The Dallas Cowboys And The Changing Landscape Of The NFC East

USA TODAY Sports

The biggest news from the Dallas Cowboys has been the hiring of Monte Kiffin to run the defense and the switch to the 4-3. Now, with Chip Kelly's hire in Philadelphia and the emergence of Washington's Robert Griffin III, his task is very different than the one facing Rob Ryan just two years ago.

According to largely anecdotal information, the end for Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys started with the Thanksgiving defeat at the hands of the Washington Redskins' wunderkind quarterback Robert Griffin III and surprising running back Alfred Morris, both rookies. Even if that is inaccurate, it was certainly sealed by the season ending defeat to the same team, behind even more impressive performances by the same two players.

It is logical to assume that at least part of the assignment given to Monte Kiffin as he replaces Ryan was to find a way to stop Bob III and Morris in the read-option. Now, with the Philadelphia Eagles hiring former University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly, Dallas is in one of the hotbeds of the new look offense that is growing in importance in the NFL. Half the teams in the NFC East are expected to be running some variant of the read-option offense, pending the recovery of Griffin from his knee injury. And the idea of a mobile quarterback who is used as a running threat is spreading through the NFL, with the success of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in the NFC West showing that it is a viable approach for the pros, so far.

While there are still arguments to be made about whether this is a short-term fad or a longer-lived shift in how the game is played in the league, it is certainly going to be a factor in 2013. It looks like this will be the way at least a few teams will go in order to take advantage of the kinds of quarterbacks coming out of the college ranks. Teams are certainly going to be looking at how the 49ers do against the Falcons. If Kaepernick is as effective against them as he was against the Packers, then you can be certain this experiment will not be over.

However, the fact that Kelly was running an option attack with the Ducks does not mean he will go with that kind of offense in Philadelphia. The key to his scheme is not who runs the ball, but tempo. Tony Dungy compares it to the offense the Buffalo Bills ran when they made their four consecutive appearances in the Super Bowl, and nobody would confuse Jim Kelly with Griffin or Wilson. While he may want to find a quarterback who can slash through offenses on the run, that is not a given. Many people have seen his hire as another chance (third? fourth?) for Micheal Vick, but there is a legitimate question as to whether Vick could handle the reads and decision making required to handle an offense that, at Oregon, was getting plays snapped every 21 seconds. Kelly's style heavily influenced the current approach of the New England Patriots, who run the fastest pace in the NFL (although it is still about 4 seconds slower than Oregon's). Now all Kelly needs is another Tom Brady. That should be a snap, right?

One way or another, Dallas is going to be facing what looks to be the wave of the future in its division. Washington is trying to make the pure read-option work. There is no way to know what exactly Chip Kelly is going to do with the Eagles, but it will almost certainly focus on speed and tempo. Ironically, this means that Monte Kiffin may actually have some useful knowledge that no one else in the NFL can equal. It is hard to say you can gain an advantage coaching against someone who obliterated your defense the way the Ducks did the Trojans when Kiffin was running the defense there, but Kiffin is (at least so far) the only defensive coordinator in the NFL who has years of studying Kelly's offense. He may not have been able stop it with the players he fielded at USC, but you can bet he has a plan to stop it if he has the right tools. I tend to think Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are a couple of players that he can put to good use. The 4-3 is a defense built around the middle linebacker, and Lee is one heck of a building block if he can only stay healthy.

One way or another, this is the direction the NFL is headed. Even if the pure read-option with an athletic, running quarterback is not viable, the rest of the package, spreading out the field and increasing the tempo to limit the ability of the defense to react, is certainly going to be more and more a part of the game. That is exactly what New England is doing, with great success, so this is not just an approach taken by losing teams trying to change their luck. Dallas will have to face some version of the new, or at least non-traditional, offenses at least four times a season for a while. It is an interesting time to be changing the defensive coordinator, but we will find out if Kiffin and his old partner Rod Marinelli can adjust to the new wave very quickly. At least Dallas has the advantage of having two of the best defensive minds the NFL has seen in the past 15 years or so working for it now. And with Jerome Henderson definitely staying and Matt Eberflus looking more and more likely to remain on board, this looks like a group that is more than capable of finding a way to answer whatever offensive wrinkles get thrown at them.

Now, over to Dallas' offense. Can we talk about that hurry-up thing, Coach Garrett?

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