For as much as defensive players and coaches like to crow that “defense wins championships,” you won’t be winning anything if you can’t score. The best offenses in the NFL are and always have been based around superior strategy and talent, both of which are to be found in these formations.
Watch old highlights of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, and you’ll see this plenty. Lombardi adored the teamwork and precision at play in the running game, and few formations are more closely tied to that than the I Formation.
It features a fullback and running back lined directly behind the quarterback in an “I.” The fullback provides an added, mobile blocker for the running back, who ideally bursts through or around the line. For example, the famed “Packer Sweep” focused on, as Lombardi put it, creating “a seal here and a seal here” between the two tackles as a running back, such as Jim Taylor or Lombardi’s beloved Paul Hornung, ran “in the alley” between them.
The West Coast Offense
While Walsh had tinkered with the offense before in his time with the Cincinnati Bengals, it was with the San Francisco 49ers that he made it into a football legend. The West Coast Offense is all about timing, with the quarterback counting steps while dropping back in the pocket to aid his timing in hitting the precise spot where his receiver would be.
Walsh’s 49ers often used split-back formations, with two running backs (usually Ronnie Lott and Tom Rathman) located behind and to the left and right of quarterback Joe Montana. Alternatively, they could go with a single back, adding an extra receiver to a receiving corps that would go on to include the likes of Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, and John Taylor.
The timing and precision made the 49ers the Team of the 80s and the West Coast Offense the basis of much modern offensive theory to this day.
Teams as different as the Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills of the late 80s and early 90s to the 1999 Rams and their Greatest Show on Turf to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots today have employed this attack. It features the quarterback alone or with a single split out running back in the backfield. This allows four or even five receivers to go out for passes, maximizing the quarterback’s passing options.
All of these offenses remain potent ways to put points on the board, which is precisely what the best offenses do week in and week out.