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How 1947 Michigan helped the Chiefs win the Super Bowl

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And more about Fritz Crisler, one of the most important football coaches ever.

Fritz Crisler Photo by Joseph Scherschel/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

One of my favorite 2010s developments was the convergence of play design in college and the NFL.

There used to be college plays (pretty much any kind of option and the jet sweep) and NFL plays (pretty much any kind of ambitious downfield passing that relied on more than a few calls). That’s changed.

In college, that includes LSU hiring a Saints assistant and asking him to build the scariest passing attack ever. In the NFL, it includes coaches like Andy Reid being open to ideas that used to live only on campuses. Years ago, it was clear the LaVell Edwards protege was taking his offense in a collegiate direction, using misdirection and option reads to give his players the most grass possible.

The Chiefs ended the last season of the decade by winning the Super Bowl. And one of the most important plays of their win was typical of Reid’s approach.

He and his offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, found this Michigan play from the 1948 Rose Bowl against USC ...

... and copied it in 2020:

The Chiefs added the little spin move during their pre-snap shift, a la Boise State during the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl:

But the calls were otherwise similar.

“I probably shouldn’t be giving this away,” Bieniemy said, explaining the play’s source to reporters.

Reid said his brother’s high school coach played for USC, so the Chiefs had a package of video.

“It’s just a play that we’ve been working and wondering when we could polish it off,” Bieniemy said.

A fourth-and-short in the Super Bowl was the time. After Patrick Mahomes and three other backs motioned, Damien Williams carried up the middle for a conversion that set up a touchdown.

We went through a copy of Michigan’s 1947 playbook.

We think the play the Wolverines ran against USC (and that the Chiefs modified slightly) was a mix of these two:

It’s also worth talking about the ahead-of-his-time coach who called that Michigan play.

Tracing the origin of any play is tricky. Even if you’ve never heard of something happening before, there’s a good chance it has. Run/pass options are especially funny, because if you talk to a dozen coaches, they’ll give you a dozen answers about when they first saw them, sometimes a decade apart.

Today’s RPO looks a little like something Michigan was doing in the same game against USC. The coach who designed that goal-line play designed this as well: Fritz Crisler.

As pointed out in a great Twitter thread by CBS’ Josh Cohen, Crisler ran something like a prehistoric RPO:

There’s a chance this was meant for reading the edge defender before deciding whether to run or throw, but it could’ve just been a designed screen. If nothing else, it’s an example of motion leading to a horizontal passing game, yet another modern innovation actually invented far earlier.

And in the same game, the Wolverines ran a play that had a tight end leak out of the formation on a deep route:

Witness the Chiefs using a modified concept, with receiver Sammy Watkins sneaking through the line. This is extra mean, because the leak is one of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s longtime favorites:

If teams don’t worry about which kind of football “belongs” in which decade, they can embrace a fun truth: Football is football.

What worked long ago can work now. Auburn won 2010’s title with an ancient offense run by a special QB. Auburn almost won 2013’s by running the same offense with RPOs sprinkled in. Six seasons later, the Chiefs won the Super Bowl by doing things Michigan did to beat USC 49-0 on New Year’s Day 1948.

Crisler is a through line.

In 1945, he was the first major coach to introduce separate units for offense and defense — the two-platoon system, as it’d come to be called, because coaches love war metaphors. At first, Crisler did it because World War II had shortened his roster, and he needed fresh players against Army’s juggernaut.

I asked myself, ‘How are our poor, spindly-legged freshmen going to stand up against these West Pointers all afternoon?’ I knew I would have to spell them off during the game. So I picked our best defensive men and said, ‘When we lose the ball, you fellows automatically go in.’ Then I got my best offensive men and ball handlers together and said, ‘When we regain possession, you fellows automatically go in.’

College football didn’t permanently allow separate offenses and defenses until the ‘60s. But they’re important to this conversation, because having dedicated offensive and defensive players is a reason offenses like Crisler’s could exist in the first place.

A former Crisler assistant described the philosophy as “whatever we did had to be very simple for our team, but very complicated for our opponent to figure out.” A TIME story from the era explained that Crisler’s single-wing was even confusing for him, at times:

Michigan’s sleight-of-hand repertory is a baffling assortment of double reverses, buck-reverse laterals, crisscrosses, quick-hits and spins from seven different formations. Sometimes, watching from the side lines, even Coach Crisler isn’t sure which Michigan man has the ball.

It’s hard to load up players with intricate information if they have to play on both sides of the ball. If Michigan’s “Mad Magicians” on offense had to play defense, too, they might not have been able to confuse the hell out of USC.

(The Trojans weren’t the only ones shocked. The AP Poll had crowned Notre Dame #1 in a pre-bowls poll, which was how things worked at the time. But after Michigan’s blowout win in this Rose Bowl, the AP re-voted for the only time ever, making it a sort of split title.)

Crisler innovated by doing things that had almost never been done. Today, Reid innovates in a simpler way: by keeping his mind open.

That starts with relying heavily on his coordinator. The best endorsement of Bieniemy is that Reid delegates one of the best QBs in NFL history to him.

“I’m Eric Bieniemy’s biggest fan. I think he’d be a great head coach,” Reid said before the Super Bowl. “When I talk about leaders of men, you’re not going to find a finer one than Eric Bieniemy. He knows the buttons to push, he’s got a great offensive mind, he’s our offensive coordinator, he organizes everything, he’s the one that’s calling the plays into the quarterback.”

A smart coach leans on his smart assistants. A smart coach also realizes good ideas don’t just come from any level of the sport, but from any decade. It turns out a Super Bowl-winning coach does all of these things.