The Landry Flex 43 and the Even 43

Tom Landry is given a victory ride on the shoulders of his players after the Cowboys defeated the Denver Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII. Photo: AP

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.

Landrys flex 43 VS the Lombardi Power Sweep
Beating what it was designed to beat. Dick Nolan on the Flex: “When that guard pulls and that center tries to choke back to get Lilly, he can’t get to him quick enough because Lilly can just go around him, and the center will fall down on his nose trying to block him. Lilly will be running right behind their guard, and Paul Hornung will be running the ball, and Paul Hornug can’t come back, because if he does, he’ll be running right back into Lilly.”

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.

#75 the offsides DT pulls off and plays coverage before the QB begins to throw. Though he’s a DT he has something like a zone responsibility here, and is something of a predecessor for Psycho fronts from the Ryan brothers.

You can quickly recognize the alignment by seeing which players hips are parallel. In this still you can see how much faster Bob Lilly was VS his competition and peers. That’s the special take off speed every coach wants.

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.

More 43 Flex: you can see the #53 takes 3 steps forward, watching the backfield, before punching his man. Randy White knocks aside the guard in front of him with his punch, and the center falls down on his nose trying to choke off White’s route to the passer. This defensive pass rush came right up the middle of the pocket.

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.

An over head camera shot in Super Bowl XII, Dallas VS Denver. Craig Morton, the Denver QB in the frame, probably saw this alignment many times in practice when he was the Dallas QB.
This is the starting frame of The Sack, the most famous play of Super Bowl VII. Lilly sacks Griese for a 29 yard loss. Dallas lined up in the Even 43 on this iconic play.

Dallas lined up in an Even 43 in this play from Super Bowl V. Both defensive tackles draw two blockers apiece. RDT gets a guard and a center, while LDT gets a running back and a guard. The LDE wins his one on one match up and hits Unitas as he throws. The DBs are playing off man coverage, with at least two zone players mixed in the coverage.

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.

Chat Cowboys or anything else with me @nickwelp on Twitter and AustonianAggie in the comments.

Nicholas Welp
Austin, TX based Cowboys fan and writer. @nickwelp on Twitter. Check out some of my discography. Web development is my career. And did you know I teach?
Nicholas Welp
Nicholas Welp

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7 thoughts on “The Landry Flex 43 and the Even 43”

  1. What a great history lesson. Defenses needed to catch up up with the high flying offenses, imo, due to the offenses airing it out. Van BroklIn, Unitas and Graham to name a few but at the same time stop the Packer power sweep. When I think of Landrys defense coming of age I can’t help but think of the seventies Raiders, Purple People Eaters and the Steel Curtain especially Dooms Day I. The Raiders and any D with a headhunter capitalizing on those mid field hits that today would be cause for jail time, the very least suspensions. Love the perspective Austonian. Seriously, very cool.

  2. AustonianAggie

    Rewatching the Icebowl reminds me how much QBs matter even in an era dominated by the run. Bart Starr ran the mother of all two minute drills against Dallas that day

    1. Bart Starr was my football hero growing up and I was a Packer fan before becoming a Cowboys fan even as a born and raised Texan. Read the Bart Starr book, Lombardi book, etc. As a Texas native I remember being torn watching the Ice Bowl as a boy. Those old Green Bay teams were something to watch and I still have a bit of a soft spot even for today’s Packers and especially when playing in Green Bay. As long as they’re not playing the Cowboys.

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