wishbone offense

Ultimate Guide: Wishbone Offense In Football 

During the 80s and 70s, the wishbone offense was the most productive and innovative offense in college football. It’s a famous offense formation that gets its name from how players line up the backfield.

It’s an offense that has been around for years. More like the spread offense, the formation is a run-heavy one that works on misdirections. Creating holes for the running backs is never easy.

You need a formation that creates confusion in the defense, making them open holes. Well, the formation isn’t quite popular nowadays as it used to be in the 70s and 80s.

However, some teams can still run the formation. After all, it’s a great offense that works well for youth football.

In this post, I’ll break down the wishbone offense and ensure you understand it fully. Continue reading below.

What Is The Wishbone Offense In Football

A wishbone offense formation has a fullback behind the quarterback (QB) and two running backs on either side of the flanks. The two running backs are positioned behind the fullback on either side. 

This lining creates what appears to be a wishbone shape, hence the name wishbone offense. 

It’s a strong offense formation that creates multiple running options for the offense in running plays. It’s a run-heavy offensive formation with misdirections that create confusion for the offense.

When the defense is confused, holes open easily for the running backs to exploit.

I call it a power offense, more like the wing-back or I formation. At the point of attack, the offense runs double teams. The formation allows the offensive linemen to run a double team on the defense by having three men in the backfield.

The power of the offense is the running backs that execute kick-out blocks and lead blocks. In addition, the running backs are quite good at traps and counterattacks.

Generally, with the back three running in different directions, the defense will observe as opposed to attacking. Deception and speed are crucial for the wishbone offense to succeed.

This, coupled with the two tight ends, makes it quite difficult for the defense. It’s a powerful formation with flexibility. Tight ends can catch the ball superbly or block wide defensive ends.

Simply put, a wishbone offense is a running play offense. But it can also work for a play-action on passing plays.

History Of Wishbone Formation

The history of the Wishbone offense dates back to 1958. However, most of the records refer to 1968, when Texas offensive coordinator Emory Bellard is attributed to creating it.

football on the field

Barry Switzer credits the wishbone formation to Charles Spud Cuson. Charles was the then head coach of William Monnig Junior High School in Texas, Forth Worth.

Charles modified the T formation bringing a slow fullback to play faster in what he called the Monnig T formation. Having learned of these tactics while coaching at Breckenridge High School, Charles saw a similar approach from Ox Emerson, the Detroit Lions guard.

Emerson moved one guard into the backfield, allowing him to run the opposing defensive line. By then, Bellard was serving as an assistant to Ox Emerson. Bellard would go on to adopt both Emerson and Cason’s strategies in the 50s and 60s.

The defense formation appeared like a wishbone-like which led him to win two Texas State Championships.

In 1967, Bellard was hired as an offensive coordinator, and Darrel Royal coached for Texas Longhorns. Royal would task Bellard to create a new 3-man option offense.

He implemented the new system in 1968 in what appeared like a Pulley bone. Royal accepted the new formation but renamed it as a wishbone offense. While Royal embraced the new formation, it didn’t work right away. In their first game against Texas techs, they went into halftime trailing 21-0.

He tweaked it by replacing the quarterback while having the fullback further back. The new formation worked, with Texas winning their next 30 games. More teams would later pick the offense formation, including Texas’ arch rivals Oklahoma University.

In the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers used it in 1987, beating the New York Giants 41-21. The Cleveland also used the Wishbone offense in the 2018 pro level to beat the Falcons 28-16.

This is a heavy-run formation that requires quarterbacks with great quickness and speed. While the wishbone isn’t widely used anymore, it remains quite effective, and nobody managed to stop it.

Who Invented The Wishbone Offense

So we can confidently come to the conclusion that Emory Bellard invented the Wishbone offense. He invented the formation while working as a defensive coordinator for Texas A&M.

Bellard combined the ideas of Emerson and Cason that he learned through his coaching career to come up with the wishbone offense.

Players Needed For Wishbone Offense

So, what’s the personnel to run the wishbone offense? Just like most plays, the wishbone offense features similar base personnel.

By running base personnel similar to other single plays, teams get to hide their plays. However, coaches can still make small alterations depending on a few things. 

player in red jersey running while holding football

In place of a wide receiver, some coaches can opt to add a tight end. However, the more traditional wishbone offense remains pretty much the same.

Let’s see the more traditional wishbone offense.


  • A quarterback 
  • Fullback (FB)
  • Two running backs (RB)

Offensive Line

  • Center ( C)
  • Two Offensive Tackles (OT)
  • Two Offensive Guards (OG)

Wide Receivers

  • X Wide receiver
  • Y Wide Receiver

When Should the Wishbone Offense Be Used?

Well, the wishbone offense isn’t going to work every time and for every team. So, the big question is when teams should use it.

The following scenarios are ideal for teams to use a wishbone offense.

The team has solid running backs

It’s recommended you try the wishbone offense if your team has solid running backs. A wishbone offense has three backs on the field at all times. Such a formation requires the best running backs.

Does the team have good players that look perfect for the running back position? If yes, then such a team can easily run the wishbone offense without problems.

Top quality throwing quarterback

One of the things that makes a wishbone offense work has a top-quality quarterback that knows how to throw. Simply put, teams with a great quarterback can run the wishbone offense.

A great quarterback is one with a strong arm and very good accuracy. If a team doesn’t have a great quarterback, then the wishbone offense formation is not ideal.

Despite the wishbone offense relying more on the run, the formation sometimes requires a good passer for the passing plays.

A running quarterback

Apart from a throwing quarterback, the wishbone offense requires a quarterback that can run. When the QB is good at running with the ball, then the wishbone offense can add another wrinkle to their plays.

player in red jersey carrying the ball with his teammate behind

When such happens, there are usually four players in the backfield as opposed to three. That makes the wishbone offense so effective with four players that can run with the ball.

When Should the Wishbone Offense Not Be Used?

But there are times when the wishbone offense isn’t effective. So when can teams avoid running the wishbone offense? 

Below are situations when the wishbone offense shouldn’t be used.

Teams with good passing QBs that don’t run well

Does your team have a good passing quarterback? Well, that’s good for you. However, if the QB doesn’t run really well, then the wishbone offense isn’t for you.

It’s a good thing to have a QB with a good arm and another to have a QB that runs well. The wishbone offense is a heavy run play. In a way, you need a QB that can throw well and run pretty well.

So if your team has a traditional pocket passer quarterback that doesn’t really run, then the wishbone isn’t the best thing to do.

Teams without enough running backs

If your team doesn’t have enough running backs, then the wishbone offense is never a good idea. It’s common to have teams with more receivers out wide than running backs. Such teams aren’t best suited for the wishbone offense.

Instead of the wishbone offense, such teams can try the spread offense, which does work perfectly with more wide receivers in the field.

Teams with small offensive lines

What’s the body size and height of your offensive line? The wishbone offense requires a pretty mobile offensive line. This is needed because the wishbone offense is majorly a power-running game.

Apart from mobility, you’ll need your offensive linemen to be good at run blocking. This simply means having big-bodied linemen.

How Do You Run The Wishbone Offense Formation

Looking to run the wishbone offense formation? You already know the personnel needed. Let’s see the steps through which you can run the wishbone offense.

offense at the line of scrimmage

Stage 1: Backfield

First, you need a triple-option backfield with a quarterback, fullback, and two running back. Ensure the two running backs are positioned two to three steps behind the fullback.

You need the fullback lining up directly behind the quarterback. That’s approximately two to three steps behind the QB. These three form a triangle in the backfield in what we call the triple-option backfield.

Stage 2: The Offensive Line

On the offensive line, you need to line up the center, two offensive guards, and two offensive tackles. The center needs to start at his normal position. You can then set up two guards. Make sure there’s one guard on either side of the center.

The two offensive tackles will take positions on either side of the offensive guards and in their normal position.

Stage 3: Wide receivers

Lastly, you need to set up two wide receivers on the outside. The wishbone offense requires you to set up two tight ends.

The X wide receiver will line to the weak side of the offense and face the right-handed quarterback. Depending on the plays, the X receiver can come closer to the scrimmage line.

Have the Y wide receiver line on the stronger side, either to the left-handed side of the quarterback or right.

Wishbone Offense Plays

The wishbone plays might appear simple on paper. But to have a clear understanding of how the wishbone offense plays are run, we need to break down both running and passing plays.

What does the base look like in the running play? What about the passing play? Keep reading as we break both plays down and help you understand the wishbone offense much better.

Let’s see the two wishbone offense plays.

Wishbone Sweep Option

The wishbone sweep motion is a running play where the offense lines up in a traditional formation. Apart from the wide receivers, all players take up their normal positions.

offense holding the ball at the line of scrimmage

Wide receivers are replaced by tight ends who play a tight formation.

The sweep option is run when the offense has a chance to gain medium yards. Is there a potential to make pretty big plays? A wishbone sweep is always an option when such a chance arises.

In this play, you need a pretty smart quarterback capable of reading the game and making the right decision. Based on what he reads, he can opt to run with the ball, keep it or pass it to a running back on the left.

The idea behind the wishbone sweep option is to eliminate one defender without blocking. A decision from the offense will have one of the defensive ends moving.

To effectively run the wishbone sweep option, teams need the following personnel.

  • Offensive Line: Every player on the offensive line needs to break to the right at the snap and block a defender. This is the defender lined to his left. Doing so pushes the defender away from the right side of the field. This creates space where the backs can run.
  • Tight ends/ Wide receivers: Here, we have the X and Y wide receivers. The Y line is next to the offensive tackle to the right, during the X line is a tight end to the OT to the left. X plays just as an offensive lineman sliding to the right at snap. Y wide receivers then release a defensive end opposite him to get to a linebacker on the second level.
  • Fullback: A fullback on the wishbone offense blocks a cornerback to the right. By blocking the cornerback to the right, holes open in the middle between a cornerback and a defensive end.
  • Running back 4: Lining up the right of the fullback, a running back takes blocking responsibilities. A running back in this formation needs to get to the scrimmage line pretty fast and take on a defensive end to the right. This is the defensive end that the Y receiver left.
  • Running back 5: A running back on the left next to a fullback is the main handoff option for the QB. When the ball snaps, the running back takes a bowed route between a cornerback and a defensive end. The running back is always ready should the QB decide to hand off the ball.
  • Quarterback: Lastly, we have the all-important quarterback who heads directly to the right side at the scrimmage line on the snap. He then reads the defensive end pretty fast and decides the next play. Options include pitching the ball to the running back 3, running upfield, or keeping the ball himself. Well, everything comes down to what hoes the blockers create.

Wishbone Motion Right Fake Go

Next, we have the wishbone motion and right fake go, which is a passing play. The wishbone passing makes holes like most passing plays. However, it moves a step further by making fake the confuse the defense.

offense about to throw the football

For the sake of understanding the passing play in the wishbone, let’s look at it based on the tight formation.

In the play, the offensive line doesn’t make any moves. This forces the defensive line to react accordingly. Hopefully, defensive players will be drawn to the right side leaving holes for the passing play.

It’s a pretty dangerous play that has to either work or you have nothing. There’s usually one player that runs the route. The play is intended for medium to big yard gains.

It simply means that the defensive line doesn’t react, and there are no holes, then QB brings the ball down and runs himself.

Let’s have a closer look at the personnel at their roles.

Offensive Line: Every player on the offensive line drops back, going into a pas-blocking formation. They will then jog slightly before moving to the right. In most cases, they will end up taking any player that comes their way. This is usually the player lining up directly opposite them at the line of scrimmage.

Wide Receiver Y: The Y wide receiver plays as a tight end lining directly to the right offensive tackle. However, the Y drops back into pass coverage at the snap of the ball.

Fullback: The fullback in the passing play is the player the QB will send in motion at the snap of the ball. You’ll see the fullback taking the motion slowly by jogging to the right before the snap of the ball.

In most cases, the fullback serves as a running decoy. As he jogs, he still needs to maintain close proximity to the QB. After the snap, there will be a fake handoff with the fullback reverting to blocking the rushing linebacker.

Running back 3: The running back picks a defender rushing to the backfield. He usually lines to the left and will run towards the scrimmage line at snap and behind the X.

Running back 4: He lines up to the right of the offensive tackle and takes a diagonal route at the scrimmage line. His role is to block the outside defender, who usually happens to be a cornerback.

The Wide receiver X: The X wide receivers lines at or near the scrimmage line. He fakes a block at the snap of the ball before releasing and running after a second or two. The X runs a Go route downfield becoming the primary target when the QB passes the ball.

Quarterback: The QB bows to his right after taking the ball from a center. He’ll then fake a handoff to a fullback. By then, the fullback is in motion. The QB will then move around and pass the ball to the X. This happens with the assumption that the X has by now created separation with the defenders.

Wishbone Offense in Football FAQs

american football athlete holding the ball on a white background

Who Ran the Wishbone the Best?

The Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners ran the wishbone the best and experienced great successes. From 1968 to 1970, Texas enjoyed great success running the wishbone offense by winning 30/33 games. They also won two national championships in the same period.

Oklahoma also had great success with the wishbone offense from 1973 to 1908. In the 16 seasons, Oklahoma’s head coach won 116 games and 102 wins in the 70, the highest in the NCAA.

When Did Oklahoma Stop Running the Wishbone?

Oklahoma stopped running the wishbone after head coach Switzer stepped down in 1988. By the time he stepped down, the wishbone had run its course, and most teams had adapted with skilled and faster quarterbacks.

Is The Wishbone Offense Still Alive?

The wishbone offense is still alive but rarely used in the NFL and college football. But it remains an excellent choice for college teams to run and develop skills.


That wraps everything from us!

A wishbone offense was a famous offense formation in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a unique offense system that lines players in the backfield in a wishbone shape. The offense is a heavy-run offense that led to success for Texas and Oklahoma teams in the 80s.

While the offense system is rarely used in the NFL and college football, it remains a great choice for learning youth teams. It’s an effective offense system that works well when executed properly.

Apart from being a majorly running offense, it has a great potential for passing plays. This is possible because of the split coverage at the end. Make sure youth teams learn the offense as part of their game.

Read More: Learn about other offensive plays in football. Check out the following guides to understand how they work:

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