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Wishbone Offense Formation Explained With Pictures

If you are looking to learn about the ‘Wishbone Formation’ – what is it, how it works, why was it so effective in the 70s yet almost non-existent in today’s NFL matches, then you have come to the right article.

Wishbone Offense Formation also known as “Bone” is an offensive formation that places three running backs in the shape of a wishbone or ‘Y’ behind the quarterback. 

It was popularised by Alabama football coach, Bryant, who was making a bold offensive switch after enduring his second 6-5 season in 1971. The new offensive formation then went on to help the Alabama team win 8 SEC championships and 3 national titles until his retirement in 1982. 

In the 70s and 80s, many experts and coaches considered the Wishbone Offense Formation to be the most productive and innovative plays in college football.

Who Started the ‘Wishbone Formation’?

Record books often refer to Emory Bellard as the creator of the ‘Wishbone Formation’ during his role as offensive coordinator at Texas in 1968, although its roots can be traced all the way back to 1950.

Charles Cason, then football coach at William Monnig Junior High School of Fort Worth, Texas wanted “to get a slow fullback into the play quicker”. So, he modified the classic T formation, which Bellard later learned about as “Monnig T” while coaching at a small community school west of Fort Worth, Breckenridge High School.

Bellard also saw a similar formation used by his former Detroit Lions guard, Ox Emerson. During his assistant coaching stint at Alice High School, he saw that Emerson wanted to reduce the number of pounding that was happening on his offensive line. He began by moving one of his starting guards into the backfield to provide a running start at the opposing defensive line. 

These two events later provided Bellard the conceptual idea to develop the Wishbone Formation. 

How Does The Wishbone Offense Work – Running The Bone

As shown on the image, the formation utilizes 3 running backs (1x Full Back, 2x Half Backs). The Full Back lines up closely and directly behind the quarterback, and the two halfbacks line up to either side of the Full Back. 

Wishbone facilitates a triple-option running play with a lead blocker. The purpose is to eliminate one or two defensive players by giving the quarterback the option to make one of the three possible moves at any given time during the play. This not only frees up the offensive linemen to block different defenders, but also allows dynamism in the running play. 

This result is achieved by the alignment of the fullback and two halfbacks which forces the defenders to take themselves out. They can either choose their blocking targets between two of the three offensive players who have the potential to carry and advance the ball. 

Hence, the Wishbone is considered a triple-option as opposed to a double option where there are only two potential ball carriers.

To understand how it works, here’s a description:

  • First, the quarterback receives the ball from center.
  • Directly behind the quarterback is the fullback ready to take a dive.
  • Almost always, the quarterback will extend the ball to the fullback for a dive.
  • Then, the quarterback reads the defensive player if he is tackling the dive. 
  • If so, the quarterback will pull the ball to retain possession of the ball and either advance the ball himself.
  • Or if another defender is coming after him, he could pass the ball to one of his running backs and rush for yardage. 

At any given time in the field, the quarterback has three options: pass to fullback, hold the ball or make passes to one of the two running backs. 

Watch this video to see how wishbone works in action. Notice how the quarterback pulls the ball off from the fullback and passes it to one of the running backs for the dive.

The triple-option opens up all kinds of offensive possibilities during a running play since there is no specific play in mind. Plus, every decision is made on the spot. With the quarterback observing and reacting to defensive alignment and actions of the defensive players, Wishbone is considered as a complete offensive tactic.  

Why Has Wishbone Formation Gone Out Of Style In Today’s NFL?

Although the Wishbone Formation remains a viable offense strategy in high school football, it has almost gone out of existence in today’s NFL and college football. There are a couple reasons why:

1. Time 

It is slow scoring as it depends on running the ball rather than forward passing which is the more effective and efficient way of advancing the ball. Therefore, most coaches don’t like it. 

As Nick Saban explained it best “just maybe 20 years ago the team that could run the ball the best was usually the team that had the best chance of winning, and now you see the No. 1 offense and they have 3,000 yards passing and 300 rushing.”  

2. Injuries 

The chance of the quarterback to acquire injuries is increased because the offense requires him to move the ball on outside options. This tends to take a lot of hits from linebackers and linemen. Since quarterbacks are the general of the field, no coaches would want to risk injuring their general.

3. Athleticism

High school football has less athleticism as compared to college and NFL. Players in the NFL are much stronger and move faster, which makes run-based plays more prone to getting tackled. Also, Wishbone also excelled in an era where linebackers were generally much slower than today’s standards. Therefore, it gives more vulnerabilities for offensive teams to exploit and advance the ball today.   

Check out this article to find out who the youngest NFL players are.

Final Thoughts

The Wishbone Formation was popular in the 70s and 80s because of its ability to create options for the quarterback to exploit defender weaknesses. But as players are getting much faster and the reluctance of college teams to risk injuring their quarterbacks for professional football recruiting, it has slowly become a thing of the past.  

Now tell me what do you think about the Wishbone Formation? Do you still use it in your college games? Let me know in the comment section below.

Did you like what you have just read? If so, check out this article on football offensive positions.

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