The Dallas Cowboys “Doomsday Defense” was born in the late 1960s and devised in a great part by Ernie Stautner, the team’s defensive line coach. Stautner first earned a reputation as a devastating defensive lineman during his Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
His credentials as a player helped build a foundation a solid coach who knew how to evaluate and teach players. So, when he arrived on the scene in Dallas in 1966, he was pleased to have a player by the name of Bob Lilly. The sixth-year pro had already developed into one of the finest defensive tackles in the National Football League. It didn’t take long for Stautner to realize what he had to work with on the defensive side of the ball and quickly built a scheme centered around No. 74.
A 6-5, 260-pound tackle, Lilly was a key man in that deadly unit that helped transform Dallas into a dominant NFL power. When Stautner arrived, many were already calling the former Texas Christian consensus All-America the best in pro football at his position. In just a short time, Stautner was Bob's biggest booster.
"I didn't consider myself in Lilly's class,” Stautner insisted. "He could do things I could never do. He was the best defensive tackle I ever saw."
Durable, dedicated and devastating throughout his 14 seasons from 1961 through 1974, Lilly became popularly known as "Mr. Cowboy," the perfect player on a club that rose quickly from stumbling expansion team status to become the scourge of the NFL.
Ernie Stautner, the Cowboys defensive line coach, first earned a reputation as a devastating defensive lineman during his Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
In a number of ways, Bob was always the No.1 Cowboy -- the team's first-ever draft pick, its first- All-Pro selection, its first Pro Bowl player, the first to earn the club's coveted Ring of Honor and the first player who spent his entire career with Dallas to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The honor came in his first year of eligibility and is, as Bob humbly agreed, "the finishing touch on my football career.
Lilly was selected for 11 Pro Bowls, named consensus All-NFL choice six straight years from 1964 through 1969 and again in 1971 and 1972. Altogether he played 292 pro games, including 196 straight regular season contests, 78 more in preseason and another 18 in the postseason. He played in five NFL/NFC championship games between 1967 and 1972 in Super Bowls V and VI. The Cowboys’ 24-3 win over Miami in Super Bowl VI ranks as Bob’s greatest pro football thrill because it proved the Cowboys could win the big game and ended all criticism emanating from Dallas’ failure to win after advancing into the playoffs for several years.
Lilly missed just one game, the 1973 NFL title showdown against Minnesota. A severely pulled hamstring injury that he had been battling for several weeks finally put him on the shelf for the only time in his career. Bob bounced back from the injury with a strong season in 1974 but a neck injury that presaged possibly more permanent damage prompted his retirement before the 1975 campaign.
Defensive tackles aren’t expected to score touchdowns, but Bob did -- four of them. One came on a 17 -yard interception return of a George Mira pass, the other three on fumble returns. Altogether he recovered 16 fumbles and returned them 109 yards.
Equally effective as a pass rusher or on rushing defense, Lilly continually battled double-team and even triple-team opposition with the guard, the center and sometimes even the fullback ganging up on him. But he was rarely stopped. He was so great at pursuit and tracking down his targets that many teams opted to run directly at him in order to minimize his tremendous pursuing skills. This tactic met with only limited success.
A great student of the game, Bob was always intent on improving himself. “A man has to figure out what has to be done and how to do it,” he explained. “You have to be able to spin out of a block, recognize a play immediately and then react accordingly. I figure I am as strong as anyone else, so getting the job done becomes a matter of pride and determination.”
Born in the small town of Olney, Texas on July 26, 1939, Bob grew up in that rural atmosphere until family economics forced a move to Pendleton, Oregon before his senior year in high school. There Lilly was All-Oregon in both football and basketball.
Bob was recruited heavily by all the Pacific Northwest schools but when Texas Christian contacted him. Lilly eagerly accepted. Four years later, TCU Coach Abe Martin was proudly describing him as “the best tackle I ever coached.”
Dallas Coach Tom Landry eyed Lilly as the foundation of the defensive unit in the Cowboys’ long-range building program. So Dallas worked out a trade with the Cleveland Browns which enabled the Cowboys to select Lilly. Since Dallas had not participated in the 1960 college draft, Lilly became the team’s first-ever draft choice.
Although he earned NFL Rookie of the Year recognition in 1961 and was Dallas' first Pro Bowl pick a year later, Lilly was merely adequate as a defensive end. This prompted Landry, in mid-1963, to shift Bob to the defensive right tackle spot. Lilly and most of his NFL opponents were never the same again.
"An end has more responsibility as far as containing plays. A tackle can just go for the football" Landry pointed out. "Because of Bob’s great recovery ability, he can charge straight ahead and not worry about a definite responsibility on every play. We have been able to more or less turn him loose and let him have more freedom and this makes Bob a better player.”
In spite of his exceptional record in pro football’s trench warfare, Lilly was not a particularly mean player, something that many consider to be a prerequisite for his position.
"Being mean just wasn’t his style, " Stautner explained. “He tried it but being roughhouse just didn’t work for him. He just couldn’t do it. But you can’t argue with the results he got being the way he was.”
Miami Dolphins Quarterback Bob Griese marveled at his great strength.
"He is not enormous but he is strong enough so that there isn’t any use arguing with him if he gets hold of your jersey." Griese said after the Super Bowl VI game in which Lilly sacked him for a stupendous 29-yard loss. “You just fall wherever Lilly wants."
Lilly credited three special men in shaping his career. First was his father, Buster Lilly, who was crippled in a motorcycle-automobile accident when he was 17.
"From the time I was five years old.” Bob said, "my father worked with me to become a football player. We worked every day. He couldn’t run or anything but he could pass the ball to me. He went to every home game I played in high school, college and with the Cowboys until he died (shortly after) we went to our first Super Bowl. I’ll never forget what he did for me."
Then there was Martin his college coach. "I was very fortunate to have someone like Abe." Bob reminisced. "He was sort of like a father away from home. If you had any problems with school or anything else he'd come by and talk and it helped."
As a highly-touted but struggling rookie, Lilly appreciate Landry's understanding of the frustration and the pressure Bob was faced with. His respect for Landry was unwavering.
"Tom never faltered from his ideals and his goals and he instilled that in all of us,” Bob affirms. "We all cussed him once in a while but he had a job to do and he never wavered. I think anybody who plays for Tom Landry has character and will have it the rest of his life.”
Not surprisingly, Landry has his own thoughts about the Cowboys' first Hall of Famer.
"A man like this comes along once in a generation,” Landry said admiringly. "There won't be another Bob Lilly in my time. Nobody was better than Lilly. He is a man who will become a legend."