OXNARD, Calif. – What seemed like a relatively docile morning walk-throw session for the Dallas Cowboys turned into something else Monday. The team’s 73-year-old defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had just watched a young player repeat a mistake.
“I’m tired of talking about this!” shouted Kiffin.
No one on either side of the ball said a word for at least 10 seconds after Kiffin’s tirade. But a few minutes later, Kiffin walked off the practice field with his arm around the rookie linebacker. This does not look like a man who wants any part of retirement. And he doesn’t feel like there’s much difference between coaching at USC or with the Cowboys. (either way, you can’t avoid Chip Kelly).
“Coaching’s coaching,” he said while never breaking stride as he walked toward his hotel room. “Teaching, teaching, teaching! It’s not about you, it’s about the players.”
Kiffin is having to slow himself down in this camp and remind himself his players are learning a new defensive scheme on the fly. He is widely regarded as the father of the famed “Tampa 2” defense, but he’s uncomfortable with the recognition. Several times during the interview, he tried to change the subject to defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.
“He’s like an icon,” Kiffin said at least three times.
But on one important topic, Kiffin was refreshingly honest. Cowboys owner/Frisco land baron Jerry Jones has acted as if defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee) and tackle Jay Ratliff (hamstring) missing every practice in training camp is not a big deal. Jones cited outstanding depth along the defensive line as a reason for not selecting Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd when he fell into their laps during April’s draft. But on Monday, Kiffin talked about the prospect of Spencer and Ratliff perhaps not playing in the preseason.
“It’s really important that they get some time,” Kiffin said. “It’s hurting us a little bit as we put everything together.”
It sounded a lot different to me than Rob Ryan trying to set up an injury excuse. This is an iconic figure in the NFL saying that he’s truly worried about missing two key players on his defense. Hopefully Jerry’s too caught up in the announcement of his team’s new practice facility in Frisco to notice an assistant coach dispensing the truth.
There’s reason to believe that Spencer will rebound quickly from arthroscopic surgery, but it still baffles me the Cowboys would place so much trust in Ratliff. He only played in six games last season due to injury, and he didn’t register a single sack. The Cowboys might have two of the best defensive assistants in the league, but it might not matter if they aren’t strong up front.
This idea that a scheme change is some sort of cure-all isn’t without precedent with the Cowboys. Bill Parcells arrived on the scene in 2003 and didn’t like the look of the team’s mighty mite linebackers Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen. He selected DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears in the first round of the 2005 draft because he felt more comfortable in a 3-4 scheme. That forced defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to coach a scheme he didn’t believe in.
And for the record, the Cowboys would’ve preferred Zimmer over Kiffin, but he’s under contract with the Bengals. On Monday, Cowboys head coach talked about how it takes some teams a few years to make a successful transition to a new defensive scheme. He doesn’t think that will be the case with the Cowboys.
“We looked at our linemen and our linebackers and felt like we could do it and not be putting square pegs in round holes,” said Garrett. “In some cases, we felt the players we had were actually a better fit [for the 3-4]. And they’re no longer here.”
Garrett played for Tampa Bay toward the end of his playing career, and he made it a point to pick Kiffin’s brain after nearly every practice. I asked Garrett on Tuesday how rare it is to see a coach become so upset during a walk-through session.
“He’s intense. He’s intense about doing things the right way,” Garrett said of Kiffin. “We got an expression: everything you do, every time you do it. It’s important. You have to meet the right way. You have to walk-through the right way. You have to warm up the right way, practice the right way, play the right way. And Monte knows that better than anybody, and his standard for doing things right is high and that’s good thing.”
Of course, Kiffin also knows it helps to have the right players. That’s the part that’s still up in the air.