With the acquisition of RB/FB Mike Tolbert, formerly of San Diego, much debate and consternation has raked the hallows of Panther Nation. However, for the moment, It appears as if the Panthers will have DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert in the backfield for the 2012 Season. Not to mention, quarterback Cam Newton, who is also known for his mobility, a skill that has benefited him in the past. With this powerful combination of speed and power, the Panthers' already puissant run game should be able to overpower opponents, enforcing their will upon a defense prepared for a spread offense attack. However, in order to maximize the cogency of the Panthers' Attack, the Panthers could choose to organize a few formations unto which, Cam, DeAngelo, Jonathan, and Mike can all be on the field at the same time.
Yet many teams do not utilize, or even have knowledge of a formation with 3 Running Backs in the backfield. In the modern NFL, many teams run their offense from the comforts of the Shotgun, or the traditional I Formation, nevertheless, looking back into the histories of Football, there can be found multiple formations that could serve the purposes of the Panthers Offense.
Up until the past quarter century or so, The NFL has been a run first game, with passing seen as a diversion used to open up the run game even further. Dynasties such as George Hallas' Chicago Bears of the 30's and 40's, and Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, as well as Oklahoma University's dominion over College Football for twenty years were based upon the overwhelming use of force in the run game. Some of the most utilized formations of the time were the Wishbone formation, the T formation, and the Single Wing formation. These formations allowed teams to place multiple tailbacks onto the field at the same time, which, compounded with a road grading offensive line, allowed for teams to run rough shod over their opponents, until the inventions and implementations of the 3-4 and the Shotgun in the 70's and early 80's.
The Wishbone Formation:
The Wishbone formation consists of five offensive linemen, with the quarterback under center, one back directly behind the QB, and two backs set diagonally behind the first back, as seen in the picture above. In addition, the formation can include two wideouts set out wide, or a single wide receiver and a tight end used for blocking purposes. The Wishbone originated on the fields of Texas, with Barry Switzer perfecting it at Oklahoma in the 60's-70's, setting the all time best rushing average for a single season: 472.4 yards per game in 1971. One of the most potent uses of the Wishbone is the Triple Option. In the Triple Option, The quarterback takes the snap and rolls out of the pocket in an attempt to run, forcing the outside linebacker or defensive end to commit to the QB. This allows the QB to toss the ball off to one of his tailbacks in open space. Many different variations of the option as well as an assortment of play action reads.
Initiating the Wishbone against an opponent would cause massive matchup problems for opponents. In the modern NFL, most defenses are built, or are in the process of building a defense that is able to stop the pass. As a consequence, many defenses spend much of their time in the nickel defense with 5 DB's on the field. The raw power and speed effused from the wishbone would force opposing corners and safeties to make an open field tackle on a Jonathan Stewart, or Cam Newton, a daunting task in and of itself. Moreover, if the defense in aligned in a traditional set with three or more linebackers, the speed advantage of the offense would allow the Panthers to race against bulky DE/OLB's. Last season we were treated to taste of the option, with Cam Newton's versatility and the homer run ability of DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart gave the offense an added facet. Moreover, once the usage of the Wishbone is established, play action would become beyond trill. Teams would primarily focus on the option, placing 8-9 defenders in the box, affording man to man coverage on Steve Smith and Greg Olsen, opening up the big play through the air.
The T Formation:
Four score years ago, the T Formation was developed and inaugurated by George Hallas with the Chicago Bears team's of the 30's and 40's. In the T Formation, five linemen lineup traditionally, with one quarterback behind center, and three backs lined up behind the quarterback as seen above. TE's and WR's can be interchanged. With Sid Luckman at quarterback, Hallas had a dual option quarterback (an ancient version of our own Cam Newton), capable of operating the offense. Luckman and the T Formation were able to win four world championships, including a 73-0 drubbing of the Redskins in 1940 World Championship. The T formation gives the offense many advantages over its opponent; the triple option is viable, as well as a multitude of possible handoffs, and the play action. The T formation also allows the running backs to get up to full speed before receiving the handoff from the QB.
In the Panthers Offense the T formation would work quite similarly to the Wishbone formation, engendering the use of the option, as well as play action. Additionally, the T formation would create confusion amongst the defense; with three backs in the backfield, the defense would be unable to favor either the weak side or the strong side, if they did, Cam could hand the ball off to the tailback on the side in favor. It would be a dispiriting task for a DB/LB single handedly take down Stewart, Tolbert, or Williams with an arm tackle at full speed. Even more venomous would be the potential for screens and check downs, as we've already documented, Stew, DeAngelo, and Mike Tolbert are all accomplished receiving backs. Moreover, an established dominion on the ground would also open up favorable matchups for the Panthers' Wide Receivers, including David Gettis and Steve Smith.
The Single Wing
Another archaic formation, fitting the special needs of the Panthers, is the Single Wing, tracing its beginnings to Glenn "Pop" Warner back in the early 20th century. Warner drew up the first concepts of the single wing in order to put the ball into the hands of his most talented player, and one of the most talented players in NFL history, Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was able to pass the ball, run the ball, and punt the ball with such success that made him one of the most dominant players of the era. There is no one single 'Single Wing,' many different alignments and plays are available to offenses around the nation, one variation is the 'Wild Cat' that came into popularity a few seasons ago. The single wing is very successful at getting players in space, and creating holes with extra blockers on the line. Often times, offenses would overload one side of the ball, forcing the defense to compensate and reciprocate, creating wide swaths of open field for a sweep or an option to one of the tailbacks.
The Single Wing would profuse a lose-lose situation for opposing defenses, either they can lineup in a normal set, and deal with the overwhelming match up problems, or they could situate their players in order to match up with the favored side of the ball, risking a big play on the exposed side. Having a dual threat quarterback, such as Cam Newton causes many problems for opponents, who would be unable to discern whether the play would be a run or a pass, or both, and who would be receiving the ball on any given play. A player such as Armanti Edwards could also make an impact in the single wing. Just as in the T formation, and the Wishbone, the option would be enormously effective, keeping the defense on their heels.
Entering the 2012 Season, the Panthers will have one of the top running games in the NFL. The three headed monster of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert, in concert with Cam Newton will likely inundate opposing defenses in the coming games. The versatility of the run game, as well as the firepower, will likely prevent the Panthers from suffering any protracted loss of production. And while Cam's numbers may suffer, the Panthers offense will likely move towards a greater efficiency between the run game and the pass game. This greater harmony will open up even more opportunities to throw deep, which will ultimately turn the Panthers into one of the most successful offenses in the NFL.
Another trend that favors the Panthers Offense is the evolution of defenses. Over the past few seasons, defenses have begun transforming from run stopping units with a greater emphasis on building the front seven, into units dedicated to stopping the aerial bombardment most teams have instituted, as well as rushing the passer. This parity could play right into the hands of teams with solid running attacks, especially offenses literate in both facets of the game.
One example of a powerful run game and a scintillating passing offense would be San Diego Chargers during Ladainian Tomlinson's prime. With a developing Philip Rivers and a deadly ground game featuring Ladainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, and Darren Sproles, the Chargers were able to put up amazing point totals for half a decade. From 2003-2008, the Chargers offense averaged 27.6 points per game, scoring around 2200 points over five years. The future looks bright for the Panthers with Cam Newton and the burgeoning passing offense, as well as Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart.