Astute IAOFM readers know that the formal version of the 4-3 defense was created when Giants DC Tom Landry [Lombardi, Landry and the invention of modern football] slid rookie draftee Sam Huff back from the middle guard position to the area a couple of yards back, giving him a better view of the QB in an increasingly pass-oriented game, and creating the position of the middle linebacker. Huff was a hickory-tough man who defined the middle linebacker of the day. On one play, he was knocked flat and unconscious. With several teeth broken and blood pouring down his face, he picked up his helmet, got oriented and headed back onto the field. He was that tough a player. It was no surprise that he has made the Hall of Fame - he also had a defensive line that was the original, if less famous, Fearsome Foursome.
That was back in 1956, but in reality, nothing in football is really new. I constantly find plays, concepts and formations that were run in the 1800s and early 1900s that are being touted as ‘new’ by writers who have never really studied the sport’s history - the spread comes to mind. Coach A. Stagg ran that at the University of Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. In all fairness, Landry wasn’t the first to catch on to the 4-3 concept with a middle linebacker, either - he was just the first to formalize it and to use it in the NFL.
Some football purists maintain that it was Bill George of the Chicago Bears who took that position earlier, because in order to both see better and because he was noticing that QBs were simply throwing over his head while he battled with the center, he backed up a couple of steps. That’s true in degree, but it wasn’t part of any formal defensive scheme. It was just a freelance move by a player who couldn’t see and who was too vulnerable to the pass. If his coach had moved him intentionally and worked the defense around that formation, things might have turned out differently. In any case, the real roots of the formation go much earlier. They go back to the 1940s and Paul Brown, and the effect that Brown had on Tom Landry’s career.
Brown had taught at Ohio State University, and one of his two-way linemen was a fellow by the name of Bill Willis. Willis was only 6’2” and 210 lb, but he hit like a Howitzer, he was track-team fast and even quicker off the snap. Brown had him in mind as a defense-only guy, and when Willis later tried out for Paul’s Cleveland Browns, the tryout was filmed as a matter of course - Brown was vastly ahead of the rest of the league in applying existing technology. On the first four snaps, Willis zipped by the center and took out the very mobile Otto Graham. Coaching assistants were sure that Willis was jumping offsides until they looked carefully at the film and found that he was just that fast off the line - firing out with that kind of speed that is deeply desired in the modern NFL, and it wasn’t ignored by Brown, either. Willis was originally a middle/nose guard despite his size, but Brown moved him around some to take advantage of his speed, much as Denver is now doing with Von Miller. It worked.
In fact, one of the key developments of the 1940s was that Brown moved Willis back a couple of yards, called him a linebacker and had him ‘shoot’ the A gap, formalizing for the first time in recorded NFL history the role of the blitzing linebacker. Given his position, one could legitimately say that this was the first time that a middle linebacker was formally used in a 4-3 formation for the purpose of blitzing the QB. A new era had started, and under coaches John Fox and Dennis Allen of the Broncos, it’s still going on.
The Umbrella Defense
It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that Landry was the defensive coordinator for Jim Howell’s Giants, and was casting around for a way to improve on the Umbrella Defense that former head coach Steve Owen had devised and used effectively. The Umbrella was an early, if not the first, use of seven-man front and a four-man defensive backfield with two safeties, much like today’s formations.
(Image via NY Times).
As you can see, this is a 5-2-4 formation, and Owen ran a lot of different variations off of it. It would also set the stage for Landry’s innovation. Landry actually wanted to move to his new 4-3 in 1954, the year that Bill George started trying to stop the passes over his head, but Landry couldn’t find the right player for the scheme until the Giants obtained Sam Huff via the draft in 1956. Landry recognized the perfection of his skillset to the MLB position, and the modern 4-3 era had begun.
Skip ahead another 55 years and a player by the name of Von Miller arrives on the scene. He’s 6’3”, about 238 lb and as fast off the line as Bill Willis was. He plays strongside linebacker, in theory, but he’s been moved to the right end of the line and even to a ‘middle guard’ slot, standing between the tackles and shooting the A gap much like Willis did. And, with the same results -
The next article will deal with one of Miller’s plays as a rush linebacker, showing exactly how he does what he does so well.