Author: Ted Seay
Originally Published: July 16, 2004

A Brief History and Update

This is a brief examination of 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.

ts-steve-owen-a-formation

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. 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 both the Mouse Davis school of Run and Shoot football, and from the Bunch Attack that has been popularized recently by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. (Readers of my Wild Bunch, Spread Option Run and Shoot, and Modern TCU Spread playbooks will not be surprised to hear this.)

Having supplanted the single wing as the Giants’ offense in 1937, the A formation outlasted it in the NFL by some two years; the Pittsburgh Steelers abandoned the single wing in 1952, and the Giants dropped both Owen and the A in 1954.

As I have already said, I think Steve Owen is hugely underrated as an offensive innovator. His half spin series from the A formation — taken straight from the pages of the 1956 book that he co-authored with former Giants receiver Ray Pelfrey (The Passing Game: Offensive and Defensive for Coaches and Players: Wm. C. Brown, Dubuque, Iowa, 1956) — is at least the equal of anything I have seen for the Warner Single or Double Wings or Dutch Meyer’s TCU Spread in terms of deception and multiplicity of threats.

This paper was intended to inspire innovation among coaches who are not afraid to borrow from the past as they try to devise football’s future. I hope that in writing this paper, I will have accomplished that.

Ted Seay