Tom Landry’s Secret Game Plan

The wizard is up to his old tricks, but his new winning secret is no mystery.

Almost from the opening play Los Angeles linebacker Jim Youngblood had been stuck on the same theme. As the Dallas offense lined up for the snap of the ball, Youngblood would yell to his teammates. “Watch the shovel pass! Watch the shovel pass!”

Ralph Neely was amused by Youngblood’s fear, but he understood it. The shovel pass is a sucker play. Its end result is the one most feared by pro football players – it makes them look like fools. The play begins from the spread formation, with Roger Staubach five yards from the center and backing up two more steps as he takes the snap. The running back on the right side of the formation, usually Preston Pearson, moves toward the middle, where there is a huge gaping hole vacated by the pass-rushing defensive linemen. Staubach tosses him a neat and swift underhand pass and Pearson cuts upfield where the defensive backs and linebackers are dropping deep for pass coverage. The wide receivers suddenly become blockers, and Pearson glides through the debris as if he were running through a field of daisies.

It happened that the Rams were already on the ropes before Tom Landry pulled this hoary old Pop Warner maneuver out of his crushed-velour hat. Pearson swooped 18 yards for the touchdown that nailed L.A.’s coffin. Youngblood was literally jumping up and down in rage and frustration as the Cowboy crossed into the end zone. “Oh. blankety dam!” Youngblood yelled, and “Oh. blankety-blank dam!” and also. “Aw (deleted)!”

“As the kicking teams came on the field for the extra point.” Neely recalls. “1 couldn’t help myself. I said. ’Hey. Youngblood! That was the shovel pass.” It’s a wonder that this didn’t start a fight and get us both thrown out of the game, but if it had. I was laughing too hard to hit back.”

This incident of a linebacker’s anger is symbolic of the new team the Cowboys became last season, for a couple of reasons. One, there was laughter in it, as there is a lot of room for laughter and good feeling on this new Cowboy squad. Two, it’s a dramatic example of the way Tom Landry directed his 1975 team into twists and turns that all of pro football must inevitably follow.

What Landry had done – that is, moving the pro game’s evolution one notch further – has not yet been perceived around the league. Nor has it been appreciated by NFL sportswrit-ers. The same delay-time occurred in 1957 when Landry developed the 4-3 Giants defense to cope with the Cleveland Browns’ use of a second wide receiver, the flankerback. There was also the misconception of Landry’s reason for starting the 1960 Cowboys with a multiple offense. Everyone believed it was a gate-attraction ploy in the intra-city battle with the AFL Texans. After all those years, of course, the same people realize that Landry doesn’t care beans about any gate attraction except the one that counts most – winning.

’”I went to the multiple offense,” Landry said in the mid-Sixties, “because I wanted to beat the 4-3.” And he did. Averaged out over the years, the Cowboys have been statistically the most explosive offensive team in the league.

All of Landry’s tactics have been devised in reaction. His famous “flex” defense – zone responsibility for linemen and linebackers – was invented to counter Vince Lombardi’s “run to daylight” offense. It didn’t fully reach its goal, but it brought the Cowboys hairbreadth close to the great Packer teams, and it got Dallas into the playoffs year after year.

The 4-3 defense became the accepted standard in the NFL for more than a decade. The multiple formations are now commonplace. Other Landry variations have slipped into the game almost unnoticed. Until the Playoff Bowl at Miami after the 1965 season, there was no such thing as a weakside linebacker or a strongside linebacker. In that game against Baltimore, Chuck Howley and Dave Edwards kept bumping into each other scrambling to their positions when the tight end came out of the huddle. (Wherever the tight end lines up, that’s the “strong” side of the blocking line.)

“It just occurred to us that for years we had been switching the strong and weak safeties,” said Landry, “and there wasn’t any reason not to do it with the linebackers, especially when you had one bred for speed and quickness and the other for strength and savvy.”

Now Landry has taken everything a notch further, and the centerpiece of his new development is the spread formation. Landry had always chafed at the truth that when it’s third-and-10, every kid in the stadium knows you’re going to pass. He had twice before used a version of the spread – once with the short Eddie LeBaron and again with a crippled Don Meredith. (For NFL history buffs, the Cowboy spread is not the same as Red Hickey’s 49ers “shotgun,” which was an all-game run-pass offense. The spread is used only on passing downs.)

This summer at Thousand Oaks, a writer asked Landry if he still believed the spread formation required a scramble-type quarterback. At first Landry begged the question, not wanting to discourage the less-agile Clint Longley and Danny White. Finally, he said, “We are refining the spread to combat the five or six defensive backs they have back there on third down. You’ve got to spread ’em out and get ’em off double coverage. No matter how brilliant a quarterback is, he can’t key [read] the defense quick enough the way they set ’em up now. A mobile quarterback is necessary.”

The decision to go to the spread opened up a whole new ball game for Dallas. As long as they were announcing a pure passing down, let it all hang out. On third-and-10 the best receivers among the running backs would enter the game. Or on third-and-longer, there would be three or sometimes four wide receivers in the formation, and no running backs at all. “We don’t need a blocking back,” says Ermal Allen, Landry’s genius assistant who keeps track of how it all goes on, “because the other side is in a three-man rush and we still have five offensive linemen.”

As we shall see, Landry devised a parallel plan for his defense, and what the pair of plans added up to was a surprising boost in squad morale. This human element was a bonus Landry had not anticipated, and in fact had not cared a damn about.

Landry had once devised a sensible strategy, on paper, to cope with Paul Warfield in a 1969 playoff game. It involved switching Mel Renfro and Otto Brown from safety to cornerback, according to Warfield’s role as either a flanker or split end. Warfield exploded all over the Cotton Bowl and Cleveland was so far ahead at halftime the Dallas team was booed into its locker room. After the game, Renfro was asked what the hell he and Brown were doing switching back and forth. Renfro looked up in anger and said, ’’You tell me.”

Well, you can suppose even Einstein had an experiment end up in the ash-can once in a while.

But now Landry, as is his wont, has carried everything to the nth degree. On offense there are running backs for running and running backs for catching, there are bench-riding wide receivers who come in at the prescribed down-and-distance, there is the second tight end who appears on short-yardage running plays, and there is a third running back (last year, Doug Denni-son) who enters to fill a Full House Backfield for goal line plays.

The defense has its counterparts. All these people know all week they are going to play on Sunday, and not in just a token appearance but in an important role.

An elite group of 22 starters has been enlarged to 31, and that is the Cowboys’ winning secret. If you would include the punter and field goal kicker in the starting team’s intensity, make that 33, so more than three-quarters of the club’s 43-man roster can prepare all week with a pride of responsibility: “Hey, it’s third and 15? Let me in there! This is my job!”

No one who has never been in close contact with a pro football team can imagine the frustration and despair of a “backup man.” Pete Gent once told Don Meredith on a Saturday plane ride to a road game, “Tom spoke to me on Wednesday. It was the highlight of my week.”

Meredith said, “What’d he say?”

“He said, ’Gent, you’re not going to start Sunday.’ “

This was at a time when Gent was vying with Buddy Dial for the flank-erback role. If the Cowboy system of today had been in effect then, it’s possible Gent would never have written North Dallas Forty.

When a man sits abandoned on the bench, it can send nasty ripples through the whole squad. Three years ago when Landry was still insisting that Charley Waters was a cornerback, Mark Washington was languishing. A writer happened to get involved in a long phone conversation with Calvin Hill’s wife Janet, who said, “You know why Waters is starting and Mark isn’t? It’s because Mark’s black.” The writer tried to disabuse her of this notion, to no avail.

In Landry’s new scheme of defense the pressure has been eased. Benny Barnes had been around for three seasons before the last one began, mainly clunking heads on the kicking teams. He is a cornerback. “I used to go to Mel and Mark in the locker room before the games and ask them how they were feeling – if I should keep a close watch on ’em if they were hurting with an ankle or a pull. Last year I had a place. I was the fifth back. I knew I was going to play.”

The Cowboys did a lot of things on defense last year they had never done before. They went to a variation of Miami’s famous “53” defense (so named because that was the jersey-number of the Dolphins’ lineman-linebacker Bob Matheson) with super rookie Randy White as the substitute. White was big enough (6-4 and 250) to play a “down” lineman, and swift enough to drop deep on pass coverage – which is how you get to be picked Number 1 in the NFL draft.

“They told me when I came in for rookie orientation in the spring that’s what they were going to do,” says White, “but I could tell they didn’t know how it was going to work out. I concentrated all the time, all of us rookies did, on taking pride in the kicking teams. You know, that’s one-fourth of the game. And Mike Ditka put it to us about the importance. That Mike, if he was put in charge of the waterboys, he would have every one of those kids feeling that the outcome of the game depended on the way he did his job.”

White, of course, was destined to do more than create oohs and aahs in the way he tried to decapitate kickoff and punt returners. Says Ermal Allen, “There are about 20 third downs a game, out of 63 to 65 plays, so White is playing 30 percent right there. How much did he play? Well, he came within three plays of being our Big Play Man. Ed Jones had 18, Harvey Martin had 16. A big play is either a quarterback trap, the force of a trap, causing a fumble, recovering a fumble, intercepting a pass or tipping a pass. White trapped the quarterback seven times. He caused three fumbles and damn if he didn’t recover two of those. He tipped two passes, and we didn’t blitz that much.”

The problem a fellow like White poses for the opposing quarterback is drastic. The first thing this signal caller does when he crouches over center is to announce the defense: “Ram gap” (unbalanced line), “5-1,” or the long-lasting “4-3.” Now it has increasingly become “3-2.” But how can he reliably call out “3-2” when he is staring into the steely blues of Randy White? White has the assigned option of charging like a lineman or dropping back like a linebacker.

The Cowboys’ 3-2, Allen swears, is capable of “123 different looks.”

The other basic Dallas defenses, beyond the 4-3 flex:

The 4-0, wherein Meg, middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, is removed for a defensive back, such as Barnes.

The 4-0, 6, whereupon Sarah (the strongside linebacker) is also removed and safety Randy Hughes takes his place. Barnes and Hughes are thus the fifth and sixth backs. The Cowboys had never employed six backs in a formation before last season.

The 3-2 with five backs. White goes in for Jethro Pugh, and Hughes subs for the strongside linebacker.

The upshot of all this was that the Cowboys had 14 “starters” on defense last season, including White, Barnes and Hughes. The offense in its myriad sets had 17.

“I always knew,” said Oklahoma rookie Hughes, “that I would get in 10 or 15 plays a game.” He made them count – coming up with two fumbles and two interceptions, including a 33-yard TD runback that salted the New York Jets game.

None of the Landry defensive moves were innovations, because so many other clubs had long used them. But Landry has them programmed into his system. Down and distance. Two-minute warning. The key players are standing at Ernie Stautner’s and Gene Stallings’ elbows.

It remains to be seen how soon the rest of the league will pick up on the advantages of the Cowboys’ spread formation. “I look at all the films,” says Allen, “and I saw several teams go to the spread late last season. You almost have to use it some, because the way to defense a spread is to work out against it. So the offense puts it on, and pretty soon one of the coaches says, ’Say, this looks pretty good in this spot. Let’s do it.’ And it goes from there.”

It will not be all that easy, however, to follow the Cowboy footsteps. “It is the finer points,” says Landry, “that make a new idea successful.” Translation: There is a helluva lot of new wrinkles to come in the Cowboy spread, and the Dallas lead time in this expertise will continue for a long, long while.

There are changes due in the Cowboys’ expanded starting cast. Benny Barnes needed some twist of fate to keep from being crowded off the roster by rookies Beasley Reece and Aaron Kyle. Randy White was inevitably the Dallas middle linebacker, picking up the torch passed on from Jerry Tubbs to Jordan. Randy Hughes had long been rated a shot at ousting Charley Waters as strong safety. And there were a mish-mash of possible shifts in the running back and wide receiver positions as the Cowboys moved through the summer. But the mold has been set, and the pride is still rampant.

Head defensive coach Ernie Staut-ner believes in a different wellspring for the Dallas turnaround of last season.

“We just got 12 great rookies,” Stautner says. “Now, I don’t mean great physically, though they were fine in that department, too. I’m talking about attitude. Last year we suddenly got a different calibre of player. For the previous six or seven years it was fashionable to be a dissenter, to do your own thing all the time, rebel against authority. This is death to football, because it’s not an individual sport. Oh, you have to have great individual talents to play it, but basically it’s a coordinated team sport. And when our 12 guys came in, calling themselves the Dirty Dozen, we had reverted back to the way it was. The way it was supposed to be.”

The old and now long-gone Cowboys are looking on with wonder. Says the burgeoning local businessman Chuck Howley: “Tom lost a lot of his conservatism in play-calling. That razzle-dazzle he put in really excited the rookies. Plus the leadership of the veterans, it made the greatest season I can remember for the Cowboys.”

So, we come down to the chicken and the egg, but these were rookies personally chosen by Landry. And you know that Landry brain is even this moment going clickety-click, providing his own printout, staying way ahead of the NFL.

The Strengths

Defensive ends Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Harvey “Too Mean” Martin are now entering the prime years of their young careers. Cowboy players and coaches believe that Tom Landry is re-shaping his defense to build it around the pass-rush talents of Jones and Martin. “I think Tom’s going to turn ’em loose,” says tackle Ralph Neely. The two are capable of dominating and disrupting any Sunday football game.



The Ideal Quarterback, Roger Stau-bach, is certainly ideal for a Dallas offense that counts on the spread formation, a stratagem that employs Staubach’s talents to the fullest. As great as he has been (MVP of Super Bowl VI), he is not yet as great as he’s going to be.



Center John Fitzgerald, has long been flanked by excellent guards and tackles (for this season, Blaine Nye-Burton Lawless and Rayfield Wright-Ralph Neely). A “baby” in physical development, Fitzgerald is now muscled up and trimmed down to a rock-hard blocker.

The Question Marks

All the young linebackers, the men of the future – Randy White, Bob Breunig and Thomas Henderson – are long on talent but short on experience. Two of them should be starters, but how much will their naivete hurt Dallas in the form of big opposition plays? That is the toughest question Tom Landry will have to sort out this season.



Wide receiver Percy Howard is 6-4 and 215 and he is gunning for Golden Richards’ (6-0, 183) starting job. Pittsburgh linebackers and cornerbacks manhandled Richards in the Super Bowl and he can expect more of the same every game. The theory is that Howard is rugged enough to fight them off and get into his routes. But, a college basketball player, he is green as a gourd.

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