The Dirty Dozen Diary: Ripples From Bob Lilly’s Retirement
Even in this age of Google and instant information, there are some out there who will never understand why so many longtime football fans, time and time again, have pondered wonderingly over the career of Bob Lilly, or why I took a few pages out of my book The Dirty Dozen to acknowledge his retirement from football. Lilly never played a down for the 1975 Cowboys. Nor, come to think of it, did he ever take to the practice field during spring workouts. So why bring him up at all?
It’s a fair question that deserves a thorough answer.
While acknowledging his absence from the team in 1975, I would argue that Bob Lilly had a tremendous impact upon the Cowboys’ unlikely march to Super Bowl X. Coming directly on the heels of Bob Hayes’ trade to San Francisco, Lilly’s retirement in July of that year marked the ending of an era that was felt by many of the veterans in the Cowboys locker room.
For Jethro Pugh, who had played alongside Lilly in the trenches for a decade, it was the realization of a newfound responsibility. Now, all those double-team blocks that Lilly had fought through over the years, would be his to deal with the best he could. For Larry Cole, it meant a position switch from end to tackle, where he would compete with Bill Gregory for a starting spot.
For Tom Landry, it was a loss of one of the most remarkably reliable leaders he had ever coached. In fourteen years of service, Lilly had missed only one game, often playing through ailments that would have left other men bedridden for weeks.
Without Lilly playing along the line during those early years, it’s doubtful whether Landry’s Flex defense would have lasted. The Flex was an odd defensive alignment designed by Landry to stop opposing running attacks. In this system, a tough, instinctive middle linebacker was required. But for the middle linebacker to flow freely to the ball-carrier on each play, a powerful and athletic interior lineman was necessary to keep blockers off him.
After moving from end to tackle in 1963, Lilly did all of that. All and more. Lilly absorbed the blockers. Man-on-man. Two at a time. Shoot, sometimes even three. More importantly, he proved to a cynical locker room that Landry’s complex scheme could work, given a fair chance.
It has been argued among “football scholars” that Lilly’s other-worldly dominance in the trenches is the primary reason why Lee Roy Jordan will never be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lilly, they suggest, made Jordan look far better than he actually was. As ridiculous as that argument ultimately is, it’s also an indication of just how dominant Lilly was in his day.
Landry had held out hope that Lilly would come back for one more season and contribute on third-down passing situations. But it never happened.
A few months before Lilly had made his retirement official, a reporter asked Landry to make a comparison between Lilly and No. 1 draft pick Randy White. Said Landry: “I don’t know if you can compare anybody to Lilly. Lilly is unique in his time.”