(Photo courtesy of the NFL)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
Imagine Tom Brady leading the sweep or Aaron Rodgers throwing a block at Seahawks’ linebacker Bobby Wagner. You can thank Clark Shaughnessy for having to think of such seemingly absurd possibilities.
Shaughnessy may well have been the most innovative football mind ever, a cranky ascetic who invented both the modern T-formation and the blitzing defenses that would help to regain control after the “T’’ swept across pro and college football in the 1940s, four decades after it was first abandoned.
We often hear coaches called innovators. Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, Bill Walsh, Don Coryell, Buddy Ryan, Bud Carson and Dick LeBeau quickly come to mind. Fertile minds one and all, but none of them did more to transform the quarterback position from a glorified blocker to the focal point of the game than Clark Shaughnessy.
Three times a Pro Football Hall-of-Fame finalist in 1970, 1975 and 1976, and then again a semi-finalist in 2010, Shaughnessy’s contributions to the explosive growth in importance of the quarterback by resurrecting the long dormant T-formation seem all but forgotten today. That is a sad consequence of the passage of time and decreased interest in history.
But it may also be denying Shaughnessy a rightful place in Canton.
Known as the father of the modern T-formation, he took over a dormant Stanford University program in 1940 after installing the T at the University of Chicago with stunning success in the 1930s. It was at Chicago that he advised Bears’ owner-coach George Halas to draft future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Sid Luckman, urging him to put him under center in the T-formation. Halas did, and Shaughnessy helped develop what would become one of the game’s most potent passing attacks at the time.
That 1940 season, Stanford finished 10-0, defeating seventh-ranked Nebraska in the Rose Bowl -- or one year after Stanford went 1-7-1. At the same time he was coaching Stanford, Shaughnessy was also helping prepare Luckman and the Bears for the 1940 NFL championship game against the Washington Redskins, an unimaginable feat today.
He designed a series of counter plays off men in motion designed to lure the Redskins’ linebackers, who were known to follow the motion man, out of position. He also expanded Luckman’s role in the passing game. Both worked to a “T,’’ as the Bears defeated the confused Redskins, 73-0, which remains the most one-sided victory in NFL championship game history.
The combined success of the Bears and Stanford resulted in a revival of the re-designed T-formation, called by some at the time “Shaughnessy’s formation.’’ By 1944, more than half the teams in college and pro football were running it, and by 1949 every NFL team but one, the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers, had abandoned the single-and-double-wing in favor of Shaugnessy’s offense.
In 1948, Shaughnessy became an NFL head coach for the first and only time, leading the Los Angeles Rams for two years. There he developed the pro set and three-receiver set out of the T-formation to take advantage of Elroy “Crazy Legs’’ Hirsch, whom he believed would be more successful at flanker than running back.
Hirsch ended up in the Hall of Fame while the Rams, with future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin throwing as never before, won the 1949 Western Conference championship. But like many innovators, Shaugnessy could be abrupt, sharp-tongued and difficult, and he was fired by owner Dan Reeves after that season because of what Reeves called “friction,’’ born in part by Shaughnessy’s constant tinkering with the playbook.
By positioning the quarterback directly behind the center and making him the focal point of the offense instead of a blocking back in the single wing, Clark Shaughnessy forever changed how football would be played. He added to that flankers, men in motion, the counter play that was the staple of Joe Gibbs’ Redskins' Super Bowl teams and three-wide receiver formations that became the forerunner of what you see each Sunday across the NFL today.
Then, in 1951, he returned to the Bears to serve as a de facto defensive coordinator under Halas, with whom he had an often fractious but always fruitful relationship. He held that position until he resigned following the 1962 season for reasons similar to the problems he’d had with the Rams.
Halas used Shaughnessy in a different role from the one he held resurrecting the T-formation. Now, he employed him to develop ways to stop it, and he came up with a 5-3-3 front that allowed linebackers to be more active in both coverage and in blitzing from all angles -- a departure from the more common red dog blitz when middle linebackers rushed up the middle.
In 1961, it was Shaughnessy who came up with the defense that shut down what was the NFL’s newest offensive innovation – 49ers’ head coach Red Hickey’s shotgun, w run-based attack. It was all the rave for weeks, or until the Bears beat the 49ers, 31-0. And it would another decade before the shotgun would come back into vogue as a passing formation.
An odd and often difficult man in the way many creative minds can be, Shaughnessy drew the attention of then-Illinois coach Bob Zuppke, who once said, “The world lost the greatest undertaker when Clark Shaugnessy decided on football coaching.’’
Whatever the truth, Clark Shaughnessy changed the game of football and created the modern quarterback position. It is the most important position in the game today, with offenses throwing nearly 70 percent of the time. You can thank the author of the tome “The Modern T-Formation with Man-in-Motion’’ for that.
Does someone who so changed what pro and college football would become deserve a bust in Canton? That is for the voters to decide. But one thing already is clear: You cannot write the history of pro football – or play the game as it is today – without mentioning him prominently. As much as any man to ever draw an NFL paycheck, Clark Shaughnessy changed the game.