When former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was dismissed after two years of service, Cowboys' coach Jason Garrett issued a press release in which he said, among other things, "At this time, the decision has been made to move forward in a different direction philosophically on defense." Before Dallas hired Monte Kiffin as its next DC, we were treated to a lot of speculation about what Garrett might have meant by "a different direction philosophically."
With the benefit of hindsight, it's obvious a key part of this difference is a return to a 4-3. But I believe there's more to the Rob-Monte switcheroo than a front seven re-deployment. Let's look at some of the things that weren't working with Dallas' defense in 2012, and how Kiffin and his scheme might offer an improvement:
The Cowboys' best pass rushers need to be rushing the passer, not dropping into coverage: In the 3-4 system, as we all know, the primary pass rushers are the two outside linebackers. This is problematic, however, as opposing offensive coordinators can find ways to scheme players like DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer into coverage - usually by placing multiple receiving threats on one side of the formation.
In 2012, Ware played 896 snaps against passes and was asked to drop into coverage 64 times (seven percent of the time). Spencer went into coverage almost 20 percent of the time (172 out of 872 passing plays). 4-3 defensive ends, on the other hand, almost never drop into coverage (Ware was in coverage once all season from a 4-3 DE position). In other words, in a passing league in which defensive priority one must be to put pressure on a quarterback, a scheme in which the players who are most likely to do that can't be in position to do so is, frankly, suicide.
Ryan's system was unnecessarily complex: One of 2011's overriding memes was that the defense failed because Rob Ryan taught the players too quickly, with the result that they were too often confused and out of position. But, even with the benefit of a full offseason, a high level of confusion permeated the defense throughout 2012 as well. A lot of different plays might be cool on paper, but is it worth it if the result is a high frequency of 9,10 or 12 players on the field?
On the other hand, Kiffin's system is notoriously simple. Rather than teaching a huge playbook, he asks his guys to execute a limited number of things very well and very consistently. John Lynch, who player for Kiffin for years in Tampa Bay, told reporters recently:
I think the beauty of it was the simplicity. We didn't try to trick people. He believed in doing a few things and doing them, and learning the intricacies so well that it was kind of a deal where, 'Here it is. Go ahead and stop it.' You have to have great players to do that. I know that. At times that seemed to denigrate the role of the coordinator, but I thought to the contrary. I thought that was [his] brilliance...
One of the first things out of Jerry Jones' mouth this offseason was that his team needed to get back to "fundamentals." Kiffin's hiring certainly seems to address this concern; players will drill a limited number of techniques repeatedly, until they can execute them perfectly.
Ryan and his system were too undisciplined: Although they started the season high on Rob Ryan, the Cowboys' brass apparently soured on him. According sources inside the organization, internal reviews of Ryan weren't good; the Cowboys found that his schemes and philosophy at times were unsound. They also felt he was inconsistent in his attack, sometimes opting to blitz the house (thus giving up big plays) and others opting to rush only three (giving opposing QBs all afternoon to throw).
In many respects, this inconsistency and philosophical sloppiness was a reflection of the coach. On the Mothership's "Talking Cowboys" show the day after Ryan was fired, Bryan Broaddus related that, when Matt Eberfluss joined the coaching staff, he spoke to some of his scouting connections in Cleveland about Dallas' new LB coach. The Browns guys told him Eberfluss was a detail-oriented guy who functioned as "Rob Ryan's brain," suggesting that Ryan's attention to detail waned, and he needed a meticulous guy like Eberfluss to do all the detail work for him.
Given Garrett's meticulous nature, it makes sense that he'd want a defensive coordinator who prioritizes detail and discipline. If Lynch and other former Bucs players are to be believed, this is precisely Kiffin's game.
Dallas didn't generate turnovers: In 2012, as noted above, Ryan rarely blitzed and chose to play conservatively. The result? Opponents averaged 355.4 yards per game, the most in team history. To make matters worse, they tallied a paltry 34 sacks and an embarrassingly low seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles. The 1.3 turnovers per game ranked the Cowboys 26th in the NFL. In his two years in Dallas, Ryan's charges registered the same number of defensive scores that they had in the disastrous 2010 season under Wade Phillips and Paul Pasqualoni.
I'm convinced that turnovers are the key to Dallas' reversal of fortune. In a recent (and brilliant) FanPost, ScarletO pointed out that the Cowboys offense, in terms of yardage, resembles a 13-15 win team but scores points consistent with an eight or nine win team. The estimable Mr. O doesn't speculate why (making us wait until part II for explanations), so in absence of his razor-sharp analysis, I'll offer mine: the offense wasn't gifted with as many short fields as the scoring leaders were. Without turnovers, Dallas is consistently forced to drive 70 yards to generate points.
Indeed, in a subsequent post, S.O. points out that, form 2003-'08, Kiffin's Bucs defenses forced interceptions at a rate in accordance with teams averaging 10-12 wins per season. Kiffin's reputation as a takeaway hawk is likely part of the reason Garrett and Jerry Jones have decided to go after him. Obviously, there's no guarantee that a coaching change would make the Cowboys better at forcing turnovers if they're using the same players that couldn't force them in 2012. But Kiffin and the coaches from his coaching tree are famous for practicing turnovers (remember what made Lovie Smith's Bears a good team in the first half of the season), so it's a philosophical change that certainly can't hurt...
Part II: why the 4-3 is a better defense for today's NFL landscape.