The Coaching Legacy of Tom Landry

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The NFL Dallas Cowboys, “America’s Team”, have been a success on and off the field for more than 30 years. They are a fan favorite in the state of Texas, all over the USA and internationally, as well. It is the play on and off the field, and the individuals who have contributed to that play, that is at the heart of the Cowboys great success.

Through its franchise history, the Dallas Cowboys have had a number of all-stars whose skills and achievements have created legends and contributed to Dallas Cowboys history. Endless players have donned the single star and blue and white jerseys of the Dallas Cowboys and taken to the field at Texas Stadium. In so doing, some of them, such as Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach, and Tony Dorsett have become legends.

The Dallas Cowboys are one of the most successful teams in the history of the National Football League and hold numerous league records, thanks to these players and countless others over the years. It is, however, not just the players that have contributed to the success of the cowboys it is also those who walk the sidelines at each practice and game. Tom Landry was one such man. Indeed, he walked the sidelines as Dallas Cowboys coach for a remarkable twenty-nine years.

During Landry’s reign as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys from the start of the franchise in 1960 through to his departure in 1989, the team established a number of records. One such record is the most consecutive winning seasons – 20 in all – from 1966 to 1985. Additionally, under Landry’s reign the Cowboys were Super Bowl Champions two times. The list of team records, part of Dallas Cowboys history, established under Landry’s reign goes on and on.

Tom Landry, a Texas native, attended the University of Texas before interrupting his education to serve in the U.S Army Air Forces during World War II. Upon returning from the war he returned to university where he played fullback and defensive back on the Texas Longhorns’ New Year’s Day bowl game winners in 1948 and 1949. From 1949 through 1955, Landry played defensive back in the NFL where in 1954 he was selected as an all-pro. In his last two years as a player he also took on the duties of assistant coach. In just 80 games Landry had 32 interceptions. At the start of the 1956 season, Landry turned to full time coaching duties as defensive coordinator with the New York Giants (his last team as a player). The offensive coordinator for the team was none other than Vince Lombardi. Under the guidance of these two men the Giants made three appearances in the NFL Championship from 1956 to 1959.

In 1960 Landry became the first head coach of the newly established franchise Dallas Cowboys – a job he would hold for 29 seasons (1960-88). The first few years for the Cowboys were rough but Landry’s hard work and determination slowly paid off as they posted 10 wins in the 1966 season and made it to the NFL championship game. Dallas lost the game but it was the start of what would be their 20 year span of winning seasons.

During Tom Landry’s tenure, the Dallas Cowboys became Super Bowl Champions twice (1972, 1978), won 5 NFC titles, 13 Divisional titles, and Landry compiled the 3rd most wins of all time for an NFL coach with a 270-178-6 record. His 20 career playoff victories are the most of any coach in NFL history. One of the most impressive accomplishments is his record for coaching a team to 20 consecutive winning seasons (1966-1985), an NFL record, and one of the longest winning streaks in professional sports.

Landry brought many new innovations to the game during his coaching days in the NFL. During his time as the New York Giants defensive coordinator, Tom Landry revolutionized the defensive game with the introduction of the now-popular 4-3 Defense. It featured four down lineman (two ends and two defensive tackles on either side of the offensive center) and three linebackers — middle, left, and right. Landry’s innovation was the middle linebacker who he had stand up and move back two yards Previously, a lineman had been placed over the center. Landry also invented and popularized the use of keys (analyzing offensive tendencies) to determine what the offense might do.

Vince Lombardi, coach of the Green Packers at the time Landry was hired as Dallas Cowboys coach had implemented a “Run to Daylight” idea, where rather than a specific assigned hole, the running back went to an open space,. Landry decided that the way to stop it was to take away daylight and thus he refined his own 4-3 defense thereby creating the “Flex Defense” – a defense that altered its alignment to counter what the offense might do. The Flex Defense was also innovative in that it was a zone defense against the run as each defender was responsible for a given gap area, and was to stay in that area before they knew where the play was going.

After inventing the Flex Defense, Landry invented an offense to score on it as he revived the man-in-motion and the shotgun formation. Landry’s biggest contribution in this area was the use of “pre-shifting” where the offense would shift from one formation to the other before the snap of the ball. Although this tactic was not new, it had been around since the turn of the 20th Century, Landry was the first coach to use the approach on a regular basis the idea being to break the keys the defense used to determine what the offense might do.

Known as a quiet, religious man, Landry took everything in stride and was unfazed by all the hype surrounding Cowboys football and America’s Team. Landry’s twenty-nine years with the team came to an end shortly before the 1989 season when the Cowboys were sold to Jerry Jones. Landry was replaced by Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones’ former teammate at the University of Arkansas. The unceremonious dismissal of Landry is, to this day, regarded as a classless, disrespectful act on the part of Jones. Landry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame less than two years after his last game. In 1993 Landry was inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor at Texas Stadium.

Tom Landry died of leukemia at the age of 75 in Dallas on February 12, 2000. The Dallas Cowboys wore a patch depicting Landry’s trademark fedora on their uniforms during the 2000 season to honor this icon of Dallas Cowboys history. Tom Landry’s vision and ideas transformed the many stars of the Cowboys into legends. He himself left behind a great legacy with the Dallas Cowboys and the National Football League at large.

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