Saturday, April 1, 2023 Apr 1, 2023
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Is There Any WayTo Explain Football’s Most Confusing, Convoluted, Intellectually Taxing, Perhaps-No-Longer-So-Great Defense?

Probably not. But let’s try to unravel the Cowboys’ Flex Defense.
By Skip Hollandsworth |

WHEN THE WORD CAME THAT Tom Landry had refused my request for an interview regarding the Dallas Cowboys’ infamous Flex defense- the excruciatingly complicated alignment that has been baffling Cowboys players for years-I was staggered. Not only did it mean a whole afternoon had been wasted thinking up tough questions for the coach (“What’s the outlook this year at middle linebacker?” “How about cornerback?” “Hey, don”t you think it’s cute when, right in the middle of a game, a dog runs onto the field and tries to sniff the ball?”), but it meant that the rumors circulating for years might be true: Landry doesn’t talk about the Flex because he doesn’t understand it any more than we do.

Can you blame him? There are few mysteries in life as perplexing as the Flex, the most obscure, least understood defense in all of football. Let me put some questions to you, reader. Do you know what the Flex is? Do you have any idea how it has haunted hundreds of Cowboys, making such great players as Bob Lilly so frustrated that he’d come storming into the locker room, cursing the coaches? Do you wonder why no other team in the NFL will even try it?

But to return to the thought at hand (which I am sorry to do, since I don’t remember what the thought was), it is very important for us common fans to get a grasp of what is happening in the Flex, because as I understand it (which I don’t), the trendy thing to do this year will be to complain about the defense (which, as I have learned through my research, is always on the field when the offense is not). Last year, you just got a taste of the unpleasantness to come. Remember what happened? The Cowboys were 6-2 at the midway point, looking good, and then, mostly due to a defense that went bust, they lost seven of their final eight games, finishing with their first losing season since 1964. The defense gave up 337 points last season, which ranked 18th in the NFL. They finished 10th in the league in yards allowed. The Cowboys’ defense, always the final proof of Landry’s brilliance, hadn’t looked this bad in two decades.

And, of course, everyone began asking: what’s wrong with the vaunted Flex? Is it too out of date to contain the wide-open offenses NFL teams now run? Is it. . .(dang, there was one other question, but my notes have become illegible).

Anyway, I have decided it is time to understand the Flex.

“You’ll never understand it.” says Charlie Waters, the former All-Pro safety who was one of the great Flex disciples of the Seventies. He was so obsessed with the Flex that, at night, he’d call his teammates to talk about it. “If you and I went off and discussed only the Flex for five years, you still wouldn’t understand it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” say I. a music major in college, whose gift of football repartee would be no disgrace in a child of seven.

“Hey, I can’t even begin to explain the Flex.” says Jeff Rohrer, a starting linebacker for the Cowboys who went to Yale and graduated with a 3.75 grade point average. “I’ve only played the Cowboys* defense for five years.”

“Five years is a lot of time,” I retort. “That’s enough time to read all the novels of Stephen King.”

“Talk to me when I’m about to retire,” Rohrer says. “By then, I should have it figured out.”

“You’re not going to get any of it right,” says Dick Nolan, a Cowboys’ assistant coach who helped Landry create the Flex. “Every rule about the Flex also has a corollary, which means it can change on every play.”

“Um, what changes on every play?”

Nolan looks as if he’s about to snap his pencil in half. “The Flex, dammit, changes on every play,” he says.

AQUICK HISTORY: BEFORE 1964, YOU could go to a Cowboys’ game and, in between sips from the flask, actually follow the plays. Then Landry, already known for his defensive wizardry from his days as assistant coach of the New York Giants, installed a new defense never before seen in football. A couple of the defensive linemen would gelt in this bizarre, four-point crouch, looking like frogs. A couple of other linemen would be backed off the line for no apparent reason; the linebackers would jump around like they had ants in their pants; the strong safety, who we thought was supposed to be back waiting for a pass, would suddenly show up right on the line of scrimmage, and everyone on the defense was shouting stuff to one another.

Then the ball would be snapped, and instead of the defensive players chasing after the runner, they would all head to specific, predetermined territories they were supposed to cover. We’d rise from our seats, alarmed. No one was attacking! No one was pursuing the runner! What is this? They’ve all gone crazy out there!

Yet something very odd happened. It seemed no matter where the runner went, there stood some Cowboy waiting to make a tackle. This would happen play after play- and a great murmur would run through the stadium, as we’d all turn to one another asking what the hell was going on. About the only time we felt sure of what was happening with the defense was when we saw a fumble. “Fumble!” we’d roar, with great big smiles on our faces. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ defense became known as “Doomsday.” Landry was called a genius, and the team began winning Super Bowls. The Flex had made it to the big time.

However, the defense was so complicated that only one other coach dared to try it- Dick Nolan, when he briefly coached the San Francisco 49ers. He didn’t last long, proving that the wizard’s tricks were not easy to copy. “Landry had the Flex down to such a science,” Bob Lilly says, “that in the playbook, he had diagramed out exactly the steps the defensive linemen were supposed to take when the ball was snapped. He even told us which foot to start with. We looked like a bunch of ballet dancers out there.”

Landry designed the Flex to stop the dominant offensive force of the Sixties, the “run for daylight” concept originated by Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, the Cowboys’ nemesis. Lombardi would send a running back to sweep around the ends, and if the back saw daylight (a hole in the line) anywhere along the way, he’d zip through it. Landry countered with what he called a “flexible” 4-3 defense, in which he put a man in every gap and made him stay there. But the player could not-repeat, could not-anticipate where the play was going and head that way. no matter what his hunches or instincts told him. (If you are still following this explanation, please contact the national Mensa organization for an honorary certificate.) A player couldn’t surge through the blocker in front of him and then chase the ball. Sometimes, the Flex would demand a player vacate a position even though the play was obviously headed right there. The middle linebacker became responsible for making most of the tackles, because while the other players were tying things up in their gaps, he would be free to hunt down the runner. (Stay with me-this paragraph is about to end.) Theoretically, if everything in the Flex worked, three players would always be at the point where the offense attacked.

“Well.” says former star defensive tackle Larry Cole, “the Flex was contrary to everything you learned as a football player. We thought football was kicking somebody’s ass. We were used to smashing through and trying to pulverize the ball carrier. Now. we were being told to ’read the play,’ which involved hesitating, filling your gap, and then finally going after the ball. It drove us nuts.”

For the Cowboys, brain power became as important as muscle. “Think about this.” says Charlie Waters. “We would get in position, and they would snap the ball. In that split second, we had to learn to read what Landry called ’keys.’ [Keys are tipoffs in the movement of offensive linemen that indicate where the play is going.) So if I was back in my position and saw the two offensive guards pull and head toward the strong side, I’d have to run up to stop the end run. But I also had to watch the offensive tackle, and if he pulled then I had to swing out in case there was a quick pitch to the halfback. [Can this, I wonder, get any more confusing?] But let’s say one of the guards that pulled my way suddenly turned back around to block.[It can!] Then I knew I had to drop back for the pass. Then, let’s say the tight end faked his block and sneaked off into the flat for a pass. I had to cover him. And remember,” Waters concludes, tapping me to wake me up. “Lan-dry made you figure all this out in about one second.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

Waters gives me a very sour look. “I want to once again stress the absurdity of your trying to explain this,” he says.

I chuckle. Waters has no conception of my literary talents. I head off to talk to Brad Sham, the play-by-play broadcaster of the Cowboys, also known as an intellectual in the world of sports because he has grown a beard and smokes a pipe.

“It is impossible,” he says, “for fans to know what went wrong on a Cowboys defensive play. Most of the time, you just have no idea who is supposed to make the tackle. I generally try not to blame someone on a busted defensive play because there’s a chance I’ll be wrong,”

“Oh, come on,” I say. “This is football. A game. We’re not talking about building some nuclear weapon.”

“Don’t be so sure,” says Sham, lighting his pipe just like Einstein used to do.

“Listen.” says linebacker Rohrer, preparing to confuse me even further, “maybe this will explain it to you. The Flex is exponential. You do such-and-such, but if the offense makes a little change, you have to do such-and-such to a second degree. And then when you do that to the second degree, you have to watch out for a whole new set of variables, which can make you do such-and-such to the third degree.”

Rohrer is telling me this one day at a restaurant. He is holding a beer in one hand, playing a video trivia game with another hand, and discussing something about the way the Flex can stop the fullback counter-Near O Pitch. 1 feel as if a heavy curtain is dropping in the middle of my brain. “We’re like experimental dolphins,” he tells me. “The coaches just see how much they can train us. They know we’re intelligent. The question is: how intelligent?”

“A player in the Flex,” says another Cowboys’ linebacker. Steve DeOssie, who’s sitting next to Rohrer, “has to be a completely different breed than players on other NFL teams. We have to be extremely well disciplined, and we’re under the gun almost every play. All you need to do is sacrifice your life to God to learn to play the defense here.”

And that’s exactly what bothers a lot of knowledgeable types about the Flex. These critics believe the system is so complicated, requiring the players to look for so many keys before reacting, that offenses can gobble up the yardage that they can”t gain against the more popular “3-4” or “46” defenses that most other teams use. These new defenses are built on the premise that every offensive player should be pressured (especially the quarterback, the target of an always aggressive pass rush) and that the key men in the attack should be the linebackers. In other teams, you see only three defensive linemen and four linebackers; the linebackers play with a freewheeling abandon, blitzing from different positions or roaming the secondary. But with the more passive Flex, which keys for the run first, there is little pass rush except on obvious passing downs. Linebackers in the run-oriented Flex find themselves with too little time to get back on pass plays, and cornerbacks are pitted against receivers in one-on-one situations.

Quick history lesson number two (I know you’re thrilled about this): largely because the Flex was so great in the Seventies (Randy White and Harvey Martin were named co-MVPs in Super Bowl XII in 1978), the NFL began drastically changing the rules, producing a more exciting offense. Defensive players could only bump a receiver one time, offensive linemen were allowed more freedom to hold, and defensive linemen could no longer head-slap blockers. Naturally, NFL (earns turned to aerial attacks, and the only way the defenses could stop the passing game was through the blitz or through pass-heavy defenses where as many as seven defensive backs would come onto the field for certain plays. The new holding rules also allowed a different breed of offensive linemen to enter the game, big men who weighed close to 300 pounds and whose job was to tie up defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage with simple straight-ahead blocking. As a result, it became much more difficult for [he Cowboys’ Flex linemen to make their tricky moves.

Now, as the new season dawns, the Flex debate is moving into high gear. One camp argues that Landry is too stubborn to give up his old defense, even though everyone knows how to beat it. Another camp says that Lan-dry has tinkered enough with the Flex to keep it up to date and has even experimented with other defenses; the problem is that he just doesn’t have the talented players he once had to make the Flex work. If he had linebackers like those with the New York Giants, he’d turn them loose, too. Safety Bill Bates, for example, is a beloved Cowboy known for his helmet-rattling tackles. But it’s arguable that he’s too compulsive to ever be a great Flex player because he still tends to react before he thinks.

The great Randy White says the Flex “can be the best defense on the field. It just takes an incredible dedication to play it.”

Which brings me back to my original question (at least 1 think it’s my original question): is the Flex too difficult to understand? After watching those embarrassing situations last year where half the team would be in one defense and the other half would think a second defense had been called, could it be that even the players don’t understand it?

“Well,” says assistant coach Nolan, shuffling some papers as if to show he’s busy and ready for me to get the hell out of his office, “it does take a while to learn the Flex.”

“No kidding? Is that right?” I ask, exhibiting my considerable skill at the incisive follow-up question.

Nolan pauses. “But just between us,” he says, “it doesn’t take near as long for a player to learn it as it does to explain it to someone like you.”

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