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Will The Dallas Cowboys Defense Improve In Year Two Of Their 4-3 Scheme?

Monte Kiffin and his disciples perfected the Cover 2 in Tampa. How quickly have those coaches upgraded the defense at other teams?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One of the big questions for the 2014 season is how the Cowboys will respond in year two of the 4-3 scheme based on the principles developed by Monte Kiffin/Rod Marinelli. BTB-member Kjohney recently posed that question to Ask BTB, writing:

"I’ve heard that the Tampa-2 is a simple scheme in comparison to other schemes. But surely year two should be better than year one as far as players being in position and being prepared. Anyone down there at BTB want to do some research and see if there’s any historical evidence for a jump from year one to year two for teams converting to the Tampa-2 system from other systems?"

Well kjohney, I've done the research! It's taken weeks of exhaustive study. I haven't gone to work, I skipped my family's barbeque on the 4th...instead of enjoying a social life, I've locked myself in a room poring over the records.  I skipped a hot date last night to brush up on Leslie Frazier. These are the sacrifices I've made, Mr. Kjohney, because I love the Cowboys and I'm here for you. Just kidding of course - I don't have a social life, and I begged for the opportunity to write this, just for the chance to have something to do.

Anyway....let's look at the findings!

Monte Kiffin

Monte Kiffin is an amazing coach. I don't think we respect Monte's accomplishments enough. Did you know that Kiffin's defense in Tampa went a solid decade, (1996-2005), never ranked lower than 9th in points and 11 in yards? That time frame included five seasons with Top 5 finishes in yards and points and one season ranked first in both. That's absolutely incredible.

He also has a pretty impressive coaching tree. During that time period Kiffin taught his Tampa 2 defense to future head coaches Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, and Rod Marinelli. Tony Dungy took principles of the Tampa 2 with him to Indianapolis. Tony Dungy also taught the Tampa 2 to future head coach Leslie Frazier. While none of these coaches run pure Tampa 2 defenses, all of their defenses use concepts based on Kiffin's original Tampa 2.

One of the selling points of the Tampa 2 is its simplicity. Some have almost made it out to be a type of "turnkey" D...ready to go as soon as it's installed. So what do the numbers say about that?

Monte Kiffin took over the Buc's defense in 1996. Here are the defensive rankings from the year before and the first three years under Kiffin:

Tampa Bay Defense
Year Rank PPG Rank YPG
1995 12th 27th
1996 8th 11th
1997 2nd 3rd
1998 5th 2nd

As you can see, not only did the defense instantly respond when Kiffin took over, it got even better in the second year, and stayed there in the following years. But is that just a one-time occurrence?

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin was a defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay from 2001 through 2006 when he became the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. We really only have one year of data on Tomlin, after one year at Minnesota he became the head coach of the Steelers who run a 3-4 scheme.

Minnesota Defense
Year Rank PPG Rank YPG
2005 19th 21st
2006 14th 8th

Again, the results were immediate. And when Tomlin left he turned the reigns over to another former defensive backs coach...

Leslie Frazier

Frazier has a rather interesting history. He began as a defensive backs coach in Philadelphia, learning the game under Jim Johnson's attacking style of defense. He took over as defensive coordinator for the Bengals in 2003. After two years of middling success he became the defensive backs coach for the Indianapolis Colts under Tony Dungy. While there he became a Tampa 2 disciple, a defense he brought with him when he took over for Mike Tomlin in Minnesota in 2007.

Minnesota Defense
Year Rank PPG Rank YPG
2006 14th 8th
2007 12th 20th
2008 13th 6th
2009 10th 6th

As you can see, the team took a pretty large dip in it's YPG ranking in Frazier's first year, although they improved in PPG. But they improved by a really large amount in year two, and even more in year three.

Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith was the linebacker coach in Tampa Bay from 1996-2000. In 2001 he left Tampa Bay to become the defensive coordinator of the (soon to be on the decline) St. Louis Rams.

St. Louis Defense
Year Rank PPG Rank YPG
2000 31st 23rd
2001 7th 3rd
2002 23rd 13th
2003 17th 16th

So here we're seeing a difference in the trend. St. Louis saw an immediate boost to their defense when Lovie arrived, but suffered a pretty dramatic decrease in year two. Those rankings got better in year three, but never returned to 2001 levels.

What does that mean? Well, as mentioned before, when Smith arrived, St. Louis was a team that was in the beginning of a decline of talent. Much of that was hidden by the offensive wizardry of Mike Martz (whose coaching also had an impact on those defensive rankings). Still it's interesting to note that even in the year two dip, the defensive rankings weren't as bad as 2000. In 2003 Lovie Smith left St. Louis and became the head coach of the Chicago Bears. And in 2009 he hired this guy...

Rod Marinelli

Rod Marinelli has had the most interesting coaching career of all of Monte's disciples. He joined Tampa with Monte in 1996 as the defensive line coach. In 2002 he was promoted to assistant head coach, but kept his defensive line coach title. He was the last coach that we're profiling here to leave Tampa Bay, when he became head coach of the Detroit Lions in 2006 (he is also the only coach we've profiled who went straight to a head coaching job without being a coordinator first). The less said about Marinelli's time in Detroit the better. He only lasted three years as a head coach, and his defense never ranked better than 30th in points and 28th in yards. He left the Lions in 2009 to become the defensive line coach of the Bears under his friend Lovie Smith. In 2010 he was promoted to defensive coordinator, his first coordinator job in his then 15-year NFL career.

Chicago Defense
Year Rank PPG Rank YPG
2008 16th 24th
2009 (DL Coach) 21st 17th
2010 4th 9th
2011 14th 17th
2012 3rd 5th

Here we see the same pattern as with Lovie Smith. The Bears experienced a dramatic turnaround in the first year, followed by a slight dip in the second year. Unlike Smith however, Marinelli was able to recover his first year magic in year three.

What's It All Mean?

In general, this data seems to verify that yes, the Tampa 2 is fairly easy to pick up. That being said, year one is not where the big gains come, those come in years two and three as players become acclimated to the system. In every instance year three was better than the last year under the old defensive regime, and better than year two.

Of specific interest is what happened with Marinelli in Chicago. Like his time in Dallas, Marinelli came to Chicago as a defensive line coach. In both cases he was promoted to defensive coordinator after his first year.  In Chicago, the team saw immediate results. Let's hope the same magic happens in Dallas. If the history of Monte Kiffin's coaching tree is any indicator, it will.

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