All Steve Owen announced to his team as they were getting ready to face the Browns for the first time in 1950 was that the defense would play in a 6-1-4 arrangement. With that, he called 26-year-old defensive back and de facto defensive coach, Tom Landry, to the blackboard and handed him the chalk.
In Landry’s phrase, Owen was “not a detail man”; Landry was very much a detail man, though. Remarkably, World War II veteran Landry was in his first year as a Giants player at the time, having spent his rookie season with the Yankees in the All-America Football Conference. Thus began a Hall of Fame coaching career that would last nearly 40 years.
While Landry is primarily remembered as the expressionless genius in the Homburg hat who prowled the Dallas Cowboys sideline, he first honed his skills in New York. In the mid-1950s, he combined the Giants’ umbrella defense and the Eagles’ 5-2 defense to come up with the 4-3 base defense that NFL teams have used ever since. Landry’s defense relied on maintaining discipline, reading formation and movement keys, and carrying out assignments precisely. He was never comfortable with freelancers, even if they were Hall of Fame players like Emlen Tunnell in New York or Herb Adderley in Dallas. He preferred system players like Andy Robustelli, Harland Svare, and Sam Huff.
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A case could be made that Landry was the greatest coach in NFL history, in that he not only devised the base defense used by most teams in the past halfcentury but also introduced the multiple-set motion offense to the league in response to that defense.
Let’s not forget, either, that when he was in New York, he also was the kicking coach for Pat Summerall. With Landry coaching the defense and Vince Lombardi the offense, the Giants of the late 1950s had the two greatest assistant coaches in NFL history. It’s ironic that neither was available to replace Jim Lee Howell when he stepped down in 1961.
Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham and his Cleveland teammates were befuddled by Steve Owens’s defensive formation.