Dallas Cowboys


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.

TL_43_inside

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.

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Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 inside

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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.

TL_43_flex

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.

Notes

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

Bibliography

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]

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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.

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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.

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