Numerous variations of the T formation have been developed, including the Power-T, where two tight ends are used, the Pro-T, which uses one tight end and one wide receiver, or the Wing T, where one of the running backs (or wingback) lines up one step behind and to the side of the tight end. Any of these can be run using the original spacing, which produced a front of about seven yards, or the Split-T spacing, where the linemen were farther apart and the total length of the line was about fourteen yards.
The T formation is often said to be the oldest offensive formation in American football and is claimed to have been invented by Walter Camp in 1882. However, as the forward pass was legalized, the original T became obsolete in favor of formations such as the single wing. Innovations, such as a smaller, more throwing-friendly ball, along with the invention of the hand-to-hand snap in the 1930s, led to the T's revival.
The original T formation is seldom used today, but it was successful in the first half of the 20th century and led to a faster-paced, higher-scoring game. The T formation was made famous by the University of Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s to win five national titles and by the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s to win 47 games in a row and three national titles. It was also the key weapon used by the Chicago Bears to defeat the Washington Redskins, 73–0, in the 1940 NFL Championship Game.
The formation is still used in a few instances at the high school level. Some smaller colleges and high schools, particularly in the Midwest, still use the T. It is also still used on some levels as a goal line formation (often called a "full house" backfield today). Its simplicity, and emphasis on running, makes it particularly popular as a youth football formation.
The key innovations of the T, however, still dominate offensive football. First, the T was the first offense where the quarterback took the snap from under center and then either handed off or dropped back to pass. Earlier offenses used the QB (usually called the "blocking back") primarily as a blocker and the snap usually went to a halfback or tailback. The quarterback under center makes offenses very unpredictable since it is difficult to predict the play called based on formation alone. Second, the T allowed running backs to receive the hand-off from the quarterback and hit the "hole" at near full speed. This allowed more complex blocking schemes and gave offenses a temporary, but significant advantage. Other advantages offered by the T were: the ability of the QB to fake various handoffs (which led to "option" plays), plays developed much faster than with the single-wing, far fewer double-team blocks were required because the back hit the hole more quickly, the back could choose a different hole than originally planned (due to single-blocking across the line), the center was a more effective blocker because his head was up when he snapped the ball, and backs could be less versatile than required of single-wing backs. The use of the T Formation in Canada is slightly different because it is used in 12 man football.
The Chicago Bears T made great use of "man-in-motion" effectively making one of the three running backs into a receiver as he left the backfield. Thus, the T, originally designed as a more dynamic running offense, became a far more powerful passing offense than the single-wing, greatly enhancing its appeal. The two-back backfield naturally evolved into the "pro set" with only two running backs in the backfield and a "flanker" permanently posted out in a wide receiver position. Teams initially used a flanker primarily in the "slot" (on the strong side) because the hashmarks were still quite wide, as in college ball. In 1972, the hash marks were moved to their present position, 70 feet, 9 inches from each sideline. This made the strong side / weak side far less of a factor and allowed the opening up of the passing attack. The pro set further evolved into today's complex offenses.
Virtually all modern offensive formations are variations on the T theme. A notable exception is the Shotgun formation, first used by the San Francisco 49ers in 1959/1960, popularized by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, and now widely used in pro and college football. Most professional teams still utilize the shotgun formation but it is generally limited to passing downs. The "I" formation, first popularized in the AFL by the Kansas City Chiefs, circa 1968, is another variation of the T used extensively currently by high school and, until recently, many college teams. The I is a strong running formation, with the fullback positioned forward with a tailback behind, providing mass at the point of attack. The "power I" places all three running backs in a line behind the quarterback, making it a very powerful running formation but difficult to pass from. The Chiefs of the late 1960s often sent one of the three backs in motion. The Wishbone formation, once dominant in college football but now virtually extinct, was another T variation, with the fullback positioned very close behind the quarterback, flanked by two halfbacks. This was a very strong running formation with the famous "triple option" where the quarterback could handoff to the fullback, run it himself, or pitch to the trailing halfback. It was run with great success by Darrell Royal's Texas teams, Barry Switzer's Oklahoma teams, Woody Hayes' Ohio State teams, and Paul "Bear" Bryant's teams of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Obviously, this formation required a talented, running quarterback. It fell out of favor because well-coached, physical defenses can stop the option and the wishbone is a poor passing formation.
The T-formation was viewed as a complicated "gadget" offense by early football coaches. But NFL owner-coach George Halas and Ralph Jones of the Chicago Bears along with University of Chicago coach Clark Shaughnessy, University of Texas coach Dana X. Bible, and Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy became persuasive advocates. Shaughnessy worked as an advisor to Halas in the 1930s while he coached the University of Chicago himself. The T became much more viable in 1933 when passing was legalized anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (previously, the passer had to be five yards behind the line). Halas recruited Solly Sherman, the Quarterback for the University of Chicago because of his experience with the T-Formation under Clark Shaughnessy. Solly then taught Sid Luckman the system. Sherman, a former half back, had torn his meniscus in college, and converted to quarterback his senior year when Shaughnessy installed the T-Formation at the University of Chicago. Eventually he played backup to Sid Luckman with the Bears in 1939 and 1940 and retired so that he could join the war effort. Sid Luckman went on to win four NFL championships in the 1940s. Sid Luckman, in his book Luckman at Quarterback written in 1949, stated that several hundred plays in the Chicago Bears play book, gave him over 1,000 options for man-in-motion deceptions, complicated blocking schemes and multiple passing options not previously available. The last team to run the single-wing in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers, converted to the T in 1953. Since that time, the T, and all its variants, have dominated offensive football and created the American football now employed throughout the NCAA and NFL.
The T is referenced in the Chicago Bears fight song, "Bear Down, Chicago Bears", written after the 1940 championship over Washington. "We'll never forget the way you thrilled the nation, with your T formation..."
Additionally, two books detail the development of the T with the Bears. "The Chicago Bears" by Howard Roberts written in 1947, credits several coaches including Ralph Jones and Clark Shaughnessy for upgrading the T and teaching it to a succession of Bears QB's. "The Wow Boys" by James W. Johnson written in 2006 tells the story of the Stanford University football season of 1940. The arrival of Shaunghnessy and his T offense led to a 10-0 season and a victory in the Rose Bowl over heavily favored University of Nebraska. The Bears thumping of the Washington Redskins 73-0 a few weeks later caused a sensation. The T swept college and pro football. The brain trust that created the T was always anchored by Coach Halas who had the savvy for what worked and an eye for the players that fit.