The Flex 43 and the Even 43 featured prominent positions that don’t exist anymore. The most essential player in these defenses played head up on the guard, most often on the weakside. In contemporary times it might be called a 2-tech, but that sort of language wasn’t widespread at the time and was probably never used under Tom Landry in Dallas. The Landry Flex 43 co-existed in Dallas with the Even 43. The Even 43 was run by most of the league by the 1960s. Teams looking for an edge were more experimental at that time, jostling decades of protocol to counter the rising of the passing offense. Great defensive coordinators who redefined the game did not always get the benefit of being called geniuses, and several exceptional defensive concepts were delayed by unsupportive regimes.
That didn’t happen in Dallas, where the ownership hitched it’s wagon on Tom Landry’s tactical reputation. Landry had a black eye with the expansion franchise. Their highlight film of 1960 was so bad it featured the other teams, including John David Crowe of the St Louis Cardinals. His tinkering with the early bad teams couldn’t save the Cowboys in the early 60s and the AFC’s Dallas Texans were breathing down the franchise’s neck. One can imagine the pressure Landry was under.
Dallas traded their 1961 1st round pick for Eddie LeBaron from Washington. Dallas traded its 1962 first round pick to the Browns so they could select Bob Lilly 13th overall, making him the first drafted Dallas Cowboy. He was a defensive end from local TCU. A standout college player, he made the Pro Bowl in his second season. The 62 Cowboys were on the upswing at 5-8-1, finishing 2nd in points scored and expected to compete for a winning season in 1963. The Cowboys started 3-7. On November 22nd John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. A dark cloud settled in and the season continued to tank. Rival fans booed them blaming the city of Dallas, and the Browns announcer refused to say the city’s name, only calling the team The Cowboys.
The Texans left Dallas that same year, and fans were leaving the Cowboys. Only 12,695 attended the 28–24 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the season clinching victory. Though the results were weak, the leadership was steady. In 1964 after another losing season, and Landry in the last year of his contract, the owner unbelievably gave Landry a 10 year extension — totaling an 11 year contract. In hindsight, they got him cheap.
In the midst of all that mid-season in 1963 Landry moved Pro Bowl LDE Bob Lilly to right defensive tackle.
Dallas had an awesome pass rusher but the offenses of the day could run at you with dynamic offensive linemen. The 43 Flex Inside & Outside had emphasized defending interior runs but the Power Sweep of the Packers and others were attacking the edges of defenses with tremendous success. Dallas had the raw material but not the epiphany to put it together.
Trying to get Lilly closer to the center of the field, the coaches moved him to a traditional Flex 43 right Defensive Tackle position. Seeing Lilly there gave the Dallas staff the inspiration they needed to create a new defense that would play a dominant role in their era. In the book “Cowboys Have Always Been My Heros” Dick Nolan described the Landry 43 Flex as one half of the defensive line playing a 43 Flex Inside, while the other half plays a 43 Flex Outside. The position of the players is easy to see in a diagram, though their responsibilities are not.
43 Landry Flex
The most important feature of the 43 flex was that it could rough up a sweep. It was designed to battle Vince Lombardi’s Packers. In many ways it’s longevity is the most shocking fact. Dallas used the Landry Flex 43 in the Ice Bowl, in 1967, and they used it in the 80s against Philadelphia. By the 80s it was like a throwback with teams using the quick target of Bill Walsh type passing attacks.
It’s hard to imagine this defense, created to stop the Packers, could survive and produce for so long, but it did. If I told you the greatest rushing offense in history is coming to town and my plan was to beat it with only two down linemen, I’d be laughed out of the interviews. If I told you the same defense I used to stymie the greatest rushing attack of all time was going to line up well against the Air Coryell passing offense, I’d also be crazy.
Randy White was the 2nd player drafted in 1975, 1 year after Lilly retired. He backed up Lee Roy Jordan at MLB and couldn’t get on the field. It was two years later in 1977 that Dallas moved Randy White to the defensive tackle position that Lilly once played. That’s when Randy White’s career took off. Nine time first team All Pro selections at a position he wasn’t drafted to play. He wasn’t drafted to play the 2-tech anymore than Lilly was, yet both these guys were 1st Ballot Hall of Famers at the position.
The Even 43
It’s incongruous to describe the Landry Flex 43 and not mention the Even 43. Dallas ran the Even 43 a fair amount, and appears to favor it on many passing downs in both the Bob Lilly and Randy White eras. The Landry Flex weakened the Weakside Defensive End’s passrush too much on obvious pass downs. The Even 43 had 4 defensive linemen line up as close to the line of scrimmage as they could get. Each player lined up with a head on a head ready to play two-gapping defense. In this approach defensive linemen would attack the opposing offensive blocker, then move past that blocker to attack the ball carrier.
Playing defensive line this way is pretty rare in the NFL now. Two Teching was more important in an era of backfield trickery and 7-step drops. When the NFL limited contact between offensive and defensive players beyond the 5 yard threshold, and also made it illegal to clothesline WRs on crossing routes, it allowed receivers to come open earlier in the play. This allowed for shorter QB drops and quicker passes. A 2 Tech pass rush needs a certain amount of time to develop. The defensive linemen had to beat the offensive linemen first before making a play on the ball carrier. The contemporary 1 and 3 tech instead attacks the gap between offensive linemen, with a mind to attack the ball carrier unimpeded.
The more players lined up in the backfield, the more useful an Even 43 becomes. It’s something to look for in Goal Line situations, especially if a particular offensive lineman is physically weak. It’s very rare though, as defenses attack gaps now, to get more speed into the backfield. DeMarcus Lawrence would have been an awesome 2 tech. He has the strong punch to stumble a retreating, pass blocking guard, and the speed to close on the QB. This defense could be helpful at the Highschool and College level against Zone Option Reads and Wing Ts and I’m curious to know if anyone has seen a football team running it recently.
As for the Landry Flex, it still lives. It was a part of Rob Ryan’s playbook, in the form of Psycho fronts; though he didn’t often use a 2tech. Any time you see a 2 man defensive front it has it’s roots in the Landry Flex. Without a great player to base the pass rush around, it’s not going to work. Dallas had Randy White “The Manster”, half man, half monster, and Bob Lilly “Mr Cowboy,” setting the threshold for what it takes to win in the NFL.
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