Our fearless frontpage writers have opened a debate on which position group is likely to be the most important factor for the Dallas Cowboys this year. Coty Saxman championed the defensive line, OCC took up the banner for the defensive backs, and KD Drummond staked a claim for the offensive line. Great, well-reasoned reads. Now I will explain why they all missed the point.
More than any other professional sport, the NFL is a coaches' league. It is the nature of the complex, specialized form of play that has evolved into the game we obsess over on Sunday, Monday, Thursday and some late season Saturdays. No other sport is more dependent on getting a unified effort from so many greatly different skill sets. And in no other sport do the schemes and play designs have such an effect on the game.
There is no greater illustration of this than something that is an integral part of Cowboys history. In the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers dominated pro football in a way no other team ever has. They had a great quarterback in Bart Starr, who was the Peyton Manning or Tom Brady of his day, but they won game after game with the famous Lombardi Power Sweep. They pulled both guards to lead the attack, in a wonderfully orchestrated design that could be used to either side of the formation. It was not flashy or spectacular, but it was almost guaranteed to pick up four yards rushing. Everyone knew they were going to run it over and over again, and they did, marching relentlessly down the field.
The sweep was developed by legendary coach Vince Lombardi while he was an assistant with the New York Giants, and refined it with the Packers. This was how Green Bay got the nickname Title Town, winning five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in a seven year span. The signature running play became so effective, that another legendary coach would build his reputation largely on the defensive scheme he developed to stop the power sweep: Tom Landry and the Flex.
Although there has never been such a significant clash of the titans since, there are certainly many other examples of schemes that have had tremendous impact throughout the NFL. Air Coryell. The West Coast Offense. The Tampa 2.
Talent is important in the NFL, but it is what the coaches do with the talent they have that makes the difference between the also-rans and the playoff runs. The Cowboys have made some major revisions this year, and also retained some key assistants. The success of the team, and the continued tenure of Jason Garrett, depend on how the staff will prepare, train, and coach the players, starting now and extending to the end of the last game they play this season (hopefully on a February evening in New York).
Just about all Cowboys fans are champing at the bit for Dallas to pick offensive linemen early and often in the draft, but that would not be a sure fire way to solve the issues there. The Cowboys only have six picks to work with, barring trades, and realistically, you can only hope to get immediate help in the first couple of rounds. And the team can use a lot of help at other positions as well. No matter how much you may want to see a general housecleaning with the O line, the team is extremely likely to go into 2013 with most if not all of the starters from last year in place.
This does not, however, mean that nothing has changed. Currently, all the linemen are either healthy or expected to be so by the beginning of the OTAs. Last year Mackenzy Bernadeau was unable to practice until training camp, Nate Livings had issues, and then Phil Costa went down in the first week of the season. The chance to work with a unit and develop cohesion for an entire offseason is hard to value, but that value is considerable. There were some hints that things were coming around late in 2012, with even the much-reviled Doug Free starting to look like he was figuring things out after being platooned with Jermey Parnell. Bill Callahan has a lot to do, but he also has a better chance of getting it done than circumstances allowed last year.
The long running soap opera about who is calling the offensive plays is part of all this. Jason Garrett, with Jerry and Stephen Jones no doubt looking intently over his shoulder, is trying to sort out the most effective way of doing this. It looks like Callahan is going to have an increased role (although exactly how much is uncertain) and it also appears that Tony Romo is going to have a hand in calling more plays on the field. If you liked it when the Cowboys went hurry-up before, you are probably going to get a lot of satisfaction this year.
There are several other coaches who have big roles. Strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik is in his prime time now with the offseason conditioning program. Derek Dooley has to step in for Jimmy Robinson and try to keep Dez Bryant on his ascending path. Rich Bisaccia is going to be very involved in the draft, particularly during the later rounds and the free agent signings when the ability to contribute on special teams will be the deciding factor for some of the down roster positions.
But the big action this year for the Cowboys is on defense. The team let Rob Ryan go and hired Monte Kiffin in as big a philosophical shift as you are likely to see. With the addition of his faithful sidekick Rod Marinelli, Dallas now has the defensive equivalent of Vince Lombardi and the power sweep of the 1960s. They are the masterminds behind the original Tampa 2, the most effective defensive scheme in the NFL, and just as Lombardi was hired away from the Giants to install his offense on the frozen tundra, Kiffin was brought to Valley Ranch to show he can still run the most aggressive, slobber-knocking, butt-kicking defense in the league. There are still some questions, particularly at safety and overall depth, but the arsenal is hardly empty for his style of 4-3, seek-and-destroy-the-quarterback defense.
This is where the season will be made or broken. Coaching overall, and defensive coaching most importantly, will be the crux of the matter. How the schemes are taught, the players trained, and game plans executed will tell the tale. A good draft is important for the team, but what position each selection plays is far less important than making sure the team gets the best players it can, players that fit into the culture that I believe is Jason Garrett's greatest contribution to the Cowboys. Talent is not coachable. Being a champion is. You can rank units all you want, but in the end, it takes eleven men all doing their job and executing the plan. Having them ready and able to do that is the coaches' job, and that is the most important factor for the 2013 season. And every one after that.