The ghost of Tom Landry

In 1970, Pat Toomay was scared he'd get drafted by Vince Lombardi. Something worse happened -- he ended up playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Years later, he'd realize what damage that wrought.

I was beginning to wonder, though, about Landry. By this time, I had been exposed to him for several months, and it was becoming clear that the two coaches occupied alternate football universes. Squat, blunt, volatile, Lombardi was an earthy Italian who valued simplicity and directness, while Landry was tall and aloof, a born-again Christian who had an almost prissy aversion to anything of the earth. An industrial engineer and World War II bomber pilot, Landry valued intellect over instinct, thought over feeling, science over the chaos of Lombardi's emotional alchemy.

As far as coach Landry was concerned, players were responsible for their own motivation, while his job was to put them in position to make plays. The schemes he devised to accomplish this task were labyrinthine. While Lombardi's defense might be described as "tackle the man with the ball," Landry's Flex defense required recognition of offensive patterns, internalization of the probable outcomes of those patterns, and a corresponding reaction. Locating the football came only after following the branches of his logic tree, a counterintuitive approach that could take years to master.

For a defensive end -- which was my position -- if you were in the off-set of the Flex, your key was not the immediate threat of the gigantic tackle across from you, who wanted to grind you into hominy grits, but rather the guard positioned next to the tackle, who was hardly a concern. It was the movement of the guard that dictated whether you met the tackle with your outside shoulder or simply caromed off him to slide inside if the guard happened to be pulling -- all according to some larger plan that only Landry understood. For me, the advantage of this approach was that it eliminated those head-to-head encounters with much bigger players that I never failed to lose, giving me instead a gap to fill on one side of the tackle or the other, a contest I could always hope to win. For this reason, Landry, unlike Lombardi, was not a big proponent of the Nutcracker Drill, since it simply didn't serve him -- which I also found appealing.

Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi flashes a rare smile after his boys score the touchdown that beat the Cowboys in the NFL title game on December 31, 1967.
AP/Wide World
Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi flashes a rare smile after his boys score the touchdown that beat the Cowboys in the NFL title game on December 31, 1967.
Tom Landry feared God. Dallas Cowboys feared Tom Landry.
Dallas Cowboys
Tom Landry feared God. Dallas Cowboys feared Tom Landry.

But what would happen, I wondered, if a truly great player were inserted into this mechanism, someone who was hard-wired to his instincts and who hadn't been trained to ignore them -- someone gifted like Herb, a refugee from the instinctive world of Lombardi? What would happen? Herb shrugged off the notion, saying he was just happy to have an opportunity to play football. But as we rode out to practice on those hot late-summer afternoons, sometimes it seemed as though I could smell the smoke.

That was a private thought, of course, one I was reluctant to share with teammates. What I was willing to share with them was my enthusiasm for Herb. But there was no need, as it turned out, because everybody was enthusiastic about him. A consummate professional, sporting a glittering Packer Super Bowl ring, Herb, who is black, was a magnetic figure for black and white alike in the locker room. "Peace, love, and happiness" was how he concluded nearly every exchange. "Brother A" was what he came to be called. Herb's soothing presence in the locker room defused racial tensions that had plagued the team for years.

On the field, Herb was equally impressive. Even at the age of 31, the future Hall of Famer moved with the grace of a gazelle. He could hang in the air like Dr. J. His instincts were impeccable. Predictably, however, his technique was in conflict with the technique required of a cornerback to play Landry's Flex. Instead of reading the on-side tackle and guard for run, as Landry required, Herb was doing what he had done for Lombardi the previous nine years -- focusing on the receiver, peripherally picking up the main flow of action, reacting to what he saw. For a time, it didn't matter. That initial season, as Herb made a mighty contribution to the first-ever Cowboy Super Bowl run, and again, in '71, as the Cowboys achieved the pinnacle with Herb as co-captain, coach Landry let his consternation slide. The following season, however, as younger players began to develop enough to step in, things changed. Abruptly, for Herb, it got ugly.

In Dallas, watching game films was a three-hour marathon with all players and staff present, unlike other teams, who split off into position groups to watch films. During these sessions, Landry himself ran the projector, going over the performance of every player on every play. If you'd had a bad game, watching game films could be an excruciating experience. Some players, suspecting they were in for it, took barbiturates to get through the sessions. Their armpit sweat rings would meet across their chests.

"Clueing" was what Tom called Herb's technique. And in one session during the '72 season, the refrain rang like a sour mantra: "Herb, you're clueing again." Coach Landry had a habit of transposing words, names, numbers, and he was doing that now, substituting "clueing" -- a bit of his own terminology -- for what he really meant to say, which was that Herb, again, was guessing.

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