Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense by TJ Troup—Still a Must-read

 By John Turney 
The book is almost a decade old, The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense: The Seven Seasons That Changed the NFL by TJ Troup was released in 2014 and it is still a book that needs to be in your library if you are interesting in defensive football history.

Another reason is to put perspective on comments in print or in clips like this which was posted on Twitter this weekend—
Credit: NFL Films
Fair use claim, for criticism and education

Allie Sherman is talking about Tom Landry's influence on the 4-3 defense and his contributions were huge. They cannot really be understated but sometimes nuance gets a bit lost because sometimes it gets translated into "Landry created the 4-3 defense" and that it was done to use Sam Huff's skills and thus making Huff the NFL's first middle linebacker.

That the former (Landry's contributions are huge) is true. The latter (Landry created the 4-3) is not. 

There were teams, most of them, that ran some 4-3 defense years before Huff entered the NFL. Troup's book documents what schemes teams played and when - starting in 1953 and covering the rest of the 1950s.

Here are some shots from 1950-55 of various teams in a 4-3 defense. Some of them look odd, especially the early ones. In some of the shots, the outside linebackers are walked out, following a back in motion or just positioned outside. But this happened later in the 1950s through the 1970s. Linebackers were sometimes "walked" to the flat.

Sometimes a nose guard or middle guard, whatever you want to call it would line up over the center and before the snap step back and play a middle linebacker-type position but that is not what these shots are.

1952 Rams at Chicago, #35 left linebacker Tank Younger is walked out

1952 Lions vs Browns, here the right linebacker is walked out and out of screen.

This is 1952, Rams versus Steelers with the linebackers inside

1952 Rams-Bears, both outside linebackers walked and the front in an overload

1950 Washington-Los Angeles, the middle linebacker is over a gap

1950 Rams at Lions, left linebacker is out of shot, walked

1950 Packers at Rams, four-man line, left linebacker going to flat

1954 Rams-Colts, an example of the middle guard #73 standing up
the next play you might find him in a three-point stance.

1955 Browns at Rams, NFL Title Game. Rams in a 4-3 with both
outside linebackers walked, the defensive tackles are flexed and
right defensive end Andy Robustelli stays in a two-point stance.

Lions at Rams, you can see the shadow of the left linebacker 
near the top. He's on the slot receiver.

1955 Bears at Rams. Bears here in a 4-3, next play they might be in a 5-2
or a 6-1 or a 7 diamond. You never knew.

Troup's book explains a light switch wasn't flipped and suddenly a team went from a 5-2 to a 4-3 it was like a fading light switch that went from dark to light gradually, as a matter of what percentage of the time they ran it compared to other teams. 

A team might run it a lot in say, 1953, then revert back to a 5-2 more the next year due to an injury or some other reason that stunted to transition. 

By the late-1950s everyone was playing the 4-3. But the claims that Sam Huff was the first middle linebacker or that it was Bill George or Joe Schmidt really are not cut and dried — George and Schmidt did it earlier but they also played other positions when their teams were mixing in the 5-2 front. George is usually a middle guard and Schmidt at left linebacker.

As Troup is fond of saying "Film is the best teacher."  And he's watched enough of it to be able to explain more of what happened in the 1950s, especially on the defensive side of the ball, than most historians before or since. 

But when you see someone, even an authority, it's okay to check what they say with film. It does not mean, in this case, someone is totally wrong, it's just that there is more information available to clarify
things. It's a matter of taking advantage of clips on Youtube and asking questions. 

In this case, in our view, Sherman is likely talking about specific things Landry did with the 4-3, his "coordinated" defense that he liked to talk about. And there is little doubt that Landry took things
that existed and put his twist on it, his stamp and changed the game that way, like most things in football. Step-by-step. 

Sometimes steps are bigger than others but in most cases, things fade in rather than just arrive or get invented or created. 

The same applies to a lot of the "changed the game" claims you see online, and even in books these days. Changing the game is rare, more often than not it's someone taking an old idea and dusting it off or a new guy just so tremendous in ability that something that existed looks shiny and new.

Then, a story goes out a decade after the fact and it gets picked up by people doing research, and semi-myths (things with some truth in them) get turned into orthodoxy, unquestionable.

 Nuance, context and shades of grey can be added to the myths and legends of the NFL without tarnishing anyone's legacy. All of us will learn more when we realize we don't know what we think we know.


  1. TJ (as I know you know) gives a lot of credit in the book to Joe Schmidt but doesn't claim that he was the "first" much experimentation/open-mindedness in that era....a personal regret is that Bill WIllis retired just about as the transition was beginning....all-universe as a hands in the dirt Middle Guard, the mind boggles at what this tazmanian devil of a lineman might have done if given a sideline to sideline MLB opportunity in a classic/1950s 4-3

    1. Another interesting thing about the transition is that you can see les Bingaman move off the nose over a guard . . . to play 40 tackle. Little things like are fun to watch. As far as era you can see a lot of things...the book mentions all of them, 5-2, 5-3, 6-1, 4-3, 3-4 . . . and the shades of grey.