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Why Cowboys Had To Replace Rob Ryan, Part II: Adapting To A Changing Landscape

In looking over the Cowboys' decision to replace Rob Ryan with Monte Kiffin, it is clear that Ryan's 3-4, and his method of implementing it, wasn't totally in line with the way that Jason Garrett wants to conduct business. More importantly, it appears Kiffin's 4-3 may represent a key adaptation to offensive innovations currently en vogue in the NFL.

Tired of seeing DeMarcus Ware on an island? So was the Cowboys' brass.
Tired of seeing DeMarcus Ware on an island? So was the Cowboys' brass.

In part one of this two-part series, I looked at some of the reasons, both schematic and personal, why Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defensive scheme were no longer tenable. Here, in the second part, we'll look at why the change might have been a wise and necessary adjustment to the NFL's changing landscape.

The first thing that must be reiterated, I think, is that firing Rob Ryan wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. Late last week, our own Tom Ryle wrote that:

there is some anecdotal evidence that a change was in the works as far back as the Thanksgiving loss to the Washington Redskins, when there were some quiet questions being asked about potential coaches. Despite many who assert that the recent comments by Jerry Jones concerning the early season defensive issues were just so much justification, there is evidence that Jones at least, if not others, was starting to feel that the Rob Ryan defense was not working out at least a couple of months ago.

This confirms the rumblings that have fallen on my aging ears. And I think it's more than just Jerry who was making inquiries. Indeed, the Cowboys' braintrust began to formulate a scheme change on defense no later than the Thanksgiving game, after struggling (to put it kindly) against the Redskins' read option, particularly in the second quarter.

Let me begin this line of inquiry by turning to Bob Sturm, the one local Dallas sportswriter who I believe is required reading. After viewing the divisional round of NFL playoffs (and seeing Colin Kaepernick eviscerate his beloved Packers both throwing and running), Sturm ruminates upon the future NFL landscape:

What if football was changing before your eyes in a way that made you recalculate your thoughts about a sport where Pro-Style I formation is all you hold dear?

What if Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, and Kaepernick were all here at the same time? And what if Geno Smith and Johnny Manziel appear to be next in line? Are you buying in that this is the new direction of the league or the next passing fad that will disappear soon?

What Sturm refers to here is the read option's electrifying possibilities. If you watched Green Bay struggle to contain San Francisco on Saturday, you'll easily recall how the read option abused the Packers' outside linebackers, Clay Matthews and Erik Walden, forcing them to make a decision about whether the collapse inside to help stop an interior run or set the edge to cover the quarterback run. Two weeks earlier, we saw very similar footage from Dallas' season-ending loss in Washington; Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware was seen repeatedly stuck in a liminal space, hovering uncomfortably between running back and quarterback, and unable to choose - and thus unable to stop - either.

Indeed, this impossible decision is precisely what the option game is designed to generate. In a recent article appearing on Grantland, Chris Brown of Smart Football fame offered up a terrific historical survey of the back-and-forth between offensive innovation and defensive scheme. With the advent of the "T formation," he writes, teams had to adapt, with the result being the old 5-2 "Monster" defense, which bears a striking resemblance to the 3-4, with its 2-gapping defensive linemen. The Monster, in turn, was beaten by a new offensive wrinkle, the wishbone (to my mind, still the prettiest offense I've ever seen):

Instead of blocking some of the Monster's 2-gap defenders, the wishbone "optioned" off them, reacting to where they went by going where they weren't. If the defensive end crashed down, the quarterback would keep the ball and run outside. Sound familiar? Against the two-gap defensive system, wishbone teams could win every time. Think about it: 2-gap lineman can't control his blocker if the blocker doesn't engage with him at all. And because the wishbone opted not to block certain defenders, it gained a numbers advantage against the rest. The Monster (read: 3-4) was out-leveraged and outnumbered, especially on the edges. Sound familiar?

As a result, Brown notes, offense ruled supreme. In 1971, for instance, the Oklahoma wishbone offense averaged a still-record 470 yards rushing per game, and continued to dominate for the better part of that decade, when Sooners coach Barry Switzer would tell his charges to "hang half a hundred" on the overwhelmed opponent. In 1979, however, Oklahoma State, a second-tier program who was getting beaten up by several wishbone teams in what was then the Big Eight conference, hired a guy named Jimmy Johnson who, as a Sooners defensive coach earlier in the decade, had gone up against that record-setting defense every day in practice. I'll let Brown tell the story from here:

Johnson's response was to reinvent the 4-3 defense with an almost entirely new underlying framework. And although this new 4-3 began at Oklahoma State, it is now known for the school Johnson brought it to next: the University of Miami. The 4-3 had been around for a long time. Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry even had his own variant named after him, the "Landry 4-3 Flex"; but Johnson concocted his version as anti-wishbone medicine. Instead of telling defensive linemen to 2-gap and watching them get fooled by the option on every play, he switched entirely to a 1-gap system. Johnson simplified things for them by giving them one job and telling them to attack...

In Johnson's Miami 4-3, aggressiveness, playing your assignment, and, above all else, speed, ruled...His 1-gap scheme allowed him to use smaller, faster, more athletic players. Johnson also lined his cornerbacks up near the line of scrimmage so they would be available to stop outside runs, while the safeties aligned deep. All together, Johnson's defense was sound against the wishbone. The middle linebacker covered the infamous fullback dive up the middle, while the other defenders - the defensive end, outside linebacker, safety, and cornerback - could account for the quarterback and pitch running back. Nowadays, whenever you see a defense smother a poorly run speed option on the sideline, you're seeing Johnson's principles at work.

I remember, as a young fan, watching Oklahoma face off against Johnson's Miami teams - and being alarmed by how much penetration the Hurricanes got, and how utterly disruptive their defense was to a wishbone attack that spent the rest of the season cutting through the opposition like a hot knife through butter. The Sooners fell to the ‘Canes during the 1985 and '86 seasons, as well as in the 1988 Orange Bowl to end the 1987 season. In those three years, Oklahoma went 33-3; all three losses were to Miami. They averaged 40.2 points a game in those 33 wins, but only 14.7 against Miami, with a high of 16 in 1986.

As Brown notes, Johnson's one-gap 4-3 defense, initially designed to stop the wishbone, turned out to be highly effective against a wide variety of schemes. This was not limited to college ball; his defenses in Dallas and Miami finished in the top ten five times, including first (Dallas '92), third (Miami '98) and fifth (Miami '99) place finishes. Since the NFL is a copycat league, it makes sense that the rest of the league took note; Brown proposes that "all of the ‘Tampa Two' defenses that later became popular were directly derived from [Johnson's] Miami 4-3."

The larger takeaway here is that, as it did in the early seventies in college football, the option attack has made a 2-gap defensive system largely untenable, with recent events in Washington and Green Bay just two examples in a mounting pile of evidence. Now, with the advent (or, depending on your position, return) of option concepts into the NFL game, it makes sense that teams are looking to return to the defense initially designed to stop the option.

And I think the Cowboys have been aware of this for a while. Think about it: which two games did Jerry Jones cite as those in which he thought the Cowboys defense should have played better? Seattle and Chicago - both of which play the one-gap "under" 4-3 designed by Monte Kiffin. We know, of course, that Lovie Smith was Kiffin's linebackers coach and took his system with him to Chicago. Similarly, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, who made his name as a defensive guru, has been running the scheme since 1977, when he learned it at the University of Arkansas under, you guessed it, the Razorbacks then-DC Kiffin.

One of the enduring memories of this year's playoffs will be the toughness, confidence and speed of Carroll's young Seahawks team, particularly their defense. After Atlanta kicked a field goal to quash the ‘Hawks amazing comeback, the aforementioned Brown tweeted:

Brown's tweet confirmed what I had been thinking as I watched the Seahawks young, fast defenders make plays in the second half. Perhaps more reassuring, I think that we'll see the Cowboys defense (undersized, fast, big corners) move in the same direction in 2013 and beyond. With RGIII and Russell Wilson likely future tournament opponents, the Cowboys will have no choice if they hope to make it to the big show.

And Jimmy will be down in South Florida, with a big "I told you so" smile on his face.

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