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Original Issue


The IBM-machine mind of Tom Landry transforms the had-nothing Dallas Cowboys into an NFL contender; his revolutionary system alternates quarterbacks on every play—while he tells them exactly what to do


LANDRY TO LEBARON: So I figure they know we don't mind passing from our own end zone. They'll rush us hard. And we've just tried the line twice. Eddie, I say, they are going to be looking for a pass. Run Delayed Trap 41.


LANDRY TO MEREDITH: So I think it is about time we send Perkins wide. We have been hitting inside with him and they have been shooting their linebackers through. Let's surprise them now with a wide play. Don, I say, try Power 28 Wing G.O.


The extraordinary Dallas Cowboys, playing only their third season in the National Football League and depending largely on other teams' rejects, free agents and a few draft choices, have suddenly developed into a potent NFL power. Though they were deprived of their third straight win last week when the St. Louis Cardinals held them on the nine-yard line as time ran out with the score 28-24, the Cowboys are still within striking distance of the Redskins and Giants and have three games left against these Eastern Conference leaders. This achievement by a team that two years ago managed to win only one game points up two amazing accomplishments by the Cowboy management: first, a radical departure from football custom discovered quite accidentally by young Coach Tom Landry, a super organization man who normally doesn't believe in accidents; and, second, a scouting system that finds and utilizes talents in players others have long since given up on.

What Landry discovered was that if he alternated his quarterbacks on every play he was not only using the best offensive brain available—his—but he was also giving his quarterbacks, Eddie LeBaron and Don Meredith, some very subtle and unexpected tactical advantages. This shuttle has worked so well that the NFL's highest-scoring offense now belongs to the Cowboys.

Tom Landry's new system came about simply because the poverty-stricken Cowboys did not have enough depth at any other position to risk using a second-stringer as a messenger boy.

"We didn't have two of anything but quarterbacks," Landry says, "so we had to alternate LeBaron and Meredith. If we had had an extra guard or end, I probably would have used the same system as Paul Brown. But all we could spare was an extra quarterback."

Landry first tried rotating his quarterbacks in the Minnesota game last season, which the Cowboys won 28-0. To his own surprise, he found that what was a practical necessity had led him to a much more useful way to send information into a game.

The principal defect in sending in every offensive play via a guard or tackle is that the recipient of the play—the quarterback—has no time to consider it, nor does he have any way to relay whatever tidbits of information he has picked, up on the field of play back to the resident genius on the sideline.

Landry's system of messenger quarterbacks remedies both defects: the quarterback coming off the field can tell Landry the nuances of what he has discovered in action and the quarterback trotting from the sideline to the huddle to call the new play has time to reflect on it and decide what audible he should use if the defense has crossed him up and what warnings he should issue to his teammates to insure the success of the play. This moment of introspection, according to both Meredith and LeBaron, is invaluable.

"I don't think we will always use this system," says Meredith, who is an ardent admirer of both Landry and LeBaron and a semiardent admirer of the shuttle. "But it works now and it has been a big help to me. Landry is a living IBM machine. He knows every defense in this league cold, and he never forgets anything. The time I spend on the sideline with him, analyzing the play I have just called and watching the development of the play Eddie is calling, is great experience. There are two kinds of experience in this league. You can get the kind of pressure-cooker experience Norm Snead got with the Redskins last year, where they threw him in and let him take everything that came his way, or you can get the more conservative kind of experience I'm getting. I don't really know which is better."

Landry himself does not consider his innovation the be-all and end-all of offensive strategy. It requires special circumstances to be successful and Landry recognized those circumstances.

"We use a more varied offense than a club like, say, Green Bay," he points out. "The Packers can overpower a defense more often than not. They don't have to be tricky because their offensive linemen can take you out of whatever defense you're in. They adjust instinctively because they have been playing together so long. Our players haven't; we change our offense more from week to week than any other club in the league, probably."

The infinitely varied Cowboy offense is another reason for Landry's calling all the plays and sending them in by his quarterbacks. "I know all of the offense," Landry says. "The quarterbacks haven't had time and don't have time, week to week, to assimilate it. Also I have a lot more information available to me when I call a play. I have what the quarterback coming off the field has to tell me about the situation on the field, and he is in the best position of any player to tell what the defensive reaction is. I have the report from the coach in the press box, who has a good overall picture. And I've watched the play from the sideline with the other quarterback, checking to see if the defense is still keying the way we thought they would.

"I also know what play the quarterback has called, and I can watch it knowing every assignment. If the play breaks down, I can tell whether it broke down from poor execution or from a super-effort by a defensive player, and the quarterback with me sees it, too. Thus he recognizes that the failure was not because of the play itself and, consequently, he doesn't lose confidence in it. If he were on the field and this information were not available to him he might drop that play for the rest of the game. Knowing the failure was because of execution, he'll go back to the play and we'll gain with it later on."

Meredith, a young man whose insouciance has sometimes been mistaken for carelessness, appreciates the value of these briefing sessions on the sideline.

"You learn to analyze plays more quickly," he says. "I think it helps me with the big problem a quarterback has—gaining confidence. Tom always explains to us exactly why he is calling a play, and he's never wrong. He is a fantastic man. Most people don't know exactly what they want, but Tom does—in every facet of this game. When he points out something to you and tells you what to look for, he's right. I'm a very lucky guy, with a coach like Landry and with another quarterback like LeBaron."

LeBaron, almost as much as Landry, has contributed to the education of Meredith as a pro quarterback. Eddie is a small man—5 feet 7 and 168 pounds—but very strong. He has never, in his 10-year pro career, missed a game because of injuries. He rooms with Meredith and LeBaron has been unsparing in his efforts to make Don a topflight pro.

"When I came up to the Redskins, Sammy Baugh was the quarterback," LeBaron says. "He helped me. He taught me an important thing, too: every player is an individual, and what worked for Sammy wouldn't work for me. So I didn't learn technique from him, but he built my confidence whenever I got discouraged. Don doesn't need much help. He's going to be a fine quarterback."

It is not necessary for LeBaron to spend much time building Meredith's confidence, for Meredith is a self-confident man. As such, he is not wholly comfortable in the shuttle system.

"I recognize its value, and Eddie and I like it well enough," he says. "But a quarterback who is in all the way gets the feel of the game. It's something you can't explain, but it is a part of playing football. That's why I say I don't think we'll use this system all the time from now on."

LeBaron, who has seen his share of such innovations, has some doubts, too, but not many.

"I guess the guy on the field knows more about what is going on than anyone else," he says. "But this system does one thing for you—you never have a bad day with it. I don't believe in the theory that a quarterback is sharp one Sunday and unsharp the next. What happens is forced by the circumstances of the game. You may throw just as well this Sunday as you did last and still have a bad day because the defense is always outguessing you, they are always a play ahead of you. That does not happen now. You may go off the track for a play or two, but Landry will get you back on. I don't think either Don or myself has had a really bad day under this system. I don't think we ever will."

Part of the reason for this consistency is the fact that Landry, as a sideline quarterback, is not a pattern signal caller That is to-say, he does not call a series of plays, each of which is dependent upon the others.

"He can pick apart defenses better than anyone I have ever seen," LeBaron says. "But he doesn't build from play to play, because that establishes a pattern the defense can begin to count on. He calls each play as a separate thing. This destroys the other team's ability to count on frequencies."

"Frequencies" is one of those words that show how pro football has advanced into its own computer era. "Most teams in this league chart your games and discover your frequency pattern: how often, from a certain formation, you call a certain play," explains Landry. "For instance, with third down and short yardage, with a halfback flanked and an end spread, you may run off tackle eight out of 10 times. If you line up like that, the defensive players automatically think, "Off tackle," because that is what they have been taught to think. So we often shift into a different offensive formation just before the snap of the ball. There is a lag between the time the opposing players recognize the new formation and can recall what their frequency chart on you tells them is likely to happen. All of them can't react immediately. What I am trying to do is create that moment of hesitancy."

The smart bush-beaters

All of this would indicate that Landry has reduced football as near to an exact science as possible; when Meredith says that Tom has a mind like an IBM machine, he is almost right. Landry not only is a fine tactician, he is a good judge of football talent and a precise organizer. Unlike most teams in professional football, the Cowboys have depended for much of their talent on free agents and late draft choices. Gil Brandt, the Cowboy talent scout, spends some six months of the year touring the nation looking at college football players. In his small room in the Cowboy offices in Dallas he has three tall filing cases filled with 255 big loose-leaf notebooks detailing the strengths and weaknesses of more than 3,000 college football players. From this vast array of information come the clues that have allowed the Cowboys to pick up players like Amos Marsh, their fullback, as free agents. Marsh is ninth in the league in rushing and is getting better each Sunday.

"We didn't have a draft our first year in the league," Landry says. "That was a terrible handicap, but it did one good thing. We had to pick players who had just one pro quality. Then, because we had no one else at a particular position, we had to have the patience to develop the rest of the qualities a good pro needs. Marsh, for instance, had speed. He had been a journeyman end at Oregon State and no one drafted him, but he could run the 100 in 9.5 and we needed speed, so we signed him. We put him at fullback and waited. Now he's fine."

Mike Dowdle, picked up on waivers, has become one of the most promising linebackers in the business, even though he was a running back at Texas. Injuries forced the Cowboys to use him at linebacker, and lack of additional linebackers forced them to keep him there. Chuck Howley, the other corner linebacker, was picked up by the Cowboys after being cut by the Chicago Bears.

One of the Cowboy rookie defensive backs is Cornell Green, brother of Pumpsie Green, the second baseman for the Red Sox. Green had never played college football, although he was all-state in high school in Richmond, Calif. He approached Gil Brandt at a Utah State football game (Green was an All-America basketball player at Utah State) and asked for a chance. Probably no other team in pro football would have tried him. The Cowboys did, and although he is not first string now, he certainly will be in a couple of years. Landry's patience paid off with Green, as it did with Howley, Dowdle and Marsh.

Before the Cardinal game last week, Meredith, chewing on a long, thin cigar, looked into the future. "I may or may not be the quarterback," he said, "but in the next couple of years, maybe sooner, the Cowboys are going to be right at the top year after year. Landry knows just what kind of personnel he wants at each position, and he knows precisely what he wants to do with them. He's pretty close right now to what he wants. When he gets it, the Cowboys and the Packers will be playing for the championship."

Bill Howton, an experienced end the Cowboys obtained from Green Bay, agreed. Later, as he took the field for a practice session, he said, "I'll see you in New York the last game of the season. I'd like to stay a few days after the game, but I'll probably have to hustle back to Dallas."

"You mean, to get ready for the championship game?" he was asked.

"That or the second-place game in Florida," Howton said. Landry may indeed shuttle his team that far.



Patient man in heavy traffic, LeBaron gets set for hand-off in game with Steelers.


Leaving his opponent helpless in the end zone, Lee Folkins scores on LeBaron pass.