An Appreciation: Tom Landry

Phil Simms named his Top 5 Coaching Innovators during last week’s CBS Thursday Night Football broadcast. Being a Wisconsin native, I happily concurred with Vince Lombardi finishing number one. While I understand the difficulty of compiling such lists, the glaring omission of Tom Landry surprised me. To right that wrong in my little corner of the blogging universe, I humbly spotlight Coach Landry’s valuable contributions to the game.


Landry attended the University of Texas. He played fullback and defensive back for the Longhorns. Like so many others playing college ball in the 1940s, World War II interrupted his NCAA career. He flew over two dozen difficult combat missions before returning home. Landry later stated that surviving the war built his confidence.


He broke into professional football with the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference, playing one season with the team before the league folded. The New York Giants picked up Landry, employing him mostly at defensive back and punter. Landry finished his career with 32 interceptions and a 40.9 punting average. In 1954, Giants coach Jim Lee Howell offered Landry the position of player/coach, an opportunity Landry would later offer Dan Reeves with the Dallas Cowboys. Landry served two seasons as a player/coach before assuming full-time assistant coach duties, as defensive coordinator. The Giants offensive coordinator was a man named Vince Lombardi.


I could write all day about Coach Landry’s innovations, but his former teammates and players provide the most reliable and credible statements. Frank Gifford said, “He created the 4-3 defense, which they still use today. A lot of people don’t realize that—he was the guy that invented the 4-3 defense.”

Lee Roy Jordan, the general of the famed Doomsday Defense at middle linebacker, ironically noted Landry’s offensive contributions: “When I think of Tom Landry, I think of all the multiple formations in football now. Tom wasn’t the inventor, but he was the one that took and put them into his offense every game.”

Dan Reeves, who like Mike Ditka worked under Landry before embarking on a head coaching career, credited Landry’s groundbreaking conditioning program as a pillar to the Cowboys’ success. “I had become a player/coach in 1970, and my first job was to help put in a strength and conditioning program for the Cowboys. We put it in that year and paid guys to stay in Dallas for $50 a workout….Instead of going back home to an off-season job, it gave a player enough money to stay around….I think that was the start of the greatness that the Cowboys had because we went to the Super Bowl in 1970, ’71, ’75, ’77, and ’79.”

Many believe Landry started using the shotgun in the 1970s with Roger Staubach, but Walt Garrison tells us the creative coach solved a peculiar problem with the formation in the early-1960s. “He started the shot­gun because quarterback Eddie LeBaron was 5-foot-7 and couldn’t see over the line. Landry moved him back so he could see!”

Landry also is responsible for the flex-defense (which occasionally “flexed” a defensive lineman off the line of scrimmage) and the extensive use of putting men in motion before the snap.


Most coaching innovators specialized on one side of the ball. Don Coryell and Bill Walsh were offensive masterminds. Buddy Ryan and Tony Dungy influenced defense with their 4-6 and Tampa 2 respectively. Tom Landry, however, crafted major contributions offensively and defensively in wide use several decades later. Landry’s system and style undoubtedly helped shape the modern game of football.

Coach Landry’s innovations resulted in tremendous success for the Dallas Cowboys organization. He recorded 20 consecutive winning seasons, and made the playoffs 17 out of 18 years. The Cowboys won Super Bowls 6 and 12 under Landry, and also played in Super Bowls 5, 10, and 13. Dallas also reached the NFL Championship Game in 1966 and 1967. The 2-5 record doesn’t reflect the Cowboys competitiveness, as they lost each of the Super Bowls and Championship Games by a touchdown or less, and a combined total of 22 points.

NOTE: All above quotes are from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and available for purchase here.

Here’s what critics are saying about The Game before the Money:

“Fans who remember these players will thoroughly enjoy reliving the good times with the heroes of their youth, and younger fans will get a valuable sense of how today’s game came to be.”—Booklist

“Marvelous!” Pat Williams Show – 96.5 WORL Orlando, Florida  

“Wonderful!” Rich Kimball – voice of Maine football, 92.9 The Ticket Bangor, Maine

“All football fans will enjoy the stories told in this entertaining and engrossing read.”  –John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ










A Brief History of: The Pro Football Hall of Fame

The NFL originally awarded the Pro Football Hall of Fame site to Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Like the birthdates of blues legends, dates vary from the late 1940s to early 50s depending on the source; I personally lean toward the late 40s. Nobody, however, differs on the fact that Latrobe’s civic leaders sat on the idea.

In the early 50s, Latrobe sportswriter Vince Quatrini wrote that the Hall of Fame idea barely progressed past the talking stage before dying out. Perhaps they’d read Grantland Rice’s column proclaiming a football hall of fame being too complicated.


Canton, Ohio, however, literally bought into the idea after an article ran in the local paper entitled, “Pro Football Needs a Hall of Fame and Logical Site is Here.” The story, published in 1959, stirred the owner of the Timken Company to pledge $250,000. Over $100,000 more was raised within a two-year period. Canton’s organizational efforts thrust them ahead of Latrobe and several other communities expressing interest. In 1961, league owners granted Canton the new official Hall of Fame location.

The building reportedly cost $600,000, with Canton’s citizenry raising about $400,000. Each NFL team reportedly donated $1,000. Dick McCann, a former Washington Redskins executive, became the Hall’s first director, earning a $20,000 salary. McCann crisscrossed the country hunting memorabilia, aided by newspapers. One woman subsequently donated Jim Thorpe’s sweater, which she had been using as a blanket for her dog to sleep on.


The first enshrinement inducted 17 men, including Sammy Baugh, Curly Lambeau, George Halas, Don Hutson, Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, and Thorpe. Approximately 6,000 persons attended, including former All-Pro and current Supreme Court Justice Byron “Wizzer” White. Inductee Mel Hein joked, “If you think we weren’t great, you should have heard us last night when we got together at the hotel and discussed old times.”


The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in September 1963, displaying 19,000 square feet of history.  By 1971, the AFL and NFL had merged, doubling the size of the league, and the Hall had doubled also – to 34,000 square feet. 1993 not only marked the beginning of the NFL’s free agency era, it marked the Hall’s expansion to 85,000 square feet. The Hall now measures 115,000 square feet after the recent completion of the “Future 50” project, finished in time for 2013’s 50th Anniversary. By comparison, the White House weighs in at 55,000 square feet.


A few quick fun facts:

Billy Shaw was the first player inducted who played exclusively in the American Football League.

Cal Hubbard, who won 3-straight NFL championships with Lambeau’s Packers, is the only man in both the Pro Football and Baseball Halls of Fame. He became an American League umpire after his NFL career was over.

* Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud attended college on a skiing scholarship.

* No Heisman Trophy winner made the Hall of Fame until 1985, when both Roger Staubach and O.J. Simpson were inducted.

* The first NFL Draft in 1936 yielded four Hall of Famers: Joe Stydahar, Tuffy Leemans, Wayne Millner , and  Danny Fortmann.

* The 1964 Draft produced the most Hall of Famers (10) followed closely by 1957, which bore 9. The Cowboys scored 3 HOFs in 1964 (Staubach, Mel Renfro and Bob Hayes), and the Vikings 2 (Carl Eller and Paul Krause). 1957’s Draft featured 4 HOFs in the first 8 picks – Paul Hornung, Jim Brown, Len Dawson, and the incomparable Jim Parker.


Elvin Bethea (Class of 2003) looking sharp in his Hall of Fame jacket.

Elvin Bethea (Class of 2003) looking sharp in his Hall of Fame jacket.


Classic NFL Games — The Hail Mary Game — Second Half

I earlier covered the first half of the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff, a.k.a. the “Hail Mary Game.” This post covers the second half. I’ll write in present tense to give a sense of the game unfolding.


Both defenses dominated the first half, ending 7-0 in Minnesota’s favor. The second half starts with Fran Tarkenton hitting running back Ed Marinaro for 40 yards, to the Dallas 35.

This, however, isn’t Fran’s best game. He overthrows an open John Gilliam as the drive stalls. Fred Cox misses a 45-yard field goal by the size of the Gulf of Mexico — short, and very wide right.

The Vikings topped every defensive category in 1975, holding 4 opponents to under 200 yards. Lucky bounces can crack such a defense. The Cowboys get one as Doug Sutherland hits Roger Staubach mid-throw. Carl Eller tips the pass, but the Cowboys make the catch at midfield. A late hit from Wally Hilgenberg adds 15 yards. Billy Joe DuPree collects an 18-yard pass on the next play. Doug Dennison rushes to the Minnesota 8, and scores two plays later. The 9 play, 72-yard drive ties the game at 7.

Mel Renfro and rookie Randy White make outstanding plays on the ensuing drive. Minnesota’s punt gives Dallas good field position at the Cowboy 46.

A play-action pass puts Dallas at the Viking 41.  The Cowboys run their first razzle dazzle play, a reverse, to gain about 5. After a Staubach scramble, Dallas is left with 4th and inches.

Dennison picks up the first down. Robert Newhouse then grabs a pass at the Minnesota 17. The Cowboys appear to have a prepared play for a touchdown pass in the corner, but Fred McNeill’s pressure pushes Staubach outside. Staubach throws the ball away. On the next play, Preston Pearson makes a fine, leaping catch on the Minnesota 7. Dallas is left with another 4th and inches as the third quarter expires.


Tom Landry opts for the field goal. Toni Fritsch nails it; the Cowboys lead 10-7.

At this point, it appears the Cowboys are chipping away at the Vikings defense, although Minnesota’s pass rush still causes problems. Dallas’ defense continues to stymie Minnesota. Tarkenton is the Vikings’ rushing leader with 32 yards. Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Harvey Martin and the rest of the Cowboy line force hurries, and Fran overthrows open receivers.

Minnesota punts after a penalty negates a first down. Golden Richards fields it with room to run. Teammate Cliff Harris inadvertently backs into him, stopping the return. A shaken-up Richards misses a couple of plays.

On third down, Staubach throws a bomb to Richards, wide open. Richards drops it, the ball bouncing off his shoulder pad. The Cowboys lose a probable touchdown that would have put them up by 10. I’m left wondering if Richards’ injury on the punt return affected this play.

Minnesota’s offense looks lifeless with 10 minutes to go. Their only points have come on a 3-play, 4-yard drive. Suddenly, Tarkenton finds success hitting Marinaro and Foreman out of the backfield. Foreman fumbles near midfield, but the Vikings recover. An inside handoff to Foreman picks up good yardage, but Minnesota’s left with 3rd and inches.

The Vikings surprise Dallas. Tarkenton rolls right and tosses to a wide open Ed Marinaro for 6. Minnesota then steals a page out of the Cowboy playbook. From the Dallas 41, Brent McClanahan takes off on a reverse. Fran makes an excellent block on Mel Renfro, and McClanahan gets to the Dallas 16. Foreman runs right, to the 5. From out of nowhere, the Vikings offense fires on all cylinders.

McClanahan runs off tackle left, meeting both Cliff Harris and Lee Roy Jordan. McClanahan bounces back, sheds both of them, and scores. McClanahan’s tremendous second effort has put the Vikings up 14-10 with 5:11 left.

Fumbled shotgun snaps plague Dallas’ next possession. Alan Page and Jim Marshall add considerable pressure. Page even recovers a fumbled snap, but it’s negated by a delay of game penalty — a huge break for the Cowboys. On 3rd and 23, the Cowboys fumble the snap again, and have to punt.

Minnesota gets the ball at their 45 with 2:20 left. They can put the game away with a couple of first downs. On 3rd and 2, Tarkenton rolls right. Safety Charlie Waters makes a fantastic play, stuffing Fran and nearly causing a fumble. An excellent adjustment by the Cowboys, responding to Tarkenton’s 3rd-down rollout last possession. This play sets up Dallas’ chance to win. Tarkenton has stated it haunts him more than the famous game-winning touchdown.


Richards makes a fair catch at the Dallas 15, 1:51 left. Drew Pearson makes a 9-yard catch. Bobby Bryant breaks up a throw to Richards, leaving 3rd and 1.

Vintage Roger Staubach coming up: Eller powers his way to Staubach, pushing the offensive tackle backward. Eller almost gets a hand on the QB, but Staubach spins, sprints to a safe area, and hits Drew Pearson at the 31.

1:06 left: Another botched snap. Staubach slams the ball down in disgust. Page and Eller, like true Hall of Famers, power their way to Staubach and force an incompletion on 2nd and 17. The Vikings burst through again on 3rd down, causing another hurried incompletion. Kyle Davis replaces John Fitzgerald at center with 44 seconds left.

Staubauch has good protection on 4th and 17, finding Drew Pearson at the 50. Nate Wright hits Pearson as Pearson leaps and makes the catch out of bounds. The officials rule a completion and first down under the Force Out Rule, declaring Pearson’s feet would have landed in bounds untouched. The Vikings protest, pointing at the sideline and arguing Pearson couldn’t have landed his feet. Many Vikings fans remain more incensed by this play than what’s about to occur.

On second down, with :32 left, Staubach catches a low shotgun snap. He pump fakes to his left, drawing safety Paul Krause away from Drew Pearson. Staubach rears back and launches the ball Pearson’s way.

The pass sails almost 60 yards, although Pearson needs to reach back. He reels it in as Wright tumbles. Krause jumps over Wright as Pearson glides into the end zone. Kruase points at Pearson, claiming offensive pass interference. Pearson heaves the ball over the scoreboard. The officials rule touchdown and the extra point makes it 17-14, Dallas.

Minnesota gets penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the Cowboys kickoff from the 50. McClanahan runs the ball out to the 15 with :18 left. Ed “Too Tall” Jones tackles Tarkenton near the goal line. Tarkenton starts yelling at multiple officials.

A fan tosses a whiskey bottle at one ref, hitting him squarely in the head. The game is stopped for several minutes before the bloodied official gets up. The Vikings run two more plays and Dallas wins, 17-10.


The controversy surrounding the winning touchdown began immediately. Did Drew Pearson commit pass interference? Were the Vikings robbed on the 4th and 17 play? My purpose isn’t to answer these questions.

Many fans, however, prefer games being decided by players rather than officials. Staubach outfoxed Krause after handling a tough snap. At almost 60 yards the pass might be the longest underthrown ball in history, but still remarkable. No disrespect to Nate Wright, but Pearson made both catches. He also made a fabulous adjustment on the scoring play. The Cowboys line provided adequate protection on both plays, despite Minnesota dominating most of the game upfront.

This incredible game was much more than two plays. It featured 9 Hall of Famers, including offensive lineman Ron Yary and Rayfield Wright. Many others were top players of the time: Mick Tingelhoff, Lee Roy Jordan, Too Tall Jones, Jim Marshall, Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, Chuck Foreman, John Gilliam and Jeff Siemon are among the stars manning the field that day.

More plays favored the Cowboys by execution or luck. Many of their best plays were defensive gems by Charlie Waters, Lee Roy Jordan, Harvey Martin, Too Tall Jones, or Mel Renfro. They got lucky breaks when the fumble recovered by Page was negated and when the tipped pass in the third quarter landed in their hands. The Vikings two lucky breaks were the non-interference call on a first-half punt return and recovering Chuck Foreman’s fumble on their sparkling fourth-quarter drive. Overall, the Cowboy secondary outplayed Minnesota’s, and the Cowboy offense was better in the second half.

Nobody had seen a finish like this before. It founded Staubach’s comeback legacy and the two-minute drill. “That was about as exciting as you can get in football,” Lee Roy Jordan told The Game before the Money. “On the sidelines our jaws were hanging down thinking we were going to lose. Then we got the play that made us believe in winning games in the last two minutes.”

NOTE: Read Mick Tingelhoff’s and Lee Roy Jordan’s stories in The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL.

Here’s a good look at the fourth quarter:

And for fun, here’s the NFL Today pregame show for the game, complete with Frank Sinatra:



Classic NFL Games — The Hail Mary Game — First Half

Tom Landry had a knack for finding himself in some of the most memorable games in NFL history. The Ice Bowl. Super Bowls 10 and 13. He even was an assistant with the Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL Championship. The most controversial, however, was the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff. The reigning NFC champion Minnesota Vikings hosted wildcard contender Dallas in a game made famous by a 50-yard touchdown that Viking fans still protest. But the game was more than just one play. It was an exceptionally entertaining contest from start to finish.

I will break up my review of this game in two posts, one for each half. The writing will be in present tense to provide a sense of how the game unfolded.


The Cowboys find success running the ball on the opening drive. The drive, however, stalls at midfield and the Vikings start at their own 20 after a touchback.

The Vikings come out throwing, and Fran Tarkenton looks deep on the first play. Dallas safety Charlie Waters maintains good coverage despite Fran’s pump fake, and the ball falls incomplete. On third down, Fran gets flushed out of the pocket by Jethro Pugh and overthrows John Gilliam. A three-and-out for the Vikings.

The first potential break of the game comes when Alan Page forces Cowboy running back Robert Newhouse to fumble. Page clamors for the ball bouncing toward the Cowboys goal line with a sea of purple shirts giving chase. Jim Marshall swats at the ball and misses. Jeff Siemon has a chance to recover but muffs it. Bobby Bryant and Wally Hilgenberg both have chances but can’t cash in. Blaine Nye of the Cowboys ends up snatching the ball, swerving around potential disaster for Dallas.

Dallas also gets an opportunity for an early turnover when Tarkenton throws to tight end Stu Voigt. Voigt collides with Cowboy safety Cliff Harris, and Harris can’t hang on to an interception at the Vikings 30. Tarkenton then scrambles for 16 yards and a first down.

The first quarter comes to a scoreless close. Both defenses look remarkable. Page seems to line up in the Cowboys backfield, and Carl Eller records a sack for the Vikings. Lee Roy Jordan plugs up the Minnesota running game for the Cowboys.


Part of Minnesota’s game plan appears to focus on throwing deep to John Gilliam when Dallas cornerback Mark Washington is in man coverage. The Steelers will do similar with Lynn Swann in the upcoming Super Bowl. Tarkenton goes for the money on the first play of the second quarter. Washington knocks the ball away from Gilliam at the Dallas 20, preventing a probable touchdown. The Cowboys force a hurried throw on the next play. The Vikings line up in punt formation.

Here’s where things get real interesting. Cliff Harris fields the punt, but his back heel is out of bounds at the Cowboy 10. The Vikings, however, get flagged for center Mick Tingelhoff being downfield. Dallas accepts the penalty, figuring they’ll get better field postion on the re-kick. Their assumptions are wrong.

Harris signals for a fair catch, and Vikings rookie Autry Beamon plows into him before the ball arrives. The ball maybe hits Harris, and also maybe hits Cowboy Benny Barnes. There’s a lot of confusion as the ball bounces around, and Dallas rookie Pat Donovan grabs for it. He clearly touches it, and Fred McNeill recovers for Minnesota on the Dallas 4.

While watching this play, I thought the rules must have been different in 1975 and maybe one didn’t have to leave space for the return man to catch the ball. Announcer Gary Bender, however, later mentions the network getting calls asking why there wasn’t an interference penalty. Commentator Johnny Unitas says something akin to, “Sometimes things get missed.” Ironically, Harris signaled for the fair catch on the exact patch of field that Drew Pearson is about to stir eternal controversy.

Chuck Foreman takes it in for the Vikings on third down, and they take a 7-0 lead.

Doug Sutherland continues to pressure Staubach up the middle, forcing him to roll out. Eller records his third sack of the day as Roger keeps running his way. Still, the Cowboys drive to the Minnesota 30 before Toni Fritsch misses a field goal.

Dallas then gets its first real break: Mel Renfro picks off Tarkenton at the Minnesota 49. Eller stuffs Newhouse. Doug Dennison ends up getting stuffed by Alan Page on third and one.

Dallas goes for it on fourth down. Dennison bounces of Wally Hilgenberg on the line, then Hilgenberg tackles him outside for a loss. An outstanding play, although the Vikings can’t capitalize on their possession and punt again.

Dallas continues to have some success on offense. Minnesota starts to bend, but they don’t break. The Purple People Eaters pass rush keeps bringing the pressure and they ultimately either sack Staubach or force hasty throws out of bounds. Dallas might pick up a few first downs, but they soon wind up in third-and-long situations.

The first half ends with the Vikings leading 7-0.


Minus a three-play, four-yard drive, neither offense has scored. I think that’s a testament to both defenses. The defensive lines are dominating.

The entire front 7 for Minnesota is making plays. Their secondary, led by Paul Krause, is covering Dallas receivers well enough when Staubach extends plays scrambling. Unitas notes that Minnesota receivers run back to help Tarkenton when he scrambles, but the Cowboy receivers don’t turn to help Roger.

Dallas seems to be able to run the ball at times, but they keep meeting resistance on the pass. Lee Roy Jordan leads the Dallas defense and is having an outstanding game.