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Lies, Damned Lies, and Quarterback Sneaks
The quarterback sneak is among football's most iconic plays. Every fan worth their snow salt is familiar with Bart Starr sneaking behind Jerry Kramer in the waning moments of the Ice Bowl to send the Packers to the first Super Bowl. Yet, as Starr executed the play, the QB sneak is also among the game's simplest plays. The quarterback places his hands under center, takes the snap, and drives on one side of the center, looking to gain a yard or two. No handoffs. No fakes. Just a simple power play.
How did such a simple play come about, and who executed the first quarterback sneak? To answer these questions, I started by googling "Quarterback Sneak." I quickly landed on Wikipedia's Quarterback Sneak page, which included the following sentence:
The origins of this play date back to 1912 where standout Yale quarterback Graham Winkelbaum first used it in a game against rival Harvard.
If you were to google "Graham Winkelbaum," you would see that the same or similar sentence appears on fifty-plus other websites that regurgitate the Wiki information.
While I generally find Wikipedia accurate and valuable, the information about Winkelbaum seemed odd for two reasons. First, I knew few quarterbacks placed their hands under center to take a hand-to-hand snap until the unveiling of the Modern T formation in 1940. So if the quarterback sneak existed before the 1940s, it took a different form than the play Bart Starr executed.
Second, I have read and written in the past about Yale teams of the 1910s and did not recall Graham Winkelbaum's name, despite the claim he was a standout player, so I turned to newspaper reports of the 1912 Harvard-Yale game. Those reports did not mention a new type of play run by Winkelbaum and did not even mention Winkelbaum. Winkelbaum, it turns out, did not play in the game and never played for Yale because he did not exist. Graham Winkelbaum is a lie, a damned lie, foisted on unsuspecting fans and plagiarists. (Another football researcher wrote about the Winkelbaum lie in 2011, indicating Winky has been on Wiki for a while now.)
Knowing the quarterback sneak did not start with Yale in 1912 meant we needed an investigation into when the sneak originated, how it operated, and why it was called the sneak. So, off to the research salt mine I went.
The earliest references to the quarterback sneak came in newspaper articles covering three different games played by Visalia High School in California in 1903. In fact, every mention of the quarterback sneak between 1903 to 1909 came from one part of California or another. Unfortunately, the documentation is not clear on how those sneaks worked, and the issue is complicated by football's rules of the time, which prohibited the quarterback (or whoever received the snap from center) from running with the ball unless he crossed the line of scrimmage at least five yards left or right of center. That meant the quarterback could only run the ball up the middle if he gave the ball to another player, who then handed the ball back to the QB. Perhaps there was some sneaky way to make that happen, but whatever it was is lost to time.
The rule restricting quarterbacks running with the ball went away in 1910, allowing the quarterback sneak to reemerge with Bo McMillan at Centre College and Pete Stinchcomb of Ohio State running it in 1917. Descriptions of Stinchcomb runs help explain the sneakiness of QB sneaks. During the WWI era, fullbacks or halfbacks handled the punting; teams punted on early downs and commonly used their punt formation as their passing formation. Ohio State took advantage of the situation since Stinchcomb was an up back in Ohio State's punt formation. His sneaks followed the center tossing him a short snap, much like a fake punt snapped to an up back today.
Walter Eckersall's play diagram from a syndicated newspaper article illustrates a similar approach. Eckersall shows a team aligned in the Double Wing with the quarterback offset from center. Shortly before the snap, the fullback backpedals to suggest to the defense that he will punt, but the center snaps the ball to the quarterback, who sneakily runs it up the middle.
Of course, not everyone ran the double wing, but they found deceptive ways to run QB sneaks from their formations. For example, Ernest Graves, a former Army head coach, showed the quarterback sneak run from the Notre Dame Box. As the diagram shows, the QB (#2) fakes a handoff to the halfback (#1), sweeping left before turning and running a delayed sneak inside, a play that resembles today's QB Keep or Draw.
Finally, football moved to the quarterback sneak we all know and love when Shaughnessy, Halas, and Jones pioneered the Modern T formation in 1940. With the quarterback under center, defenses faced the uncertainty of whether the offense would run the sneak or not, but the fakes and other deception that made the sneak sneaky disappeared. Instead, it was a power play. A play rooted in deception became one based on power.
The movement away from the hands under the center quarterback has reduced the role of the quarterback sneak. Since teams cannot run the power version of the play from the shotgun formation, they switched to under-the-center sets in short-yardage situations or use elements of the original deception-based sneaks in shotgun, and punt formation plays today.
Hopefully, this discussion of the play's evolution clears up some of the mystery underlying the quarterback sneak. Now, let's find that sneaky bastard who tricked us into thinking Graham Winkelbaum invented this iconic play.
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