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.
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.
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.
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.