When Cornerbacks Weren’t Cornerbacks

You might recognize the still below.  It comes from the same presentation by Don Faurot that I used in my post on how he developed the concept of the option (found here: http://www.secondlevelfootball.com/2012/05/01/don-faurot-option-inventor/.)

For the Faurot piece, I chose a pic that obscured an old convention of the game. Here’s a clearer view:

Missouri Coach Don Faurot lectures on option plays.

That’s a classic 5-2 front, which is historical in its own right, with a nose tackle designated as a “center,” which is old, too.

For my money, though, the biggest eye-catchers are the “H” defenders lined up on each side of the defense.  As you probably guessed, those defenders are “halfbacks,” though we’d call them cornerbacks today.  Halfback was actually a common name for the position well into the 1960’s, which is when cornerback began taking hold.

Like many of football’s rules and conventions, this old use of halfback is owed to the fact that rugby football played a great role in shaping the game.  This is especially true with position names.  Center, wing, flanker, halfback, and fullback are all rugby positions that made their way onto the gridiron.

Being a continuous game without separate offenses and defenses, rugby players kept the same positional title regardless of which team had the ball. This trend carried over to the original, rugby-like versions of football.  As football evolved, the names became more specialized or were changed entirely.  Halfback was one of the last to change, probably because it was still a fairly useful descriptor, since one such defender would be found on each half of the field.  My guess is that “cornerback” became the favored replacement as the position began aligning closer to the line of scrimmage.

Canadian football deserves the last note here.  Like the American game, the Canadian version saw the same evolution in position names, though in contrast to their neighbors, Canadian coaches kept “halfback” with the defense.

This was likely because Canadian rules allow an offense only three downs to advance the ball.  The rule demands such an emphasis on the forward pass that it made little sense to have more than one running back and just as much sense to call the position anything but “running back.”  This defensive halfback is a secondary player roughly analogous to a nickel or dime back in the American game who lines up around the edges of the tackle box.

Filed in: History and Biography, Xs and Os Tags: ,

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