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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Sid Gillman, "Father of the Modern Passing Game," notes on passing offense

Sid Gillman, along with Paul Brown, basically invented modern football. Bill Walsh left his stamp, but he was largely just making systematic what those two had already created. Brown, an approach to football itself -- gameplanning, huddling, drawing up plays (the modern convention of Xs and Os and diagrams looking how they do can basically be attributed to him).

With Gillman, he transformed football from the rugged, beat-em-up rugby derivative it was into the orchestrated, finely tuned passing game we see now. He basically invented the concept of "timing," and calibrating quarterback drops with receiver routes. And, unlike many such "bridge" innovators -- who connect an older time to a newer one -- he continued to be on the forefront largely up until his death: he coached many great NFL teams in his later years, most notably helping with the Philadelphia Eagles when Vermeil was there and further consolidating and perfecting the "pro-style" offense. (Basically everyone nowadays who talks about being "pro-style" is trying to be like Sid Gillman.)

Anyway, here are some notes from Gillman on passing offense, courtesy of Coach Bill Mountjoy.

Sid Gillman Passing Game

Timing of Pass:

1. The timing of the delivery is essential. It is the single most important item to successful passing.

2. Each route has its own distinct timing. As routes and patterns are developed on the field, the exact point of delivery will be emphasized.

3. Take mental notes on the field on timing of the throw.

4. If you cannot co-ordinate eye and arm to get the ball at it’s intended spot properly and on time, you are not a passer.

5. Keeping the ball in both hands and chest high is part of the answer.

6. Generally speaking, the proper timing of any pass is putting the ball in the air before, or as the receiver goes into his final break.

7. If you wait until the receiver is well into his final move, you are too late.

Attacking Defenses:

1. You must know the theory of all coverages. Without this knowledge, you are dead.

2. You are either attacking man for man, or zone defense.

3. Vs. Man for Man Defense, you are beating the Man. Vs. Zone Defense, you are attacking an Area.

4. Not knowing the difference will result in stupid interceptions.

5. Study your coverage sheets so that by merely glancing at a defense you know the total coverage design.

6. Man for Man Defenses

a. Hit the single coverage man. This will keep you in business for a long time.
b. Stay away from receivers who are doubled short and long.
c. Do not throw to post if weak safety is free unless you are controlling him with another receiver, and even then it can be dangerous.
d. Flare action is designed to hold backers. If backers are loose, HIT flare man.
e. The secret to attacking Man for Man is to attack the single coverage man who is on his own with no help short or to either side.
f. You must know the individual weaknesses of our opponents and attack them.
g. There are many methods of dropping off by deep secondary men. Each method provides a weakness – know them.

7. Zone Defenses
a. To successfully attack zone defense, concentrate on attacking the slots (X-Z Curl, Y Curl, Cross Routes).
b. Flare action is a must to hold the backers close to the line to help open up the zones behind them.

8. Exact knowledge of defensive coverage and the patterns to take advantage of these is a must.


1. Spread the field horizontally and vertically with all 5 receivers;
2. Pass to set up the run (not the other way arouhind);
3. One-Back formations are a must.


Anonymous said...


Do you know anything about the history of the development of conversion routes and eventually into systems? I know that Berry talks about an adjustment he had worked out with Unitas for the Giants game in 1958 (if LB lines up here, we run this other route). Not really a conversion route, but perhaps the beginning of the idea that the receiver's pattern might be changed from the call in the huddle based on how the defense aligns.

Sounds like something Homer Smith should write up, but I don't recall reading it in his history of football chapter.


Chris said...


I'll research a bit more, but I can't give you an exact answer. My sense is that it was kind of an organic thing back and forth: when the early terms started passing they were likely pretty disorganized and thus probably "converted," but as Paul Brown and others started systematizing the whole thing, they became sharper, more precise, and locked in. But then you had people like Tiger Ellison by the 60s at least doing conversion routes but in a systematic way.

I'm sure there's counter-examples etc (Ted Seay might have a more exact answer), but that's my sense.

Jon said...

When I first started following the NY Giants and the NFL in the late 70s, the only team I recall using one back instead of two was the Dallas Cowboys when they went into a shotgun. Did Vermeil's Eagles use a one-back?

Anonymous said...

When I first started following the NY Giants and the NFL in the late 70s, the only team I recall using one back instead of two was the Dallas Cowboys when they went into a shotgun. Did Vermeil's Eagles use a one-back?

4/05/2009 08:52:00 PM

The Cardinals, Chargers, Eagles, Cowboys, and Patriots all used one back formations to various degrees. Don Coryell was fond of using two TEs or a 3d receiver even when using 2 RBs he often used the scatback as a slot receiver.....

I'll post links to their playbooks sometime.

Mr.Murder said...

"2. Pass to set up the run (not the other way around); "

Love this rule and it's very true. Most people think you need to pass 50 yard bombs to achieve this. Not so, you can throw slants and the curl/flat and suddenly the strong safety and LB are moving horizontally. The off tackle lane gets big and linemen are getting 4 to 6 yards deep before blocking collisions occur.