After deciding to relieve Rob Ryan of his duties as defensive coordinator, the Cowboys could have hired one of several candidates that learned the “Tampa-2” defense from Monte Kiffin. But why hire the student when you can have the teacher? So the Cowboys went all the way and hired the 72 year old Kiffin to be their next defensive coordinator.
There are many that lamented the firing of Ryan, including some Cowboys defensive players. But I can’t personally disagree with the decision. There are those that thought when Ryan was hired he wouldn’t be around long, not because of failure, but that he would be so successful he would be on the fast track to an NFL head coaching gig.
But let’s look at the evidence. In reality, hiring Ryan, who was not even their first choice, was a risky move. Ryan had never coached a highly rated defense at his other stops, although one could question if he ever had the players until now to achieve that goal. The Cowboys did provide him with the necessary tools in the form of many excellent players on defense, but injuries held them back, as well as to cloud the picture of what Ryan was, or was not, accomplishing.
So when Jerry Jones cited the games against the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears, that were played before the injury bug hit the defense so hard, as reasons for letting Ryan go, many were incredulous. After all, special teams’ mistakes put the Cowboys in the hole against the Seahawks and five interceptions put them way behind in the Bears game.
The issue though is that while the Cowboys offense was trying to fight its way back into these games, the defense allowed several long drives that ultimately put them out of reach. Ryan’s defensive scheme was based on a lot of trickery that was supposed to fool the opposing offense. In reality, they tricked themselves a lot more than any of the teams they were facing.
This led to confusion, as evidenced by the players not appearing to know where they were supposed to line up, too many, or too few, players on the field and time-outs wasted in order to get it right. Add to that Ryan’s tendency to write a check with his mouth that his defense couldn’t cash, and the incident in the game against the Cleveland Browns, where Ryan stepped onto the field to participate in trash talk with a Browns’ lineman, they all added up to justification for giving him his walking papers.
Now let’s contrast that with the new defensive scheme. Kiffin’s defense is not based on trickery with many packages and sub-packages that confuse the h%$& out of the defense trying to implement it. It’s pretty much what you see is what you get, with the emphasis on pressure and speed, which many of the Cowboys defenders possess. And Kiffin has historically had defenses rated in the top ten for many years in succession.
Instead of all of the situational packages requiring massive personnel changes on the field, the only situational change required is trading a defensive back for one of the linebackers on third and long. This change in philosophy will make a big difference when the opponent is in their hurry-up offense at the end of the first half. There were many times during the 2012 season that the opposing team was able to score in the waning moments of the first half because the Cowboys weren’t able to get the right guys on the field.
How does this new scheme fit the Cowboys existing personnel? It has been reported that when meeting with the Cowboys, Kiffin determined that their existing players will fit his scheme. You simply turn DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, if they are able to keep him, into down lineman instead of standup linebackers. There is already history of success in this scheme with undersized, but fast, defensive ends.
This scheme no longer requires a nose tackle playing straight up on the center, so it allows Jay Ratliff to slide over between the center and the guard and it extends his career by limiting the beating he takes on every down. And many of the other defensive linemen can thrive in this scheme with their combination of speed and power.
The only question is can they keep Spencer, or do they even need to try? I personally think Spencer would thrive in this scheme, but I also realize that the decision will be based on salary cap concerns. Based on his play in 2012, Spencer has earned a big paycheck and even keeping him with the franchise tag will be quite expensive.
I read that some feel the new scheme will not match the strength of our cornerbacks, which is bump and run coverage, because they will have to play zone. This might be true if we are talking about the basic cover two. But this defense will not be the basic cover two. One of the variances from the basic cover two that Kiffin employs is the use of bump and run-man coverage and this will fit the Cowboys corners well.
For some teams the 2012 season is not over, but I find myself eagerly awaiting the 2013 season even more after this change in defensive philosophy. Will the Cowboys make more changes, including selecting someone else to call plays on offense? I sure hope so, but we will have to wait and see.