This section is from the book "A Scientific And Practical Treatise On American Football For Schools And Colleges", by A. Alonzo Stagg, Henry L. Williams. Don't miss: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.
It would be foolish, even if it were possible, to lay down a complete system of tactics which should be followed in a game. Indeed, the wonderful part of football is, that it is a game which cannot be worked out by rule and learned by note. One play does not follow another in sequence, but only as the captain or commander of the day directs.
What makes the game preeminently one requiring science and brains, is that to be well played the captain must use the utmost wisdom and strategy in directing the plays, and the players to a man must do their duty in executing them. Very many points of advantage and disadvantage must constantly be borne in mind, or else the best generalship and results cannot follow. It is far from true to say that the captain must simply take into account the strong and weak points of his opponent's play, together with the incidents of the day and field, such as the direction of the sun and the condition of the grounds in each particular part of the field; he must also have regard for his men, selecting his plays with such wisdom as to secure the greatest economy of physical energy with the greatest result, so that no man nor men shall be overworked at any time of the game and thus be incapacitated.
No captain is a good general who does not know the limitations in strength of his ground-gainers, and who does not take this into account in directing the play. Men differ greatly in their power to repeat a performance quickly; essentially, then, in their powers of endurance. Some men can do effective work only when in first-class condition; that is, when they have had a certain length of time to recover after each effort, they can be relied on for a good gain, if not a brilliant run. Then, there is a vast difference in the kind of play as to the drain on a man's strength. End runs, and runs in which a considerable distance is covered, or runs in which there is a good deal of dodging and struggling to get loose from tacklers, are the most taxing on the wind and strength. Most men can stand two or more dashes through the line in quick succession, or two or more mass and wedge plays where the runner does not run fast for a long distance before being tackled. But when a run has been made which has called for a vast deal of energy the captain should not fail to notice it, and in calling the next two or three plays, choose such as do not ask for too much strength from this player. The star runner as a rule is the one who suffers most from overwork through injudicious leadership.
This does not preclude the fact that there are occasions in the game when some player or players must be forced to draw heavily on a reserve fund of energy in order to secure a permanent advantage or to prevent disaster. It sometimes seems necessary when nearing the opponent's goal, that some player be put to his supreme test of strength in order to secure points, and likewise, when it is necessary to carry the ball away from one's own goal, and there is only one man who is sure to meet the crisis; but these are in truth critical periods and are exceptions not to be mentioned in this connection.
We Know that it is sometimes considered clever tactics, when there are strong substitute players for certain positions, to work men in these positions to their utmost limit of service, and then "have them get hurt" in order to substitute a fresh man or men. If this be shrewd, it is at least not honest tactics.
If a team is not capable of playing an uphill game, or is one which is strongly affected by success and repulse; or, if the opposing eleven is one which is similarly influenced, the tactics should be those most likely to produce the exultation of success on the one hand, and the feeling of discouragement on the other. The plays should be those which can be executed quickly, and which have a certainty of gain with little risk of loss; which combine the efforts of every man in the eleven sufficiently to make him feel that he has an important part in them; which bring the energies of the opposing eleven, particularly the rushers, to the severest test, taxing especially the wind and courage.
It must always be remembered, as a point in tactics, that the side in possession of the ball has a great advantage, especially if the other side is weak in defensive play, and that it requires a greater outlay in strength and wind to check plays than it does to make them. It is likewise true that the courage of a team may be measured by its promptness and determination in defense. If a team repeatedly and continuously comes up to the scrimmage, after being outwitted and outplayed, it has the true courage, the courage which would probably enable them to win if possessed of an equal degree of skill in team-play.
What style of game shall a team play? That depends on many contingencies. Setting aside for the time the incidents of the day, such as wind, rain, and sunlight; the soft, slippery, and rough places in the grounds; the up and down grades; not even taking into account the strength and weakness of the opponents, and the contingencies which arise, let us consider solely the composition of the team, and see if we can deduce any style of play which applies to teams made up of certain types of men.
Without defining the make-up of the team, except on general terms, we see that when the rush line is strong and heavy, the chances are that they will be able to handle their opponents and make good openings for the dashes through the line. Plunges through the central part of the line will probably be the most effective, if the center guards and tackles are large and strong men. If the backs are slow and heavy also, a center game will probably be the only kind they can play with success. And the result is that this will be the style of game adopted; not perhaps because the captain has analyzed the reasons for the ability of the backs to make advance in that place, and their inability to circle the ends, for example; but just because that is the part of the line in which they can make their gains every time. Perhaps it will occur to him that those same backs can be so quickened in starting and running, and then so well guarded, that they will be able now and then to try an end play, or a tackle and end play successfully, and by so doing, strengthen that very center play. The chance for making a successful end play is increased where a center game is being played, because the ends will be likely to draw in somewhat to help the center.