How the late, great Alex Gibbs perfected zone blocking in the NFL

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On Monday, legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs passed away at the age of 80 due to complications from a stroke. One of the best and most important assistant coaches in professional football history, Gibbs was especially legendary for his refinements to inside and outside zone blocking.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Alex Gibbs, who had a profound impact on the Denver Broncos and the National Football League as an offensive line coach,” the Denver Broncos, for whom Gibbs was offensive line coach from 1984 through 1987, and assistant head coach/offensive line from 1995 through 2003, said in a statement. “During his 14 years with the Broncos, Coach Gibbs left a lasting legacy on this league with his innovative blocking schemes and outstanding teaching ability. He helped the Broncos to Super Bowls during three different decades—including back-to-back World Championships—while forging a reputation as one of the greatest assistant coaches in NFL history.

“Our hearts go out to Alex’s wife, Trina, and the entire Gibbs family as well as Alex’s many former players and fellow coaches.”

Gibbs also coached in college for Duke, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio State, Auburn, and Georgia, and in the NFL with the Raiders, Chargers, Colts, Chiefs, Falcons, Texans, and Seahawks. He concluded his NFL career as an offensive line consultant for the Broncos in 2013.

I’d like to quote from my book, The Genius of Desperation, which hopefully gives some insight as to why Gibbs’ efforts as a teacher, coach, and schematic genius made him such a crucial part of pro football history.

Zone blocking, and the origin of the species

(AP Photo)

Throughout NFL history, blocking schemes changed and advanced as the need flourished due to the ever-increasing complexity of enemy defenses. Through the NFL's first half-century, most blocking was based on aligned and choreographed power. The Packer Power Sweep was the dominant blocking scheme of the 1960s, at least in perception, but Vince Lombardi was also a bid believer in what he called 'option' or 'do-dad' blocking, which was the most prominent forerunner to the league's current zone-blocking and zone-/man-blocking hybrid schemes. The Godfather of zone blocking in the NFL is unquestionably Alex Gibbs -- Gibbs took the idea of option blocking to an entirely new level, but he definitely had his forbearers. When you hear that Gibbs invented zone blocking in the 1990s (a common canard), keep in mind that while he may have perfected his own (and thus the NFL's) iterations of zone blocking, but he certainly didn't invent it, and he'd be the first to tell you that. Lombardi's case was different. He based the fundamentals of his offense on fundamentally sound blocking techniques, but it wasn't just the Power Sweep that kept that offense going. Lombardi called it "area blocking" as opposed to zone blocking, but the principle was the same. And Lombardi used it for the same reasons that his followers used it -- to keep the offensive line clean and consistent against ever-changing and more complex defensive schemes. "The guard and the center do-dad, or area-block, the defensive tackle and middle linebacker," the coach explained in his seminal book, Lombardi on Football. "Do-dad blocking is used against stunting lines or lines that stack one defender behind the other. In the case where the defensive tackle has the inside charge and the middle linebacker is keying the fullback and has the outside responsibility, the middle linebacker will, with the snap of the ball, move immediately to the hole, making it impossible for the center to cut him down because of the middle linebacker's key on the fullback. In this case, we will use do-dad blocking. "The center is the lead blocker -- the apex. He will lead-step, the same technique as for the down block, for the crotch of the defensive tackle. The offensive guard, using the same technique as he does in the drive block, will aim for a point which is outside the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle has an inside charge, the guard immediately releases the tackle, picking up the middle linebacker who would be moving with the key of the fullback toward the hole. The center, since the tackle is moving into him, would pick him off." These are the central constructs of zone blocking: Solving the problem of stunting and blitzing defenders -- really, solving the problem of any sort of personnel advantage on that side of the ball -- with a flexible system based on precise coordination as much as sheer physical strength. Lombardi was the main force in bringing that concept into the NFL, but Gibbs would perfect it years later.

Alex Gibbs, the teacher

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Gibbs learned a lot of things from a lot of different people, and married them together to create his own unusual but eminently successful approach. From his time at Ohio State from 1975 through 1978, he learned the basics of successful teaching from Woody Hayes -- not the crazed coach everyone now remembers, but the freshman English teacher. Hayes was just as expert at language arts as he was with the game. Gibbs learned about dealing with players and maximizing their potential from Bobby Bowden during their time together at West Virginia in 1973 and 1974. Georgia Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley taught him the value of organization during his time there in 1982 and 1983. By the time Gibbs became the Broncos' offensive line coach in 1984, he didn't just have his blocking system together; he also had a concrete way of making people understand and execute what he wanted. Gibbs ran elevated versions of the inside zone and outside zone throughout his career, but the guiding principles were similar, in short. Zone blocking at any level requires linemen to first determine whether they are covered or uncovered, and then help the man next to them if they're not. It's a roughneck ballet at one hundred miles per hour, with all kinds of checks and responsibilities, The strength comes in the group, which is how Denver's relatively light line took care of Gilbert Brown, but that doesn't mean that the center -- in his case, Brian Habib -- can get away with a finesse-laden approach. "When I coach the center, I tell him that if he is not tough enough to block the nose guard, he is not tough enough to block for me," Gibbs said at one coaching clinic. "If the nose guard is close to the center, the center has him. If he is close to the guard, the guard calls the center into the combination. The nose guard may make the play, but if the center can flatten the defender out of the line of scrimmage, we can be successful." Perhaps the most impressive distillation of that plan came in Super Bowl XXXII, when Gibbs' Broncos upset the Packers, 31-24, behind the MVP performance of running back Terrell Davis. Davis overcame a migraine to rush for 157 yards and three touchdowns, but it was Gibbs' line, without a 300-pounder in the bunch, who negated 350-pound tackle Gilbert Brown and left Reggie White, perhaps the greatest defensive end in NFL history, without a sack. White put up three sacks in Green Bay's Super Bowl XXXI win over the Patriots before, but the Broncos -- primarily right tackle Tony Jones -- kept him quiet, and the Denver blocking plan is worth reviewing. So it went through the line, and Brown found himself winded while White was negated by right tackle Tony Jones, who played the game of his career. John Elway grabbing his first Super Bowl win was the lead story, and Davis' strength to overcome a migraine in the game was a marvelous ancillary tale, but it was the guys upfront who defined that win, led by their at times intractible line coach. "He's got the ability to be tough and demanding, but he cares about his players and he looks after them, which gives him the ability to be extra tough and extra demanding because the players know he cares about them,' then-Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan said in 2000. 'And there's a fine line right there. There are so many coaches who wind up being buddy-buddy with a player, but they can't be tough on their guys because they get too close to them. Alex has been a guy who is as demanding a person as any I've been around, but he knows how to put his arm around people and let them know he cares about them. It takes a unique guy to be able to do that." Of course, as Gibbs might himself have said, none of that happy horse[bleep] matters if you don't have a plan. And the plan must be based around the right kind of personnel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmZdHyQSR90

Alex Gibbs, the tactician

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

"[Finding his ideal sort of lineman] is a very hard thing to do, because IQ is not what I'm talking about," Gibbs said in January, 1998, a couple weeks before that famous game. "Test scores are not what I'm talking about. It's communication skills, the ability to come in each week and change things and talk a different language and make quick decisions and solve problems. That's a smart player to me. I don't look at that like other people do. I look for the smart guys because that is as important to me ... almost as important to me as skill. "You have to have guys that can put the fires out real fast." To that end, Gibbs didn't just coach his line -- he also took charge of the backs in his overall philosophy, because if the backs weren't reading zone the right way, nothing else mattered. What he coached -- and what lasts in today's NFL -- is the inside (or tight) zone, and the outside (or wide) zone. In inside zone, the blockers are directed to push their blocks to the gaps nearest to them, and the back is directed to read the gaps (either playside or backside). In outside zone, blockers await the defenders who appear in their gaps, and the back takes the outside gap, whichever one opens up. Gibbs saw a defense as a collection of seven men to block, with an eighth man as the potential upsetter. When there are nine men to block, as Gibbs always said, that's when it's time to scrap the game plan and throw the damned ball. "The tough thing about the Broncos' running game is the way they block,' Giants linebacker Carlos Emmons said after a game against Gibbs' line in 2005. 'The way they block as a unit, if one defensive guy misses a gap, you're dead." Gibbs had moved on by then, but the system was essentially the same. When Gibbs joined the Atlanta Falcons' staff as an assistant head coach/offensive line coach/consultant in 2004, he was dealing with a different kind of quarterback, and new personnel overall. Quarterback Michael Vick was perhaps the most athletic player at his position in NFL history, and the backfield of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett combined with Vick to produce a rushing attack that led the league all three years that Gibbs was in charge of the line. We'll dive further into that zone-read option, and the expansion of the scheme, in Chapter 10. "I steal everything I've ever used," Gibbs said in 1999. "I've never invented anything. I've never developed a play. I've never developed an offense. I've stolen everything I've gotten from players and coaches and film. Everything. I have never, ever invented a thing. All I do that's a little special is I teach different than other people teach. And that's what we are, we're teachers. And people lose perspective of that. I'm not as good with game plans as a lot of guys. I'm not as good with strategy as a lot of guys. But I'm real good at teaching."

Alex Gibbs' ultimate legacy

(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Gibbs may not have invented zone blocking, but he was the NFL's greatest innovator of the concept -- more than anybody else, he took the zone scheme from the do-dad used by a handful of coaches, to a hidden value system used by a few teams, to the ubiquitous standard of blocking in the NFL. For that alone, he'll be remembered forever in and around the league.

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