Sunday No. 1
Sid Gillman’s Vertical Stretch
1963 AFL ChampIonship Boston Patriots vs. San Diego Chargers
Balboa Stadium, San Diego, California — January 5, 1964
Dick Vermeil was my coach with the Philadelphia Eagles for six years. He is the most influential person in my football life. Dick believed in me when others did not. He taught me how to be a leader, how to do things right, how to be tough enough to survive in the brutal world of the NFL.
Dick also gave me the greatest gift any quarterback could ever ask for. At a critical point in my career, he brought in Sid Gillman to be my position coach. If there were a Mount Rushmore for pioneering football geniuses, Sid Gillman’s likeness would be on it. Sid, quite simply, is the father of the modern passing game. Every passing guru—from Al Davis and Don Coryell to Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren—owes him a debt of gratitude. Every fan who loves “the bomb” should be grateful to Gillman. I know I was. For two years, I was the lucky recipient of Sid’s incredible knowledge, and I’d equate my experience with him to be the same as a physics student getting daily one-on-one tutoring from Albert Einstein.
Sound far-fetched? Not really. More than any other coach of his day, Gillman understood the geometry of the game. Sid designed his receivers’ routes to look different, while the distance of the quarterback’s throw remained the same. In Sid’s scheme, receivers positioned themselves by using the hash marks. How much space those receivers left between their own tackle or tight end was critical. It insured that a quarterback’s throw on specific routes would never vary in distance. Sid achieved this by emphasizing alignment and formation. Specific details were drilled over and over until they became second nature to his players. This is an expected element of pro football now, but it wasn’t back when Sid coached the Rams and Chargers during the 1950s and 60s. He reinforced the legitimacy of these concepts by sending assistant coach Tom Bass to consult with a mathematics professor at San Diego State University in the early 1960s. Their mission: to figure out geometrically where players needed to be on every passing route so that the ball would be in the air the same length of time.
Every passing game concept today stems from Gillman’s understanding of timing, rhythm, and anticipation. It’s keyed by a three-five- or seven-step drop by the quarterback, drops whose distances are directly linked to the route depths of his receivers. It may be Sid’s most lasting and critical contribution to pro football: He took this seemingly simple concept and made it a science. Joe Collier, who coached against Gillman with the Patriots, Bills, and Denver Broncos in the American Football League, readily admits, “Everybody had to work like hell to keep up with him. We were forced to be more creative on defense because of Sid.”
Sid’s passing attack was among the first to use the entire field vertically and horizontally. He divided the field into sections, based on favorable passing angles. He had his split end and flanker (what wide receivers were referred to before 1970, when NFL publicists discarded those terms for the sake of uniformity) line up outside the numbers—the better to stretch the field from sideline to sideline. Sid’s credo was “The field is one hundred yards long and fifty-three yards wide. We’re going to use every damn inch of it and force the other guy to defend all of it.” He advanced a critical concept that all quarterbacks abide by today: the “best-located-safety” principle. By that, he meant a passer should throw the ball to the receiver who is located the farthest from either safety on the field. The principle worked for his Chargers quarterbacks, it worked for me throughout my pro career, and it’s still a cardinal rule for today’s NFL passers.
It helped that Sid landed in the perfect environment in which to develop these bold concepts. After he was fired by the Rams in the late 1950s, his coaching days appeared to be over. “I was looking at starting a career in stocks and bonds—a new profession that didn’t quite appeal to me,” Sid confessed. But then, beginning in 1960, a group of businessmen formed a rival league to compete with the NFL, and Sid was one of the first coaches hired. The new American Football League was a blank slate, with no precedent, no tradition, no history. Its coaches were handed lumps of wet clay and told to create something exciting. That was all a guy like Sid needed to hear. The NFL was a ground-oriented league in 1960, so the AFL decided that it could attract fans by passing—a lot. As Sid told me on more than one occasion, “People wanted to see us throw the ball. They didn’t give a damn who caught it, but they wanted that ball in the air.” The AFL became a 100-yard laboratory for this pigskin Ph.D. to conduct his football experiments.
In an era when the prevailing wisdom was “Three things can happen when you pass—and two of them are bad,” Sid ignored that mind-set and passed more often so he could set up his running game. He put backs in motion, threw to backs in the flat—even sent them on “go” routes up the field and down the middle. Sid asked himself, “Why do we always need our backs and tight end to block, then release? Hell, just let ’em go right away.” That gave Sid’s teams more receivers downfield than defenses of that era could cover, but it also left fewer pass blockers. Gillman compensated for reduced protection by putting the responsibility on his quarterbacks to throw quickly when pressured (known today as making a “hot read”) to the backs and to the tight end. This concept was pivotal to his philosophy—and unique.
Few tight ends regularly ran vertical routes before Sid Gillman came along. Gillman believed that the success of any passing game depended on how well it dominated the hash mark areas with a pass-catching tight end. Time and again Sid preached, “You put a real tough tight end with good hands in the hash area, and there won’t be anyone who can cover him. Then you really control the passing game.” This forced defenses to respect the interior of the field, which opened up passing lanes for the other receivers. Sid’s first tight end with the Chargers was Dave Kocourek, a guy who averaged between 16 to 19 yards per catch every year. He was often shadowed by Mike Stratton, a six-time AFL all-star linebacker who played for the Buffalo Bills. “Kocourek was a tall, rangy guy—very good size for a tight end at that time,” said Stratton. “Because the Chargers’ other receivers were so talented, opponents abandoned man-to-man and were forced to play more zone coverage, leaving Kocourek open to run plays down the seam in between everybody. He was almost impossible to stop.”
The Chargers were also innovative off the field, as they were the first pro team to hire a weight trainer. “We really got the jump on the rest of football back then,” said Ron Mix, the Chargers’ Hall of Fame offensive tackle. “Most coaches discouraged weight lifting because they thought you’d get ‘muscle bound’ and tied up, interfering with your flexibility. Not many players worked out year-round, but, because of Sid, many of the Chargers did, and it gave us a huge strength advantage in games.” More than a few of Gillman’s peers viewed this type of training—and many of his passing schemes—as too radical and irresponsible. As Bill Walsh so accurately noted, “Sid was so far ahead of his time, people couldn’t totally understand what he was doing.”
I certainly didn’t have that problem. Sid’s brilliance was obvious from the minute I met him. He was almost too smart; a mad professor of sorts. He’d scribble so quickly on the blackboard that I’d have to slow him down. It wasn’t just what he taught—but how he taught it. Before Sid came to the pros in the mid-1950s, most coaches would fire up the film projector and focus on an opponent’s overall strategy. The big picture. Sid ignored that approach. He asked his players to study the details. Where is the linebacker? What’s his depth from the line of scrimmage? Which leg is the strong safety putting his weight on? How are the cornerback’s feet positioned and which way is his head turned? What is he looking at? Other coaches spent their time getting an overview of all eleven defenders. Sid preferred to zero in on one guy at a time to pick up the right clues. If you could crack the code, every player on the field revealed something crucial. Once I was able to apply this knowledge, things really took off for me.
My first eureka moment with Sid came during an off-season practice. I made my first throw, and Sid bellowed, “Let me see your grip!” I’d been throwing the ball the same way for twelve years. But Sid was going to mold me from the ground up, starting with the basics. “Let’s see your fingertip control. Shit, Ron, your palm’s touching the leather!” We spent the rest of the session working on my throwing mechanics, my drop, and the proper way to stand under the center. It was days before we even started working on play design. Sid wanted his quarterbacks to be fundamentally sound before he’d move on to anything else.
He was also a demon about repetition. Gillman drilled you and drilled you until you ran a play without even thinking about what you were doing. His passing system was based totally on precision. I had to have that ball out to the receiver at a specific point every time. And my receiver had better snap his head around when the pass was released or he was going to get whacked in the face mask. With the Eagles, I was blessed with one of the best receivers I ever threw to in Harold Carmichael, a four-time Pro Bowler, but Sid pushed him just as hard. By the time he got through with the two of us, I could have gone out to the practice field with Harold and completed those passes blindfolded. That was Sid’s mantra: Do something so many times the exact way each time, and you’ll perform the same in any game situation.
Nobody could make adjustments on the fly like Sid. When the Eagles walked into the halftime locker room, Sid already had everything we needed on the chalkboard: fronts, coverages, hints, indicators. I believed in him so much that I just knew the changes we made during halftime were going to work. He was unmatched in his ability to figure out the opponent’s game plan and recognize what a team was trying to do to us that day.
The 1980 season was my finest in the NFL. I posted my best stats, was named Player of the Year, and got the Eagles to their first Super Bowl. None of this would have been possible without Sid Gillman. To this day, I still hear his voice in my head when I think about the core principles of the passing game.
And to think that there once was a time I couldn’t stand the guy! Of course, that was years ago when I was a kid growing up in Lackawanna, New York—deep in the heart of Buffalo Bills country, where the team that everyone hated (but also grudgingly admired) was Sid’s San Diego Chargers—the most glamorous team in the early years of the AFL.