Dallas Cowboys

One of the things I noticed when rereading Chris Brown’s article on Grantland, “Ode to the War Daddies” are how much the same those hybrid fronts are and the Seattle fronts are. In short, they are the same, so Bill Belichick was playing those “Seattle” fronts back in 2012.

There are a couple writers for the Dallas Morning News Dallas fans need to take note of. Michael Gehiken, Twitter handle @GehlkenNFL, is a good Dallas news guy. The other, John Owning, Twitter handle @JohnOwning is a good draft analysis guy and has some of the best articles on Dan Quinn targeted at “intelligent fans”. This link is a discussion of DQ’s pass defense philosophy, and this older draft video has it online.

If you have not seen any video of the new Atlanta Falcons DC, Dean Pees, try to give yourself 20 minutes and listen to him. I enjoyed him a lot.

Dallas DC Dan Quinn spoke recently, and said that the base defense of the Cowboys was going to be more like a 3-4. The actual quote is this:

As far as in the base packages go, it will look more like a 3-4 look, and that would have been consistent whether it was the team last year or my times with Atlanta as well. But more often than not, with most teams, the nickel packages, which teams play, I’d say, close to 60% or 70% of the time are more out of a four-down.


Some people have taken this to mean he’s going to a 3-4, and that could not be further from the truth. An examination of the coaching tree of Monte Kiffin should make that pretty clear, and we’ll provide some evidence that in fact the base defense will remain the same as the Marinelli years, even if it’s going to be tweaked a bit.

In the late 1970s Pete Carroll was a defensive assistant at Arkansas, where the head coach was Lou Holtz and his DC was Monte Kiffin. Kiffin was and is a proponent of a 4-3 under defense that he felt could stop the run and also rush the passer. In a coaching clinic recorded on Jerry Campbell Football, the effect Kiffin had on Carroll is marked.

After all the years I’ve been in football I’ve never coached anything but the 4-3 under defense. So I know this defense inside and out. I know the good side of the defense and I know the problems and weaknesses of this defense. I run it with one gap principles but can also make it work with some two gap principles.


So Dan Quinn is on the Kiffin tree as so. Kiffin -> Carroll -> Quinn. Marinelli is on the same tree, serving as a line coach with the Buccaneers when Kiffin was their defensive coordinator. More recently, Marinelli has been a line coach and defensive coordinator with various assignments with the Cowboys, and Marinelli’s 4-3 is what they are most familiar with.

So, some simple conclusions. The base of the C owboys base is the 4-3 under that the Cowboys have played for years, and the base is likely to be a version of the 4-3 under tweaked to have some two gapping added to the front.

But is it? Dan Quinn is known for tweaking his fronts to put his best players on the field, and he will find his best 7 over time. There are two fieldgulls.com articles (here and here) which show that he tries things in order to get best fits. The latter article talks about the successful adaptation of Red Bryant to becoming a two gap defensive end, but also that DQ that year was going to let Red Bryant 1 gap some.

Bryant said he’ll return to being more of a penetrating, one-gap defensive end and playing mostly over the right tackle.


Dan Quinn doesn’t let fronts get etched in stone. He crafts them.

There is a great article in Sports Illustrated that gives us some language to use for the component parts of a Seattle Hybrid defense. If the front from the defenses POV and from left to right is 4i-1-3-9, then the position names are BIG END, NOSE, 3T and LEO. In the hybrid, the BIG END is a two gap player, but because it shares so many component parts with the 4-3 under one gap, it does not have to be. Letting a BIG END 1 gap is pretty simple. The Mike linebacker just has to cover the strong side B gap. Let’s let Pete describe the left over gap assigments in the 4-3 under one gap.

The front five players I mentioned are playing aggressive defense with their outside arms free. The only thing we can’t allow to happen is for them to get hooked or reached by the defender. This alignment leaves open the strong side B Gap and the weak side A gap which are played by the Mike and Will linebackers.


A lot of this exercise is to eliminate any nonsense that suggests Dallas is going to a base 3-4 and DeMarcus Lawrence will have to be an OLB. He doesn’t have to be anything but DeMarcus, and he has a proven ability to defend the run as a one gapping defensive end. For that matter he might be able to two gap as well, though the addition in free agency of guys like Urban and drafting men like Osa Odighizuwa suggest perhaps a rotation at BIG END.

More importantly to me, most of the new defense should seem familiar to the veteran players. Going from a 4-3 under one gap to a hybrid isn’t a huge shift. DQ will have an off season to install, which the unfortunate Mike Nolan did not. The biggest shift is in the players the new regime likes, what physical traits they emphasize.

In terms of picking winners, the system went 2-2, unable really to deal with tough underdogs such as the Chargers and Colts. It picked Philadelphia, which by traditional means was the most in favor of the home team, though that game was one foot from being a Chicago win. So it went 2-0 in the NFC and 0-2 in the AFC.

In this round the home teams are favored in all four contests, but by varying amounts compared to the spread.

The methodology of how we pick is given here. The 2018 worksheet is given here. And as an aside, Doug Farrar’s new football book is very very good and I recommend that hard core fans buy it.

In the worksheet below, the factor 0.66 is the logit of home field advantage as calculated by the logistic regression. That’s equivalent to a HFA of 4.9 points. The playoff HFA of 62.7% is equivalent to 3.8 points. So, if you prefer 3.8 or even 3, just subtract 1.1 points or 1.9 points from the points margin respectively. Just for yucks we calculated the Rams and Cowboys odds both with the 0.66 factor of the fitted formula and the 0.518 factor of actual results, the latter in parentheses.

Whether I stick with this new formula is up in the air. I have an older formula that is much the same but not inclined to generate 15 point advantages, a bit tamer, if you will. We’ll see. I don’t do this for a living, just for fun, and the methodology link above gives the old formula.

That said, the second round worksheets.

Second Round Playoff Odds
Home Team Visiting Team Score Diff Win Prob Est. Point Spread
New Orleans Saints Philadelphia Eagles 0.685 0.66 5.1
LA Rams Dallas Cowboys 0.48 (0.34) 0.62 (0.58) 3.6 (2.5)
Kansas City Chiefs Indianapolis Colts 2.067 0.89 15
New England Patriots LA Chargers 0.942 0.72 7.0

Update: decided to add the old formula predictions, and also use the measured HFA factor.


Second Round Playoff Odds Old Formula
Home Team Visiting Team Score Diff Win Prob Est. Point Spread
New Orleans Saints Philadelphia Eagles 0.546 0.63 4.0
LA Rams Dallas Cowboys 0.313 0.58 2.3
Kansas City Chiefs Indianapolis Colts 1.707 0.85 12.6
New England Patriots LA Chargers 0.42 0.60 3.1

It’s a new playoff season, and another time to try our new playoff formulas. Methodology of this work is described in depth here.

The playoff formulas like New Orleans and Kansas City. They like Baltimore, but Baltimore, which will lose home field after the first round, is unlikely to be favored after that point. The formulas place a substantial penalty on the lack of playoff experience, and so does not favor Chicago, the Chargers, or the Colts. Update: Baltimore has not been in the playoff since 2014, and so the results have been amended.

2017 NFL Playoff Teams, C&F Worksheet.
Rank Name Home Field Adv Playoff Experience SOS Total Score
1 New Orleans Saints 0.660 0.747 0.192 1.599
2 LA Rams 0.660 0.747 -0.134 1.273
3 Chicago Bears 0.660 0.0 -0.711 -0.051
4 Dallas Cowboys 0.660 0.747 0.046 1.453
5 Seattle Seahawks 0.0 0.747 -0.170 0.577
6 Philadelphia Eagles 0.0 0.747 0.167 0.914
1 Kansas City Chiefs 0.660 0.747 -0.033 1.374
2 New England Patriots 0.660 0.747 -0.535 0.872
3 Houston Texans 0.660 0.747 -0.465 0.942
4 Baltimore Ravens 0.660 0 0.195 0.855
5 LA Chargers 0.0 0.0 -0.070 -0.070
6 Indianapolis Colts 0.0 0.0 -0.693 -0.693

The total score of a particular team is used as a base. Subtract the score of the opponent and the result is the logit of the win probability for that game. You can use the inverse logit (see Wolfram Alpha to do this easily) to get the probability, and you can multiply the logit of the win probability by 7.4 to get the estimated point spread.

Because the worksheet above can be hard to decipher, for the first week of the 2018 playoffs, I’ve done all this for you, in the table below. Odds are presented from the home team’s point of view:

First Round Playoff Odds
Home Team Visiting Team Score Diff Win Prob Est. Point Spread
Chicago Bears Philadelphia Eagles -0.965 0.276 -7.1
Dallas Cowboys Seattle Seahawks 0.876 0.706 6.5
Houston Texans Indianapolis Colts 1.635 0.836 12.1
Baltimore Ravens LA Chargers 0.925 0.716 6.8


But to summarize, the formulas used here were found by logistic regressions and each element in the formula has a playoff significance of 95%. I promise if the more common offense metrics could say that, they would. I’ll also note that in vogue stats like FPI don’t really give answers markedly different from other common offensive metrics, such as Pythagorean expectation.

That said, offensive metrics like Pythagorean Expectation favor Seattle over Dallas by about half a point, or 52% win probability for Seattle. Offensive stats still favor Baltimore, but not as much. Simple Ranking stats favor Chicago by around 8 points, circa 75% WP. Houston-Indianapolis have approximately even offensive stats, so the difference between the teams is about 3 points. HFA is worth a bit more in the playoffs, circa 63%.

I suspect this whole narrative was kick started by an article in Cowboys Nation that invented something they called the even 4-3. That nothing prior to CN ever talked about a Tom Landry even 4-3 did not stop them, nor did books that mentioned that Tom Landry’s first two defenses were the 4-3 inside and the 4-3 outside. Again, you don’t have to believe me. Read Peter Golenbock’s book on the Dallas Cowboys. We’ll start quoting from page 47 (1).

As a player Landry would not have been presumptive enough to try to formally teach his system to the other defensive players, but as defensive coach, it became his job. He designed a defense he called “the inside 4-3” and “the outside 4-3”.

Going to stop. He didn’t call his defense the even 4-3. The names were 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside.

It was revolutionary because everyone in the past everyone played man-to-man defense. In the past brute strength had been the requisite. You lined up opposite your man, and you tried to beat the crap out of him, using a forearm or your shoulder or a headslap or grabbing him by the jersey and throwing him to one side in an attempt to get by him to make the tackle.

Note that a “gladitorial style” has a lot in common with a modern two gap. It’s a head on collision with the man in front of you.

So what were these revolutionary new assignments? Turns out we know because Vince Lombardi took the 43 inside and outside to Green Bay and those defenses he used for the rest of his coaching career. Later, a book called “Vince Lombardi on Football” was written and in that book, every assignment of every player was documented. We’ll borrow some images from my article on the 43 Flex.


To note, the 4 linemen in the 4-3 inside/outside are not flush on the line. The tackles are flexed, or about three feet behind the line.

Assignments for the line are single gaps. In the inside, the tackles take an A gap and the middle linebacker takes the B gaps. In the outside, the tackles take a B gap and the middle linebacker is responsible for the two A gaps.


Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 inside


Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 outside

Ok, so maybe his first defenses were one gap defenses. Perhaps the even 4-3 was a change of pace? Perhaps the Flex was a two gap defense? Again, the evidence suggests otherwise. Golenbock, quoting Dick Nolan (2).

What Tom came up with was the Flex, a combination of the 4-3 inside and the 4-3 outside defenses. On one side you’re playing an inside, and on the other side, you’re playing an outside.

We had been a strictly an inside-outside 4-3 team, like the old Giants, and then in ’64, we used the Flex as a change-up defense…

So, no, Dallas didn’t use a third defense, and neither did the Tom Landry Giants. Those defenses were one gap defenses, and so was the Flex. This can be confirmed by Lee Roy Jordan himself (1).

In a nutshell, here is the best layman way I can describe the Flex. There are eight natural gaps on the front line, and in the 4-3 that most teams were using, the four down linemen were asked to control two gaps each. In essence, Coach Landry created a picket fence look, with our right end and left tackle lined up in the conventional spot on the line but the left end and right tackle lined up a few feet off the line, giving them better pursuit angles. The linemen had to control only one gap. The middle linebacker spot now had to control the two gaps on either side of the center. The defense allowed the defensive backs and linebackers to force the play to go where the running backs didn’t want to go. It sure helped me make a lot of tackles during my career. It was a revolutionary defense and created a lot of the motion and spread offenses you see today.

If the description seems confusing, please note that hard core Tom Landry disciples describe the defense “as a QB might see it”, as opposed to the more conventional “as a MLB might see it”. So, in the description above, Bob Lilly or Randy White would have been the left tackle, whereas in conventional notation, they would be considered right tackles.


43 flex. Left to right, front is “4-2-2-5”.

Just to be sure, I got on Facebook and asked Pat Toomay about the notion that Tom used two gap defenses. He replied. To quote Pat:

In a straight inside or outside 4-3, linemen take outside shoulders while MLB has two gap. Not a good run defense, although slanting one way or another was an option for other teams but not for Landry. Hence the Flex. Outside blow-and-go 4-3 was for obvious passing situations. In 3-4 defenses, everybody up front has 2-gap. You need fire-plug linemen for that one. By comparison, Landry’s guys were tall and quick, who were required to take a shoulder rather than go head up, a battle they were unlikely to win, if that makes sense.

In summary, Tom’s defenses were all one gap defenses, where the middle linebacker covered two gaps. As Pat Toomay astutely points out, his linemen were not built to handle a two gap. They were chosen to penetrate and be disruptive. But as Lee Roy Jordan does point out, other defenses of his era did two gap. So the search for the 43 two gap really should extend to other innovative defenders of the era, which would be the Clark Shaughnessy/George Allen Chicago Bears or perhaps the elite defensive teams of the Detroit Lions. I would suggest looking to those teams using 4-3 over and under defensive fronts, as having a tackle over the center lends itself to such a scheme.


1. Golenbock, p 47
2. Golenbock, p. 233
3. Jordan and Townsend, chapter 10, “The Summer of 1964”.


Flynn, George L (ed), Vince Lombardi On Football, Wallynn Inc, 1973

Golenbock, Peter, Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, Warner Books, 1997

Jordan, Lee Roy and Townsend, Steve, Lee Roy: My Story of Faith, Family, and Football, Wood Publishing, 2017 [ebook]

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?

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.


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
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.

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