Another 8-8 season, another end of season game to determine who wins the division and another end of season loss to ensure the players watch the playoffs from their couches. What can be done to get the Cowboys out of this three years long rut they find themselves in?
Let’s start with defense. There is no doubt that firing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after the end of last season was a bit too hasty. Ryan is coaching defense in the playoffs for the first time as a defensive coordinator, but for another team. The mistake was compounded by hiring 73 year old defensive coordinator, because the game passed Kiffin by a long time ago. Kiffin had spent the last few years as defensive coordinator for his son, Lane Kiffin, for Tennessee and USC. How Monte fared in the college game should have told Jerry Jones enough, but he hired him anyway.
I felt this team had the personnel to easily convert to the 4-3 defense Kiffin runs from the 3-4, but that was based on defensive lineman on the roster such as Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Tyrone Crawford. Of the three, Spencer played part of one game. The key to Kiffin’s defensive scheme is an aggressive defensive line and what the Cowboys played with this season was not good enough to get the job done. Add to that problem the difficulties the linebackers had with the scheme that I did not anticipate. Last, but not least, the Cowboys have corners that play best in press coverage. Kiffin’s scheme required them to play zone, which they weren’t very good at. We all know about the record passing yardage racked up against this team.
How do they fix this mess? Kiffin wants to return, but they should encourage him to retire, or pay him to be a consultant, like they did with receivers coach Jimmy Robinson last year. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is an excellent defensive coordinator with a strong record of success. Although he would like to go to Tampa Bay as defensive coordinator for Lovie Smith, whom he served as defensive coordinator in Chicago, he is under contract with the Cowboys and must have their permission to leave for another job, unless it’s as head coach.
The answer then is to get Kiffin out of the picture and make Marinelli the defensive coordinator. Although his scheme descends from Kiffin’s Tampa -2 defense, it is much more aggressive and involves a lot more press coverage by the corners. That would be a much better fit for the Cowboys personnel and if they came even come close to playing like Marinelli’s Bears defense, they will help this team win games, instead of keeping them from winning. I think the Cowboys are in great shape with personnel in the defensive backfield and at linebacker for Marinelli’s scheme, but they will really need to work free agency and the draft for some quality additions to the defensive line.
On offense there has been a lot of talk since the season ended about getting rid of offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Bill Callahan. I believe that getting rid of him would be a hasty move that could backfire just as much as the firing of Ryan last year. So, before considering anything so drastic, let’s look at what transpired this year. The offensive line is playing much better and is now somewhat of a strength for the team. The additions of Travis Frederick and Ron Leary to the line helped with their improvement, but don’t underestimate Callahan’s impact as their position coach. Another area of vast improvement under Callahan was touchdowns once the Cowboys reached the red zone. The percentage of red zone scores that were touchdowns, instead of field goals, went way up from the previous two years.
So, what really needs to be fixed on offense? The Cowboys need to run more, especially in those games where the other team is bad against the run. But I don’t blame just Callahan for the lack of run/pass balance. With head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo’s influence on the offensive game plan they also must shoulder the blame for the team being so pass happy that it caused them to lose games they should have won. I will say it one more time, running shortens the game and keeps the opposing offense on the sideline. That is especially important when you have a bad defense.
As far as offensive personnel are concerned, if receiver Miles Austin isn’t cut, he ought to be. The Cowboys can no longer depend on him. It would be nice to have offensive lineman Brian Waters back, but even if he doesn’t return, the Cowboys line is good enough to help them win. Further development of players like Terrence Williams, Gavin Escobar and Lance Dunbar will pay dividends. Dez Bryant can do much more for this team than often asked, because they seem to drift away from him at time during the game. Any future success for this offense is dependent on forcing the ball to Dez.
Sounds simple doesn’t it? On defense move one guy out of the way, promote another and get some better players for the line. On offense continue to develop players and commit to getting the ball to Dez and not giving up on the running game. These changes will help to get them more wins, but the Cowboys rarely do simple.