Historical Perspective: Vince Lombardi’s Offense Was More Complex Than You Think

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Vince Lombardi ran a precision offense that may be remembered incorrectly within his legend.
Vince Lombardi ran a precision offense that may be remembered somewhat incorrectly within his legend.

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 modern passing tree popularized by Sid Gillman.
One version of the modern passing tree popularized by Sid Gillman. Note that variations do exist.

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.


Vince Lombardi used the modern passing tree in his offense.
Vince Lombardi used the modern passing tree in his offense.

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.

An excerpt from the book "Vince Lombardi on Football." Fair use exceptions apply for the purposes of commentary and teaching.
An excerpt from the book “Vince Lombardi on Football.” The play diagram shows Lombardi’s zone blocking scheme. Fair use applies for purposes of commentary and teaching. The image was taken from page 91. The book is currently out of print.

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 Lombardi Power Sweep as he originally drew it up.
The Lombardi Power Sweep as he originally drew it up.

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.

Bill Walsh used Lombardi’s Power Sweep to help win three Super Bowls.

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.




Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WISports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.


24 thoughts on “Historical Perspective: Vince Lombardi’s Offense Was More Complex Than You Think

  1. Jay – very nice job on the Lombardi offense. I have the same book “Vince Lombardi on Football’, which I purchased back in the ’70s. It became my guide for coaching and teaching High School football for 2 years before I moved into my business career. In any case, Lombardi’s offense was more complex than it is given credit for. It is known for it’s execution, but one of the real keys to the success of Lombardi’s offense was the preparation, particularly the game planning prior to each game. Lombardi and the QBs would work on specific areas or players of each defense to attack for each game. For example, the Packers would usually go after MLB Sam Huff of the Giants back then, because they knew if they could run successful plays at Huff the rest of the Giants defense would weaken to support the middle. They would identify the key plays that would be successful against their opponent and execute them to perfection. Once the defense became focused on reading and stopping those plays the Packers would begin to open up the rest of their offense. Starr was the master at this. In 1966 the run game did falter with Hornung injured for much of the season. But the offensive line remained intact and enabled Starr to pick defenses apart. Starr rarely hurt the team as evidenced by his only throwing 3 INTs for the entire season. As for Lombardi, he could compete and win today and in any era because he was smart and that would not change regardless of when he coached. If coaching today he would have grown up and learned football in a totally different environment than the era he grew up in. He would have an approach toward offense and defense that would be successful in today’s game and he would probably have a totally different approach in how he handled and motivated his players. But no one should make the mistake that he could not compete today. His greatest asset was his intelligence and knowledge of the game. And, his ability to effective communicate and channel that knowledge into action on the field (his ability to teach). That is what made him successful then and would make him successful today, that and his will to win. Now I think that I will go pull out my copy of “Lombardi on Football” and re-read the chapters on defensive football. Thanks, Since ’61

    1. You are correct! What prompted this piece was some show I watched in the last year that suggested Lombardi’s offense was simplistic and he wouldn’t be able to compete today. Well, that’s not the truth.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

    2. ‘Since 61, I completely agree with this comment of yours “If coaching today he would have grown up and learned football in a totally different environment than the era he grew up in. He would have an approach toward offense and defense that would be successful in today’s game and he would probably have a totally different approach in how he handled and motivated his players. But no one should make the mistake that he could not compete today.”

      That’s something that ought to be appled (but mostly isn’t) in any historical discussion of football, whether coaches or players. The greats of the past would have taken full advantage of modern training methods, and should get credit for being the kind of coach or athlete who was professional enough to compete at a high level because they took advantage of all of the opportunities available in their day. There is not reason to think they would have done the same had they had access to moders sports science and football theory.

      1. Exactly. If Don Hutson trained like today’s wide outs, with their nutrition, and didn’t smoke 2 packs a day, he would be the best in the league.

  2. The 2 comparisions that I think of when talking about Lombardi’s offense are : 1) Bob Knight’s motion basketball offense 2) The West Coast Passing game. All three offenses are predicated on every player “reading the defense” and letting the defense determine what he does. they are all “conceptual” in nature and well ahead of their time. While the offense looks “simple” because there are not as many “plays” as other offenses, each play has a multitude of options based on what the defense does.

    1. Has anyone ever noticed the one thing Vince Lombardi and Bob Knight have in common?

      Both coached their respective sports at West Point.

      GO PACK GO!

  3. The attempt of comparing a past with a present or future and concluding the past will always fail or be unable to succeed in the now or future is the failure.

    If the ability is there,it’s always there and the success or degree of advancement of the teacher and student changes with the instruments available at hand for use.

    Would Lombardi be the HC that utters..’I don’t know what Twitter is’…no and he sure wouldn’t be the HC to say “This game became too hard for me to learn much less teach”.

  4. Anyone who said Lombardi couldn’t compete in today’s NFL doesn’t understand Football or history.

  5. Re: Route tree. Sid Gillman ‘invented’ the route tree as an offensive assistant coach under Earl Blaik at Army. After Gillman left to be head coach at Miam U, Blaik e ventually hired a hotshot ex high school head coach who’se college carreer had come to a dead end when Fordham de-emphasised football. Yep, Vince Lombardi inherited Gillman’s offensive playbook at Army under Earl Blaik. This is in Maraniss’ book, When Pride Still Mattered.

    1. Indeed, very well said. That’s a fantastic book, IMHO. Every Packers fan should consider reading it.

    2. I read that book several years ago after it was given to me as a Christmas gift from my brother. A great read, and a must-have on every Packer fans’ bookshelf.

      1. The Maranis book is one of the best sports biographies of all time. It’s the best on Lombardi for sure. A great read for Packers fans and all sports fans.
        Thanks, Since ’61

        1. If you read “When Pride Still Mattered,” be careful loaning it to another Packers fan…you might not get it back!

          I loaned my copy to my younger daughter’s basketball coach. He never returned it.

  6. Re: size of Lombardi’s playbook. Lombardi’s playbook was smaller, and more easily understood by players, because he did not include a separate ‘play’ for each and every route, run, and blocking combination. Typically, a Lombardi ‘play’ was simply a personnell combination in a specific formation (specified by a color and a diraction, and a primary ‘hole’ (nowadays called a ‘gap fit’) for the running back. Once that had been set up, it was up to the *players* to select the best cutback lane (‘Run to Daylight’) or specific pass play (route selection)– Lombardi’s role was to teach the players how to recognize the correct ‘fits/routes’ and ensure perfect execution to take the most advantage of them. You can read about how that operated from the coach’s point of view in ‘Run to Daylight’ (in the game description all Lombardi does for offesive coaching is reming Starr of the plays he has *available*. You can see it from the players’ point of view in jerry kramers “Instant Replay.’ Maraniss (When Pride Still matters) gives a good description of how players reacted to Lombardi’s system in the chapter on Lombardi’s year coaching Washington, especially on the development of Sonny Jurgenson.

    Interestingly, Mike McCarthy’s offense is ‘more complex’ but essentially operates the same way — McCarthy determines the personell and formation, but it’s up to Rodgers to change to the ‘best run’ or ‘best pass’ out of that set, and up to the receivers to pick their routes. We started to see last year how well that running game will work with a back (Lacy) who knows how to ‘follow’ blockers.

  7. Nice article. Enjoyed it much. Quite succinct given the ground it covered. Anyone that doesn’t recognize Lombardi’s universal greatness need not be taken seriously. Lombardi and Walsh are my top 2 head coaches. Walsh is the best GM of all time. Great move by Wolf to hire Holmgren and bring the West Coast teachings back to GB. Wold hired Walsh’s star pupil. To me that was Wolf’s stroke of genius. He found real football players, and he had his share of misses, but he went out and got the right HC at the right time. Holmgren clearly peaked with the Pack’s SB win. His phone call to Reggie posing as God was too good. He had a hard time tolerating Brett Favre and came close to benching him many times. It took the greatness of Ron Wolf, Reggie White and Mike Holmgren to squeeze one SB win out of the turd, but at least we got one.

    1. Was it Favre’s fault the idiot Vikings gave away an entire team for Hershel Walker? That stupidity made Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones look brilliant, thanks Minnesota.

  8. Jay- Thanks for the great article and information. One question- Did Lombardi call plays from time to time? Did he use the TE or OL to run in key plays he wanted to run without calling a time out?

    When I was a kid I recall seeing him have a OL or TE platoon going between plays.

    Thanks in advance

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