Skip links

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










Share Button