CLEMSON -- In the spring of 1964, San Diego Chargers assistant coach Tom Bass met with a San Diego State professor at a coffee shop near campus. Chargers coach Sid Gillman sent Bass to meet with the professor to solve, geometrically, where receivers should be on passing routes so the length of time the pass was in the air was the same for routes based off three-, five- or seven-step drops by the quarterback.
"Basically, the only objective we had was to try to make sure when we ran the pass routes that the ball was in the air the same amount of time so that we could time out our passing game," Bass said. "We thought about it, and if you look at (passing) patterns, they are all geometrically designed."
Over coffee, Bass watched the professor draw out triangle after triangle.
The pair was concerned with three points: The first leg of the triangle was from the receiver's starting point at the line of scrimmage to his breaking point, where he cuts on his route.
The second leg was from his breaking point to the reception point, where the ball was caught.
What they were most concerned with was the third leg -- from the reception point traced to the quarterback's release point.
"The third leg is the length the ball is in the air," said Bass, whose story was noted in Ron Jaworski's book "Games That Changed the Game."
"We really wanted to make the quarterback throws all the same. If you are at the left hash mark and the throw is to the right sideline, that is the toughest throw -- the ball is in the air quite a while. But if you bring the right-side receiver in four yards closer to the center of the field, the flight time of the ball is almost exactly the same (as a throw to the receiver on the left side)."
Through geometry, the timing and rhythm of the modern passing game was born. And it's not just the passing game. Geometry is the underpinning of football theory and success, Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said.
"It's all about angles," Steele said. "Everything we do is about angles: leverage and angles. Leverage means your angle toward his angle."
Steele considers missed tackles to be not just the obvious failure of a defender to wrap up and tackle a ball carrier, but also when a tackler takes an incorrect angle to the ball.
Finding the correct angle requires a split-second calculation of velocity and distance to identify the proper arrival point. The best player Steele coached at taking the proper tackling angles was former Florida State linebacker Ernie Sims.
"His acceleration, he could just be standing still and still create a proper angle for himself like that," Steele said as he snapped his fingers. "(Sims) had instinct and acceleration. I think confidence plays a factor, too. He's done it before, so he feels comfortable and he doesn't hesitate or freeze; just a little hesitation and it doesn't matter how fast you are."
Hesitation and poor angles hurt Clemson against Wofford earlier this season, which, like Georgia Tech, runs the triple option.
Mastering pursuit angles is not all instinctual to Steele, it is also learned. Steele believes the mastery of angles, part of what falls under the umbrella of "football IQ" has been lost with this generation.
"I think an understanding of angles (was better) when 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds were out playing touch football in the backyard all day long rather than typing on the computer," Steele said. "They understood 'he is moving at this rate of speed and I got this angle. What do I need to get there?' "
The greatest players change the normal geometry of the game.
Take Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Not only is Watkins blessed with 4.37-second speed in the 40-yard dash, he couples track-star speed with what NFL draft analyst Chad Reuter says is elite acceleration. ESPN analyst Urban Meyer said zero to top-speed time is more important than a 40-yard dash time.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has an appreciation for the geometry of the game, having been a math teacher and high school coach before entering Division I football. Morris said Watkins' acceleration warps the normal pursuit angles of defenders.
"When you can take two steps and be at full speed, you make guys go 'OK, your angle is here, here's my angle, and all the sudden he's at full speed," Morris said. "Now I have to cut my pursuit angle and now I've lost my angle and now he's gone.' (Watkins) just kind of catches you. You don't see that, you don't practice that, you can't coach that."
Bass said he and Gillman did not design plays for extreme situations like third-and-20, where they just threw the ball to their star. "That's when we were throwing it up to Lance Alworth," Bass said.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said as important as geometry is, altering the normal angles is when real problems are created.
"It's a numbers game, and you're trying to get numbers and angles on people and leverage; there's no question it's important," Johnson said. "But there's still this old adage: physical superiority cancels all theory … you can use all the angles, but if they are bigger and faster and more powerful, it still makes it a little tough."