Growing up as the youngest of three brothers, I didn’t many arguments. So when my two older brothers and I debated about what offense the Corunna Cavaliers (our local high school team) should be running? I lost. They insisted the popular Spread or even the rarely seen Option offenses led to the most success in high school football, while I was mocked for even mentioning the Wing-T offense as an option. They laughed and jeered as they often do, turning me into the “monkey in the middle” of the trio…
So I sought to answer this question through analytics instead of opinion.
The results were shocking.
The Spread offense has become the most popular offense in all of high school football and unsurprisingly, in data collected through expert analysis, 42 percent of the teams who have made it to the championship game over the past 10 years (160 total teams), have run some variation of this offense. But the growing popularity of the Spread offense and the shift from more traditional offenses, is not the best way to achieve success in high school football, surprisingly, the Wing-T offense is.
Despite the apparent lack of Wing-T teams across the state of Michigan, 34 percent of the teams who make it to the championship game hosted at Ford Field, run the Wing-T. What this data shows us is that although there is a significant less number of teams who run the Wing-T, they have nearly the same amount of teams winning hardware each year as the much more popular Spread offense. Fox 17’s Jason Hutton, who has covered high school football for over 10 years in West Michigan, roughly estimates that over half of the teams in Michigan run the spread and the Wing-T, Pro-style, and Option offenses are all significantly less popular.
Although the Wing-T offense might lack the flash of the Spread, it certainly makes up for it in the win column.
The Wing-T focuses on simplicity, running the ball effectively, reducing turnovers, which can oftentimes result in a slower or less entertaining product on the field. But with the lack of Wing-T teams across the state, it’s difficult for teams to adjust to the down-hill style the offense presents. It forces teams out of their comfort zone and makes opponent preparation a nightmare. The offense maximizes their player’s talent and is easy to execute, allowing for more time to be spent on other facets of their team. “There is a lot of continuity with traps, powers, and such in the Wing-T,” said 11 year, Ovid-Elsie Head Coach Travis Long, who has run both the Wing-T and Pro-Style offenses as a coach. “Which makes it harder on the defense to recognize plays.”
The Wing-T is often said to be the oldest offense in football history, having been created by Walter “the Father of Football” Camp in 1882. But with the emergence of the forward pass over the past 100 years, it has become less and less common in football; Zero NFL or college teams run it and hardly any high school teams (roughly 15-20 percent) run the fabled offense anymore, but why? “It’s (the Spread offense) more appealing to today’s kid,” Long said. “They see it in college and the pro’s, whereas compared to when I was growing up, there was more of an emphasis on running the ball.”
The Spread has become the most popular offense in football over the past 20 years, with more and more teams dropping the Wing-T in favor of it. “It’s shifted, when I first started the spread was what everyone ran, but now things have flipped and the Wing-T schools are the odd teams out,” said former Flint-Waverly High School and 3 year, Owosso Head Football Coach Devin Pringle, who runs the Wing-T. “I only played one other school this year that ran the Wing-T.” The Spread utilizes a quick passing game predicated on putting speedy players on the perimeter, as well as using shotgun formations and perimeter runs that help take pressure off the offensive lineman. “A lot of coaches run the spread because they can get their best players away from the rest of defense and win those one-on-one matchups on the outside,” said Hutton.
The Pro-Style is another style of offense that is seemingly more widely run than the Wing-T. Most notably, perennial Division One and Four powers Clarkston and Detroit Country Day have found success running the Pro-Style (2 titles). However, only 18 percent of the finalists at Ford Field over the past ten years have ran it, just over half the amount of the Wing-T. The Pro-Style offense is an under-center, run heavy offense with a complicated passing game that requires a quarterback who is comfortable throwing inside the pocket (a rarity in high school football). The offense requires a strong offense line, a couple of talented pass catching and blocking tight ends, and a talented runningback. The Pro-Style offense is what almost every single team runs in professional football, but what works in the NFL is different than what works for 16-18 year old kids in high school. “I think the Pro-Style and the Wing-T are very similar,” said first year St. Johns Head Coach Andrew Schmitt, who runs the Wing-T. “But the Wing-T allows more deception in the running game and less reliance on quarterback play.”
The Option offense was created by Head Coach Dan Faurot at Missouri in 1941 and throughout the 1980s and ’90s, it was one of the most popular offenses in all of high school and college football. But since then, the Option has become the rarest offense in all of football, with only 6 percent of the MHSAA finalists of the 2010s had run it. The offense utilizes the QB as a runner and often leaves defenders unblocked, requiring the QB to make reads on whether to give the ball to the running back, keep it himself, or pitch it to the slot back. “Every coach is looking for a way to help his players and this gives players a chance when they’re outmanned,” said Harding University Offensive Consultant Kenny Wheaton in an interview with Daily Herald reporter, Mike Lee. But the option is known for being extremely complicated and difficult to learn, and it places a premium on having 3-4 talented running backs on your roster, which a lot of high school teams don’t have.
Despite these findings, many coaches are still reluctant to run the Wing-T, no matter how much success it might bring. “The Wing-T doesn’t have many formations,” said Long who recently changed his Wing-T offense to the Spread this past offseason. “You get the motions with the jet sweeps and quick passes in the spread that can be difficult to prepare for.” But the reluctance doesn’t only stem from X’s and O’s, the outside pressures on coaches to change from the redundant Wing-T to the Spread has forced programs to adapt, or be left behind. “If you’re a kid who’s a good quarterback, you just transfer to a different school district,” Hutton said. “That’s the landscape in 2019.”
The sad reality is and as odd as it sounds, it seems schools have become more likely to run an offense because of how it looks, rather than how it performs. “It wasn’t real popular, they thought it was boring, that we were stuck in the past. We heard that a lot,” said Jeff Bowen, the Head Coach of the 2016 AHSAA (Arizona) State Champion Avondale Westview High School football team in an interview with AZ Central’s, Scott Bordow, on the backlash he recieved when he switched from the spread to the Wing-T. “You can’t prepare for it because no one runs it.”
Every year, high school football teams across the country compete for a chance at a state title and for many of these young athletes, they have to devote countless hours during the summer and fall to succeed on the field. However, oftentimes, this sacrifice and dedication can be fruitless not because the players aren’t as talented or dedicated as another team, but because they are stuck running the wrong offense.
The Wing-T provides an offense that is conducive to the high school level because it is easy to learn, easy to execute, and maximizes the talent of its players. Granted, it might not be as “sexy” as the Spread, Option, or Pro-Style offenses, but it will produce more wins. “It’s important to play good defense and control the ball and run it well on offense, which is what the Wing-T allows,” Pringle said. “You can put together 6-to-8 minute drives and keep the other team’s best skill players off the field and grind out some wins.”
Even with the continued success of the Wing-T, the number of teams running the offense continues to drop… But that’s not a problem for the coaches and teams who do still line-up in the full-house formation. “A lot of teams have gone away with it, but the hard part about it is with everyone going to the spread, it makes the Wing-T that much harder to prepare for,” Schmitt said. “That’s just another reason to stick with it.”
However, it’s important to remember that no single offense is the perfect fit for each group of players, it’s up to the coach to shape his offense to fit their personnel. “It’s just as much about the Jimmy’s and the Joes as the X’s and O’s and if you have good players, you just have to find the right system to maximize their talents,” Schmitt said.
Long agreed, saying that choosing an offense is really about finding what “what works best for your player personnel and as long as you coach it well, you’re going to find success,” Long said.
But the sad reality is, if you don’t have an elite throwing QB, which is rare at the high school level, the Wing-T is the best offense for your program.
Since it’s creation in the late 1800s, the Wing-T has slowly become less and less popular among high school football teams, but even with the apparent lack of Wing-T programs, it’s still extremely successful at the biggest stage of high school football, with 34% of the MHSAA state finalists having run it the past 10 years. Regardless of how you feel about the Wing-T’s boring style or old school tactics, it’s impossible to ignore its success and if you want to win, you should be running the Wing-T, plain and simple… Just like the Wing-T. “I’ll take a boring win over an exciting loss anytime,” Bowen said.