New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick ranks 4th all time in coaching victories, when accounting for his record amount of playoff wins.
Then there's Cowboys great Tom Landry with 270 victories, and Belichick with 236. The Patriots head coach is roughly four seasons away from passing Landry into 3rd place (and who knows if 1st or 2nd are even on Belichick's radar), and with the Cowboys on the schedule, it makes sense for someone to ask Bill a question about Landry.
See, Belichick has an unfair reputation as a tight-lipped head coach that offers little or nothing during his press conference. When you ask him to speak about history, though, it's like someone turned on the faucet of knowledge and no one knows how to shut the dang thing off.
Here's the line of questioning that drew a 1,246 word response from Belichick:
"In the 1950's and 1960's, Tom Landry came up with the shift on the offensive line. What was the point of that back then?," followed by "how come you don't see it anymore?," and "it's much more of a gimmick in your eyes, though?"
Three simple queries that offered the following explanation from Belichick, and I apologize if no one knows what it means. It's heavy in coaching language and it's actually amazing if you want a look into Belichick's appreciation for some coaching tactic in the 1950s. It's why he's streets ahead of his competition.
I'm going to provide the spark notes version and then the full transcript will be at the end of the article.
In 1977, Belichick was a wide receivers and tight ends coach for the Detroit Lions. The Lions hired former Cowboys running backs coach Ed Hughes and started to install elements of Landry's Cowboys offense into the game plan. The reporter specifically asks Belichick to talk about the Landry Shift, which is one of Landry's greatest contributions to the sport.
In the early days of football, most plays featured two backs in the backfield, where the players would choose a direction to run the play. Defenses were coached up to learn offensive tendencies so they could react and stop plays. Landry had his offensive linemen stand up until right before the snap so defenders couldn't see how the two backs were aligned, meaning that the defense couldn't run their their mental film reel to stop the play.
When asked why we don't see that twist on offense anymore, Belichick stated that Landry's offense was built over years of implementation, execution, and consistency, similar to the Patriots offense. When Detroit tried to add some of the Cowboys plays, it was a struggle, and that was just part of the offense. It's difficult to coach another franchise's playbook from the ground up, and it's difficult for players new to the system to learn everything, too.
Belichick didn't view the shift as a gimmick because of how intentional all of the shifts were behind the offensive line. For Bill, for however much he learned about installing Landry's offense, he learned just as much on how he would cook up schemes to stop it as a defensive coach down the road.
In the 1950's and 1960's, Tom Landry came up with the shift on the offensive line. What was the point of that back then?
Basically what [the Cowboys] did was they gave each player, tight end, well actually every player, they had different spots, so it could be like eight, nine, 10 spots they could line up in, and when they double shifted, which they usually did, then the player had to line up within two spots of where he was going to end up.
So, the first time he could shift from A to B and then B to C, where he was going to end up, or from C to B back to C or wherever. And so when the line went up and went down, that was just another distraction and I'd say temporary loss of some vision for the defense to recognize where the back was.
I'd say back when Coach Landry put it in, most all plays were two-back sets, so it was basically three formations - red, brown and blue, strong backs, weak backs and split backs. Then eventually we got into the I-formation in the 70's, so that was kind of the fourth position, and every once in a while, you'd have a guy up on the wing in a one-back set, but that wasn't that common.
But the tendencies from those formations - I, strong backs, weak backs and split backs, on every team were I would say pretty strong in those days, depending on who the players were and the scheme, but they were still pretty strong.
Strong backs, there was a lot of running strong side, weak backs, a lot of running to the weak side, split backs, a lot of running to the strong side, a lot of passing. So, there were a lot of strong tendencies.
I think Coach Landry's idea probably was to keep those tendencies from being recognized until as late as possible by the defense and force the defense to communicate, like, ‘We're doing this on brown, we're doing this on blue, we're doing this on red,' so we're this to that, this to that and the ball is snapped, so you don't really have time to get into your adjustments if you have any or even your final recognition, where good players that were prepared - here's what they do out of brown, here's what they do out of blue, here's what they do out of red - but it's red to brown to blue, and boom.
But that line up and down was a little bit of a distraction - not distraction, but it just blocked the vision a little bit of the linebackers from recognizing exactly where everybody was until they went back down. They go on some quick counts, so it would force you to declare if you were going to do anything because they might snap it with everybody in a two-point stance, but most of the time they were up and down, and it gave the quarterback a little bit more time to watch the defense and see where they were going to go.
When Ed Hughes came to Detroit - Ed Hughes was the running backs coach for Coach Landry a number of years down there - when he came to Detroit in 1977 when I was there and I coached the receivers that year, so I learned that offense. That was kind of the offense that we installed that year and ran, so it was pretty interesting. It was only one year, but it was pretty interesting to learn the Dallas offensive system because very few people left Dallas. That staff stayed together. There wasn't a lot of movement out of there, so it was pretty interesting to learn the way that it was written, the way it was presented, the coaching points, how different plays fit off each other.
How come you don't see it anymore?
There are a lot of things you don't see anymore. First of all, it was a pretty complex scheme, so if you weren't well versed in it, that's not the kind of thing you just pick up and say, ‘Oh gee that looks good - why don't we start running some of that?' I think you've got to really know it and know all of the nuances to it and understand how it all fits together because it was protections, it was routes, it was the volume of offense because they were together for so long.
It was kind of like Paul Brown's offense that he developed that then eventually [Bill] Walsh built on, but after not years, but decades, a couple decades really of running the same thing, you build up a lot of volume, but there is a reason for everything and each play has a complement and if you're not really in that system, I think it'd be hard to start it up somewhere else.
You'd probably start up what you've been familiar with and what you know rather than jump into something that's as intricate as that. Same thing with the flex defense - unless somebody left there, like when Coach [Gene] Stallings left, but you didn't really see anybody else doing that because I don't know if anybody really understood it or maybe they didn't believe in it or whatever. But they didn't know it well enough to coach it and install it like Dallas did.
It's much more of a gimmick in your eyes, though?
I don't think any of their things were gimmicks. I think there was a lot of thought into all of them. There was a reason for everything.
The hard thing for us in Detroit that year in ‘77 was trying to get to the point where the Dallas offense was after 15 years or whatever it was in one year. It was impossible. You have to pick out a few things, try to get good at those, build on those.
But the Dallas offense after years and years and years and years of coaching it, drafting players into it, developing it, doing all of the things they did with it and then you try to run it, you're a long way from being where they are on a lot of levels. Even if you have good talent, it's still the system was pretty involved.
It was a great learning experience for me. I learned a ton. It was something that prior to, I had never been involved with obviously and since then haven't. I'm not saying I understand it but at least I've coached it. I understand some of the principles of it, whether we actually run those plays or not. But the principles that were involved, what they tried to do was very, very educational. I was taking a graduate course in that, which along the same lines, in addition to, but I also learned a lot about the flex defense.
Even though we didn't run it, the fact that Ed had come from Dallas, kind of had the Dallas system, we were able to talk about it. He understood what they were doing. That was also very educational. I was fortunate my first few years in the league. I worked for a lot of different coaches, worked with a lot of different assistant coaches, worked in different systems, worked in different cities, a lot of different players, different organizations, so I got a lot of exposure - a lot more than I wanted - but I got a lot of exposure in a short amount of time to a lot of football. In the end that's not a bad thing. Wasn't that great at the time, but in the end it turned out to be beneficial.