No more than a teaspoon of the wishbone, please

My grandmother died a couple weeks ago. She was one of my best friends; I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as generous and loving as she, and I don’t think I ever will. In going through some of her papers, I found an old recipe that called for, among other things, a not-insignificant measure of MSG. The siblings and I had a laugh; how times have changed!

Something else has harkened back to bygone times in the past couple weeks: Army’s use of the wishbone formation.

Army has used the wishbone extensively in its first two games. I have great respect for West Point, the Army football program and the new athletic director.

But the wishbone is a mistake. There’s a reason it hasn’t been used since the late-1980s.

A division I football coach once said there is a problem with the wishbone. “There’s one-too-many people in the backfield,” he said.

The formation calls for a left halfback, right halfback and fullback. The problem is whichever halfback isn’t involved as an option to receive a pitch is pretty much useless. He’s too far from the line of scrimmage to be an effective blocker or pass receiver, so said the coach.

The wishbone worked well when defenses were using the 5-2, as they were in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then Miami began to recruit speed and moved everyone up one level — safeties to outside linebacker, etc — to get speed on the field. Watch the Orange Bowls between Miami and Oklahoma from 1987 and 1988. The Sooners barely laid a glove on the Hurricanes; one of the games, Oklahoma lost 20-14 and needed a fumblerooski trick play for one of the touchdowns.

Navy’s formation is great because the left halfback and right halfback, in wishbone terminology, are closer to the line of scrimmage; they are threats as blockers or receivers.

Again, I like Army, and wish its football team well 51 weeks of the year. But if the offseason were spent installing an outdated formation, then its coaches have gone down more than a step in my estimation of them.

Army has played okay its first two games on offense, though several of the big plays against San Diego State came when the wishbone formation was not used.

And Army fans will note that its game against San Diego State last week — a 23-20 loss — was much closer than Navy’s game against the same opponent last December.

But the wishbone can be an equalizer if it’s unexpected. Don’t forget Navy used the wishbone to remain tied with Notre Dame into the third quarter of their 1990 meeting at the Meadowlands. ND, ranked in the top 5 at the time as I recall, pulled away for a 52-31 win. Though Navy had played well with the wishbone, and clearly caught ND off-guard; the game was tied at 10-10 at the half.

Now, film has circulated of Army’s formation. I am afraid if they stick with the wishbone they are in for a very long season.


The era of Chet Gladchuk as Navy athletic director has had some historic moments. Great hires like Paul Johnson, Cindy Timchal, Ed DeChellis and Stefanie Pemper; keeping Ken Niumatalolo, Ivin Jasper and Buddy Green in the fold; the upgrades to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium; and the TV deal with CBS College Sports has been amazing, one of the more underrated moves of his career.

So I hope this comes across as the minor rebuke for which it is meant: I was unhappy that, on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Navy football team was almost invisible, playing a road game on an internet-only feed.

Army and Air Force both had televised home games that included some pretty moving moments. Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani attended the San Diego State-Army game and was interviewed on TV. Versus network caught Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun shaking hands with many of the cadet wing an hour or so before his team’s game against 25th-ranked Texas Christian. (Dozens of the cadet wing are politely asked to attend each Air Force home game.)

I was at the first Navy game — a home game — after the 9/11 attacks, against Boston College. That game was nearly invisible too; one major newspaper even had a picture of the Brigade in formation and called it ‘the Corps of Midshipmen’ on A1 above-the-fold. It wasn’t televised, even though Navy played pretty well and hung tight with BC before losing, 38-21.

Thanks in so small part to the Navy athletic department’s leadership, Navy football today is not recognizable from that era.

But it would have been nice to be able to come together and honor those who have fallen from the terrorist attacks and the amazing young men and women at Navy who are volunteering to keep all of us safe in the future.

34 thoughts on “No more than a teaspoon of the wishbone, please

  1. Geo79


  2. christianswezey

    The wishbone does matter. If Apple says they are going to make a big product announcement, and Steve Jobs comes out with a walkman, Apple stock would plummet (a little). I like Ellerson but if the wishbone is their thing for 2011, I’ve lost a little respect for him. I submit we don’t look small picture — a few plays against San Diego State. Let’s look big picture.

  3. Geo79

    You bring up a good point. Why aren’t wounded heroes recognized and a part of the game. I read a recent article in ? that talked about what was going through the minds of sevreal Army and Navy players in the 2001 game at game time and what they are doing now. Can’t we (the Service Academies) recognize both the “greatest generation”, who 70 years ago did what the current generation of young men and women are doing now, and returning veterans during the games? Hell, Walter Reed is just a short ride to the Skins’ stadium! Where is Easy Company, 506th PIR when you need it?

  4. This post reminds me of a quote from Jim Cantelupe as he responded to Ellerson’s hiring:

    “”They do things out of this triple option that I’ve never seen before,” said Cantelupe, a 1996 West Point graduate and 1995 co-captain. “What he runs I think is superior to what Navy runs. Throughout college football, if you look at who is running the most advanced triple-option football, it’s Ellerson if you see the things that he is doing.”

    There’s plenty to laugh at here, but I’ll stay on topic. If it’s superior, then why have they changed it every year? If it’s advanced, then why revert back to the wishbone? I think it’s for personnel reasons. I’m also stealing my own thunder for a future post.

  5. Geo79

    TJ: Thanks. Army does it too. At the Bell Helicopter Bowl last December USAA gave a soldier blinded by an IED and his family a new house. Not a dry eye in the stadium.

    The service academies are not the problem, it is getting CBS to hold off on running another Jimmy Tailgate commercial so that those who are viewing the game can also get the picture of these brave men and women.

    Christian (and Mike): I am confused by the applicability of your analogy and, moroever, by you conclusions. I understand that you do not follow Army ootball with the same intensity or relish as you do Navy and I am no expert on the pros and cons of running the wishbone in the 21st Century, but, in two beatdown losses, Army (#2) is right behind Navy (#1) in rushing offense. So, they must be doing something with their throwback wishbone and option. Maybe the proper balance is what is needed. It is tough enough having to prepare a defense for ONE option offense. Imagine the problems with two. Maybe that is the method of Ellerson’s madness. I am sure he will continue to mix and match to win a game. We will see.

    As Mike points out, Army’s most serious problem is holding onto the football. It is not the wishbone that is forcing Army turnovers. It is discipline! Does the the wishbone really cause more injuries? Notre Dame (0-2 :-)) also has lost a few games because of its inability to control possession of the football.

    I anxiously await for the thunder and to have a good laugh, but please use more compelling facts than your distaste for Army or Air Force. You conclusions are not supported by the facts. So, again, I say again, “the Wishbone does not matter”! It isn’t Army’s problem this early in the season.

  6. Geo79

    ?!?. Tongue in cheek Adam asked whether the wishbone caused Army’s three turnovers (didn’t even mention the fumbles that Army managed to recover!) or the injury to Army’s QB(?). Yes, he has it right: it was the fumbles and not the type of offense Army is running. At least that is how I take his commensts.

  7. Actually Mike, that is what I was saying. Army’s problem through the first two games of the year has been turnovers. But Geo, let me point out that I meant that for THIS year. Even when Army was getting loads of turnovers in their favor last year, they still were barely breaking .500 in the record book. Long-term, I think the point is the team has a cieling with the wishbone that is lower than it would be with the flexbone.

  8. Geo79

    I thought we were talking this year? Last year’s results mean nothing this year.

    But now you got me. Never heard of the flexbone. My point remains: you MAY be right about the two offenses and which works for Army and whihc does not, but evidence to date does not prove your point that Army’s running two option offenses — one of which is the wishbone and the other is not — has hurt them. Only Navy has outrushed Army statistically.

    Will have to see how the season unfolds whether or not the bone is a ceiling or not. Right now, Army can’t even get off the floor let aopne reach the celining (and Northwestern won’t be any easier). That said, no fumbles or turnovers and Army has a chance . . . wish- or flexbone if they can continue to rack up 400 yards a game on the ground. It certainly works fro Navy!

    Army was lucky to have a .500 season and to win a bowl game in 2010 but that was last year and means nothing this year. Schedule a few cupcakes and anybody can go to a bowl game these days. Deserving? I think not but someone will pay to have two mediocre teams play in a bowl game. That’s what I love about the US. When the cupcake is you, though, then you have a problem. Army has been everyone’s cupcake since Todd Berry (2001?). They are slowly changing that. Navy went through the same thing between George Welch and Paul Johnson. Coaches certainly do matter (more than the offenses the coaches run!).

  9. Christian Swezey

    Great comments all around. Thank you all for reading the story! I think the wishbone is a bad idea, and point to the comments from a current DI coach about why it is a bad idea. Against todays fast defenses, it will not work long-term.

    Anyone can use it for a little bit. Hence my example of Navy against ND in 1990. But I promise you that right now Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald is crossing his fingers and rubbing a rabbits foot that Army uses the wishbone on Saturday. I bet Buddy Green is too, and the AF coaches are too.

    The wishbone isnt bad because ut is old. WVU used the single wing in goal line offense against Marshall. It was awesome to watch, and effective. ND used a fullhoyse backfield ingoal line under Holtz. The Maryland I gets an airing from time to time.

    The wishbone is bad because the nonoption halfback is useless. Army isnt good enough to play 10 on 11. Nor is Navy! Which is why Navy doesnt use bad formations.

  10. Geo79

    Mike, for the record, no one said that you or Christian or anyone blamed Army’s wishbone offense for their first two losses. I agree with Adam that their 5 fumbles LOST in two games (and countless fumbles recovered) have played a larger role in their demise than running the bone.

    What I disagree with is your and Christian’s conclusion that the wishbone isn’t working. In the small picture, statistics show that it has worked. Therefore, I disagree with you both. Hey, that is what blogs are for. I have enjoyed this blog for three (?) season now.

    We have the rest of the season (the “big picture”) to learn which is more correct. No coach in American would continue to run an offense that doesn’t suit his team (except Rich Rod but he is out of a job!).

  11. Edgar Alverson

    Welcome back Christian. Sorry to be such a homer, but I love this blog. The more folks Mike can get writing good stuff, the better.

  12. Dave69

    The way I heard it was – “Man cannot live by bread alone. Sometimes he craves a cookie.” – but then that would take us to another web site entirely.

  13. JimBear

    Sorry about your grandmother. I actually think army is a live dog this week. I thought they would get hammered last week but they hung in there vs SDSU. The Wildcats are better than Army but they are banged up. They are down to their 2nd string QB (albeit a pretty good player), missing their best DT and are using their 3rd string running back. If Army can limit their running game and force passing downs their flex front can have success since Northwestern OL is horrible in pass protection. Army should be able to run the ball. If they can hold onto it (a huge if) I think they can pull the upset at home.

  14. Elliott Josypenko

    Hey Christian, sorry to hear about your grandmother. Welcome to the blog.

    I take it from Mike’s entry that you are a cricket fan? Why? Are you fortunate enough to be English??? How are you enjoying the end to the season?

    Have fun

    Elliott, Sheffield.

  15. kevin

    I was recently overseas and watched a few cricket matches. While interesting for about 15 minutes, in my opinion, it gets boring really fast.

  16. christianswezey

    Thank you all for the kind words on my grandmother. Even at age 95 she watched every Notre Dame game. I remember the voice msg she left me after Navy won at ND in ’09. “The Navy was formidable!”

    About cricket: I adore the sport. I picked it up during a trip to the UK in ’95 (West Indies were in England) and rekindled my interest during the 2005 Ashes. I love that even though the Test matches last five days, every ball matters; the game can change at any time. Or not change. Like Simon Barnes said in The Times of London, cricket is the sport that most resembles a novel: Unpredictable, wild turns of momentum and sometimes absolutely nothing (like what Kevin saw).

    Bottom line: I wish the India series had been more competitive and that the weather had cooperated with the Sri Lanka series. And I am rooting for Lancashire to win the County championship outright.

    Mike Atherton is my favorite commentator and writer, followed by Gideon Haigh, then Michael Vaughan on TMS.

    What’s your take on the cricket Elliott?? (Apologies for not being on Twitter yet.)

  17. Love cricket. My boys Warwickshire nearly won the championship title today, which was a shame. So close…

    We must have very similar tastes Christian. I too am a massive Athers fan (I just love his dry wit) and Gideon Haigh is a VERY good writer. Got to love a bit of Bumble though! His commentary this summer has been superb!

    If you ever want anything from England, drop us a shout.


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