A chorus of experts and fans chided Cowboys owner Jerry Jones when he fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan last year after his injury-depleted unit had a historically bad season. Ryan might still be in Dallas had the Cowboys pulled off an upset in the 2012 season finale, so the reasoning was sound: It’s a mistake to fire a successful and respected DC simply because his backups and third stringers couldn’t stop the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack in Week 17.
Now the Ryan defenders are hollering for Jerry to fire Monte Kiffin, a respected and successful coordinator whose unit got torched this year while fielding a mishmash of undrafted rookie free agents, semi-retired veterans, and underperforming starters adjusting to the 4-3 scheme change.
You’d think Ryan’s success in New Orleans this season would serve as a cautionary tale for those who would fire Kiffin: A coach is only as good as his talent. But this point appears lost on most of the chattering class and the Cowboys faithful.
Jerry is an idiot for firing Ryan, and he’s an idiot if he doesn’t fire Kiffin. Anyone else get the sense it doesn’t matter what Jerry does, some folks are going to complain about it regardless?
Conventional wisdom is coalescing around the notion that the game has passed Kiffin by. Google “Monte Kiffin game passed him by” and marvel and the results. Conventional wisdom is often communicated through clichés, and this one is simply a wistful and politically correct way to say the 73-year-old coordinator is, well, old. So fire him.
Odd that no one is calling for the head of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, who turns 77 this year. Is that because the game has not yet passed him by? Or is it because in his 10-year tenure as Pittsburgh’s coordinator he’s been the beneficiary of 24 pro bowl seasons by his defensive starters?
The point is, we can’t know judging by the 2013 season if Kiffin’s too old to get it done. His defense started just two players with any previous pro bowl nods, Brandon Carr and Demarcus Ware, and Ware was a shadow of his former self. Is Ware’s age and durability Kiffin’s fault? Cowboys defensive starters, including Jay Ratliff, lost 78 games to injury this season – that’s 56 percent of possible starters for an 11-man unit over 16 games.
Then backups began getting hurt. Then backups to backups started going down, to the tune of 19 players getting snaps along the defensive line. Think about that: They opened the season with just nine defensive linemen on the depth chart, and those nine didn’t include four projected key contributors in Ratliff, Anthony Spencer, Ben Bass and Tyrone Crawford – all of whom were hurt in camp. Nineteen players saw snaps, and Ratliff, Bass and Crawford weren’t among them.
Out of necessity, Nick Hayden, a journeyman sixth-year tackle who sat out the 2012 season, played 843 snaps. That’s how hard up this unit was for warm bodies. Roster depth in the NFL is the province of GMs, not coordinators. The same experts who are criticizing Kiffin today were screaming that the organization neglected to address obvious defensive deficiencies in the 2013 draft. They were right then, at least in principle: Talent is everything.
People remember the defensive meltdown in Detroit – what did you think was going to happen with Jeff Heath and Jakar Hamilton, two undrafted rookie free agent projects, as the only healthy safties? They cite the 40 first downs surrendered in New Orleans, but what did you expect with a second-half linebacking corps of Devonte Holloman, Cameron Lawrence and Kyle Bosworth?
Injuries aren’t an excuse for losing, but they matter in evaluating your coaching staff. Ryan supporters should at least acknowledge that. We don’t know if Kiffin’s 4-3 can be effective in today’s NFL, because we haven’t yet seen a demonstration by NFL-caliber starters who can execute the scheme.
Firing Kiffin now would be reactionary, and it would be exactly the kind of move for which Jerry was roundly criticized last year when he dismissed Ryan. Kiffin and his staff deserve a shot in 2014, if only because of pedigree. How they got this battered group to put up that gutsy performance in Week 17 against the Eagles is anyone’s guess. It wasn’t the talent, because the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense was surely overmatched by the league’s second-ranked offense. My guess? It had something to do with good coaching.