Dallas Cowboys


Been going through the 2017 Green Bay – Dallas game in my head, and can’t help but wonder what happens if Dak takes a knee at the one yard line in the Green Bay game. Green Bay has no choice. At that point it has to burn a time out and it’s unavailable for later. Zeke was on fire. I don’t believe the Green Bay team could have stopped him on the one. Continuing this thought experiment, Dak then takes a knee again, on first down, killing 45 seconds and giving Dallas 3 plays in 30 seconds to win the game.

I’m proposing this here (I first suggested this in fan circles) because the responses to this idea says a lot about fans and their particular attachment to teams. It’s a not uncommon response to say that if you can’t stop an opponent in 1:13, you don’t deserve to win. I like what I’ve heard, so offering the suggestion to a wider audience. What do you think happens if Dak takes a knee at 1:13?

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It seems as if it has been a long off season. The two teams I follow the most, Dallas and Atlanta, had good drafts and appear to be in position to have winning seasons once more. But there are spanners in the works for both, though for now it appears that Dallas has the more serious short term issues.

Dallas has had more than the usual suspensions, including a potential six game suspension of Ezekiel Elliott. There have been a host of minor injuries, bleeding the rookie secondary of repetitions. The secondary, in the preseason, appears to lack coordination, as the loss of man-years in the backfield shows. All that said, the offense is deep and talented, and Dak Prescott shows no sign of a sophomore slump.

The issue for Atlanta are twofold. One, the loss of the offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, and two, the odds that Matt Ryan can come close to the third best QB season in NFL history. Seasons like that are not a product of pure talent. If Atlanta is lucky, he’ll come fairly close, but it’s possible you’ll see something more like the 2014-2015 Matt Ryan. Not as many yards. A few more interceptions.

It is going to be near-impossible for me to be objective about Dak Prescott. He is a Dallas Cowboy and he graduated from the same high school I did. He’s probably the biggest sports star that part of Louisiana has had since Joe Delaney.

In recent years, Chris Brown of Smart Football has been talking plenty about package plays and after Dak’s performance in the first preseason game of the year, he analyzed one play from the game. It’s good enough I recommend it. Please read, it’s worth your time.

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Back in the day there was a board game named “NFL Strategy”, created by Tudor Games. The game was available in 1970, and my brother and I played it hard core. Because it had a spring based probability generator, we pushed the edges of creative spring twinking as much as possible. But the game had a lot more depth  than most games of the period, in terms of play calling.

To bring back a blast from the past,  I present Pass 24 B Fly.

Pass 24 B Fly.  A great way to get your fast running back out of the backfield

Pass 24 B Fly. A great way to get your fast running back out of the backfield

In far too many ways this play reminds me of the game ender in the 4th week contest, Cowboys and Saints. So, did Sean Payton dig into  the playbook  of a 45 year old game to spring a surprise on the ‘Boys? I guess we’ll never really know.

It is difficult to get a feel on Dallas fan sentiment, which tends often to sound a bit like Linus of Peanuts, convinced he’s missed the Great Pumpkin. Are they happy with their team? Are they dissatisfied? Are they one of those folks convinced that only Jerry Jones can save the situation by firing himself? Let’s see what the numbers say about the first six games of the 2013 Dallas campaign.

Dallas Cowboys 2003-2013
Year Team W L T SRS OSRS DSRS MOV SOS
2003 DAL 10 6 0 -0.46 -5.04 4.58 1.81 -2.27
2004 DAL 6 10 0 -7.77 -3.94 -3.83 -7.00 -0.77
2005 DAL 9 7 0 3.16 1.79 1.37 1.06 2.09
2006 DAL 9 7 0 3.66 5.90 -2.24 4.69 -1.03
2007 DAL 13 3 0 9.47 7.62 1.86 8.12 1.35
2008 DAL 9 7 0 0.57 0.65 -0.08 -0.19 0.75
2009 DAL 11 5 0 7.15 1.31 5.84 6.94 0.21
2010 DAL 6 10 0 -2.15 3.06 -5.21 -2.62 0.47
2011 DAL 8 8 0 1.63 1.13 0.49 1.38 0.25
2012 DAL 8 8 0 0.28 2.62 -2.34 -1.50 1.78
2013 DAL 3 3 0 4.93 7.45 -2.52 5.17 -0.24

 

The closest comparable, so far, appears to be the 2006 Dallas campaign. The defense is playing at about the same level, the offense is a little overrated because of turnovers on defense and excellent special teams play. That bodes well, giving the team a shot at a playoff berth. For now the Philadelphia Eagles appear to be the major obstacle in the path to a NFC East playoff berth. The conclusion to be drawn is that the play in the two Eagles games appears to be key so far. That and the health of Dallas players, which has been pretty awful for Dallas linemen the past couple years.

I’ve been lucky recently. Bill Arnsparger’s book tends to cost closer to $100 than a penny, but an inexpensive copy appeared and I grabbed it (even the Kindle version is around fifty dollars). Compared to Homer Smith’s book, this is less a compendium of diagrams, concepts and ideas and more of a handbook on how to organize and play football defense. It is at times synoptic, at times terse, something of a densely annotated outline. Bill is fond of capital letters, acronyms, and motivational slogans. He also needs to learn to spell “Wilkinson”.

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As a defensive handbook, it’s full of fronts, pass defenses, pithy comments, and a fair amount of defensive gold. He talks about which pass defenses should be paired together. He’s good at finding ones whose reads would be the same to a QB but whose collective actions would be quite different (Cover 2 with his Two man coverage, for example).

As befits a handbook, nothing is beyond the ken of the curious mind. It’s in the depth of the material where it can be daunting. It feels like those sophomore survey courses where the instructor tries to teach everything. Clearly, a lot of time and effort have been poured into the collection of material in the book to make it a cohesive and workable system.

His approach to the history of defenses is pretty original. He starts with the wide tackle six, and between what Jones and Wilkinson have said about the wide tackle six, what Jones and Wilkinson have said about four and five spoke contain, what Homer Smith said about the evolution of the 8 man line, and this delightful Rod Rusk quote from Doctor Z’s tome:

We had trouble with Atlanta’s one back. I was very tempted, but I didn’t have the guts, to line us up in an old fashioned wide-tackle, six-man line, an old 6-2 defense. It keeps going around and around in my head. You can do it with nickel people. The defensive ends are strong safeties, then you’ve got four linemen inside them, then the two inside linebackers are, well, inside linebackers. I still might do it. You might see a lot of people going back to old ideas next year.

Is this the time when the modern 4-2-5 was conceptualized? I’m really intrigued by this train of thought.

Later he points out that the wide tackle six, if you put one of the linebackers at the nose on the line, becomes a kind of seven-diamond.

Seven-diamond, as it stems from the wide tackle six. Pull the right tackle and replace him with a linebacker, and you get something incredibly similar to the later 46 defense.

Seven-diamond, as it stems from the wide tackle six. Pull the right tackle and replace him with a linebacker, and you get something incredibly similar to the later 46 defense.

And then talks about how similar this seven-diamond is to the 46 defense.

It's interesting that Bill spends most of his time re: the flex defense discussing the play of the offside (flexed) end.

It’s interesting that Bill spends most of his time re: the flex defense discussing the play of the offside (flexed) end.

Later, he talks about the Tom Landry flex defense, and rather than focusing on the tackle up on the line, he discusses a flex strong and the pursuit play of the weakside defensive end. He never outright says it, but considering that he later discusses the development of his 53 and over/under 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, it’s hard to lose the impression that the weak side end, often handling the weak side A gap in pursuit, was a factor in his later 3-4 setups. Did he see it as a step towards a 3-4? Was the weak side flexed end a poor man’s “3-4 linebacker”?

With the notes I’ve shown so far, I’m really only scraping the surface of this book. I get the feeling a good coach could, in many ways, start and end with this book, and not suffer very much. If you’re a fan, the book is expensive enough that you should wait for an inexpensive copy. A defensive coach might actually find reason to buy this one as an ebook, and keep it around.

An early 4-3 from the 1956 game between the Rams and the Bears. The Bears tie the game at 7-7 on this play.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

Though Zimmerman suggests extensive widespread adoption of the 4-3 in 1957 after the Giants championship, perhaps some clubs were jumping on the bandwagon a little earlier than that. The flexing of tackles, similar to Tom’s Landry’s 4-3 inside, may have been borrowing via film study. Sid Gillman was a well known film junkie during his days with the Rams (1).

We’ll continue with three interesting quotes from Paul Brown’s 1979 autobiography (2).

The first quote covers the 5-2 Eagle..

Neale had built a fine, wing T running attack around Van Buren, the NFL’s rushing champion, who had gained nearly 3,000 yards in three seasons. He had also designed the Eagle Defense, a concept that had become very popular in the NFL. It was built with a tight five man line, two linebackers to jam the ends as they tried to release downfield, and four defensive backs, which was innovative in pro football at the time.

The thing to note is the role of the two linebackers. So, in comparison to Eagle defenses today, very often you’re going to find linebackers in Earle Neale’s defense playing a 6 or 7 technique, instead of a 50 (See the image in my previous 1950s article).

Next, Steve Owen’s 6-1.

…we noticed that if we kept our two setbacks in to block when their ends came on a pass rush, their only linebacker, Jack Cannady, could not effectively cover the short passes. Conversely, if their ends did not come in on a pass rush, we could release our two backs into the short areas away from their coverage. The key in either case was to throw short and not to try and challenge them with our deep passes.

And of Tom Landry’s defenses circa 1958.

New York, under its defense coach, Tom Landry, had built its great defense utilizing the same “flex” concept Landry still uses with the Dallas Cowboys. Its key is the great discipline it exacts from each lineman and outside linebacker. They must control and stay with a defined area – whether or not the play comes to them – long enough for the middle linebacker and defensive backs to give support making the tackles

I’ll note that Paul Brown is assuming that the “flex” concept is identical to gap control, a common element in all the major Landry defenses. We discuss the differences between Tom’s New York defenses, the 4-3 inside/outside, and his later 4-3 flex, here.

I’ve read big chunks of the two Sam Huff autobiographies out there. The later book, “Controlled Violence”, affirms that the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside were in place by 1956, though in this book Sam suggests that he convinced Landry to have the defensive tackles make sure he was protected (3).

At first, he wanted me to play off the center and then pursue, but that caused me to get caught up in traffic, and wouldn’t allow me to make the tackle. I came up with an idea, and asked Landry to try it out.
“Why don’t you let Mo and Rosey Grier take care of the middle and let me go with the flow of the backfield?”
Tom liked the idea and put them both in a four-point stance. Neither one of them was happy about the move, but it worked.

He also suggests that Tom was in on the ground floor of the keying defense.

In the old days, a team would line up in the 4-3 and focus solely on the ball. The genius of Tom Landry changed that. He told us to watch the way the backs lined up and to watch which side of the field the tight end and flanker were lined up. These became the keys to what the offense would do once the ball was snapped.

I’m not certain how quickly knowledge of Tom’s keying practices became widespread. But even in 1964, Huff’s understanding of the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside made him valuable when traded to the Redskins, and his coach was having him teach the defense to his peers.

Detroit and their adoption of the 4-3.

Detroit in a 4-3,  1957 Championship game. Note DTs in a 3 technique, unlike the New York Giant's 2 technique.

Detroit in a 4-3, 1957 Championship game.

Joe Schmidt says (4)

The New York Giants were the first ones to play the 4-3 defense.

The Lions are supposed to have taken up the 4-3 in 1955 (5), and the best description of why comes from Rand

Though coaches realized the 5-2 left a hole in the middle, that posed no problem as long as the strong-side linebacker jammed the tight end.

“Then they started pulling the tight end off the line of scrimmage and using a slot situation,” Schmidt recalled. “I’d just pound the tight end — then you were allowed to do that. As a result, they pulled him off the line to give him more freedom so he could escape and get into the pattern more.  What happened then is they started pulling me back once in a while and we’d go into a 4-3. It evolved from necessity.”

So how could the Lions have  followed the Giants if they adopted the 4-3 in 1955? The forward to Sam Huff’s first biography, written by one Tom Landry, provides clues (6).

Middle linebacker was a new position in pro football in the 1950s. I had been developing the “4-3” defense for the Giants in those couple of years before Sam’s arrival.

Sam Huff was drafted in 1956. A couple years before that would be 1953 or 1954. So, if Detroit saw film of the Giants in 1954 playing a 4-3, perhaps that spurred their adoption as well.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Katzowitz, Chapter 8.

(2) The three Brown quotes are from Brown and Clary, Chapter 9 page 197, Chapter 10, p 218, and Chapter 11, p 253.

(3) both quotes from Huff, Clark and Gifford, Chapter 2.

(4) D’Annunzio, Chapter 15, page 152. I’d love to give more of this quote but it is relatively incoherent.  I think what Schmidt is trying to say is that Detroit was using a 6-1 from the day he arrived. Schmidt  then notes that he had played middle linebacker in high school and college. Further, the quote would suggest that the 6-1 experience made the switch to 4-3 middle linebacker relatively easy.

(5) D’Annunzio, Chapter 4, page 51 and Rand, Chapter 4, page 36. If Detroit thinks they adopted the 4-3 in 1955, what to make of the Brown’s claim that Detroit was playing a 4-3 in 1952? Perhaps the Lions thought they were playing a 6-1 at the time.

(6) Huff and Shapiro, page ii.

Bibliography

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

D’Annunzio, John A When the Lions Roared: The Story of The Detroit Lions 1957 NFL Championship Season, CreateSpace Publishing, 2011.

Huff, Sam and Shapiro, Leonard, Tough Stuff, Saint Martin’s Press, New York, 1988.

Huff, Sam, Clark, Kristine Setting, and Gifford, Frank Controlled Violence: On the Field and In the Booth, Triumph Books, 2011 [ebook]

Katzowitz, Josh, Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game, Clerisy Press, 2012 [ebook]

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006 [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

Rand, Jonathan Riddell Presents: The Gridiron’s Greatest Linebackers, Sports Publishing, 2003.

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