Aside from a few slight tweaks here and there, the players that are set to go into the organized team activities and training camp are already present and accounted for. Even though the Cowboys defense had another lackluster year in 2012, the organization chose not to address this issue by bringing in new talent. The reason behind this decision? That the massive amounts of injuries that decimated the talent on the defensive side of the ball was the major culprit. The fix? Well, besides lots of surgeries and rehab sessions, to bring in a new voice of leadership. Out with the brash and loud Rob Ryan, in with stoic and wise old owl Monte Kiffin.
The two could not be further apart in almost every conceivable way. Ryan’s defensive philosophies are highly complex and often resulted in many a player not sure whether he was supposed to be on the field in a specific package. Kiffin’s defense is a much more basic scheme that relies more on the overall talents of the individual players such as speed and physicality. Regardless of the sales job that Jerry Jones tries to provide fans and media telling us that the true upgrades to the defense come in the coaching changes, it will always be about players.
That is where this column leads us. I thought it would be interesting to try to compare those dominant Tampa Bay Bucs defensive squads to the current Cowboys roster. Here is a tale of the tape so to speak to see just how close Dallas can possibly get to those historically superior Tampa defenses.
THE DEFENSIVE LINE
During the Kiffin tenure in Tampa Bay (1995-2008) the two standout players on the line were Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice. Sapp played his entire Hall of Fame career for Kiffin, earning an All-Pro selection six times and winning the Defensive Player of the Year in 1999, while Rice came to the Bucs in 2001 and left in 2006. In that short time frame, Rice was a two-time All-Pro who led the Bucs every year but his last in sacks, accumulating 69 sacks in his six seasons in Tampa Bay.
December 9, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) looks for an open receiver under pressure from Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) at Paul Brown Stadium. Dallas won the game 20-19. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
The good news for the Cowboys is that their Simeon Rice happens to be DeMarcus Ware. Ware is a much better player than Rice, who was obviously no slouch. Ware is a more prolific sack artist and can provide better help versus the run. He can also be used to drop back in coverage if need be. They are similar in size and while Rice was slightly heavier, the permanent move to the line has already seen Ware add some weight to his frame to withstand the position change from outside linebacker.
Unfortunately for Dallas, there is no Warren Sapp anywhere close on this roster. That’s not exactly a knock on the rest of the line however as there are few players who come into the league as dominant as Sapp was. Ultimately, the overall talent of this version of the Cowboys defensive line would be considered equal to those Kiffin-led Bucs. Oddly enough, even with Sapp leading those lines in Tampa, the Buccaneers only finished in the top 10 versus the rush six years and four times in sacks during the 14 seasons under Kiffin.
The Buccaneers defense was primarily led during the Monte Kiffin days by three players. Hardy Nickerson, who played in this scheme from 1995-99 and was named an All-Pro twice. Shelton Quarles who was a very solid role player from 1997-2006 and yet another Hall of Famer in Derrick Brooks. Brooks will easily go down as one of the top ten linebackers to ever play the game. A nine time All-Pro and Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, Brooks, along with Ray Lewis, defined the position in the decade of the 2000’s.
Thankfully, the Cowboys seem to have not one, but two guys at this position who seem to be stars in the making. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter can flat out fly around a football field. While Carter is more a physical freak, Lee seems to always be in the right place at the right time. Carter has been the one drawing comparisons to Brooks early on and while no one is saying that he will have a similar career to that of the Hall of Famer, he does possess ridiculous speed and made some huge plays in Lee’s absence last year.
Sep 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee (50) intercepts the ball in front of Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back D.J. Ware (28) in the first quarter at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The two biggest questions surrounding this Cowboys unit have to be health and who plays the third LB spot. Dallas would be greatly assisted by finding a solid option for that position in either Justin Durant or Ernie Sims. More importantly however is the health of Lee and Carter. Both were drafted coming off of injuries and have missed time in their short tenures. If these two can stay healthy, the 1-2 punch of Lee and Carter will certainly provide Dallas with the opportunity to have a dominant unit, much like Brooks and Quarles provided for the Bucs.
As if having All-Pro’s and Hall of Famer’s on the line and in the linebacking corps wasn’t enough, Tampa was blessed to have two of the best ever in the defensive backfield as well. John Lynch played for Monte Kiffin from 1995-2003 and was a four time All-Pro. He was one of the league’s most feared hitters and brilliant center fielders posting 23 interceptions and six forced fumbles during his time in Tampa. Ronde Barber played under Kiffin during Monte’s entire time in Tampa, was a five-time All-Pro and led the league in interceptions in 2001. Barber’s 37 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in that time frame would more than double the entire career output of all the current Cowboys cornerbacks by himself.
This is the one unit where Dallas struggles most to meet the successes of Kiffin’s past. Those Bucs’ defenses finished in the top 10 versus the pass 11 times, including five first or second ranked seasons. They also finished in the top 10 in scoring defense 12 times. No matter if it was under Kiffin in Tampa Bay or under protege Lovie Smith in Chicago, the “Tampa-2” scheme relies upon turning the opposition over with strong play in the secondary.
Dec 2, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) returns a fumble for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Eagles 38-33. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have the talent to carry on this type of legacy, but they must prove it on the field. The Cowboys also have young safeties in Barry Church, Matt Johnson and rookie J.J. Wilcox that they hope will provide some surprises. In all fairness, this has to be considered one of the weakest units in all of football solely based on a lack of body of work. The three combine to have a total of four starts in the league, all coming from Church who is coming off a torn Achilles tendon. For Big D to truly have a BIG D, this unit will need to exceed expectations and carry on the legacy of the defensive plan that Monte Kiffin will bring to Dallas.