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CFB Explainer: Etymologizin'

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What does it mean when old school announcers say Tim Tebow is a "single wing tailback," even though he occupies the position of quarterback? The single wing is the province almost exclusively of fogeys and eccentric historian types, of which SMQ is neither. But reader and ex-college player/current high school offensive line coach (not to mention MGoBlog banner contest finalist) Tyler Sellhorn is something of a wing enthusiast, and offered his expertise in the form of a brief etymology lesson:
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Mostly, hardened, tradition-oriented football coaches held on to a position name that has its roots in antiquated football jargon, that through multiple strategy changes still refers to the old signal caller, offensive field general, and team leader as "quarterback." But his original duties were entirely different than those of the modern position.

Technically, a "quarterback" is "an offensive back in football who usually lines up behind the center, calls the signals, and directs the offensive play of the team." Missing from this definition is the story of how the position rose of obscurity as the "blocking back," playing like a third guard in many single-wing offenses, to become the pinnacle of the sport, "the most important position on the field."

This article from is about the emergence of the "single-wing" formation of football advanced by Pop Warner's Carlisle Indians. The following diagram is taken from that article:

Notice the unbalanced line formation with only a guard and an end on the left side of the line and four rightside blockers. This is a classic unbalanced, single-wing formation. (Missouri came out in its own version of an unbalanced line several times last year against Kansas, which you can see here at 2:00, 4:55 and 5:21, if you look closely - ed.)

This was a radical departure from previous football strategy, which usually featured the four offensive backs lined up shoulder to shoulder in the backfield behind the snapper.  More important to our discussion, however, is how differentiation between the skills, abilities, and names of the different backs became more in style. From right to left on the diagram the backs are the wingback, the quarterback, the fullback, and tailback. Where the center is the third man from the left of the line, and the tailback is taking the shotgun snap directly behind him, the original quarterback (like the modern fullback) was usually in no position to do anything with the ball:

As new strategies developed the wingbacks began to be used often as a pass reciever in addition to the ends on the line. Quarterbacks were most often employed as blockers, but also usually were the biggest backs and would direct the offense. The fullbacks were usually run on power, diving straight ahead plays, and the tailbacks were used on the slower developing sweep and off-tackle plays. When passing came along, all the backs could pass, but most commonly a tailback would pass because after receiving the "shotgun"-type snap from center, he would fake a long sweep to one side and heave a deep ball downfield to an end coming off the backside. (Here is a handy video tutorial on the single wing. Note the responsibilities of the tailback as opposed to those of the quarterback – ed.):

When snapping rules began to change and passing was becoming more popular, the "T-formation" became popular again thanks to the innovation of Amos Alonzo Stagg and his under-center snap. This is the origin of our modern understanding of the "quarterback." As passing grew, the backfield again became more specialized. The "T-formation" quarterback retained his signal calling duties and was giving most of the passing duties, and his main job during play was to either hand the ball off to a "running back" (fullback, tailback, or wingback) or pass the ball to a receiver. (Again, for the sake of comparison, here's a good clip of a 1950 game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt to show the old single-wing, run by Tennessee, in the light helmets, against the newfangled "T" with its under-center quarterback, adopted by Vanderbilt - ed.):

Today, quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and Pat White who take shotgun snaps and run as often as they pass are used like single-wing tailbacks and fullbacks and would probably be better labeled as a "tailbacks," just as they were conceived in the olden thymes of yore. But, since we never changed the name of the signal-caller once he started passing, why start now?
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In short, this:

...when used to run a play like this..., like, back to the future, man.

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If you have any kind of question for CFB Explainer - strategic, historical, rules-oriented or otherwise - send it along to sundaymorningqb-at-yah00, etc. Don't be afraid to get complicated.