The Dallas Cowboys’ pursuit of legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin may have started as early as last summer. A small delegation of Cowboys staffers attended a USC practice last August and came away impressed with how much energy the soon-to-be 73-year-old Kiffin still possessed, according to a source.
That’s not to say the Cowboys expected Rob Ryan to fail, but perhaps they were at least getting their contingency plan together. Now after his unsuccessful foray into college football, Kiffin has returned to his comfort zone with an opportunity to repair his tarnished image.
His marching orders are to revamp a defense that looked completely unorganized much of the time under Ryan’s watch. In fact, a good start would be getting the appropriate number of players on the field, although I was intrigued by Rob’s 9-man look.
Even dating back to his days as defensive coordinator at Nebraska in the 1970s, Kiffin is known for building fundamentally sound defenses. Kiffin and Oklahoma defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell were considered two of the best in America, and the schools had some great battles. Lacewell told me recently that he “stole” from Kiffin quite a bit over the years. And you can bet that Lacewell, a longtime friend and employee of Jerry’s, had a major say in Kiffin’s hire by the Cowboys.
What Kiffin and Tony Dungy built in Tampa Bay beginning in 1996 has become the blueprint for defensive coaches at all levels. Mike Zimmer used a lot of Kiffin’s “Tampa 2” concepts to have some success as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator until Bill Parcells forced him to change to a 3-4 scheme in 2005. The Cowboys would’ve preferred to bring back Zimmer, but he’s still under contract with the Bengals and wouldn’t have been allowed to make a lateral move.
My biggest problem with this move has nothing to do with Kiffin’s advanced age or his lack of success at Tennessee and USC. I simply don’t understand why Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones stopped short of trying to replicate the success the Bucs experienced under Kiffin and Jon Gruden beginning with that 2002 Super Bowl team. Jerry has already turned Jason Garrett into a puppet by making it clear that he’s in total charge at Valley Ranch. Why not finish the deed and make a strong play for Gruden, who apparently is interested in coaching again?
For the last couple years, I’ve talked about how Tony Romo has needed a new voice in his ear. He’s never been able to leave his gunslinging ways behind, in part because no one’s told him to do so. I’ve often believed that Garrett let his friendship with Romo prevent him from cracking down on him. Gruden’s as tough on quarterbacks as anyone since Parcells. Who knows what Romo would’ve accomplished had Parcells stayed in Dallas for another year or two. He certainly wasn’t afraid to stay on top of him.
Jerry could’ve told Sean Payton to hang on a few weeks to see how the Cowboys’ season played out. But he had no interest in matching Saints owner Tom Benson’s $8 million per year offer. That was a poor decision. And not pursuing Gruden right now is another one.
If Jerry truly wanted to make everyone uncomfortable that’s exactly what he would’ve done. Instead, he’s turned Garrett into a lame-duck head coach.
Jones is trying to make some meaningful changes. Unfortunately, he didn’t finish the job – yet.