Taking the Reverse Quarterback for a Spin
It's a short walk between innovation and crazy, so we never know which of our ideas will prove to be our best or our worst. This story covers the latter and one of the oddest center-quarterback exchanges ever seen on a football field.
To place this oddity in context, we need to step back and review why and how centers snapped the ball in early football. As in rugby, football had a rule prohibiting the person receiving the snap from running with it, so the quarterback took the snap and quickly tossed it to another player, who could run with it.
Also, like rugby, football's original snapping process had centers snap by rolling the ball backward with their feet. Within several years, centers started snapping with their hands while still rolling the ball on its side, and by the mid-1890s, they were handing or short tossing the ball to the quarterback standing a yard behind the line of scrimmage.
A 1910 rule change allowed the person receiving the snap to run with the ball. That might have led to the quarterback becoming the featured runner, but the honor went to the tailback who received a direct snap in the newly-devised Single Wing formation. Nevertheless, quarterbacks remained critical to teams running the Notre Dame Box and other shifting and misdirection-oriented offenses requiring high-level ball handling.
Around 1915, teams such as Tufts, Lawrence, and Kansas used the reverse center that had the center squat over the ball facing the backfield and reach between his legs for the ball. This technique allowed the center to accurately snap the ball to backs at wide angles, even those in motion. The reverse center approach died out quickly before being resurrected by Syracuse in 1941. Still, it may have gotten a few folks thinking about new ways to snap the ball, including Bill Alexander at Georgia Tech.
After Bill Alexander became head coach in 1920, Georgia Tech continued to have success, typically running a shifting offense that caught defenses off guard. However, a 1927 rule change required teams to pause a full second following a shift, so some of the shift's value disappeared. Rather than beating defenses based on the shift's timing, Alexander switched to deception by having his quarterback take the snap while facing away from the defense. Like the reverse center, facing away from the defense allowed the QB to pass accurately while also hiding the ball as he executed his fakes.
The link below shows the 1928 Georgia Tech team running several plays using the reverse quarterback. (Before clicking, note the quarterback's positioning.)
Nowadays, we remember the 1929 Rose Bowl for a play by California center Roy "Wrong Way" Riegels, who picked up a fumble, lost his sense of direction, and ran the ball sixty-six yards toward the wrong goal. Thankfully for Riegels, his teammates stopped him as he neared his end zone to avoid taking a safety. (California attempted a punt a few plays later, which was blocked for a safety and proved to be the difference in the game.)
But Reigels was not the only one going the wrong way that day because California's opponent was Georgia Tech, with Bob Durant as their reverse quarterback. The Engineers' odd formation attracted the attention of the nation's press before and after the game, particularly when Tech was named national champions. However, despite Georgia Tech's success, the reverse quarterback did not gain popularity. Bob Neyland tried it at Tennessee, and Kentucky test drove it, but the Ramblin' Wreck was the only major college to use the reverse quarterback consistently. John Carroll ran it in the 1940s under the Diamond T name, as did Yankton State, but that was it at the college level.
A collection of high schools across the country used the reverse quarterback into the 1960s, though most abandoned it after one or two years when their fortunes failed to turn around.
Bill Alexander's reverse quarterback leads us to question where the line is drawn between innovation and crazy. Alexander used the reverse quarterback in 1928, winning the Rose Bowl and the national championship, but even he did not use it in 1929, though he pulled it out a few times during the next several years based on his personnel. Would Georgia Tech have performed as well in 1928 using a conventional center-quarterback exchange? Who knows? Still, since no other significant program used Alexander's baby in the next ninety-plus years, the reverse quarterback clearly falls on the wrong side of the crazy-innovative line.
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