Alex Gibbs didn’t invent zone blocking, but turned it into a brutalizing art form that revolved around undersized linemen, downsized runners, and essentially two racing games. What resulted from his innovations in a system first made popular by Cincinnati Bengals line coach Jim McNally in the 1980s was a demanding and disciplined approach to opening holes that produced rushers of 1,000 yards as regularly as the sun produces heat.
Gibbs, who died this week at the age of 80 from a stroke, once told a room full of young coaches seeking his advice at a clinic, “We run wide zone and zone. narrow and that’s it. If you want to do something else, don’t call me for help.
Often bombastic and profane, Gibbs’ relentless approach to training linemen under his leadership was almost as legendary as the production of his lines. For most of his 14 years in Denver, for example, the Broncos were keen to keep his coaching sessions as far away from the general public as possible during training camp to avoid offending clients shocked by his all-colored language. by correcting and cajoling his linemen.
Basically, Gibbs’ zone blocking system made these linemen walk sideways when the ball was broken rather than shooting and trying to blast defensive linemen out of the line of scrimmage. Instead, his linemen at the front of the game were told to either occupy the defender in front of them first or, if discovered, pass the team with a teammate and then peel the field. Meanwhile, blockers at the back of the game would cut defenders off blocks as they attempted to follow the flow of the line, creating reduction pathways that are essential to the area blocking pattern.
Gibbs’ system full-backs had to read those blocks quickly and, in their third step, either rule out play if the blockers had defended on one side or plant their foot in the ground and cut through the running lanes to the back open. by these cut blocks. Gibbs liked the cut block the most because it negated the natural size advantage, but he infuriated helpless defensive linemen who had their feet knocked back, often with knees in jeopardy, by undersized defenders whose the advantage was speed and agility.
This system brought two Super Bowl championships to Denver with Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis racking up 6,413 rushing yards and scoring 56 rushing touchdowns in four seasons, including 2,008 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns en route. to be named the league’s MVP in 1998. During that streak, eight different linemen started at least 14 games for the Broncos and all weighed under 300 pounds, thwarting what had become a growing trend of massive blockers overpowering line of scrimmage rather than taking it out of cunning and ingenuity.
The beauty of Gibbs’ area blocking system was that it didn’t require a Hall of Fame return to be successful. It required quick linemen and a sharp back ready to engage with less than three strides in a hole often in the back of the game. Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Reuben Droughns all crossed 1,000 yards in the game. ground in this system while being relatively unknown and easily replaceable in Denver, as Gibbs’ zone system worked wherever he went, regardless of back.
Dan Reeves first brought Gibbs to Denver in 1984 after spending more than a decade as a college assistant, but Gibbs left four years later for the Raiders, beginning a two-year hiatus in Los Angeles. , San Diego and Kansas City plus a year leading the Colts line before returning to Denver in 1995 for what would become a nine-year stint. It was during this time that Gibbs became one of the best assistant coaches in the NFL.
In 2004, he left Denver for a three-year stint in Atlanta, where he would once again build an overpowered racing game. During those years, the Falcons were rushing for over 8,100 yards, leading all NFL teams in rushing distance during that streak.
Always a fiery personality, Gibbs was straightforward and always energetic and he wanted his line to be the same. His favorite saying that many linemen who have played for him claim was: “Go good or go”. Gibbs wasn’t some sort of hand-held trainer. He didn’t see himself as a strategic wizard either. His race blocking philosophy could be summed up in a phrase his linemen often heard: “Put people down. “
Alex Gibbs’ zone blocking system did it like any pattern ever created and he didn’t need giants up front or Hall of Fame runners behind them to do it.
“They say I would have fucked up (Gale) Sayers and that guy from Detroit (Barry Sanders),” Gibbs said once at this room full of young coaches. “I would have dragged them to the Temple of Shame. But you know we’ve had a lot of runners who’ve had a lot, a lot of yards. We put them in there right away before it all falls apart.
It was his firm belief when it came to running football: “Get them up there before it all falls apart.” Few offensive line coaches have accomplished this more consistently Alex Gibbs.