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Shaughnessy among all-time innovators

Clark Shaughnessy, left, had an undeniable impact on the game. He modernized offenses by putting a greater emphasis on the quarterback and making running schemes more efficient. AP Photo

Of the 10 men recently nominated as semifinalists in the coaches category for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2010, only one served as a sideline boss for just two full NFL seasons and for fewer than 35 games.

Yet Clark Shaughnessy, who led the Los Angeles Rams for just two seasons (1948 and '49) and compiled a modest 14-8-3 record in that capacity, rightfully earned his "coach" title. Perhaps far more important, however, Shaughnessy commanded the less defined but probably more durable handle of "innovator," a rare distinction that likely merited him a Hall of Fame nomination.

"He definitely belongs in that [innovator] category," said Miami Dolphins executive vice president Bill Parcells, kind of an amateur historian of the game. "He lent a lot of ideas to the game."

The nomination of Shaughnessy is timely and fortuitous, indeed, given that there has been a recent groundswell among Hall of Fame selectors to recognize men whose contributions to the professional game were primarily as assistant coaches. Longtime assistants such as Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau are most often cited, although the seniors committee has nominated him this year for his outstanding if sometimes ignored playing career.

The term innovator is a fairly nebulous one and certainly subjective. Not all great coaches are considered innovators. Late Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, for instance, is almost universally recalled as a great coach, but not necessarily an innovator. Shaughnessy, regarded by most as one of the game's great, fertile minds and by a few as perhaps its greatest tinkerer, is generally deemed more the latter than the former.

Paul Brown, of course, is responsible for so many elements that we now consider integral to the NFL that a lot of people have forgotten half of them.

The great Amos Alonzo Stagg all but invented many of the tenets of football. Sid Gillman developed the modern passing game. Buddy Ryan scribbled up the 46 defense. Bill Walsh popularized the West Coast offense. Red Hickey introduced the shotgun as an every-down formation. Mouse Davis basically created the run 'n' shoot offense. And Joe Gibbs fine-tuned the two-tight end/one-back offense.

Yep, a pretty impressive roll call of innovators.

Except that litany of fertile football minds doesn't include Shaughnessy, arguably the most innovative man in the history of football. (And, yes, we expect a ton of e-mails from the many folks supporting Brown for that same title.) Certainly, Shaughnessy, much better known for his coaching success at the college level, is one of the premier innovators and a man who left his considerable imprint on the NFL game.

Those who champion Brown's cause possess a sound argument. Certainly, the game would be radically different without the genius of Brown, the man who gave us face masks, a playbook, calling plays from the sideline, scouting techniques, film study and the practice squad (although it was termed the taxi squad years ago).

But by positioning the quarterback directly behind the center for a hand-to-hand exchange, and by making the position the undeniable focus of an offense instead of merely a glorified blocker in the single wing, Shaughnessy forever altered the game. He conjured up the man in motion, misdirection, the counter play and the three-wide receiver formation. Shaughnessy prioritized deft ballhandling and intelligent decision-making by quarterbacks, and made the ground game more viable and modern by drawing up quick hitters and eliminating much of the backfield traffic that slowed the run and previously rendered the game a ponderous exercise in physical superiority.

As head coach at the University of Chicago in the '30s, Shaughnessy engendered a strong but often confrontational relationship with Bears coach George Halas. Shaughnessy teamed with the Papa Bear to handpick Columbia University single wing tailback Sid Luckman as a revolutionary Hall of Fame quarterback who operated the modern T-formation, a Shaughnessy brainchild, in the NFL.

"He loved to draw things up and transfer them from paper to the field," said NFL vice president Joel Bussert, an Illinois native who grew up an avid Bears fan and has done extensive research on Shaughnessy's career.

But it might have been Shaughnessy's ability to work both sides of the street -- to implement changes in defensive theory as well -- that set him apart from most men regarded as innovators. Hired by Halas in 1951 (as a consultant and de facto defensive coordinator) to develop a defense that could answer the modern T-formation and to deal with offenses that were becoming increasingly aerial, Shaughnessy stressed man-to-man coverages.

"He understood that you've got to be able to cover [man-to-man] to win," Parcells said.

Shaughnessy, who died in 1970, also merged his single-coverage philosophies with the umbrella or zone techniques that were so pervasive around the league, and came up with combo-style pass coverages. And, as Bussert noted, "He loved to blitz."

Until that time, the standard NFL blitz was to send the middle linebacker on a red dog into the opposition's backfield. Shaughnessy brought pass-rushers from many different angles. He dropped linebackers and even ends to cover the flat areas. In a game increasingly dependent on throwing the ball, he worked creatively to get defenders into the passing lanes.

As a coach, Shaughnessy's most notable success was at Stanford in the early '40s, taking a team that had gone 1-7-1 in 1939 to an undefeated campaign the following year. As an innovator, however, his reach was across all levels and all eras.

Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan, himself a football history buff, kindly referred to Shaughnessy as "maybe too cerebral." Former longtime NFL defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon, who played in Chicago's secondary during much of Shaughnessy's stint with the franchise, was less delicate.

"He could be sharp-tongued, abrupt and impatient," Petitbon said. "But I feel like a lot of people who think on a higher level in any [endeavor] are like that."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.