How Injuries Forced The Cowboys To The 4-3 Defense

Ronald Martinez

The switch from the complex Ryan 3-4 to the much simpler Kiffin 4-3 was not really about personnel available or conflict on the coaching staff. It was about who would not be available when the injury bug starts to bite.

Sean Lee gave an interview last week to Charean Williams of the Ft. Worth Star Telegram about how he hoped to avoid injuries in 2012. He is hoping to be more lucky than he has in his first three seasons with the team.

Lee, entering his fourth season, has yet to play a full, 16-game season. He missed the final 10 games of the 2012 season with torn ligaments in his right big toe.

I certainly wish Lee all the luck in the world, and the same to all the Dallas Cowboys. Injuries played a major role in the 2012 season, particularly for the defense, where the starters up the middle of the formation were all taken out at various times, with Bruce Carter, Kenyon Coleman, Barry Church, and Orlando Scandrick all joining Lee on IR during the season. The team needs to be healthier this year if it is to avoid the woeful defensive stats that KD outlined in his post on the Cowboys and their competition in the NFC East.

Healthier. Or it has to be a lot better at handling the largely unavoidable injuries that accumulate on an NFL team, particularly among hard hitting defenders like Lee, Carter, Church and Scandrick.

A lot of observers were a bit shocked when Rob Ryan was fired after 2012. The belief was that the injuries kept his 3-4 from succeeding, and it was not really fair for the team to show him the door after all the team went through. It had gotten off to a decent start with the opening game victory over the New York Giants, and his viral gif summed up the way the defense played in that game.

But things started to fall apart after that, as players went done in groups. And when you take a step back from things, you realize that the idea that Ryan and his 3-4 did not get a fair chance because of excessive injures is actually a misconception about things.

The injuries proved why the Ryan defense was unsuitable for any normal season in the NFL. It is so based on complex assignments and reads that the players must be thoroughly and extensively trained and coached to carry them out well. That works when you can keep the bulk of your starters healthy, and have good depth behind them. But neither of those conditions were met for Dallas last year. And when your defense is increasingly being manned by players shuffling out of their normal position, and eventually by street free agents the team is forced to hire to try and plug the numerous, gaping holes, you cannot run the same system you thought you could. The problems getting the team aligned and particularly the plays where the team had 12, 10, and in one case, I believe, 9 men on the field all indicated the disarray from having players in the lineup and in some cases starting after only a week or two with Ryan's system.

While some years, Ryan's defense should do quite well if things fall the right way, those are going to be the exceptions under his system. In the NFL, you have to be able to go with the next man up, and although the Cowboys got a lot our of some of the street free agents it was forced to go to, it was not nearly enough. From KD's numbers in his post, the defense looked like this.


Def Yds / Gm Def Pts / Gm
Total 355.4 25.0
Rank 19th 24th

ADV ANY/A EPA Pass Rating DVOA
Defense 7.0 (29th) 109.5 (26th) 94.7 (29th) 6.7% (23rd)

Those are pretty dismal number, and despite some discussion by Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones that Ryan would have kept his mob if the season had ended with Dallas making the playoffs, I am not to sure this is as certain as they indicated. I am pretty convinced that keeping the Ryan 3-4 would have been the wrong move to make, and was going to be on the table no matter how the season eventually ended.

And I rather suspect that Monte Kiffin's hire was at least partly driven because he has a much more straightforward system. The word that keeps getting used in camp for his 4-3 is "simple". Kiffin is alluding to not trying to install his full system the first season, to let the players learn the more basic aspects and get them right. There already seem to be some benefits accruing for Dallas. The rushmen formerly known as DEs and DTs seem positively eager to do start wreaking some havoc on the opposing teams, and the reaction from other players supports this idea for the entire formation. In another interview with the Star-Telegram's Carlos Mendez, Lee is on board with the benefits of simplicity.

I'm going to try to continue to learn with Coach Kiffin. I don't see it as an issue at all. I think Coach Kiffin, it's been very easy to learn. He coaches with passion. He has an unbelievable knowledge. So for me, it's just another opportunity to work with a great coach."

The big advantage that Dallas may have with this system is not for the starters, but for the backups that will be on the initial roster and practice squad, and for whatever players may have to be brought on board the team late in the season to fill in. At the DallasCowboys.com site, which we sort of affectionately term the mothership, Bryan Broaddus took a look at what names may be going up on the Cowboys' Emergency Board.

When I worked in the pro personnel department for Jerry and Stephen Jones one of my responsibilities was to put together an Emergency Board of players that could be available if we needed to add a player or two that could upgrade the roster or if we suffered an injury that required us to have to replace a player.

The article goes on to describe briefly what the team is looking for (players that fit the scheme) and other considerations, such as whether an older player might be good to finish a season, or just fill in for two or three weeks. The list is built off what is available (Broaddus provides a few names Dallas might be considering). Then, if injuries to mount up, the board has to replenished to make sure there are still names to reach out to for any emergency situation.

These are the players who most benefit by having a simple defensive plan, such as how the current one is being described. It gives the team a much better chance of putting a street free agent, or two, into the mix, and have them absorb enough of the playbook to begin contributing in a week or two, something that was much harder in RRs 3-4.

I think there was a strong belief among some members of the Cowboys' brain trust that Ryan's system was not going to be able to handle this aspect of the game well, and something like a Kiffin 4-3 was a much better fit, especially with the personnel on hand. One thing I believe would shed a lot of light on the situation was when Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones first starting talking to Monte Kiffin about being the Dallas DC. I know these are private conversations, but we now know that the NSA is pretty much monitoring everything, so I imagine they could pinpoint those phone calls in about 17 seconds if they wanted to, and pull up the content in another 41. I hold out precious little hope of getting a whistle blower who will come forth on that for us, but just in case, any such brave and patriotic souls who feel our freedoms are being infringed by out-of-control government surveillance should consider how rapidly a Dallas story involving leaked information goes viral. I'm just saying that if you want it to get out there, we are the interwebs mecca for that. And we will conceal or reveal your ID as requested or needed.

But the serious point here is that I would not be surprised to see some informal contact was made with Kiffin before the end of the season, once he had made it known he was looking to get back into the NFL and repair the damage done to his reputation at USC, even if he did have to give up with such flexible monetary incentives for his players. I think his style of defense is the perfect counteragent to minimize the effect of defensive injuries. And I think that, as Jason Garrett and his bosses looked at the end of the season, they knew they needed to fix that issue, which was, after all the first major change the team made while things were really uncomfortable. Injuries did drive the decision, more than most realize.

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