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.
American football is pre-eminently a game for the practice and display of what is known as " team play." No other game can compare with it in this particular. Not that the individual element in skill, in physical capacities, in strategy, and headwork are overlooked, but these are made subservient to the intent of the particular play in hand, and so adjusted to that play as shall best contribute to its success. To get eleven men to use their individual strength, agility, and speed, their wit, judgment, and courage, first in individual capacity, then working with one or two companion players, then as eleven men working as one, is a magnificent feat in organization and generalship.
The individual element, perhaps, is most prominently set forth in defensive play, although there is abundant opportunity in offensive play also for it to show itself; but individual and team play are so closely joined, as a rule, that the beauty of the latter is heightened as the individual efforts of each player are perceived. In defensive work the players have more reason to feel their individuality, because they are often compelled to combat alone one or more opponents before they can get an opportunity to tackle the runner. The defensive system, however, gives a splendid chance for clever team play in the placing of the players, in the general and particular understanding that certain men shall nearly always go through to tackle behind the line; that certain others shall wait to see where the attack will be made and there hurl themselves against it; that others shall go through the line, or not, just as it seems wisest at the time; and that still others shall never involve themselves in the scrimmage, but act only when the play has been carried into their territory. Furthermore, there is constant opportunity for the exercise of team play in the working together of certain players of the rush line in defense, and also in the working together of any two or three players at special times; for example, when one or two men sacrifice themselves to clearing away the interferers so that a companion can tackle the runner; when one follows hard after the runner to overtake him, if possible, even after having missed a tackle; or helps check him from further advance when tackled, or endeavors to secure the ball.
In the rush line the center and guards work together in defense, having an understanding with each other and with the player hovering in their rear, whenever it seems best to try to let him through on the opposing quarterback or full-back, or whenever a special defense for certain plays seems best. Likewise the ends and tackles are closely joined in team play, in that they are the players relied on to stop the end plays and those between tackle and end. The most perfect adjustment and team work is needed in doing this, for they play into each other's hands while, at the same time, they seek to tackle the runner. Similarly, but less closely, do the guards and tackles work together in defense against certain plays.
It is an essential point in the working out of this team play between the different parts of the rush line, that the players study most carefully the positions they should occupy to meet the different kinds of play - how far from each other they should stand for this play, how far for that. In doing this, they must have regard for their own freedom to attack, not allowing themselves to take a position where they can easily be tangled up, nor one in which they can give their opponents an advantage in blocking them. Except on wedge and mass plays, the players in defense should draw their opponents apart sufficiently to give themselves space to break through on either side
The backs supplement the work of the rushers in defensive play, arranging themselves behind the rush line at such distances from each other and from the forwards, as shall give the strongest defense. In that degree in which they make their work strong in team play, will they give the rushers encouragement and support in going through the line. The forwards will thus be enabled to play as a unit, because they know that there is a reserve force directly behind them to lend them assistance and make their play safe.
The backs work together in special defense on a kick, arranging themselves, either one or both, in front of the catcher to protect and encourage him, and to secure the ball, if muffed; or one stands behind to make the play safe, or to receive the ball on a pass from the catcher for a run or kick. The ends sometimes come back with their opponents at such times, to bother them all they can and to be in a position to interfere for the catcher, if he runs. The backs, also sometimes have a chance to help one another out by blocking off opponents, while one of their number makes sure of a rolling ball which, perhaps, has been kicked over the goal line or into touch.
When one side has the ball, it is often possible for the opponents to guess in which direction it will be carried, by the way the half-backs or quarter-back stand; by their 15 unconscious glances in the direction they will take; by certain anticipative movements of the muscles; by false starts before the ball is put into play. Further information is often given by the rushers themselves - often by the rusher who is to carry the ball. Frequently the players who are to make the opening indicate by the way they stand, by shifting their positions after the signal is given, or by certain actions peculiar to them at such times, the general direction of the play, and, perhaps, the exact place at which it is aimed. All this is most valuable information and ought to be imparted to the rest of the team whenever sufficiently positive to be of service. Indeed, the team play of the future will not be considered satisfactory without a set of signals being used to spread just such information.
At the same time that it is possible to gather much information of this character from the side with the ball, it must be remembered that shrewd players, knowing how they are watched for these tell-tale signs, have cultivated certain false motions, and are using them as points in strategy to deceive their opponents into expecting a different play from the one which is actually made.