Posted: 3:15 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, 2014
Our series on five decisions, moments or organizational decisions that had significant long-term repercussions over the course of the 2013 season kicks off with a look at the front office's decision to can Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defensive defense in favor of Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli and the "Tampa-2" scheme.
Almost exactly one year ago, Monte Kiffin was announced as the Cowboys new defensive coordinator. In the wake of the announcement, BTB and other Cowboys sites launched into coverage of the change. Specifically, we considered the larger philosophical problems the Cowboys had with Rob Ryan and his defense. What were these? Lets offer a thumbnail review:
Kiffin, and his system, were supposed to remedy these problems. The Tampa-2, which is predicated upon getting pressure from the front four, would have DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer doing what they were paid big money to do: get after the quarterback. In addition, his system is notoriously simple; rather than teaching a huge playbook a la Ryan, he asks his guys to execute a limited number of things very well and very consistently. And finally, his defenses had historically been superb turnover generation machines; from 1996-'08, Tampa Bay's defenses collected just under 35 turnovers per year (roughly 19 interceptions and 16 fumbles a season).
As we now know, 2013 proved to be a disaster, with record-setting performances in terms of yards allowed in a game (a number that was then eclipsed a few games later), number of 400-yard passers, and first downs, both in a single game and in a season. Although 2012, under Ryan was arguably the Cowboys worst year defensively since the early Landry years, 2013 was statistically worse, and should deservedly be numbered among the worst in franchise history.
Indeed, things deteriorated so much that we saw Kiffin and Co. getting away from some core beliefs. As I mentioned above, a key philosophical element of the defense is to generate pressure using only the front four, so that the back seven can all be in coverage. As the season wore, on, however, the Cowboys defensive braintrust dialed up more and more blitzes, because the front four simply wasn't getting to the QB. As they did this, passing lanes opened up and turnovers dwindled. A team that was atop the league rankings in week three found themselves sitting at 26th by season's end.
Because of this, media pundits and droves of fans maintain that the front office should again be making changes, booting Kiffin and perhaps several members of his defensive staff. I'm holding with our resident Cowboys insider, Birddog26, who graced us with this tweet back on New Year's Eve:
Three words to remember this offseason for fixing Cowboys D. Stability, Continuity, Execution. Any changes have to address those three.— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) December 31, 2013
As Birddog suggests, the Cowboys organization realizes that one of the keys to winning is continuity - of systems, coaching staffs, etc. Its quite clear that the teams who fire coaches every few years (and that includes coordinators) are precisely those that are perpetually drafting in the first fifteen picks of the draft. Instead of firing Kiffin, or Jerome Henderson ("The Cowboys couldn't cover!") or Matt Eberfluss ("Bruce Carter sucked this year!"), the Dallas front office appears to recognize that another year in the system will do everybody more good -or at least less harm - than a new set of coaches.
As will a return to health. I'll deal more specifically with the impact injuries had on the season in the final installment of this series. For now, allow me to point out that the keys elements of Kiffin's system - the ability to generate a pass rush solely with the front four and, by extension, to generate turnovers - weren't absent the entire season. To the contrary, we saw a lot of the promise offered by the 4-3 in the campaign's first two months.
To illustrate what I'm talking about, I've compiled a handy-dandy chart, including all the elements that make Kiffin's defense successful (note that I didn't include yards allowed, as the Tampa-2 has often given up yards but not points). All of the information should be self-explanatory, save for "short fields." This is the number of times in a game when the defense, either by generating a turnover or a turnover on downs, gave the offense the ball at the Cowboys 45 yard line or better (20 yards from field goal range).
|Game||Sacks||Turnovers||Defensive Touchdowns||Short Fields|
As this table clearly suggests, the Cowboys generated better numbers in each category early in the season and then tailed off. We can see this even more clearly in the next chart, which divides the season into quarters, showing the numbers for each.
|2013 Season||Sacks||Turnovers||Defensive Touchdowns||Short Fields|
Thanks to a mini-explosion in the final game against Philadelphia, when the Cowboys collected five sacks (its a match-up thing; the Eagles' linemen don't deal well with stunts and twists, which is Marinelli's specialty), the Cowboys don't look like they tailed off quite to the degree they did. But they did. To a great degree.
We can see this in the rising percentage of passing plays in which the defensive staff called a blitz. This number rose steadily as the season wore on:
Games 1-4: 16.6%
Games 5-8: 17.1%
Games 9-12: 23%
Games 13-16: 27%
And we can track the nodal points of Dallas' defensive diminution. A thinned but still highly productive defensive line suffered two major in-season injuries: to DeMarcus Ware in game four and Jason Hatcher in game eight. Although each of them continued to soldier on after missing a game or two, the dropoff in sacks (and, by extension, turnovers, defensive scores and short fields) when first Ware and then both Ware and Hatcher were hobbled is, to my mind, clear and evident. As is the resultant rise in blitzing by a frustrated defensive staff.
In short, when the team was stocked with actual NFL players, Kiffin's defense might not have been at the top of the "yards allowed" charts, but was able to produce in the categories - sacks, turnovers, defensive scores - which has allowed it to thrive. And, when the depth chart still had some recognizable names on it, there were some memorable defensive moments. Not surprisingly, most of these came in the first month, with both Ware and Hatcher at full health:
Each of these sequences offered a glimpse of the potential inherent in this defensive scheme. And this is why I believe Kiffin and Co. will remain. As BD says, Stability, Continuity, Execution.