Lombardi, Landry and the invention of modern football

The two men couldn’t be more different:

Vincent Thomas Lombardi had come to the NY Giants as an assistant in 1953 and rapidly moved up to running their offense. He was a man of tremendous passion: he saw no contradiction in his deep devotion to his Catholic faith and the profanity-laced tirades that he quickly became famous for as he rose to the offensive coordinator position for the Giants, before becoming the head coach of the venerable Green Bay Packers. He became the ideal coach for his era, motivating like no one else in the game, molding a team that was as physical as it was fearless into winning five NFL championships. His .738 winning percentage remains the third best of all-time. Mercurial, vastly intelligent and intensely innovative as a coach, many of Lombardi’s developments for the NFL game remain standard aspects of it almost six decades later. It defines the concept of a legacy.

Thomas Wade Landry was the polar opposite of Lombardi, which was fitting since he had become the defensive coordinator of the Giants at about the same time Lombardi took over the offense. Landry had trained as an industrial engineer at the University of Texas and flew bombers as a co-pilot in World War II. He flew a total of 30 missions during the war and even survived a crash landing in Belgium when his plane ran out of fuel. He was a player-coach with New York from 1955-57 before becoming a full-time coach the following year. His methodical, step-by-step process of innovation was a stark contrast to Lombardi’s impassioned approach, although Lombardi’s innovation was no less than Landry’s. Landry was also a self-professed born-again fundamentalist Protestant, and in person he was reserved to the point that people often found him ‘cold’. He demanded that the front office give him players who were ‘good Christians’ and family men.

Lombardi, on the other hand, grew up in south Brooklyn and went to Fordham University on a football scholarship; despite being a meager 170 lb, he played on the offensive line that became known as the ‘Seven Blocks of Granite’. He majored in business studies and spent two years working in finance while finishing a degree in law - he, too, was academically brilliant as well as having an astronomical football IQ.  At the age of 26, Lombardi was helping to coach high school football while simultaneously teaching chemistry, physics, and Latin at a Catholic school, St. Cecilia’s, where he coached before returning to Fordham to coach the freshman team for a year and then was promoted to coaching the varsity. He remained there until Red Blaik of Army hired him away in 1947 to help coach the defensive line. Blaik taught him the importance of balancing how important perfect execution of each play was with the essential factor of how to execute those plays with confidence, a lesson that Lombardi mastered until he rivaled Blaik himself. Lombardi was 41 when he was hired as an assistant for the NY Giants, before stepping up to becoming their offensive coordinator.

Landry and Lombardi were obsessed with watching game film to analyze the tendencies and weaknesses of the teams that they would face. Landry came up with one of many concepts that were far ahead of his time: he constantly scrutinized the film for ‘tells’ - the right tackle who moves his right foot an inch or so to the outside on pass protection, or the wide receiver who rubs his fingers with his thumb for a moment before the ball is snapped when the play calls for the pass to go to him. Lombardi had a similar level of study for the offense, breaking down opposing defenses in much the same way.

But it was Landry the engineer who went to a mathematical breakdown of how often a team would run X play in Y situation over the course of several games, or even a season, something that no modern team would fail to consider. He was the first to document teams’ exact tendencies in specific down-and-distance situations in order to confound them. While equally brilliant as an innovator, Lombardi demanded and inspired passion in his players. Landry simply required that they do exactly what he said to do, neither more nor less. If they won, it was because, he felt, they had done what he told them to, so he was very slow to praise and quick to criticize if a player failed to perform perfectly within Landry’s system. With Lombardi, if they lost it was because they failed to match the emotional intensity of the other team - he felt that his offensive strategy was good enough that if the players played their hearts out, they couldn’t lose.

The gap between the two men was large enough that the team itself divided on their fault lines - the offense disliked the defense, and the defense hated the offense. Jim Howell, head coach of the Giants during the time, was reduced by his own decision to the role of an administrator. He didn’t write up plays, he didn’t give rousing halftime speeches and he really didn’t involve himself in the offense or defense per se. He didn’t have to - he had two of the most driven and innovative coaches in the game working under him, and he understood that his best role was to hold the team together and let the coordinators have at it.

Lombardi also began a low-tech practice that would become a high-tech part of any modern NFL game - he had Polaroids of the defenses taken from the press box during the game, and had Wellington Mara, the owner of the Giants, place them in a sock which was weighted with a small rock, whereupon they were hung on and slid down a line that was placed there for that purpose. The line was anchored on the sidelines, for easy access. Paul Brown is usually credited with starting the process of breaking down film, while Sid Gillman is generally credited with clipping the game film into different reels for the offense and defense. Lombardi added to that his Polaroids that let him make adjustments during the game. No team would consider playing without that innovation in the modern NFL. Lombardi was so focused on this approach that he would keep his starting QB, Charlie Conerly, standing next to him on the sidelines and talking to him about which plays would work against the defenses that they saw. He used this to the point where it might be a couple of series, a full quarter or - on at least one occasion - even three quarters before Conerly would go in and replace his ‘backup’ QB, Don Heinrich.

For his part, Landry is usually credited with taking the defensive middle guard off the line, dropping him back where he could have a better view of the unfolding play. By placing future Hall of Famer Sam Huff in that position, he had invented the beginnings of the modern 4-3 (or 4-3-4, as it was called at the time) defense. It’s worth noting that this was a variation on the ‘umbrella’ defense of Steve Owen, who preceded Landry with the Giants. Landry also instituted the signal of rubbing his stomach while standing on the sidelines, as if he were hungry. The players knew that signaled them to show their hunger for the quarterback by going with an all-out ‘red dog’, as it was called then and which we now know as the ‘blitz’. That dog had teeth, as their opponents learned much to their dismay.

Both men were also innovators in how they had their players making decisions as to what play would be unfolding and how to best react to it. Lombardi took the basics of what was called ‘rule blocking’, giving each of his offensive linemen a range of ‘tells’ as to which man they were to block. The difference might be as small as whether a defensive guard lined up on the middle of the OL’s helmet or off onto his shoulder. The intricacies of this approach were adapted by Red Blaik of Army, who had asked Lombardi to come to West Point and help teach his team for the five-year period of 1949-1953 (Lombardi joined the Giants at the end of the 1953 season).  One of his assistants at Army famously referred to the complexity of his rule blocking approach as “A combination of Sanskrit, algebra and infantry tactics.” Complex it might have been, but it was enormously effective - so much so, that it was quickly picked up by Sid Gillman, another elite innovator of the game (who was coaching the LA Rams at the time) and it spread from there to the entire NFL.

Landry had his own twist on the same general concept - he took all the information that he had assembled from studying film on his opponent's tendencies on different formations, down and distance and turned them into what he decided to call ‘reads’ or ‘keys’ - the defensive players were expected to react in specific ways to the tendencies that Landry had charted for that opponent’s offense. Those, too, have become a standard part of every player’s football education. They now begin teaching reads in many high school teams, and the QB camps focus on them as a way of teaching young QBs how to read defenses and adjust to the keys that they can see. It’s changed the game forever.   

Between the brilliance of the two coordinators and the efforts of the teams they led, the Giants won the NFL Championship in 1956 and had continued success for the next decade, even as Lombardi and Landry left to command their own teams in their own very individual styles. Landry went to Dallas, where he would run the Dallas Cowboys in a high-tech fashion never seen before in the NFL. It took time for the team to understand and implement his concepts - they were that new and that strange to the players, but were very successful once the team and the concepts were in place. Lombardi, on the other hand, would take his offense to Green Bay where he was the head coach and from there his team would dominate the game for much of the 1960s. Both found great success on the head coaching level.

Lombardi developed his signature play, the ‘power sweep’ and took it to Green Bay in 1959 where it quickly became the basis of the Packers' offense: it was one of the most feared and effective plays in the league. While it sounds simple enough  - what could be complicated about sending the running back around the end? The truth was that it was precise, complex and brutal in roughly equal parts.

The power sweep had an incredibly complex theoretical basis, and performed correctly, it was nearly impossible to stop. Lombardi could and did give full-day, eight-hour seminars on this single play: the play that the entire Green Bay offense was built around. Every player had specific assignments that were dependent on properly reading the defense and countering any move that they might be able to make. It was as effective as it was exacting, and Lombardi’s team ran it to perfection. Lombardi even wrote a book, one heavily based in his philosophy, that was published in 1963 and was called Run to Daylight!, with the title describing his own version of the one-cut running style that the power sweep depended on.

It’s not surprising, then, that Tom Landry’s Cowboys were the antithesis of the Packers. In many ways they were the NFL’s first true expansion team - the others were usually from combining two existing but struggling teams. The Cowboys endured a first season without a single victory and they continued to struggle for each of their first five years. Despite that, in a move that modern teams would never consider, the Cowboys signed Landry to an unheard-of 10-year contract extension in 1964, showing complete confidence in him and giving him the time to implement his revolutionary concepts. But every season, Landry would begin with a lecture that focused heavily on what the Cowboys were not - they weren’t the Packers, and Landry would talk at great length about what the differences were and why they were important. Landry was obsessed with beating Lombardi (the antipathy was mutual), and much of his time with the team was devoted to focusing on just that. As precise as the power sweep was, Landry considered it simplistic by contrast to what he was doing in Dallas.

Just as the New England Patriots were designed by Bill Belichick (who feels that every team has to be designed to defeat whatever team stands between them and success in the season and the playoffs) to counter the offensive juggernaut that was and is Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, Landry’s Cowboys were designed to counter and defeat the Pack. It was a tall order, but Landry felt that his team would soon be up to it. Anytime the two teams played, it was headline news.

Back at this time, the Cleveland Browns were running an option blocking system, and the Pack was ‘running to daylight’. Landry studied both systems at length, and instituted a truly advanced and revolutionary defense called the ‘Flex’, which was a natural evolution of the defensive concepts that he had developed in New York. The Flex was based entirely on reading offensive keys, and when it was run properly, it was murderously hard to beat. Few long plays ever came against it and just as Landry had Sam Huff at middle linebacker in NY, he had the Hall of Fame defensive tackle Bob Lilly anchoring the center of his defensive line. He was 6’5 and only 260 lb, but he played with power, speed and leverage. Opposing teams threw two and even three players against him - Lilly ate them for brunch and spat out their helmets. Lilly was an 11-time Pro Bowler and made the All-Pro First team seven times before being inducted into the Hall in 1980. Complex the system may have been, but with the right talent it was a thing of beauty to watch. Landry complemented it with an equally complex offense, run by Dandy Don Meredith. It took half a decade to hone it to a razor sharpness, but Landry was the man to accomplish it.

By 1966 the teams were very nearly equals. Each time they met, it was a battle of true titans of the game and the next two years would see the duels between the two teams for the NFL Championship. Whoever won (and it was usually Green Bay), when Dallas played Green Bay, everyone took the afternoon off to watch. Their battles were legendary, but soon a new factor came into the situation. By 1967, it wasn’t enough just to beat each other.

A championship between the AFL and NFL was proposed and scheduled, a game termed the Super Bowl. The name came from an off-the-cuff comment by Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, whose daughter had been playing with a hard, incredibly bouncy toy called a Super Ball when he arrived home from a trip. Hunt never liked the term much, but the media adored it and in addition to using it, they quickly dubbed the day of the contest ‘Super Sunday’. It’s become an international institution. Green Bay promptly won the first two, while the Cowboys wouldn’t reach that game and win it until 1971, even though everything they did was done with beating the best - Green Bay - in mind.

It was an era of innovators:  of men who were larger than life, writing their names in bold letters across the history of the game. The names include Paul Brown, Otto Graham, George Halas, Wellington Mara, Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and Jim Taylor, Tex Schramm, Lamar Hunt, Steve Owen and Pete Rozelle - each of them had an influence on the game that lasted decades and there were many who affect the game even now. Other than Paul Brown, who re-wrote the book on professional football, none, perhaps, had more influence on the game itself, the way that it’s played and the formations and approaches that have succeeded, mastering the test of time, than Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. These men were, truly, giants in their own right. We owe each of them a debt of gratitude for their contributions to the game we know today. 

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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