Friday, February 17, 2006

Ernie Stautner Passes at 80 - I met him at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters in 1979

I am watching NFL Network -- or more accurately, it's playing in the background as I work -- and just learned of the passing of Ernie Stautner. To some, he was the great defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers. To others, he was Defensive Coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys. To me, he was the person who first introduced me to technical football.

In 1979 I was a huge Dallas Cowboys fan. This started because my Mother knew Oakland Raiders Defensive Tackle Otis Sistrunk. At the time, I had nothing in common with him, so I figured I'd better read about pro football. In the process of carrying out that objective, I found a book called "The NFL's Encyclopedic History of Pro Football." At the back of this dense tome was a chapter on the evolution of football strategy. One of the pages there was devoted to the Dallas Cowboys and Tom Landry's innovations: The Flex Defense and the Multiple Offense. I was attracted to what the book reported as Landry's use of engineering principals in the development of his plays and philosophy. Landry's technical approach to the game made it OK for a geek like me to get interested in football.

I became such a fan that I subscribed to the Dallas Cowboys Weekly, and -- thanks to Mom -- attended a preseason Dallas Cowboys / Pittsburgh Steelers game in 1979. But earlier that year I wrote a letter to the Cowboys and Mr. Stautner which asked what the "keys" were that Middle Linebacker Bob Breunig looked at to determine where a play may be going. In response to my contact, Mr. Stautner wrote back, inviting me to visit the Cowboys offices.

I could not believe it! A 17-year-old kid. Me.

It was easy to get to Dallas, as Mom worked for United Airlines, so travel was free at the time -- well, $20. The real concern was if the Cowboys were serious. Well, I called, and asked them about this letter -- they were. So, I made plans to go down there by myself for one day.

I arrived at 10 AM at the Cowboys offices, dressed in a dark blue suit. It was a hot August day. I got off the elevator of the 11th Floor at 6116 North Central Expressway, walked about 10 feet to the long hallway and turned left. The office I was to be at was at the end of the hallway.

Man, I was nervous. I thought I was dreaming.

I finally got there, introduced myself, and sat down in front of the secretary's desk -- a nice lady named Marge. There was a defensive backfield meeting, and as it ended, some of my favorite players at the time came out into the office area: Mike Hegman, Cliff Harris, Charlie Watters, and some others I didn't recognize. I just looked and sat there -- frozen. I didn't dare ask for an autograph, as that was not what I was there for and I didn't want to get kicked out of the office. At least that was what was going through my head.

Finally, Mr. Stautner came up to meet me. He said he would be with me in a moment, as I recall. The secretary escorted me into a large conference room, with a long dark wood table -- about 25 feet long. I was placed in front of a projector and with six reels of film: Dallas Defense vs. the I formation - One, Dallas Defense versus the I formation - Two, Flex Strong - Quality Control, Flex Weak Quality Control, Dallas Defense Reel One, Dallas Defense Reel Two.

I was also presented with a copy of the defensive playbook -- no, not for me to keep. What surprised me at the time was how thin the book was -- about 60 pages. (Well that's small to me.)

So, I set up the film and got started. I would run the film and go back and forth watching plays unfold. It was fun -- until the film spliced and I thought that was it. I was scared. So, after sitting in the dark for a good five minutes, I decided to tell the truth and called Marge. She sent a guy named "Gus" -- a fatherly African American man who assured me there was no problem at all. He came back just five minutes later with the reel fixed.


I resumed my work of analysis until finally Mr. Stautner walked into the room. He asked I had any questions, so I inquired about how the Flex Defense worked. He diagrammed the defense and showed how each defender had responsibility not just for an area, but really for a gap, and also what stance they were to be in. He asked me what I saw on the film.

I told him that it seemed an offensive lineman who was really quick off the ball could block a defensive lineman before that person moved to there gap, thus causing a hole for the running back. I saw this in breaking down a play where the Cowboys were in Flex Strong and the New England Patriots were in a "Brown Formation" with the fullback -- Sam Cunningham -- behind the quarterback and the halfback behind the weakside tackle.

Pats' QB Steve Grogan handed off to Cunningham and as he headed for the weakside center / guard gap, Offensive Guard Charlie Hannah hit Defensive Tackle Randy White so hard he litterally froze him. Meanwhille the other defenders moved into their gaps, making a large gaping hole that "Sam-Bam' ran through on the way to a 56-yard touchdown.

I showed this to Stautner, who gave me praise for discovering that. We talked more technical football, and then he thanked me for coming.

That was the begining of my intense interest in football strategy.

I will never forget how this famous player and coach took time with this nerdy kid. It was a dream come true. May he rest in peace and enjoy Heaven.