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.

img_4726

Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 inside

img_4727

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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I’ve been reading a ton of books. One of these is Robert W. Peterson’s “Pigskin”, which has been an interesting read so far. I’m roughly in the late 1940s in this book, which starts with the beginning of professional football and ends with the NFL championship in 1958. What has caught my eye are Mr. Peterson’s comments about the spread of the T formation in the 1940s. He describes the Bears 73-0 NFL Championship victory over the Redskins. Later, when describing the switch of the Redskins to the T in 1944, he gives this accounting of the state of the football world in 1944: (1)

By that year, more than 50 percent of college teams has converted to the T formation. So had most pro teams. Henceforth, the old single-wing formula of “three yards and a cloud of dust” as the ideal offensive play would go the way of the rugby ball in pro football

The adoption was not immediate upon the end of the 1940 season, however, and teams, coaches, and whole conferences that were successful with the single wing (or Southwestern spread) tended to stick with it. For example, in Tom Landry’s autobiography, he notes that Texas made the switch in 1947, after Dana Bible retired.(2) Y. A. Tittle’s memory of the conversion is (3)

If I remember correctly, the first Southwestern conference team to switch to the T formation from the single- and double-wing formations was Rice University, followed by Georgia and Louisiana State.

The quote above mixes the SEC and the Southwest conference, but still.. LSU switched in 1945. I’m just not sure which of the 50% of college football teams were converting. Army and Notre Dame are well known early adopters, but as a counterexample, in 1947, Fritz Crisler won a national championship with a single wing offense at Michigan.

Dan Daly, when discussing the effects of the 73-0 Bears win over the Redskins, noted:(4)

Only one other NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles, switched to the T the next season. And as late as 1944, both clubs that played in the championship game, the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, used the single wing or some variation.

Paul Brown, the head coach of Ohio State from 1941 to 1943, was the first coach to see Don Faurot’s split T in action, in his very first game as Ohio State’s head coach, but then says of his game with Clark Shaughnessy’s Pittsburgh squad in 1943 (5)

It was my first real look at the T formation with flankers and men in motion, however, and it was the kind of football I later assimilated into my own system with the Browns.

So from 1941 to 1943, the “Bears” T was largely unknown in the Big 10. Paul Brown then learned the T while serving in the armed services. In 1946 and 1947, in the first two AAFC championships, Brown’s T was pitted against the single wing offense of the New York Yankees.(6)

As Dan Daly notes, the lack of players trained in the new offense slowed the T formation’s spread.(7)

In the early ’40s, the Bears and the Eagles – the only two T-formation teams – drafted an unusual number of Shaughnessy’s Stanford players because the Cardinal were the lone major college team using the offense.

Dan Daly later writes (8)

By the end of the decade, though, five out of seven college teams played some form of the T. Suddenly it was the single-wing Steelers who were having trouble finding players to fit their system.

And it does make sense. There were some early adopters who ran into Luckman, or Shaughnessy, or former Bears quarterbacks and coaches, but a lot of coaches learned the T while serving in the armed services during the war, coaching or playing in service teams. So it wasn’t the early 1940s when the transition occurred, as far as I can tell. Instead, it was the mid to late 1940s when the T became dominant. The conversion was not “immediate”. It took 3-4 years to gain steam, and a decade for it to dominate.

Notes

There were only ten pro teams in 1944, and it’s entirely possible that most NFL teams were running a T by 1944 (By my count, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and Cleveland are using the T by 1944. Green Bay and New York are not. The other four – Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, and Card-Pitt – I’m not sure of). Green Bay switches to the T in 1947, New York in 1949.

Army’s first use of the T is in the 1941 Army-Navy game.(9) Notre Dame had Halas’s players assist with the conversion in 1942. Clark Shaughnessy coaches Maryland in 1942 and then Pittsburgh in 1943.

1944 is an unusual year to use as a baseline, because so many coaches and players were in the armed services. That may in fact have aided the transition, as so many coaches with a traditional single wing background found themselves coaching alongside experts in the T on service teams.

For those who have never read Ron Fimrite’s article in Sports Illustrated about the Stanford Indians’ 1940 season, just do it. It’s one of the great short articles on football. The link is given in the bibliography.

References

1. Peterson, Chapter 8.

2. Landry and Lewis, p. 74.

3. Tittle, Chapter 5.

4. Daly, Chapter 3.

5. Brown and Clary, p. 101.

6. Brown and Clary, pp. 181-182.

7. Daly, Chapter 3.

8. Daly, Chapter 3.

9. Roberts, Chapter 2.

Bibliography

Brown, Paul, and Clary, Jack, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum 1980.

Daly, Dan, The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years, University of Nebraska Press, 2012. [ebook]

Fimrite, Ron, “The Melding of All Men, Suited to a T”, September 5, 1977. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Holland, Gerald, “The Man Who Changed Football”, February 3, 1964. Sports Illustrated. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Johnston, James W. ,The Wow Boys: A Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point in College Football , University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Landry, Tom, and Lewis, Gregg,Tom Landry: An Autobiography, Harper Paperbacks, 1990.

McGarr, Elizabeth, “The Top 20 Greatest Moments”, August 20, 2008. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

Peterson, Robert W., Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football, 1997. [ebook]

Roberts, Randy, A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation at War , Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, reprint ed 2011. [ebook]

Tittle, Y. A, and Clark, Kristine S.,Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football ,Triumph Books, 2009. [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, in “Letters”, December 22, 1997. “Sports Illustrated”. retrieved July 28, 2013.

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.

In 1947, defensive theory in football had not yet advanced to the level of offensive theory. I’m saying this because the focus of defensive line play was gladitorial in nature: you would beat the man in front of you, pursue the ball carrier and tackle, preferably with the best form possible. Adjustments were rare. People had to accommodate man in motion but that was about it. The notion of a defensive key isn’t even talked about (1).

In the late 1940s to mid 1950s, defensive linemen were somewhat interchangable, and there were no specific guidelines for the sizes of defensive tackles, defensive ends, or middle guards. The roles of these linemen weren’t as detailed and specific as they are in modern days. There were big powerful immobile linemen, and smaller, faster, more nimble linemen. And though people like to think of linemen falling back into zones as a modern invention, the tactic was used in Steve Owen’s 6-1 Umbrella, and sees time in the pages of Dana Bible’s book:

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

The idea, therefore, of a middle guard falling back into coverage wouldn’t have caused anyone in 1947 to blink an eye. So when you have a middle guard with sprinter’s speed, a guy like Bill Willis,

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter's speed.

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter’s speed (2).

the idea that he should be a part of coverage would have been expected. Good linemen would fall back from the line and into coverage when the situation demanded. Linemen rushed yes, but behaved more like modern linebackers when they had to.

“He often played as a middle or noseguard on our five-man defensive line, but we began dropping him off the line of scrimmage a yard because his great speed and pursuit carried him to the point of attack before anyone would block him” (3)

So why is this important? It’s important because the dominant defensive front from 1950 or so through 1955 is a five man front, often a 5-2 Eagle. An example comes from this screen shot of video of the 1953 NFL championship

defensive_front_1953_NFL_championship

when diagrammed, would look something like this:

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

And therefore, the appearance of 4-3 fronts, as a product of a middle guard digging into the “bag of tricks” a lineman was supposed to know, should have been expected. 4-3s would have appeared as a poor man’s prevent defense, or as a response to specific game events, like quarterbacks throwing the ball just over the head of Chicago’s middle guard, Bill George.

…in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, George made a now historic move that permanently changed defensive strategy in the National Football League.

On passing plays, George’s job was to bump the center and then drop back. George, noting the Eagles success at completing short passes just over his head, decided to skip the center bump and drop back immediately. Two plays later he caught the first of his 18 pro interceptions. While no one can swear which middle guard in a five-man line first dropped back to play middle linebacker and create the classic 4-3 defense, George is the most popular choice.

This game dates to 1954. Andy Piascik’s book claims that in the regular season game between the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns in 1952, the Lions employed a 4-3 (4). I’d suggest though, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these 4-3s fall into the form of an adjustment to the 5-2, as opposed to an integral coordinated defensive system.

The deal is, by 1956, Tom Landry, as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, has a 4-3 that isn’t anyone’s adjustment to something else. It’s a full blown base defense, a creation of his own hard work and imagination. It’s a largely 1 gap, keying defense, with distinct assignments to the linemen. Linemen have to fill gaps and keep the offensive line from getting to the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker roams, tackles, covers his two gaps. The initial Landry defenses have been lavishly detailed in the two volume text “Vince Lombardi on Football“, because these were the defenses Vince took with him to Green Bay.

And while what video I can watch in the period from 1948 to 1955 has yet to yield a single 4-3, the Giants live in it in the 1956 Championship game, and after some initial five man line in the 1957 Championship game, Detroit soon switches to a 4-3 and stays in it.

All this lends credence to the words of Paul Zimmerman (5)

Here and there the 4-3 popped up around the league. The Eagles got into a form of it when they had their middle guard, Bucko Kilroy, stand up, though at 258 pounds he hardly had true middle-linebacker responsibilities. The Redskins tried it, lifting middle guard Ron Marcinak and substituting a linebacker, Charley Drazenovich.

Landry graduated from player to player-coach to defensive coach under Jim Lee Howell. Vince Lombardi ran the offense. In 1956 the Giants drafted a tackle from West Virginia, Robert Lee Huff, nicknamed Sam, who had been born to play middle linebacker in the 4-3, and that became the Giant’s official standard defense. By 1957 everyone was in it.

So the real question is, how much of this 4-3 defensive system was prior art? Not the positions, mind you, but the components. The keys, the coordination, the pieces? I think the minimum you need to make such a defense are these three elements.

1. Film study. Without it you can’t really predict trends.
2. Two platoon football. Otherwise, you’re teaching one player offense 80% of the time.
3. A modern coaching staff, with full time assistants.

It’s very clear that Paul Brown’s staff with the Cleveland Browns has these three elements in the 1950s, but I don’t see signs that they were unusually innovative on defense. Instead, what you see are things like references to three man single safety backfields (6), and signs that they were working within the status quo of the times.

One resource I’d love to get my hands on is the writings of the former Cleveland Browns linebacker, Hal Herring (7). He played for the Browns for three years, starting in 1950. Later, he wrote a dissertation that was titled “Defensive Tactics and Techniques in Professional Football.” I’m not close enough to a research library to know if it can easily be obtained, but back in the day when I was writing my own dissertation, we had to make dissertations available to just about anyone who wanted a copy.

Update: correction on the Bill George date.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Keys and tells are different beasts. A tell is Dan Fouts giving away run or pass in 1979 with his feet placement. An example of a key is a person whose actions tell you where to go and what role to play when you do. Tells have been part of football forever, akin to stealing signs. Keys are elements of the game that have to be built into the defense and coached.

(2) Image from Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

(3) Paul Brown, quoted by Goldstein.

(4) Piascik, Chapter 11. The exact quote is:

“I think the 4-3 defense originated with him [Parker] and his coaches,” Dub Jones said of the Detroit team that so stifled Cleveland in that first ever meeting between the two teams. “They threw that in our face in ’52 and it was tough for us to cope with, having not faced it.”

(5) Zimmerman, Chapter 6.

(6) Brown and Clary, p 220, has this interesting blurb regarding the 1951 NFL championship:

For several years, our secondary had never declared a strong side of our opponent’s offensive formation until it saw which direction the fullback was going, and though we had gotten by with this strategy, it put a great burden on Cliff Lewis, the middle safety in our three-man secondary.

(7) Piascik, Chapter 8.

Bibliography

Bible, Dana X, “Championship Football”, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

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

Goldstein, Richard, “Bill Willis, 86, Racial Pioneer in Pro Football, Dies”, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2007, accessed Jun 7, 2013.

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

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

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.

The Dallas Morning News has a cute article, about how the first defensive call by Rob Ryan on the first defensive play of the first preseason game of Dallas in 2011 was the 43 Flex. I recall watching that play and thinking “psycho front”. And yes, Ryan has 4 players along the line of scrimmage and 3 players at linebacker depth, but what we’re going to do in this article is talk about about Tom Landry’s first two defenses, the 43 inside and 43 outside, and how they then morphed into the flex, to better use the talents of their All-Pro defensive tackle, Bob Lilly.

Dallas-Miami, SB VI, 4-3 inside line setup.

43 inside/outside. Inside, DTs rush "A" gap. Outside, "B" gap.

If you have the set “Vince Lombardi on Football“, then you have perhaps the best resource I can locate on the 4-3 inside and the 4-3 outside. Pages 174 through 185 cover these two defenses. The physical setup of the defensive line is the same in both cases. In the 4-3 inside, the defensive tackles rush into the “A” gaps and the middle linebacker is responsible for both “B” gaps. In the 4-3 outside, the defensive tackles rush into the “B” gaps and the middle linebacker is responsible for both “A” gaps. The front, from the offenses left to right, is a “5-2-2-5” alignment, with the tackles head up on the offensive guards, and the ends on the outside shoulders of the tackles. The middle linebacker is 1.5 yards deep, the strong side linebacker is nose onto the tight end if the tight end is separated, suggesting strong side sweep.

Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 inside

Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 outside

The ideas for the Flex came about after Bob Lilly’s move from left defensive end to right tackle. Dick Nolan describes it as one half of  the line playing a 43 inside, one half playing a 43 outside. To note, the  tackles in the inside/outside are flexed. In Tom Landry’s Flex, however, it depended on which side of the offense was “strong”, or likely to be  the side players would run to. Bob, in Peter Golenbock’s book, describes it as follows:

If I were on the weak side, I’d be head-up with the guard, right on the line of scrimmage, whereas the tackle on the other side would be three feet back. George Andrie would be right over the tackle and instead of being on his outside shoulder, he’d be head-up, three feet back. He would be keying my guard. I also keyed my guard.

Dallas flexed. DLT on the LOS because offense is strong left.

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

As Dick Nolan explains

Let’s say the other team tries the old Lombardi sweep. When that guard pulls and that center tries to choke back to get Lilly, he can’t get to him quick enough because Lilly can just go around him, and the center will fall down on his nose trying to block him. Lilly will be running right behind their guard, and Paul Hornung will be running the ball, and Paul Horning can’t come back, because  if he does, he’ll be running right back into Lilly…

To guard against the counter, the off side defensive end now plays a 4 technique as opposed to a 5. That end is responsible for the weak side gap that the off side defensive tackle has left behind.

When introduced, it caused a lot of confusion,  because Dallas soon came to  be able to play the  43 inside/outside from the Flex set. That was the upside, as no one knew what they were actually playing. The downside is the weak side defensive end’s pass rush was effectively stuffed whenever the Flex was played. By the late 1970s early 1980s, it became almost automatic for teams to pass when they saw the Flex. Consequently,  as Charlie Waters explains in Golenbock’s book, the Flex was played less and less.

In the 1990s, Dallas switched to the Miami 43, versions of which are still played today. A derivative of the Miami 43 is Ron Vanderlinden’s Stack defense, discussed briefly here.

And now we have Rob Ryan’s 43 Flex. No, it doesn’t look a bit like the Tom Landry defense, but does resemble, somewhat, the double eagle flex defenses that were popularized by Dick Tomey and Rich Ellerson. A screen shot and a diagram of Rob’s defense follows.

Rob's 43 flex, first play of preseason. Denver appears to have an 8 man line.

Rob Ryan's 43 Flex

Notes: updated due to typos, and a very nice article on Blogging the Boys that identified each player along this front. Further, the blog Compete in All Things has some Xs and Os on the modern 43 Flex.

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.