How Landry and Lombardi Became Landry and Lombardi
And Changed Pro Football Forever
(Palladino, Ernie, Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football’s Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed The Game Forever, Skybone Publishing, 2011, ISBN 978-1-61608-441-7, 284 pp.)
Before Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, and Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, became Hall of Fame head coaches, they were football’s first famous assistant coaches (called “offensive and defensive coordinators” today) with the NY Giants in the 1950’s.
Landry revolutionized defense, and Lombardi’s Giant offense pioneered everything he made great with the Green Bay Packers, where he inherited a nucleus of underachieving, poorly coached future stars and Hall of Famers in 1959
The Landry/Lombardi Giants won only one league championship in the ‘50’s because they played at the same time as Coach Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns and John Unitas’s Baltimore Colts.
Before 1956, with Otto Graham at quarterback, Cleveland was a better team. Unitas beat Landry’s defense by never calling the play he was supposed to call, and changing plays at the line of scrimmage, based on how the defense lined up.
Unitas’s Colts had more All-Pros and future Hall-of-Famers than the Giants, and they won all their one-on-one competitions in the championship games of 1958 and ’59.
Landry, Lombardi, and Jim Lee Howell
Landry and Lombardi were assistant coaches under affable head coach Jim Lee Howell. Standard history says that Howell delegated the offense to Lombardi, the defense to Landry, them alone, leftand allowed them to be geniuses.
An old story goes that a visitor in the Giants’ offices saw Landry studying film in one room, Lombardi drawing plays on a chalkboard in another, and Howell reading a newspaper in a third.
In Lombardi and Landry (2011), a new history of the Howell-Landry-Lombardi Giants, long-time Giants beat reporter Ernie Palladino gives Howell more credit than that, but not much. Howell made sure the rivalry between the offensive and defensive units stayed positive and constructive, not divisive, Palladino says.
The offense and defense competed for practice time, draft choices, media credit for victories, and the fans’ affection. It was the first generation of separate, specialized offensive and defensive units, and Landry’s defense was the first to get equal or greater credit than the offense for a team’s success.
The now common cry of “DEE-fense, DEE-fense, DEE-fense” began spontaneously at a Giants’ home game when Landry was coach.
Landry’s middle linebacker Sam Huff was the first defensive specialist to become a nationally famous superstar.
The real superstar was the 4-3 defense Landry invented that made the middle linebacker the key to the whole scheme, and freed him to rush the passer, tackle ball carriers, or cover pass receivers all over the field.
Landry invented the middle linebacker position. He moved the crouching defensive center a few steps back of the line of scrimmage, and had him stand up.
From that position, Huff could see the whole play develop, and decide to rush the passer, drop into pass coverage, or pursue a ball carrier. He could move forward or back to disrupt the offense.
Huff, the first superstar middle linebacker, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and a CBS News documentary, The Violent World of Sam Huff. He was the first player wired for sound during the game, and CBS put a camera right into the action. It was the closest look people had at football on the interior line up to that time.
Landry was the only defensive coach on the Giants’ staff, a player-coach in his first two years. That also made him special teams coach by default. With star placekicker Pat Summerall, Coach Paul Brown and kicker Lou Groza of the Browns, Landry made the field goal a precise, respected scoring weapon, not a bad end to a failed touchdown drive.
Landry: Preparation Wins Games
As a player, Landry was a slow, small defensive back. He studied opposing receivers compulsively, and learned their moves and tendencies – “keys,” he called them. By game time, he knew where his man was going on each play, and got there first, in position to break up the pass or intercept it.
As a coach, he taught his defense to learn their opponents’ keys through intense film study, to win their one-on-one contests, and to trust Landry’s system to win the game.
If Landry’s players did their assignments on every play, the opponents’’ running and passing lanes would be shut down most of the time. Leaving your position might result in a great play, but was bad for the team in the long run, he taught.
Lombardi: Drill, Drill, Drill
Lombardi’s offense on the Giants featured an end sweep that became the trademark of the Packers’ entire team.
But the trademark of Lombardi’s offense with the Giants was the “option,” run by halfback Frank Gifford. Gifford would get the ball, roll to the side, and decide whether to keep running or pass the ball to a receiver downfield.
The play froze the defense, who did not know whether to come forward and tackle the ball carrier, or hold their positions and stop the pass. A wrong choice meant a big gain for the offense.
Gifford was one of the best option halfbacks in history, a great runner and passer who could hide his intention, and keep his options open, until the defenders were forced to commit.
If they stayed back with the receivers, Gifford had wide open running room. If they came up to tackle Gifford, they left receivers wide open downfield.
The Study In Contrast
Like everybody who looks at Landry and Lombardi, Palladino is fascinated by their opposite personalities and contrasting coaching styles.
Lombardi was stormy, an in your-face screamer one minute, a grinning bear-hugger the next. His teaching style was repeat-repeat-repeat, and execute perfectly a few variations on a few basic plays. Condition-condition-condition to overpower your opponent on every play for the entire 60 minutes.
On the Giants, players would visit him, eat pizza, drink beer, socialize, and talk football. He stopped that in Green Bay, where he was the boss of everything, not just head coach. He was a devout Catholic who went to Mass every day, but tolerated diversity and did not bring religion the football field.
Landry was completely analytical and professorial. He never raised his voice, but could wreck a player with a stare if he missed an assignment. He spent more practice time in the classroom with his players than any coach except Paul Brown, who was the first coach to have players study game film.
Lombardi accepted head coaching duties in Green Bay after the 1958 championship game. Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Bart Starr, Max McGee, Jerry Kramer, Fuzzy Thurston, Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo, and Ray Neitschke were already there, and had finished the previous season 1-10-1 because they were lazy, undisciplined, and horribly coached.
Lombardi did not want to leave his native New York. He wanted to be head coach of the Giants, but did not want to wait for Jim Lee Howell to retire. The Mara family, which owned the Giants, did not want to fire loyal, successful Howell, and pay off his contract, to open the job for Lombardi. There were deep, lasting regrets all around when Howell retired sooner than expected, but too late for Lombardi to come back from Green Bay.
Landry stayed with the Giants one more year before becoming the first head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, an expansion team of rookies and cast-offs from other teams. After four losing seasons, his team became winners, known as “America’s Team,” for two decades. Landry became the longest-serving head coach in NFL history.
The players they left behind on the Giants lost the championship games of 1961, ’62 and ’63.
Lombardi’s Packers had their best success against the Giants and Cowboys. He knew all the players he had coached on the Giants, and former colleague Landry’s mind. He knew just how to prepare his team to beat them, and they were his favorite victories.
After 1963, the aging Giants declined and had losing seasons for a decade, until a new general manager George Young, and his chosen head coach Ray Perkins started a turn-around.