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Terminology... The Receivers
This is article #9 in a series covering the origins of football’s terminology. All are available under the Terminology tab above. My book, Hut! Hut! Hike! describes the emergence of more than 400 football terms.
Players or teams to whom the ball was thrown or kicked have been called receivers since the mid-1910s. Pass receivers caught forward passes, punt receivers caught punts, and kicking teams booted the ball to the receiving team. Still, it was not until the early 1950s that wide receivers came to describe players who aligned wide.
Besides the end, the first position for a player aligning wide was the flanker, which Stagg introduced a dozen years before the forward pass became legal. Stagg's original flanker was a halfback positioned fifteen yards outside the tackle and behind the line of scrimmage, who often motioned back to the formation to block the defensive end or tackle, like the crackback block of later years. Flankers also came in handy when running reverses.
Stagg undoubtedly borrowed "flanker" from the military, where "flanking" describes maneuvers around the side of enemy positions. When the forward pass became legal in 1906, Stagg resurfaced the flanker, using them on occasion.
So, flankers were few, and most offensive formations had the ends aligned within a foot or two of the tackles, so they were known simply as the left or right end. Then, in the late 1920s, teams began moving one or both ends one or two yards wider than usual. The tactic became known as the split end, though the players were not because teams sometimes split their left end wide and sometimes the right end; neither specialized as a split end.
Split end as a description of the position showed up in 1938 when the University of the Pacific, then coached by the 76-year-old Amos Alonzo Stagg, had an end line up fifteen or more yards wide of the tackle.
The rise of the Modern T formation in the early 1940s reshaped football. Teams increasingly positioned one end wide to spread the defense and facilitate that player's release into passing routes. Likewise, they motioned a halfback into a flanking position before deciding to skip the motion and position the flanker wide directly from the huddle.
The single player positioned wide and behind the line of scrimmage became known as a flanker. In the 1956 season, several NFL teams placed a halfback between the split end and offensive tackle to create the slotback. The following year, Texas Tech distinguished the end that split wide from the end that remained tight to the formation, naming the latter the tight end. The distinction caught on; by 1959, numerous NFL and college teams made the same distinction. Over time, the split and tight end positions became specialized, with their physical requirements diverging. Tight ends continued in-line blocking, so they retained some characteristics of offensive linemen. In contrast, the value of split ends was their speed, route running, and catching ability, so their size became relatively less important.
Another innovation in terminology in the 1950s came from Sid Gillman, one of the game's great thinkers. He brought his Spin T from Miami (OH) to the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. Having access to a highly-skilled quarterback like Norm Van Brocklin, Gillman began shifting toward a sophisticated passing offense. To simplify the playbook, play calling, and other communication, Gillman called the wide receiver the X, the tight end the Y, and the flanker the Z.
Finally, in 1966, teams in the Southeast, such as Florida with quarterback Steve Spurrier, ran formations splitting both ends. To distinguish one from the other, they called one the split end and the other the wideout. That distinction quickly disappeared, and wideout soon meant any eligible receiver that aligned wide.
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