Davis Run
and Shoot attack, the Hal Mumme Air Raid offense, and from the Bunch Attack
that has been popularized over the past few years by Andrew Coverdale and
Dan Robinson.

The numbering and nomenclature that follow are entirely mine, as are the
borrowed pass plays. The runs, however, are pure Steve Owen. The half-spin
series that he introduced confounded defenders all over the NFL, and remains
one of the best and most deceptive play series I have yet encountered. I
believe Steve Owen has been seriously overlooked as an offensive innovator,
and I think it is time he received his due for the intriguing “A” formation. I
hope that the 16 plays contained in this brief playbook will help in some small
way to achieve that recognition.

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THE “A” FORMATION SYSTEM

NUMBERING AND PLAY-CALLING

The “A” formation numbering and nomenclature systems are listed above.
Both the holes (large numbers across the top) and the backs (small numbers
beneath the position abbreviation) are numbered. Plays are all called with
three digits:

First digit=series:

000 - Straight series run without motion - ball snapped to FB or BB;
100 - Straight series run with motion - ball snapped to FB or BB.

With these two series, the second digit indicates the ball carrier (BB=2, FB=4),
and the third digit indicates the hole.

200 - Passing play, ball snapped to QB’s numbers.

With this series, the second digit means the play is run with no motion (0) or
with motion (1). The third digit is reserved for the pass route package.

300 - Half-spin running play, ball snapped to QB’s wing-side elbow.

Finally, the second digit in the half-spin series indicates the eventual ball
carrier (the ball is always snapped to the QB first), and the third digit indicates
the hole.

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PERSONNEL REQUIREMENTS

Split End: This is not a position for Smurfs -- the “A” formation split end should
have a bit of size and blocking ability, as well as the kind of football quickness
that will help him gain separation from man defenders. He will normally split
from the OT by about 10-15 yards (although we can line him up as close as 1
yard outside the OT, and can even replace him in that position with a second
TE).

Tight End: A prototypical tight end, big, strong and a good blocker with hands.
Not too many deep pass routes for him, but plenty of angle blocks on linemen
and backers in the defensive core.

Wingback (1 back): Speed kills. This should be the fastest man on your team
who can catch a football. I believe fast people can be taught how to run the
half-spin sweep well, but you can't teach good runners speed. Like the SE, the
WB must be able to block downfield, although he is called on more often to
drive a defender deep, then screen him off from the ball once he reacts up to
the run.

Blocking Back (2 back): This is a "third guard" who can be taught to catch short
passes in the flats. He should love blocking, and especially laying people out
on blindside trap blocks.

Fullback (4 back): The heart and soul of your running game. Once defenses
unbalance themselves to shut down the half-spin sweep (Play 311, page 18),
you have to be able to hurt them with traps and dives up the middle to the FB.

Quarterback (3 back): Very similar to the T-formation QB, with lots of faking,
ball-handling and passing. If you have a good runner who is also your best
passer, you can play him here -- but if your best and fastest runner can pass a
bit, put him in at wingback and install an option pass for him.

Outside Tackle: Must be a superior one-on-one blocker with quick feet -- out
on an island with lots of running plays coming his way. Rarely asked to block
more than one gap over, and no pulling or trapping to speak of.

Inside Tackle: Should be your biggest, strongest lineman. Limited pulling,
mostly down blocks and cut-offs.

Middle Guard: Your premier puller and trapper. Should be big and strong
enough to serve as the point man in a three-man wedge with IT and C.

Center: Must be steady, willing to work hard to master the long snap to three
different backs, and the art of snapping and then blocking either gap or
straight ahead.

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Quick Guard: Another good puller, but mainly down and cut-off blocks. Should
be a good one-on-one pass blocker.

Line Splits: The three offensive linemen in the middle of the formation -- the
Center, Middle Guard and Inside Tackle -- split "for comfort". That means they
line up an inch or two from each other, with the MG and IT lining up their
helmets on the Center's belt. The Outside Tackle, Quick Guard, and Tight End
all line up a yard apart from the man inside them. The OT and QG are also
lined up with their helmet even with the Center's belt, but the TE can take a
bit more of the ball -- he only needs to make sure he is not in the neutral zone.

The Wingback lines up a yard outside and a yard behind the TE. The Blocking
Back lines two feet behind the Quick Guard, with his outside foot behind the
QG's inside foot. The Fullback is 4.5 yards deep, directly behind the Center;
and the Quarterback is 4 yards deep, directly behind the gap between the MG
and IT.

The only variation I have made on Coach Owen's classic “A” formation is to split
the SE out by 10-15 yards, depending on the tactical situation on the field. I
am a strong believer in semi-open formations in football, although I would
consider bringing in a second TE to replace the SE in short yardage or goal line
situations. In that case, the second TE would line up a yard outside the OT.

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THE RUNNING GAME: 000 SERIES

Even though I consider the half-spin series to be the center of the “A”
formation attack, I am starting off with straight series runs without motion by
the wingback. When conditions are wet, muddy, and/or windy, you want a
core offense to be able to call upon. I will show the same plays with motion
(100 series) starting on page 13.

Play 024:

This is essentially a trick play, but one that the defense is forced to respect by
the placement of the Blocking Back in the crease between the Center and
Quick Guard, where he can receive a snap at any moment.

The MG, C and QG need to block the gap directly in front of the BB to make
this play work. The method shown is only one possibility.

An excellent "reward" play for linemen, to give them a carry late in the game
as thanks for their service in the trenches.

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Play 042:

Your best power running back behind three down blocks, a kick-out, and three
lead blockers. The FB starts outside for three steps before cutting sharply into
the hole. The spacing of the “A” formation line should ensure blocking angles
all along the defensive front. We split the SE out to widen the defense on the
Split side of the formation, then we run off-tackle with power inside the wide
defender(s).

If your SE is a good enough receiver to draw coverage from 1.5 or even 2
defenders, the off-tackle play inside him will be extremely effective.

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Play 043:

A useful counter off the previous play. If the defense starts to over-adjust to
the off-tackle threat, Play 043, an adaptation of the classic Wing-T tackle trap
(134 C.T.), can really cut a swathe through the defensive interior.

Play 043 should also be run exactly as diagramed in Play 042, except that the
Fullback takes a tighter angle to the off-tackle (2) hole, then cuts back sharply
and follows the block of the pulling Outside Tackle. Blocking Back and
Quarterback pick off any defensive leakage back toward the hole, but there
probably won't be much -- the off-tackle threat is a strong one.

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Play 044:

An inside power play with little pretense of deception. The Fullback follows
the lead blocks of the Quarterback and Blocking Back. The "middle 3" linemen
can block it Wedge as illustrated, or Zone.

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Play 045:

Basic power off-tackle to the Wing side of the formation. Middle Guard has the
important kick-out block on the EMLOS defender, but there are three down
blocks on the playside and three lead blockers (Blocking Back, QB, and Inside
Tackle) as well. Fullback takes three steps toward the sideline and cuts, just
like Play 042.

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THE RUNNING GAME: 100 SERIES

The 00 series plays can and should also be run with the WB going in half-spin
(30 series) motion. This makes it much harder for the defense to tee off on the
half-spin series when you do run it.

Play 124:

You will often see the middle LB vacate his position and drift toward the Split
side of the formation when the WB goes in motion. One way to attack this
adjustment is to run one of the FB plays from the half-spin series (343 or 344,
pp. 21-22).

Another way, however, is to call 124 and run your Blocking Back through the
gap which the MLB has vacated. An easy 5-6 yards gained this way will
embarrass the MLB into staying home when the WB goes into motion -- so that
you can then run the 311 sweep and 312 long trap (pp. 18 and 19,
respectively).

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Play 142:

The advantages gained from running this play with motion may seem minimal,
since the defense is probably looking at the 1 and 2 holes as your likely point of
attack once you send the WB in motion. However, I believe in being prepared
for unusual defensive alignments and adjustments, and there is no new
teaching involved in running the play this way, so I have included it.

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Play 143:

You may not end up calling 144 or 143 very often, but again, I have included
them to demonstrate what you can do with no extra teaching and in case you
are facing special defensive adjustments to motion.

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Play 144:

Here the WB is in perfect position to add to the power blocking ahead of the
FB. He forms a “flying wedge” with the BB and QB on the edges of the C-MG-IT
“troika”.

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Play 145:

The WB’s motion can help turn this straightforward off-tackle run into a
misdirection play if the defense is over-reacting to motion.

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THE RUNNING GAME: 300 SERIES

The Owen half-spin series from the “A” formation anticipated the "Orbit" sweep
by several decades, and was by all accounts a really tough series to slow down,
much less stop.

Play 311:

This is the essential threat of the “A” formation half-spin series. In play 311,
the ball is snapped to the point where the quarterback will be when he half-
spins, allowing him to move forward and accept the snap in one motion. He
hands the ball to the wingback, then fakes to the fullback before bootlegging
away from the sweeping wingback.

The fullback takes a lateral step, as he does with all the plays in this series, to
give the wingback time to pass in front of him. He then gives a great fake of
taking the hand-off from the quarterback, and plunges full speed into the line
ahead of him, looking to attract as many defenders as possible with his fake. If
he is tackled at the LOS, he is doing his job. The wingback takes the hand-off
and heads for the hash marks, numbers, and sidelines. This is a wide play, and
speed matters.

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Play 312:

Slight deception regarding the point of attack, although the EMLOS defender
may not think it slight. After a steady diet of hooking him inside on Play 311,
he now gets kicked out and the cavalcade of blockers heads downfield inside of
him. Easy to get defenders overshooting the POA on this play. Call it when the
defense starts bringing the EMLOS defender hard upfield to cut off the 311
sweep.

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Play 336:

The QB bootleg off the half-spin action. It provides the vital third threat that
makes the half-spin series go. Defenses cannot load up to the sweep side or in
the middle, or else the bootleg will break them. MG pulls and tries to hook the
EMLOS defender to the Wing side of the formation. BB slides out through the
line and into the Wing side flat, while TE cuts to the Corner after faking an
inside block -- the cut should take place at about +5 yards. SE runs a Shallow
Cross, while WB turns his Swing route into a deep Wheel, and can become a
"transcontinental" throwback possibility for the QB. The QB should look at the
BB first -- if he is open, throw the ball; if he is covered, throw it to TE if you
are being pressured, or run if you are not. The QB’s path will probably be
wider than diagramed -- he must get around the EMLOS defender if this play is
going to work.

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Play 343:

The inside complement to the outside threat posed by Play 311. We will trap
the first DL to the Wing side of the Center, with the Fullback taking the ball
inside the trap block of the MG.

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Play 344:

A counter trap to the fullback, Play 344 will gain yards after the defense starts
to adjust to the 311/343 portion of the series. This play is a good way to hit
off-tackle to the Wing side with deception -- you can count on a number of
defenders following the motion back, while others will be planted in the
middle waiting for the quick trap to the fullback. Play 344 serves almost as a
Counter Gap play once you establish the first two running plays in the series.

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THE PASSING GAME: 200 SERIES

201 Choice:

Choice is a classic Run and Shoot route package adapted to the modern “A”
formation. The other receivers clear out for SE, who runs a route based on
how the cornerback plays him:

If the corner plays inside leverage, run a Speed Out at +5 yards;
if the corner presses, run the Fade route;
if the corner plays outside leverage, run the 3-step Slant; and
if the corner maintains more than a 6 yard cushion, run a 3-step Hitch.

If the QB feels more than one defender on SE, he slides across to the next
receiver inside, BB, then TE and WB.

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202 Stick:

A great ball-control route package, but with a very effective deep shot built in.
BB runs a quick Shoot at +1 yard deep, looking for the ball as soon as he breaks
outside; TE runs a Stick, breaking outside at +6, while WB runs a landmark Fade
that puts him about 16 yards wide of his tackle and at about +10-12 when the
ball is thrown. SE runs a quick Post on the backside. Coverdale and Robinson
call this “Turn”.

QB is thinking Stick -- the Shoot pattern becomes a reaction if the defender
takes the Stick away.

Zone coverage: The flat defender is QB's read. If he hangs and takes away TE's
Stick, throw the Shoot immediately to give BB space to run to. If he jumps the
Shoot, TE will have lots of space to make the catch. Hit his downfield number
with the ball to let him spin and head straight downfield in the same motion.

Man coverage: BB's hidden position complicates his man's job enormously --
there are too many bodies to run through to cover the quick Shoot with any
reliability. Switching won't work, either -- notice all three patterns are
breaking outside, leaving an inside switcher with nothing but air to cover. We
probably have a speed mismatch somewhere, most likely WB's Fade -- if QB can
hold the ball and wait, you can hit a big play.

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203 Space:

Once you establish 202 Stick as a consistent package, the Wing-side Corner will
start flying wide and deep as soon as he sees the WB release on what looks like
his landmark Fade from 202. In 203 Space, however, the WB cuts vertical at
about +4 yards and curls back inside to look for the ball. TE runs a shortish
(+7) Hook route. Like the WB on his Mini-Curl, the TE will show his numbers to
the QB if he is open.

With the BB’s Shoot route, this gives the QB an easy distribution of three
receivers separated by significant amounts of horizontal space, but not so deep
that he has to hold the ball for long. The SE will run a conditional Slant route
on the backside -- Slant if the defender is 5 or more yards off you at the
decision point (about +3 yards), otherwise Fade.

The easiest way to read this is from SE to TE to WB to BB, backside to
frontside. If you have an experienced QB, however, especially at the HS level
or above, you can have him make the WB his object receiver -- look to him first
and throw if he’s open. Otherwise, if the Mini-Curl route is invaded from
outside, look next to BB’s Shoot; if the Mini-Curl is invaded from inside, go to
the TE’s Hook.

Either way, save this package for situations where the defense is playing a
loose zone or man coverage, trying to stop the deep pass. The yards-after-
catch potential from 203 Space is excellent.

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204 Under:

As much as I like the Bunch Attack of Coaches Andrew Coverdale and Dan
Robinson, I am not a big fan of their Bunch Mesh route package from the “A”
formation. To me, the Whip-Read route by the #1 receiver in the Bunch is just
not as easy to run or effective when you run it from a tight wing, as from the
Single Wing or “A” formation.

However, I like the “Under” tag that Coach Coverdale has developed for the
Mesh package so much that I have made it one of the principal parts of the “A”
passing game. The TE runs a Corner route and the BB a Shoot route just as
they would for the Bunch Mesh package. However, the SE and WB run Shallow
Cross routes that mesh near the LOS with the WB crossing over the SE to scrape
off any tight man coverage.

The QB thus has three receivers in his line of sight at various depths, making
the reads on this play extremely easy. You can either hold the ball and look
for the TE deep, dropping down to the BB and SE as necessary; or you can
prioritize the BB’s Shoot route and come inside to the SE if the Shoot isn’t
there. The WB becomes an option for the QB if the defense starts to ignore
him.

Finally, you can also tag the SE with anything you want after the defense starts
to grow accustomed to his Shallow Cross -- a Post, Dig, anything. You will find
it very easy to get him in one-on-one coverage situations with this route
package.

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215 Cross

The next two pass route packages use half-spin motion by the WB, but since I
do not suggest using aggressive line blocking, they cannot really be classed as
play action. Instead, they operate best if the defense is expecting a pass.

The TE Cross package is an old favorite of Norm Chow’s from his BYU days. It
gives the QB a triangle read on the SE’s Go route deep, the TE’s Shallow Cross
coming from the backside, and the WB’s Swing route outside and down low.
The BB should check for a blitz by the ILB or OLB to his side, then release into a
Wheel route on the backside of the play to keep the secondary honest.

The QB should “peek” first at the SE’s Go to see if there is an easy six points on
offer; from there he can check down to the WB (sooner) or TE (later). The
WB’s Swing route is also the “Q” (quick) route in this package, where the QB
can go with the ball right away if he feels pressure

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216 Flood:

The Flood mechanism has been in use for many years by many teams. It gives
the QB three receivers in his line of sight at different depths, and allows him to
check down quickly and easily. Because all three receivers start on the wing
side of the formation at the snap, this play develops quicker than 204 Under.
In addition, the motion by the WB adds an element of misdirection.

Use of the half-spin motion followed by pass blocking should cause two things
to happen: the linebackers will surge forward at the snap, then "bail out" deep
when they see the pass-block key from the offensive line. This in turn should
allow both the BB and TE to get out into their routes quickly and easily.

The QB should peek at the TE’s Corner route, then come down to the BB and
finally the WB. The WB’s Swing route is also the QB’s “Q” (quick) route in this
package in case of early defensive pressure.

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ATTACKING WITH THE “A”

I will address the remarks that follow to two audiences:

Direct-snap coaches: The best way to view the “A” formation is as Steve Owen
designed it -- a formation with the backfield strong in one direction and the
line strong in another. If you currently run an unbalanced formation, defenses
you face which are comfortable with the idea of shifting one man over to your
strong side will show strong schizoid tendencies against the “A” -- which way
do they shift? If your formation is balanced, the defense will probably line up
its middle man over your center, but may not feel comfortable staying aligned
that way for long. In any event, you will have a psychological advantage simply
by coming out and lining up in (or even better, shifting into) the “A”.

The 000 series will be very familiar to those of you who run a power series in
your offense. The 100 series adds the wrinkle of “half-spin” motion by the WB
to keep defenders honest. The 300 series, as I have noted before, is one of the
best and most deceptive half-spin series I have seen anywhere. It is just as
effective as Mark Speckman’s Fly offense, in my opinion, and involves many of
the same elements -- a motion back threatening a fast sweep; a QB with his
back to the defense “dealing the cards” as backs run by him, then dropping and
either setting up to pass or bootlegging outside, away from the sweep; and a
powerful thrust inside by the FB, who in this attack is your best power runner.

Finally, the 200 series combines some of the most advanced concepts in the
modern passing game with the classic “A” formation, along with a split receiver
to try and draw more defenders away from the offensive core than was the
case with Steve Owen’s original version. The whole passing game is there --
the deep shot, the ball-control pass, the action pass with the QB threatening
both to run and throw the ball, and even a draw play of sorts -- you can run 024
or 124 with the QB faking a drop-back pass to influence the linebackers.

QB-under-Center coaches: I do not recommend the “A” formation as a
“surprise” offense that you can install to throw opponents off-guard. I think
you would be much better served by trying the single wing instead, if that is
what you are looking for.

There is really no point in installing the “A” unless you’re planning on running
the 300 half-spin series, and in my opinion it is too learning-intensive to be
able to throw in as an afterthought or change-up offense. If you are interested
in changing over to a direct-snap offense, on the other hand, I don’t think you
can find a better combination of power, deception and passing potential than
the “A”.

If you would like more information on installing the offense, feel free to e-mail
me at seayee AT hotmail DOT com.

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