It’s tricky to say when a play or scheme was “invented,” partly because all football ideas stem from prior concepts, and partly because of how quickly information can be disseminated in the sport. Between coaching changes, clinics, and gamefilm study, new ideas don’t stay secret for long. With that said, I feel very comfortable stating that today’s inside/outside zone run tandem was first codified by Sam Wyche’s Cincinnati Bengals teams of the late 80’s and early 90’s, and almost as comfortable saying they invented the modern concept. Famed OL coach Alex Gibbs gets lots of deserved credit for adding new elements and elevating its use to an art with his Super Bowl-winning Broncos teams, but most of what he preaches goes back to the Bengals of almost a quarter of a century ago. The Bengals had so many unusual attributes—including heavy use of the no-huddle—that their zone runs didn’t get as much attention in the media.
I was actually taught the inside zone play by watching Bengals game film of Ickey Woods. It was a thing of beauty seeing how zone schemes not only gave offenses a way to limit the effectiveness of blitzes, stunts, and slants, but actually turn these tactics against a defense. Linemen were almost always put into positions to make great blocks in a much more effective manner than man-scheme combo blocks. At the same time, the runningback’s movement and reads gave him the benefits of designed counters and option plays without the risks of cutting into a blitz or fumbling a pitch or mesh.
The key to modern zone runs is the use of controlled double-team blocks on defensive linemen that turn into single-man blocks depending on what the defense does. The movement and intent of a playside tackle or end not only determines who picks up second-level linebackers and safeties, but also keys where running lanes are likely to develop. Getting back to the idea of there being little new under the sun when it comes to football, we can trace this flexible double-team concept all the way back to Vince Lombardi’s coordinator and head coach positions with the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, and we can probably assume he used it some at West Point or even earlier. (Of course, he may have gotten the technique from someone else.)
Depending on which of Lombardi’s playbooks you look at, this specialized double-team was called either a “doo-dad” or “do-dad” block, and was designed specifically to beat stunts and blitzes. Doo-dads weren’t just for offensive linemen, but also for double-teams by a lineman and a runningback. Just like today’s inside zone takes advantage of defenders overreacting to the outside zone run, Lombardi’s 36/37 Slant got defenders running to the sidelines, while his 30/31 hit them hard up the gut when they began overreacting to the outside run. Doo-dad blocks were key to these plays.
In both plays, a back and a tackle use teamwork to defeat the playside linebacker and defensive end. The diagram below shows the playside offensive tackle, fullback, and halfback roles in the play’s 36 Weakside variant, which is being run out of the Brown formation. The defense is running a stunt where the defensive end slants weak while the backer loops around behind. The play looks simple because the two offensive players are basically assigned an area to block. The halfback and tackle are the blockers; halfbacks and fullbacks were largely interchangeable in the 60’s, and also not much smaller than typical linemen, so this arrangement isn’t unusual.
Rather than having a fixed assignment, the halfback is responsible for blocking the outside defender, while the tackle blocks the inside man. Both blockers aim for the defensive end, with the tackle going for centerline and the back aiming for the outside hip. If the defenders play straight-up, the result is nothing unusual: the tackle blocks the end across from him, and the halfback takes the linebacker. If the defensive end slants weakside and the backer loops behind him, however, the two blockers keep their area assignments, which means the halfback is now responsible for the end and the tackle picks up the backer. Whatever the defense does, the fullback watches the result and aims for the vacated area or, in Lombardi’s famous parlance, “runs to daylight.” He can run off-tackle if defenders get bogged inside, split them down the middle, or cut inside if they over pursue to the intended hole.
The flexibility of this play allows for the best-positioned blocker to take on each defender at the hole. Combined with the ball carrier’s read, Lombardi was espousing two of the major tenets of the modern zone ground game two decades before the Ickey Shuffle’s heyday. It’s another sign of history repeating itself when we note that just as the Bengals’ zone plays were overshadowed by other facets of their offense, Lombardi’s doo-dad technique played second fiddle to his ubiquitous Packers’ Sweep play (which itself featured a guard/fullback doo-dad block.)