By Len Pasquarelli
Senior NFL Writer
The Sports Xchange
Even with extensive and tedious microfilm research, it is still difficult to accurately pinpoint the exact date on which Clark Shaughnessy first stepped foot on the practice field as an assistant coach and advisor to George Halas in 1951.
But if the first awkward lurch embedded in the moon's surface by Neil Armstrong was one small step for man, the giant footprint left behind by Shaughnessy after a long career in college and the NFL represented a quantum leap forward for all of football-kind. At some point in the next month or so, the 60th anniversary of the official start to Shaughnessy's 12-year career as a trusted Halas assistant will unfortunately pass pretty much unnoticed and uncelebrated.
A few things bring the rather esoteric but still significant anniversary to mind: The knee injury to Terrell Owens, and his potential Hall of Fame candidacy in the future, offered a reminder that the Canton shrine doesn't include a category for great assistant coaches (legendary Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, it should be recalled, was enshrined two years ago as a player). And all the chatter the past couple weeks about possible supplemental draft choice Terrelle Pryor, and the speculation the former Ohio State star might apprentice in the NFL as a "Wildcat" quarterback, fueled some debate about the game's greatest innovators.
In both categories, as an assistant coach and a true football pioneer, Shaughnessy - who is unknown to an entire generation of football fans, and regrettably overlooked even by those somewhat familiar with his work, and who was a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame a few years ago - was a giant.
"He definitely belongs in that (innovator) category," said former NFL coach and front office executive Bill Parcells, an amateur historian of the game, a few years ago. "He lent a lot of ideas to the game."
The term "innovator," of course, is a fairly nebulous and subjective one. Great coaches aren't necessarily all noted as innovators. The late Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, for instance, was definitely the former, but there is some debate about whether he qualifies for the latter label. On the other hand, Shaughnessy, one of the game's most fertile minds and a great tinkerer, is generally credited with being more the latter than the former.
People who have traced the game and its evolution place him in the same discussion as the likes of Paul Brown, Red Hickey, Sid Gillman, Buddy Ryan, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh and others of the ilk.
A pretty impressive roll-call of innovators and, no matter how one defines the term, it seems that Shaughnessy belongs as a card-carrying member of the elite fraternity.
The most innovative man of the past 60 years or so? Well, a case could probably be made that Shaughnessy, who made his chops at the college level before venturing into the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams in 1948, belongs on the short-list.
What sets Shaughnessy apart? Perhaps his ability to work both sides of the street, to enact seminal alterations on both sides of the ball. Not many of the men cited above contributed revolutionary ideas on both offense and defense, but Shaughnessy did.
On offense, he positioned the quarterback directly behind the center (believed to have been at Stanford) for a hand-to-hand exchange, instead of having him taking a direct snap in the single wing. The move elevated the quarterback position to the preeminence it enjoys in the modern game. Shaughnessy scribbled up concepts like the man in motion, the three-wide receiver set, the counter play and misdirection. He prioritized adroit ball-handling, decision-making by quarterbacks and quick-hitting running plays that reduced traffic in the backfield and previously made the game and ponderous exercise in physical superiority.
In the 1930s, as head coach at the University of Chicago, he convinced Halas, with whom he had a strong but often confrontational relationship, to draft Sid Luckman, for the express purpose of having him operate the modern T-formation.
"He loved to draw things up and transfer them from paper to the field," said NFL vice president Joel Bussert, an Illinois native who grew up a Bears fan, and who has done in-depth research on Shaughnessy's career. "He could take a (mental) concept and reduce it to the physical."
In essence, Shaughnessy, who died in 1970, breathed life into the X's and O's every coach designs on the black board.
For all Shaughnessy's brilliance on offense, though, it might have been on defense where he made his biggest mark. Beginning in '51, as the Bears' de facto defensive coordinator, Shaughnessy began to devise schemes that even then addressed the increases in passing proficiency. He stressed combination techniques that merged his zone, "umbrella" schemes with single coverage.
"He understood," Parcells said, "that you've got to be able to cover man-to-man to win."
And, added Bussert, "He loved to blitz."
Before Shaughnessy began rushing defenders from all sorts of unusual angles, the standard blitz in the NFL pretty much consisted of sending the middle linebacker up the gut. In addition to the blitzes, Shaughnessy designed a coverage system in which the outside linebackers and ends dropped into the flat to defend the pass. He worked hard on getting bodies into passing lanes.
Although Shaughnessy departed the Bears after the 1962 season, the team won the NFL championship in '63 (pre-Super Bowl days), said then-safety Richie Petitbon, playing concepts he had introduced.
"Probably a little bit ahead of his time," Parcells said. "But definitely a forward kind of thinker, for sure."
Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan, himself a football history buff, referred to the famously gruff Shaughnessy as "maybe too cerebral." Petitbon, who played in the Chicago secondary under Shaughnessy's stewardship, and who incorporated some of his ideas when he was a coordinator and head coach in the league, was perhaps a bit less delicate.
"He could be sharp-tongued, abrupt and impatient," recalled Petitbon. "But I feel like a lot of people who think on a higher level ... are like that."
Six decades after joining the Bears' staff, Shaughnessy still has an impact. His work and ideas remain pertinent, and, while staying power isn't necessarily a prerequisite for inclusion into the innovator's hall of fame, the relevance doesn't hurt.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.