Then and now: dusting off 1914′s playbook



It is amazing what you find in an old garage. When squash coach David Talbott’s parents were cleaning out their Atlanta home, they stumbled upon a piece of college football history. Buried in obscurity was the playbook granted to Nelson S. Talbott ’15, David Talbott’s grandfather and captain of the 1914 Yale football team. The former gridder played left end for the Elis, and his fraying book holds evidence of each snap he took. The yellowing diagram pages and accompanying News’ “Games in Detail” have long been replaced by game film and computerized stats, but within the jumble of blue and red lines, dots and dashes, lies the skeleton of the 1914 season. Every run, kick, pass and fumble has a distinct marking, allowing for the effective recreation of the season.

The world has changed a great deal since Nelson Talbott’s time. Two world wars erupted, man walked on the moon, one president was assassinated, another resigned and the nuclear age began. The Yale gridiron saw its share of changes too — though less far-reaching.

The 1914 Bulldogs were the last team coached by the legendary Walter Camp 1881, who began his reign as Yale’s head advisory coach in 1888. Camp is responsible for having molded football into what it is today. The line of scrimmage and forward pass were two of Camp’s innovations that led to the differentiation between British rugby and American football.

Even with these familiar elements, the game was markedly different from today’s version. The forward pass was instituted as an experimental offense, and squads relied on mass-momentum running plays to move down the gridiron. The scoring team returned kicks rather than kicking off, as is the practice in modern football. Entire units did not take and leave the field with each possession change. A player trying to reenter the game after sitting twice earned his team a 15-yard penalty.

Referees were not provided by an official governing body, but were representatives from other schools. It was not uncommon for Yale games to be called by representatives from Brown, Pennsylvania or Lehigh. Touchdowns and field goals were given their current values of six and three points, respectively, only two years prior to the 1914 campaign.

The 1914 Elis featured no receivers and threw the ball only 63 times over the nine-game season. A tight pack of five offensive linemen flanked by two ends and three backs lined up behind the quarterback was the typical formation. The emphasis on rushing produced a brutally physical game of “line plunging.”

While passing was largely regarded as an ineffectual means of gaining yards, teams would employ derivatives of the pass in the running game. This hybrid produced a style of play akin to the modern-day option by employing double- and even triple-passes.

Field goals could be taken from a held ball or a drop kick. If the try was short, the defending team was obliged to pick up the ball and run it back until tackled. In addition, the kick was ruled illegal if a player touched the ball during its flight, even if it managed to pass through the uprights.

The Elis went 7-2 in 1914, picking up an Ivy League Championship.

The Bulldogs kicked off their 1914 campaign with a shutout against Maine. Talbott rushed for his first touchdown of the season, and the Elis did not surrender a point until the third week of play against Lehigh.

The Bulldogs played host to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and won 28-0. That year the Irish were coached by Jess Harper — the man who gained acclaim for developing the seeds of a pass-oriented offense with the T-shift in his five years at South Bend. However, Harper is better known for being replaced the following year by assistant coach and chemistry instructor Knute Rockne.

The Irish moved within the Yale five-yard line at the end of both halves. Talbott made two tackles for loss, and time expired on Notre Dame’s chances for a first-half score. At the conclusion of the fourth quarter, the Irish were forced out of scoring range by a substitution infraction.

The Elis were dealt their first loss by Washington and Jefferson, a small school in Washington, Penn. Talbott did not play in this game nor the following win over Cornell due to injury. The Bulldogs defeated Brown 14-6 in the last game played on Yale Field and clenched the Ivy League title by knocking off Princeton.

The 1914 installment of The Game was the first game played in the recently completed Yale Bowl. Over 70,000 fans showed up for the 35th playing of the intercollegiate classic, compared to the 53,136 the 2003 contest attracted. Alas, the Elis were unable to muster anything against the Crimson, and Harvard cruised to a 36-0 victory. The Game was highlighted by a 95-yard fumble return by the Cantabs. As the media put it, “Yale had the Bowl, but Harvard had the punch.”

To say the 1914 Bulldogs were a running team is an understatement. The 2003 squad played only one more game than Talbott’s team. The old Elis’ offense gained 85 percent of its yards on the ground. The 2003 version employed the forward pass much more effectively, gaining 3,073 yards, 700 yards more than the total offense from 1914. The 1914 Bulldogs threw the ball 63 times and were intercepted on seven of those attempts. The 1999 Elis threw 67 passes in The Game alone.

“The players are so different physically, and the game is so different tactically that comparisons do not really mean anything,” Yale football head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “Offenses of the early era were like goal-line offenses of today. They just pounded on each other, but the bodies pounding did not weigh 300 pounds.”

The current Eli squad would oversize and out-muscle its 1914 counterpart. Modern defensive schemes have made the “line plunge” a thing of the past and prey upon unbalanced offenses.

“[The run] is what linebackers live for,” linebacker Cole Harris ’05 said. “It would be real exciting to play a team like the 1914 team.”

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