clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The H-Back: Using the Magic Option

Some posts have recently noted that one option, perhaps our best, would be using Peyton Hillis as an 'H-back'. I did a little digging, asked our resident authorities some questions and came up with a short analysis that I'd like to share.

H-back.  For what it's worth, I'm not sure this is the best role for Hillis this year: at the least, not his only one. We probably are in need of him at RB, but we know that McD does value versatility. If that's the case, there's really no reason to limit Hillis to one role or the other. While his running style might create the potential for some injuries, it does reduce others. It's always better to be the hitter than the hittee, and Hillis likes hitting people when he runs. Since he also catches well and blocks fairly well in certain situations, we can use him in different roles. After all - that's one idea of the function of the H back. But first, let's define our terms.

I'd run into the term ‘H-back' a few times over the years and thought I had a loose idea of what an H-back is and does. Ted Bartlett was kind enough to pitch in:

"The concept of the H-back originated in the 1980s with Joe Gibbs and the Redskins.  The thought emerged from the need to get a blocker into the body of Lawrence Taylor quickly. 
The term H-back basically means, "motion TE."  The Skins would typically use 1 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR, and this H-back as their base offensive personnel grouping.    The in-line TE would be a bigger, more blocking-focused player.  The H-back would be a somewhat more maneuverable type, but still a blocking-focused guy.  He would usually line up 1 step behind the line of scrimmage, either outside the in-line TE (double wing,) or outside the weakside Tackle (balanced,) depending on the particular play.  He'd frequently go in motion, either taking the offense from the double wing look to a balanced look, or from a balanced look to a double wing look.  The famous Redskins Counter Trey usually began from a balanced Ace set, and featured the H-back motioning to the strong side, and sealing the backside edge along with the in-line TE, with the backside Guard & Tackle pulling to the playside to lead the running play.
The perception among media hacks is that any TE who catches the ball better than he blocks is an H-back, especially if he wears a number in the 40s (like Chris Cooley and Dallas Clark.)  In actuality, the H-back position was conceived to get a good blocker into position to block an edge defensive player quickly.  It was simply a redeployment of the traditional fullback, strategy-wise.  The FB is usually hitting an ILB, and the H-back would usually hit an OLB.
H-backs, in the true sense of the concept, are not commonly used in today's NFL schemes.  The use of the term H-back is almost always misplaced by media types, to make themselves sound like they know what they are talking about.  It's sort of like the term "Wildcat," how that has become so commonplace."

That certainly doesn't seem any kind of a fit for Hillis' skills. What was going on? An article of Pat Kirwan's had given me more info last year and it surfaced again this week when I was researching NE and trying to mine some info on McD's thoughts on offense. Kirwan had some thoughts on the evolution of the fullback and tight end positions (you can find the whole article here). It's his contention that the role is morphing.  This is what he had to say on the possible evolution of the position:

"Tight end/fullback

These two dinosaurs go hand in hand, because they essentially have morphed into a new position.

For years, the fullback was a big bodied blocker who led his tailback into the line and blocked the inside linebacker on an iso lead. If he was lucky he would carry the ball 10 times a year. While those traits still hold true to some extent, the bigger role of the fullback in today's pass-oriented NFL is that of a receiver. Many fullbacks, like Tony Richardson, now with the Jets, have made their living as blockers who can catch the screen or make a play in the flat, but also understand blitz pickups and how to protect their QB.

Kyle Brady, a current free agent who most recently played with the Patriots, is your standard in-line tight end. He's a mountain of a man who can block and basically serves as an additional lineman, both in the run game and pass protection. He can help an overmatched OT with the edge rush, and coaches will always drool over that kind of player. However, the current demands of the position also require teams to look for a smaller tight end who can run and catch.

Spread offenses like those used in New England (emphasis is mine) and Indianapolis like to employ the tight end as a receiver split out into the slot. These players generally have too much speed for the linebackers in coverage and too much size for the safeties. The best players at the position today, like Cleveland's Kellen Winslow Jr. have a good balance of both skill sets -- but they are primarily asked to be downfield receiving threats.

Then there's the H-back. Chris Cooley in Washington is probably the ideal example. These players have the ability to line up anywhere -- as a back, split out, or in motion -- using their alignments in combination with their speed and receiving skills to exploit weaknesses in coverage. Generally thought to lack the size and strength to be dominant blockers, players such as Cooley and recent Jets draft pick Dustin Heller are generally better when asked to block in open space. But make no mistake; the H-back is considered an offensive weapon, especially in a West Coast type offense that relies on short underneath routes. He can be the best friend of a young quarterback who needs a reliable target in the middle of the field. Just take a look at Cooley's numbers in recent years and you'll see what I mean.

In the end, while many sports are going through an age of specialization, the NFL is looking for versatility in players who can do a variety of things, fill several roles, and in the process, save dollars under the salary cap. Those players are generally gone by May, so expect teams to take a harder look at their needs, especially at these traditional positions, and limit their search to players who can fill specific roles on their team and affect situations that will be dictated by the opponents teams will play this year."


So, Kirwan claims that the H-back is more multifunctional. But both Ted, whose knowledge of football history is encyclopedic, and the learned HT, who also quoted Wikipedia, disagree. Wiki said,

Offensive formations that used the H-back are not commonly used in professional football today.

This tells me that there are really two terms. The first is used properly, and refers to a specific blocking player. The second is more of a common parlance, and suggests a theoretical, but assumedly multifunctional (although vague and ill-defined), role. It's kind of sloppy, but common stuff.

HT had another perspective that bears on this. He did a wonderful article on the Magic 3, and reading it will tell you more than I ever could (here) . He will take you through the offensive and defensive influence of the TE position and talk to you about all the basics, but it's here to take us to the Magic 3.

"Five o-linemen and a QB.  One RB and one WR (weakside).  Three TEs to the strongside.  For years this formation has been discussed over drinks by coaches as the "dream" or "magic" second coming of classical football.  The day when football comes full circle and returns to the 1930s and 40s.  The day when an offense is run the way it was always meant to run, but with the modern twist of the forward pass and advanced theories learned for the last century.  Many coaches believe this formation will be the future of football, and revolutionize the way the game is played.  Defensive coordinators like me consider it a nightmare.  It will throw most defensive theory out of the window until a counter can be developed.  Why is the formation considered by football theorists to be magic?

The formation looks like a goal line formation.  The only way to stop the run is to (likewise) set up a goal line defense.  But what happens when those three TEs (all a half step back from the line) are eligible to catch the ball?  The subtle tricks are just as dangerous.  Let's say an opposing team lines up at least one CB to cover on of the TEs.  in a run play that CB probably gets knocked on his butt.  Not impressed yet?

How about this?  In the formation there is still room for motion.  There is also room for one or more of the TEs to line up wide.  How about one wide, one slot, one back with the RB, then a motion brings the wide in against the line?  All of a sudden a pass defense with multiple DBs faces a "jumbo" run play.

The new formations and the new approach would revolutionize many aspects of football.  For example, most teams might have one very good CB in a formation (to go against the WR), but place more emphasis on a CB/LB hybrid player to match with TEs on the line.  The safety position would likewise probably drop to one on the field.  The FB would vanish all together.  TEs who further specialize might become "wings" instead of "TEs".  The TE and RB become the emphasis in offense, not the QB or WR.  "Wings" would not only catch and block like modern TEs, but run and block, further leading to confusion.

Another drastic change foreseen is that the emphasis would change from "run vs. pass" on offenses to "power vs. finesse".  The new system could be run as a powerful smash mouth tool, or it could rely on deception and timing."

You should, if you haven't done so yet, take a few minutes and read the entire article. HT's passion for this option flows through the text and leaps off the pages. If the formation makes a defensive coordinator like HT worried, it should make the right team downright excited. You'd need the right players - a rare combination of WR, TE, RB, coaches and coordinator, but it's an exciting concept.


All of this is very good information and will help us to see and use our Bronco multi-talented TEs in a new light. You could also see how Hillis as a ‘wing' could be a fearsome weapon if we use this formation, as could Pittman. But, I added much of this article to get us to one important sentence.

"Notably, the Patriots used the 3TE for a series in the last regular season game in '07 against the NYGs."

Far more notably, Josh McD was the offensive coordinator when that option was trotted out.

Why didn't they use it more? I don't know. Perhaps the personnel changed, perhaps the HC wasn't ready for it, perhaps, perhaps. But we know a few things.

We know that McD is very excited about doing something new, something different. If you look through his interview transcripts, he has mentioned this a few times. What is ‘It'?


We know that Eddie Royal is brutal to cover one-on-one because his routes are almost preternaturally precise. He fits the WR portion of this formation.


We know that Brandon Marshall is noted for his blocking, and doesn't mind blocking for his other WRs to catch the ball as long as he gets his. That's a 6'4, 230 lb WR we're talking about - a few pounds away from another TE, but with better speed and decent route-running. That may create even more options.

We know that Michael Pittman needs his runs reduced or monitored, but that he has soft hands and can catch in space.


We know that Scheffler is a tough, talented receiver. That Daniel Graham can both block and catch the ball very, very well.


That Peyton Hillis has soft hands, a wide, strong build and can catch, run and block.


And that McD is one of the few coaches who brought the Magic 3 out of the taverns, restaurants and back rooms and onto the NFL playing field.

We know that he came to the first meeting with Pat Bowlen with an intricate and well-thought-out plan for the offense as well as the overall team strategy. He impressed Pat; he even impressed the lately-lamented Jim Goodman. Whatever it was that he brought to those first meetings, he must have already had it in a near-presentation form, since he had relatively little time to prepare before his first interview. He was able to talk about ‘something' - his vision - for hours, and reputedly had a full presentation with him. That ‘something' got him more interviews, permitted him to get other people excited about ‘It'. That ‘It' got him a HC position in a storied and popular franchise. And he has talked about doing something new.

It takes us full-circle to the H-Back. No, there isn't any reason to limit Hillis - or Pittman, or Marshall - to a single role, especially not a blocking role for which Hillis isn't all that effective. Versatility is the name of the game, and that goes for the players and for the schemes.

Imagine what the defensive coordinator is going to do if having Marshall, Graham, Scheffler, Torain and Hillis on the field at the same time could be a variant of the Magic 3 formation or any number of running or passing plays. When the same holds true if it's Royal, Hillis, Scheffler, Graham and Pittman or any of a half dozen other combinations of our current players, not to mention the options Xanders and McD will obtain. Since seppuku (hara kiri) isn't part of our culture, liquor for their pain comes to mind. It will, in HT's own words, be a nightmare.

HT added this when he posted his tight end analysis (here):

"In 2008, Denver's offense was both explosive (gaining multiple yards in the air game), and disappointing (red zone issues and key interceptions).  Despite the issues with injured RBs, the offensive line (with close TE support) kept the Broncos' OL producing.  Denver's offensive tackles absolutely shined in '08 in the pass rush, with at least one TE pass blocking on most plays.

As a group, the TEs also were responsible for their share of first downs in the air, TDs, yards, and value as "safety valves" for Jay Cutler whenever he was under pressure.

Because Denver boasted two starting quality TEs, the team could play a deadly two TE set, allowing protection from 3-4 defenses while adding complexity to whether the offense was using players as blockers or receivers."

Considering the inherent goal-line or short-field nature of the Magic 3 (although it can and should be played anywhere) there is also power in using it in the red zone - especially if it hasn't been used a great deal. Suddenly the defense is up against a formation they are unused to, that could be running plays they've never seen. We could improve our scoring, at least in theory. We're not far from theory being fact.

Somehow, suddenly, the whole transition process seems that much happier to me. I'm not certain that this is the direction that the Broncos are going. But I do know that we are one of a very, very few teams who could run it, and that McD is one of the very few coaches to ever put it on the field. Anything that gives HT nightmares as a DC is just fine by me.

Just to be clear, I don't think that this is the only scheme we would run, nor should it be. In fact, that's one of its best points - it's just one option, but an option that no one currently has a plan for, and one that we can move to without even substituting between plays. If we do substitute, there's still no way to know what approach we will use until we line up, and no way to tell which of the many variations we are running out of that formation until we are running it. Versatility is indeed the name of the game, and that has me excited all over again.


Can you guess why Daniel Graham is smiling?