Has Multiplicity Come To An End In Dallas?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With the hiring of Rob Ryan came the introduction of 'multiplicity' into the vocabularies of Cowboys' fans. With Ryan's firing, multiplicity became synonymous with 'complexity;' the reason for Ryan's firing became tied to the buzzword for his defense. Monte Kiffin's subsequent hiring promised 'simplicity.' As the natural enemy of complexity, it seemed to follow that simplicity would eliminate multiplicity from the Cowboys defense.

MULTIPLICITY

The term came up back when I was still writing fanposts around here, in the offseason of Rob Ryan's hiring. It described players with 'position flex' - guys who could line up in one position and then play an unexpected role, as well as guys simply capable of filling out more than one column of the depth chart.

We certainly went after it with Ryan running our defense. Anthony Spencer played every position in the front seven. Sean Lissemore worked his way between nose tackle and 9-technique end. Danny McCray was a safety and a linebacker. Brandon Carr and Sterling Moore both found homes at times as safeties. Alex Albright played defensive end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and tight end.

This versatility allowed those players to be plugged in at multiple spots in Ryan's myriad defensive formations and then perform a wide variety of responsibilities from that position. I can see how 'multiplicity' might get tied in with 'complexity.'

And then Rob was fired, with the primary reasoning being an overly-complex, impractical defense that couldn't survive the reality of injuries in the NFL. In was brought Monte Kiffin, with the selling point of a simple defense, valuing perfecting one responsibility over understanding a dozen. That's the end of multiplicity, right?

Not so fast.

POSITION FLEX

Anyone catch that when I was describing multiplicity above? "Position flex" is not a Rob Ryan catch phrase, but rather Jason Garrett's. He uses it when he discusses first-round selection Travis Frederick being a viable option at both guard and center, as well as Jermey Parnell playing either tackle spot and Ryan Cook playing anything but left tackle.

Garrett applies the term to tight ends who can line up all over the field and even extends the term out to the defensive side of the ball, as well as the guys straddling the line (see the multiple cases of linebacker-fullback hybrids, Isaiah Greenhouse and Caleb McSurdy).

It's more than likely that 'multiplicity' was not strictly a Rob Ryan concept, but rather a point of alignment between Garrett and Ryan (coaches who work together tend to agree on a thing or two). The question then becomes whether or not Monte Kiffin also shares in this vision.

I think the evidence is pointing to 'yes.' Kiffin seems to be working towards his own flavor of multiplicity, that's actually synergistic with his other key attribute, simplicity.

Let's look at the biggest example: the interior defensive line. In forecasting for the change to a 4-3 defense, the prediction, logically, was for Hatcher to play 3-technique and Ratliff to play the 1-technique, because these positions most closely resemble the positions the players were familiar with. Ratliff played as a 1- and 0-tech in our 3-4 defense, while Hatcher was spending time at the 3- and 5-tech in our base and nickel looks.

The observation was the opposite - that Ratliff was seeing time mostly as a 3-tech and Hatcher as a 1-tech, and both playing quite well, should you happen to be wondering.

The explanation from Kiffin and Marinelli is that Hatcher and Ratliff will be interchangeable at 1- and 3-technique. How does this explain the uneven workload in training camp, which overwhelmingly counters the prediction? If you'll allow me to theorize, it means simply that Kiffin wanted the players to spend time improving their abilities from the position they're less accustomed to - balancing out their skillset, if you will.

There was also some off-base speculation that Ratliff and Hatcher would both be 3-techniques, because the Cowboys were assumed to be looking for a bigger body to play the 1-technique. 'Conventional wisdom' about the required size to play the 1-technique (which Ratliff could tell you all about, by the way, having played it at 285) caused many to expect the Cowboys to want someone in the 330-range to 'plug the middle.' Of course, this completely defies the role of the rushmen and the prototype that Marinelli has established for his players, but when does that stop speculation?

Now, how does this position flex, or multiplicity, play in to Kiffin's simplicity, or even benefit from it? The role of the rushmen is clearly defined. Get to the quarterback; adjust to the run on the way to the quarterback; defeat blocks that get in your way. The job is the same at all four positions along the line. Not only will the experience on the other side of the line not hinder the development of players in this scheme, but it may actually help their progress. Kiffin and Marinelli want their players to be able to beat any block, from any angle and any player. Placing them at different positions along the line quickens and heightens their exposure to a larger variety of blocks, allowing for a superior learning experience. When the season begins, we may see the switching stop altogether, or surface only in light of favorable matchups or injury-based necessity.

Kiffin and Marinelli likely won't be asking Spencer and Ware to play run containment or man-coverage this season; that isn't the multiplicity they're after (sacrificing a player's strengths). But they will allow someone to perform the same responsibility at any position that requires that responsibility. The linebackers also seem to be receiving work across positions, and players like Tyrone Crawford are seeing work at both interior and exterior rushmen positions.

Multiplicity isn't dead in Dallas. It's been adapted and refined as a part of Monte Kiffin's defense and a continuing tradition of the Jason Garrett-led Cowboys.

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