Pop Warner referred to his new offensive scheme as the Carlisle formation because he formulated most of the offense while coaching the Carlisle Indians. The term single-wing came into widespread use after spectators noticed that the formation gave the appearance of a wing-shape. In 1907, Warner coached at Carlisle, a school for Native Americans, where his legacy consisted of at least three significant events. The first was the discovery of Jim Thorpe's raw athletic ability. The second was the use of an extensive passing game that relied on the spiraled ball. Finally, faking backs who started one way, but abruptly headed the opposite way, kept defenses guessing. Because Jim Thorpe had so much raw talent, Coach Warner more than likely designed much of his single-wing offense around this gifted athlete. Thorpe, the proverbial triple threat, was a good runner, passer, and punter.
For much of the history of the single-wing formation, players were expected to play on both sides of the ball. Consequently, offensive players often turned around to play a corresponding location on defense. The offensive backs played defensive backs, just as the offensive linemen played defensive linemen. Unlike teams of today, single-wing teams had few specialists who only played on certain downs.
College football playbooks prior to the 1950's were dominated with permutations of the traditional single-wing envisioned by Warner. Two-time All-American Jack Crain's handwritten playbook clearly denotes how the University of Texas ran their version of the single-wing circa 1939-1940. University of Texas Coach Dana X. Bible ran a balanced line, which means that there were the same numbers of linemen on each side of the center. Also, the ends were slightly split.
Slightly splitting offensive ends, called flexing, was in widespread use by Notre Dame's Box variation of the single-wing. Knute Rockne's Notre Dame Box offense employed a balanced line, which had 3 linemen on each side of the center. Another Rockne innovation was a shifting backfield that attempted to confuse the defense by moving backs to alternate positions right before the snap. Another variation of the single-wing saw the quarterback move out as a wingback on the weak side. Besides adding different blocking angles for the quarterback, the double-wing formation facilitated the passing game. Stanford had a variation on the double-wing where the quarterback stayed right behind the strong side guard, while the tailback became the wingback to the weak side. The Fullback, being the only deep back left, took all the snaps and directed the plays.
The advent of the T formation in the 1940's led to a decline in the use of Single-wing formations. For example, the single-wing coach Dana X. Bible, upon his retirement in 1946, saw his replacement, Blair Cherry, quickly install the T formation like many other college coaches of the day.. However, the single-wing style of football is still practiced by a small group of teams across the country, almost exclusively at the high school and youth level. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the last NFL team to use the single-wing as their standard formation, finally switching to the T formation in 1952. On September 21, 2008, the Miami Dolphins utilized a version of the Single Wing offense ("wildcat") against the New England Patriots on six plays, which produced four touchdowns in a 38-13 upset victory. , and again two weeks later defeating the San Diego Chargers.
The single-wing formation was designed to place double-team blocks at the point of attack. Gaining this extra blocker was achieved in several ways. First, the unbalanced line placed an extra guard or tackle on one side of the center. Second, a wingback stationed outside end could quickly move to a crucial blocking position. Third, the fullback and especially the quarterback could lead the ball carrier producing interference. Finally, linemen, usually guards, would pull at the snap and block at the specified hole. Line splits were always close except for ends who might move out from the tackle.
The single-wing formation depended on a center who was skilled both at blocking and at tossing the ball from between his legs to the receiving back. The center had to direct the ball to any of several moving backs, with extreme accuracy, as the play started. Single-wing plays would not work efficiently if the back had to wait on the snap because quick defensive penetration would over-run the play. The center was taught to direct the ball to give the tailback or fullback receiver a running start in the direction that the play was designed to go. The single-wing formation was a deceptive formation with spectators, referees, and defensive players often losing sight of the ball. A backfield player, called a “spinner,” might turn 360 degrees while faking the ball to the other backs, or even keeping the ball or passing it. Defensive players were often fooled as to which back was carrying the ball.
The one play that was unique to the single-wing formation was the buck-lateral. The terminology for this series of plays associates the word "buck" with the intent of the fullback to plunge into the line. In addition, the short toss, or lateral of the ball, can be made to the quarterback or wingback who may take the ball and do other maneuvers including passing the ball. Consequently, when the fullback takes the ball, he appears to be headed to buck the line. Typically, fullbacks were bigger players who ran plays intended to smash the defensive front. The fullback's initial move pulls the defensive players toward the expected point of attack. Next, the fullback tosses the ball to another back causing the defense to change pursuit angles, thus losing a step in their catching the ball carrier. The strong side of the formation, where the extra lineman and wingback lined-up, put pressure on the defensive end. Defenses might move extra players to that side or shift the whole defense to compensate. The cut-back play could succeed regardless of how the defense reacted. The cut-back play started like a strong side sweep with offensive guards and quarterback running interference for the tailback. The fullback would fake a smash over the guard hole to occupy the defensive tackles. The play was designed to make the defensive end over-react and try to stay outside to contain the runner. If the defensive end gave ground to the sideline, the tailback would cut-back inside to let his interference push the defensive end out of the play. If the defensive end came too far inside, then the ball carrier would run around him to the outside. After the cut-back play was used in a game, then the offense might run the wingback reverse since both plays started out the same way. At the outset, the defense tries to pursue the sweeping tailback. However the tailback delivers the ball to the wingback running the opposite way to the weak side. Both the cut-back and the reverse would be set-up with quick fullback bucks up the middle, which would cause the defensive line to over-protect their gaps, as opposed to pursuing quickly to the sideline. Single-wing teams used both a standard punting formation and a quick punt, often kicking on second or third downs. The quick punt, or quick kick, saw the tailback-punter quickly backing up 5 yards as the ball was in the air from the center to distance him from rushers. The strategy was to keep defensive halfbacks, expecting a possession play, from dropping back to return the ball. The standard punt formation was often used for either punting as well as running or passing the ball. Most teams had a litany of plays that they might run from a punt formation. Prior to 1930 the shape of the football was a prominent oval shape called a prolate spheroid. Due to the shape of the ball, single-wing backs handled the ball more like a basketball, with short tosses and underhand lobs. Gradually, balls were allowed to be elongated enough to produce streamlined passes with a spiral. The spiraled ball could be thrown farther with more accuracy, thus increasing the potential for offenses to use the forward pass more frequently. The single-wing quarterback played a different role than modern-day quarterbacks. While the quarterback may have called the snap count due to his position close to the center of the formation, he may not have called the actual play in the huddle. For much of the history of football, coaches were not allowed to call plays from the sideline. This responsibility may have gone to the team captain. The quarterback was expected to be an excellent blocker at the point of attack. Some playbooks referred to this player as the blocking back. The quarterback also had to handle the ball by faking, handing off, or optioning to other backs.
Nevertheless, the single-wing has had a successful revival at youth leagues, middle schools, high schools, and some colleges. Here are some examples of single-wing high school teams that have had success all across the country. In 2006, Virginia saw three teams ride the single-wing to the state playoffs. Two of the three teams, Giles High School and Osbourn High School, actually won their division. In 2001 and 2002, Park View High School in Sterling, Virginia advanced to consecutive state championships using the single wing offense. When Park View coach Mickey Thompson moved to nearby Stone Bridge High School, he took the single wing with him and achieved success in Ashburn as he had in Sterling. Warren County High School in Front Royal, Va. also used the single-wing to moderate success. In Louisa County, Va., the local high school has had similar success by running the single-wing formation since 2003.
Colton California has been a consistently successful single-wing team by reaching the state playoffs on six consecutive seasons.
In 2006 and 2007, The Menominee Maroons won the Michigan high school class B football championship, winning 28 consecutive games over the last 2 years, and reaching the state playoffs for the last 11 years.
Since 1985, Santa Rosa High School has used the single-wing formation under Coach Frank Ortiz. The Lions have made the playoffs every year except 3, won their district title 17 times, won the New Mexico AA State Championships in 1993, 1996, 1998, and 2007, and made a total of 10 State Finals appearances.
Xavier High School's (NYC) Head Coach Chris Stevens recently changed the team's offense to the Single Wing. In 2007 they went 11-1, and averaged 39 points in the New York Catholic High School Football League A Division. They had two 1,000 yard rushers in Seamus Kelly and Jimmy Kowalski, while both also scored 17 TDs. In the champioship game trailing by two scores with less than 8 minutes to play, Xavier scored 31 unanswered points to win their first championship in over 10 years. The following week they beat Fordham Prep 20-14 in the annual "Turkey Bowl," a game that dates back to the late 1800's. Running the single wing for the past 2 seasons, they have been at the top of league in rushing. This past season they were the in the top three rushing and scoring schools in New York. (need citation)
In Nebraska Dave Cisar's Screaming Eagle youth football teams have been running the Single Wing offense for 8 seasons. During that time period those teams have gone 78-5 and averaged over 35 points per contest and won two State Titles. He did this with 6 totally different teams in 4 different leagues in various age groups. His teams even used the famous "fullback full spinner series" along with the other traditional Single Wing plays. Coach Cisar published a book "Winning Youth Football a Step by Step Plan" in 2006 to help youth coaches install this "old school" offense.(citation needed)
In Iowa, Bob Howard, the coach of the Sigourney-Keota Savage Cobras (2A), has led the Cobras to 3 state championships (1995, 2001, 2005), using the single wing offense. He used the offense when he first started coaching at Sigourney in the 1970's, before Sigourney and Keota conjoined teams. In 2005 the vaulted Cobra single wing offense set a new state record for points in a season with 696, 537 of which coming in the nine regular season games, and in 2007 the Cobras set a new state rushing record racking up 718 yards in a single game.
North Kingstown high school in RI has run the single wing since 2007.
On September 21, 2008, the Miami Dolphins utilized a version of the Single Wing offense ("wildcat") against the New England Patriots on six plays, which produced four touchdowns in a 38-13 upset victory.