The biggest move the Dallas Cowboys made this offseason was the replacement of Rob Ryan with Monte Kiffin (supplemented by reuniting him with Rod Marinelli) and committing to a 4-3, Tampa 2 type defense. While this was a reaction to the continuing struggles Dallas' defense was having with making adjustments, getting the right number of players on the field, and some disturbing internal developments regarding who was showing up to run meetings, it also reflects a long range approach to how the team is going to build and develop the defense in future years.
In an excellent article in the Dallas News, Rainer Sabin lays out why this move puts the Cowboys in a much better position to find players who fit the scheme. He got Stephen Jones' view of things, and it reveals an analytic approach to drafting players based on available talent. The current trend in the NFL is to go the opposite direction, with more teams electing to install a 3-4 scheme. Looking at this from the perspective of what kinds of players come out of the NCAA each year, it means that more teams are focused on the prospects that fit a certain skill set and have specific physical traits. And those traits are more difficult to find than those needed for the 4-3.
The main issue for acquiring players for the 3-4 is size. Simply put, you need bigger, more physical specimens in the front seven. The linemen have to be bigger to engage blockers and stuff the run, with nose tackles like 325 lb Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots or 340 lb Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens. In addition to clogging up the middle against the run, they have to drive up field in the pass game to help pressure the passer. Linebackers also have to be bigger and more physical. The problem is that there just are not that many players with the size you need and the speed needed to play at the pro level. Head coach Jeff Fisher of the St Louis Rams complained about the difficulty in finding these kinds of players.
"The physical characteristics of the linebackers coming out are not necessarily what we need," Fisher said. "We've got to develop them. They're smaller. When you're talking about addressing a need at that position, there is typically not a lot of depth from year to year."
By moving to the 4-3, the Cowboys now have more players they can look at who can come in and be immediate contributors. Instead of having to try and get the players up to the size they need, the team can focus on coaching them in their assignments. The new scheme is already being described as benefiting players like Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, all of whom have success in the 3-4. And now there is a deeper selection of players available in the draft and as UDFAs, with a shrinking number of teams to compete with. And, as Sabin pointed out, this is a bit of a Back to the Future move for the Cowboys. The original 4-3 was a Tom Landry innovation, the team was running it in all five Super Bowl wins, and has been able to use smaller, quicker players effectively with the 4-3.
Case in point: Former Cowboys Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen. Neither linebacker stood taller than 5-11 or weighed more than 243 pounds when they both started all 16 games in 2003.
This could be a case where the Cowboys are having their cake and eating it, too. One of the big concerns for fans of the team is how far away Dallas is from being a serious contender for the championship. There is a worry that Jerry Jones unrealistically sees the team as just needing another piece or two. But a couple of former Cowboys greats actually take a similar viewpoint. Defensive tackle Bob Lilly, who was there for the Landry years, thinks the only real differences between the current Cowboys and the teams that made it to the last Super Bowl are the offensive line and the running backs. And quarterback Troy Aikman, who led the team to three Super Bowls in four years, believes the team needs two or three good draft picks to turn the corner.
The move to the 4-3 can help immediately, and in years to come. It gives the team a better chance of getting better right away, and makes it easier to maintain a high level of performance on defense from season to season. It shows that winning now and planning for the future are not mutually exclusive goals. And it shows that the turnover in coaches was more than just an impulsive reaction to a year of problems. It was part of a logical strategy to make the team better in the long run. Hopefully we will see it start to pay off when the draft rolls around.