Former Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi is arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NFL. However, I believe that his legacy is actually underrepresented in the annals of fame.
Lombardi is often credited for having his teams seek perfection. As part of this perfection, the legend suggests that his offensive playbook was more simple than his peers. But, since his players ran the smaller offensive category to perfection, it was the winning formula en route to five NFL championships over a seven-year stretch.
The legend perpetuates the notion that the Packers Power Sweep was the main driving force for the 1960s dynasty. They swept their way into the history books.
Pundits today also continue their accounts by suggesting that the modern game has surpassed Lombardi and he wouldn’t be able to compete with the contemporary sophistication.
Granted, Lombardi’s offense wasn’t as open as Tom Landry’s multiple-shift and intricate “System” at the time, but it was much more complex than history seems be crediting him.
I have always been a great fan and student of Lombardi’s playbook. It started when I was a young child and was given a copy of his posthumous book “Vince Lombardi on Football,” edited by George L. Flynn. Throughout the book, Lombardi painstakingly teaches the reader, down to the finest detail, the mechanisms of executing his football plays.
Allow me to highlight some of Lombardi’s offensive philosophies and play calls to demonstrate that his offense was quite contemporary and multiple for the time, and to also showcase how some of his staples are still present in today’s modern NFL.
Exhibit A: The Passing Tree
Sid Gillman is often called the “father of the modern passing game.” He was among the first to standardize receiver routes and attach them to precision timing. The routes were perfectly constructed to match the quarterback’s drop back with the break of the receivers to mesh in a completion.
He was one of the reasons the AFL exploded on the scene with wide-open passing attacks. The game would never be the same after his imprint.
Before Gillman, oftentimes receivers only ran a few routes to match their skill set and simply would try to “get open” and then look for the ball.
After Gillman, quarterbacks would release the ball before receivers started their breaks; the ball would arrive the moment the receiver turned for it. Precision timing had entered the game.
His passing tree was all about geometry of the routes. They were organized and given numbers to simplify the play call in the huddle. See the figure below.
The odd numbers indicate routes breaking towards the sideline and the even numbers break towards the hash marks. The routes are as follows:
1) Flat, 2) Slant, 3) Out, 4) In, 5) Comeback, 6) Curl, 7) Corner, 8) Post, and 9) Streak.
To reiterate, this passing tree is the one used today and was rather revolutionary for the 1960s. In the picture below, you can see Vince Lombardi drawing and teaching these very same routes during a Packers practice.
The Packers had a much more wide open passing offense, with Sid Gillman-like tendencies, than history seems to want to remember. Bart Starr pulled the trigger in a modern offense.
Exhibit B: Pass to Win
Lombardi’s teams are largely remembered for the power running game. “Run to win” is the famous moniker we’ve all been indoctrinated to celebrate. While this certainly has a lot of truth to it, the passing game lead by Bart Starr should never be diminished in our collective memories.
In fact, the 1966 season, which culminated with winning Super Bowl I, would not have been possible without the dynamic passing game.
During that season, the Packers averaged a mediocre 3.5 yards per carry. Even by today’s standards, that’s considered a pretty minimal number.
However, that year gave rise to perhaps Bart Starr’s best statistical season. He completed 62.2% of his passes for 2257 yards, 14 touchdowns, and only 3 interceptions. He averaged 9.0 yards per attempt and 14.5 yards per completion.
In comparison, during the 2010 Super Bowl XLV season, Aaron Rodgers had a higher completion percentage (65.7%), yards (3922), and touchdowns (28). However, Rodgers averaged shorter passes with 8.3 yards per attempt and 12.6 yards per completion.
Clearly, the Super Bowl I run was largely catalyzed, and most certainly propelled, by the vertical passing game of Starr within Lombardi’s offensive category.
It’s incorrect to think they only ran to victory. They most certainly would not have beaten Dallas in the 1966 NFL Championship without Starr’s 304 yards and four touchdown passes.
Exhibit C: Zone Run Blocking
Zone run blocking is the current rage in the NFL, and college for that matter, but it has been around in principle for quite some time.
While Lombardi was an assistant coach at West Point under the legendary Red Blaik, the two of them began to develop zone blocking for the running game. The idea was to give each lineman an area to block, rather than a specific man, to neutralize the growing trend of slanting defenses. While the zone scheme concept has evolved considerably since the 1950s, the basic premise remains the same.
In the picture below (from the book “Vince Lombardi on Football”), you can see Lombardi detail how he used the zone blocking scheme to win the 1961 NFL Championship against the New York Giants.
Lombardi realized that he had to attack the aggressive Giant’s defense by giving fullback Jim Taylor several cutback lanes to exploit.
“Running to daylight” didn’t mean running to one hole; it meant finding the daylight in a series of potential holes.
Exhibit D: The Power Sweep
Lombardi’s signature play was undoubtedly the Power Sweep. It is famously romanticized as Packers power running at its finest.
Some of that is true. It was a power running play, hence the name “Power Sweep.”
But, there is also a case of semantics going on. While it is thought of as a power play, it is actually a mixture of smash mouth football with zone run blocking.
The picture below is an actual page from Lombardi’s playbook and diagrams the famous Power Sweep.
The play does use the overload principle, but it also utilizes zone blocking. The idea is to move both guards to the play side. Since they are moving along with the entire formation, it is effectively a zone play. The guards are assigned to blocking an area, rather than a specific man, to form the alley.
The Power Sweep is alive and well in today’s NFL. Bill Walsh used it during his time in San Francisco.
While Walsh was the head coach at San Francisco, he trained his young protege, Mike Holmgren, his entire playbook, including the Power Sweep.
When Holmgren came to Green Bay in 1992 to be the new head coach, he brought back the legendary Lombardi play. History had come full circle.
Despite Holmgren leaving in 1998, the power sweep is still alive and well in Green Bay. Mike McCarthy has installed it in his offense. You can probably see it during the 2014-2015 season.
In fact, most NFL offenses run some sort of variation of the Lombardi sweep because it is still a highly effective play. It simply works.
So, there you have it. Lombardi’s offense was more complex than traditionally credited. The staples he used are still used today, and that’s what is the most telling and what should be remembered.
Lombardi’s offense stood the test of time.