Chris Brown, of Smart Football, has written a book.

I caught wind of it in a blurb by Doug Farrar, and bought it. I, for the most part, recommend the book. It’s an easy long afternoon read, and there is plenty to digest. Chris has forgotten more offensive football than I’ll ever know, but on the other side of the ledger, defense, his acumen isn’t quite as sharp. The essay I have issues with is also posted on Grantland, and the central passages that bother me are as follows. The first is an explanation of the defensive reaction to the T formation.

Defenses needed an answer. The response was the “5-2 Monster” defense, which essentially dominated football for the next two decades. The 5-2 Monster involved five defensive linemen, each playing a 2-gap technique over a specific offensive lineman. This allowed linebackers to roam free and match the offense’s ball carriers. The “Monster” referred to the safety who came down and created one of the first true eight-man front defenses. The combination of five two-gapping defensive linemen with three second-level defenders, each attacking the ball and following the potential runners, helped counteract the T formation offenses’ misdirection.

In the NFL, defenses varied more owing to the need to stop passing teams, but even those variations typically relied on Monster-based principles.

This whole quote is misleading in the extreme. Bud Wilkinson is the father of the 5-4, as he called it, also known as the Oklahoma. As he wasn’t coaching at Oklahoma until 1947, the T had been around for at least 7 years before any sign of the 5-4 ever appeared (there is, for example, no mention of the 5-4 in Dana Bible’s book, copyright 1947, but plenty of mention of the ‘T’). Further, the 5-4 was essentially a college defense, favored in particular by the Big Eight conference.

In the pros, the first move was to Clark Shaughnessy’s 5-3 or perhaps to Earle Neale’s 5-2-4 double eagle. Steve Owen then started experimenting with the 6-1 “Umbrella”, because his team received a windfall of good defensive backs (including one Tom Landry) when the AAFC collapsed (Dr Z, New Thinking Man’s, Chapter 6). This then evolved into the 4-3 defenses that dominated pro football from the middle 1950s into the early 1980s, when the 3-4 became fashionable.

The most common pro 4-3 defenses from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s were the 4-3 Inside and the 4-3 Outside. Exhaustive coverage of the line positions and linemen responsibilities of these two defenses are a part of the set “Vince Lombardi on Football“, and it doesn’t take good eyesight or the brain of a rocket scientist to note that these are one gap defenses.

The classic Tom Landry 4-3 defenses, which Vince Lombardi used his whole career, were one gap defenses. You either took the solid line or the dotted line gaps.

Therefore, the whole premise of the above quote is flawed. The 4-3 of the 1960s isn’t a 5-2, and doesn’t partake of the two gap tendencies of Bud Wilkinson’s creation.

As we pointed out here, the 4-3 Flex is derived from the Inside and the Outside, and thus is also a one gap defense. The flex can be described as a 4-3 inside on the weak side of the formation, and a 4-3 outside on the strong side of the (offensive) formation.

So, now that Chris has “proven” that professional 4-3 defenses are two gap defenses, he then goes on to claim:

Johnson’s response was to reinvent the 4-3 defense with an almost entirely new underlying framework. And although this new 4-3 began at Oklahoma State, it is now known for the school Johnson brought it to next: the University of Miami. The 4-3 had been around for a long time. Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry even had his own variant named after him, the “Landry 4-3 Flex”; but Johnson concocted his version as anti-wishbone medicine. Instead of telling defensive linemen to 2-gap and watching them get fooled by the option on every play, he switched entirely to a 1-gap system.

The premise, is, more or less, that 2 gap football is all that existed until Jimmy Johnson invented the 1 gap defense out of the blue. Except, of course, no one else says that, and they don’t say it because 1 gap 4 man line defenses were both popular and in common use since the middle 1950s, as the New York Giants won a championship with one in 1956.

Now, if the context is narrowed to Big Eight football, then all the discussions begin to make sense. The Big Eight was the hotbed of the 5-2, and it was Big Eight coaches that brought the 5-2, in the form of the 3-4, into professional ball. In the Big Eight, two gap approaches were popular, and Jimmy Johnson coming up with a penetrating one gap scheme must have been quite a shock to his opponents.

And that’s the flaw of the essay. It starts with a Big Eight centric view and expands it to cover the whole of football. But the whole of defensive football from the 1940s to Jimmy Johnson’s innovative 4-3 is more than Bud Wilkinson’s 5-4, and this essay doesn’t present it in that way.

Consequently, this whole non-discussion could have been better. It could have dug deep into the specific assignments of the Miami 4-3 on a per position basis and shown us just how it differed from previous 4-3s. But the article ducks all that by a sleight of hand, by pretending that if you know the Monster 5-2, you know all you need to know about NFL style 43 defenses.

Just to make it clear, 4 man ‘odd fronts’ predated JJ and Belichick. What kind of scheme did Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs run? Was Buck Buchanon a 1 gap or 2 gap tackle?

Now, back to Belichick’s front: Is it as innovative as Chris claims? I’ll note that odd front 4-3s were often seen in the 1960s, particularly by AFL teams, the Kansas City Chiefs being one of them. How do we know, in the absence of good video study, just what kind of scheme Buck Buchanon was playing? The answer is, we don’t. And I’ll save that thought, as money is tight, and I’m not quite sure where to get a copy of Kansas City Chief highlights just yet.

Further, by the early 2000s, the kind of Tampa 2 style defenses that teams like Dallas, under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer were running had a odd front. The nose tackle was a 2 gapper, a strong side 3 technique tackle was covering one gap. And whether the ends were 1 gap ends or 2, they’re just one assignment away from the alignment Chris talks about as so brilliant.

And this isn’t to take anything away from Chris’s final diagram of Belichick’s 4-3, which is pretty cool. The symmetry is dynamically pleasing. But the history of football defense he concocts is so mangled as to deserve not only comment, it deserves to be condemned.

Update: Chris’s book is availahle now as a Kindle ebook.

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If you own exactly one book on the Dallas Cowboys, I’d strongly suggest this one be your book.

The essential oral narrative of the Dallas Cowboys.

Peter’s book is an oral narrative, composed of dozen of interviews of the “critical players”, and thus similar to, say, Studs Terkel’s “The Good War“. The book is organized in chronological order, from the foundation of the franchise to the middle 1990s. It’s not really a tell all book, though it interviews people who were very pro franchise and others who didn’t care much for their treatment (the linebacker Rodrigo Barnes, for example). It is rich in detail, exhaustive, but an easier read than its 838 pages would suggest. For the historian, comments about the way Tom Landry was blocking when the franchise began would be useful to those tracing the origins of the zone blocking scheme. We’ve talked about the specific quotes involved in our review of Pat Kirwan’s book.

Along with Pete’s book, I would also recommend this set of DVDs

along with this set of 10 Cowboys games.

These videos, along with the book, would aid any fan in tracing the nature and character of the franchise over the years. The one place where the book appears to be lacking is in any coverage of the Miami 4-3. While a ton of interviews touch on Tom Landry’s contribution to the 4-3 defense, such as the flex defense, coverage of Jimmy Johnson’s Miami 4-3 just isn’t there at all. That, I’d suggest, is the largest open hole in the Golenbock book.

I can’t say for certain if the 1991 Super Bowl (highlights here, DVD here) contains the oldest nickel front in the world, as there is a side of me that  thinks the Miami 4-3 is a thinly disguised 2-3-6 – think about it, using what kinds of players are placed where, as opposed to what kinds of names the positions are called. Isn’t a Miami 4-3 equivalent to this:

And not all that far removed from this:

Just sayin’.

In the book “Education of a Coach“, by David Halberstam, a book about Bill Belichick, and a decent read, Halberstam goes into great detail about  the base nickel front that Belichick used in the 1991 Super Bowl. And yes, isn’t this, the first offensive play of the Bowl, an argument that Belichick is your nickel front daddy?

I say, who is your nickel front daddy?

Halberstam says this defense was, in modern terms, a 2-3 dime. Of course,  with Lawrence Taylor as the rush linebacker, it was a rather stout 2-3.

Miami 4-3 notes..

  • This thread from Football Futures, I think, is one of the better reads on the Miami 4-3.
  • Coach Hoover: Miami 4-3 versus the flexbone.
  • Coach Huey: Miami 4-3 compared to the K State 4-3.
  • Fifth Down Blog on the 4-3 (including the Miami). The whole guide summarized here.
  • Linebackers in the Miami 4-3.

In a previous blog article, we reviewed this book. But in terms of those of us who are 46 wonks, it has a lot more to say in the rich set of interviews provided for the fan. We’re going to explore those comments a little deeper in this second, companion blog article to the first.

The first point to make is that the text in this article is quite good. Jaws accurately describes how the Bears lined up in the 46 on page 161 of the Ballantine hardback. The diagram, however, on page 169 leaves a lot to be desired. Well, it’s simply wrong.

In comparison, we’ll show you the first page in Rex’s book, which is correct.

If you’re using this blog as a 46 reference, this won’t come as a surprise to you, but the mismatch between text and diagram is disorienting. On  this page,  however, is a critical passage.

Let’s be clear though: The 46 could not be an every-down defense. The better NFL offenses could still make big plays if it was used too much, so its risk-versus-reward ratio was deemed too detrimental for Chicago to run it for an entire game. But Buddy dialed it up frequently enough (often 30 to 35 percent and sometimes more) to keep quarterbacks guessing.

The defense, in other words, was one of many in Ryan’s pocket. The point ultimately, Jaws and his interviewees argue, was confusion.

Another critical passage, is the effect of modern spread formations on the effectiveness of the “pure 46”. We’ll quote Doug Plank this time:

The tightly packed eight man fronts from our day just can’t succeed as a base defense against spread formations. Offensive coordinators came to the conclusion fairly quickly that unless they spread defenses out, their quarterbacks were going to get hit again and again. That isn’t acceptable today…

Jeff Fisher’s role – this will be difficult to quote and be accurate, because this book uses the phrase 46 to both mean the defense and the philosophy behind the defense – in the  evolution of  46 style defenses is described in a Brian Billick quote as follows:

Fisher was the first to adapt it to the modern game. He came up with zone concepts that appeared to give the same look as the original 46 – but weren’t – and that created a new set of problems for offenses.

Of the people truest to the principles of the 46, the authors of this book point to the late Jimmy Johnson, the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.