There are a number of cliches in the sports world that attempt to convey the relative merits of coaching. The one that I catch myself referencing quite often is that “you cannot win the Kentucky Derby on a donkey.”
This saying attempts to capture the idea that the jockey surely matters, but not very much if the animal on which the jockey rides is not of the proper quality to win against those of the highest regard.
I use this cliche at times to offer a normal helping of cynicism when a team attempts to alter the coaching staff, but at the same time keeping the players on the field the same as they were when the failure prompted the change to begin with. I am generally on the side that coaching definitely matters, but only to a reasonable distance. This silliness about a great coach like Bear Bryant or Don Shula being worthy of the “He can take his’n’ and beat you’rn’, and he can take you’rn’ and beat his’n'” quote is amusing for dinner parties, but it is a wild insult to the actual players on either team.
Coaching matters. But, in the NFL, hopefully everyone agrees that special players make a far greater difference.
But, clearly, the early returns on the new coaching staff – especially on the Cowboys’ defense – seem to indicate that there is a very new feel to a unit that appears to be largely the same guys. While very early in the campaign, it would be quite foolish for anyone to say they don’t see a distinct difference between what we have seen in 2011-2012 with Rob Ryan and what we have seen so far in 2013 from Monte Kiffin and his nearly equal partner, Rod Marinelli.
Those two have been given almost no investment upgrades in personnel and so this point look like they have assembled an attacking defense that is able to make the opponent uncomfortable and fairly ineffective in important scenarios.
In a trouncing of a young and reasonably-talented Rams offense on Sunday, the Cowboys conceded only 18 yards on 22 plays in the entire 1st half. The domination was a thing of beauty as the offense put 17 points on the board and the 2nd half was merely a formality.
The defeated Rams barely had the morale to continue into the 3rd Quarter and the Cowboys attacking defense had plenty to do with it. Let’s detail a few of the better moments – almost all on 3rd Downs.
– Rams 1st Drive, 3rd and 7 from their 23: Sam Bradford appears to have Jared Cook for a chance to move the chains after the QB is chased on a twist stunt between Jason Hatcher and George Selvie. Selvie has Bradford on a full sprint to the right sideline and he finds a space to lay a pass out to Cook who is then smashed by a hit by Barry Church that causes the ball to fall incomplete. The Rams must punt.
– Rams 2nd Drive, 3rd and 8 from the Dallas 32: Bradford tries to spread out the Dallas defense, but Kiffin sends Orlando Scandrick from the slot on a CB Blitz. He is unaccounted for and the receiver he leaves is not seen in time. Sack for Scandrick on Bradford – who had not been sacked in 5 games. This also is a sack that knocks the Rams out of field goal range, so despite a turnover on a punt return, the score remains 0-0.
– Rams 3rd Drive, 3rd and 6 from their 24: This time, there is no blitz. This is just the front 4 of the Cowboys all getting the green light and trying to “affect the passer” as Jason Garrett might say. Well, not a problem in that department as DeMarcus Ware ran over Jake Long in a way that looked like an unfair matchup between a Hall of Famer and a kid on a try-out. Long is obviously a player of great regard and doesn’t look this bad very often, but to see Ware run him over for a sack was just a thing of beauty and it looked like Jason Hatcher was about to get there as well. Another 3rd Down and another big play from the defense.
– Rams 4th Drive, 3rd and 11 from their own 17: At this point, the Rams are almost conceding that bad things are going to happen on 3rd down and are now just looking to stay away from another sack and make room for yet another punt. But, even on what was going to be a safe dump down to their RB, new Cowboys edge rusher Edgar Jones is able to tip the ball into the air at the line of scrimmage before it gets to Isaiah Pead and the ball is nearly picked off. Another defensive lineman showing great awareness and getting in Bradford’s throwing lanes.
– Rams 5th Drive, 3rd and 6 from the Rams 38: This time, the Cowboys are confident that their front 4 can get to Bradford in passing situations, and they do it again. This time, Selvie and Hatcher run a stunt where Selvie is trying to free Hatcher up by smashing the right guard, Harvey Dahl, and passing Hatcher over to Joe Barksdale. Well, Selvie does such a fine job of moving Dahl that he finds himself able to wrap up Bradford all by himself. Selvie, a former Rams pick, has been such a find this season that it demonstrates these new coaches ability to know what they seek and how to get the most of their players.
– Rams 6th Drive, 3rd and 6 from their own 16: The Rams keep protection in to give Bradford a chance and he is finally able to get a clean throw off on a money down. A dart to Austin Pettis looks like it might finally get the Rams out of their hole, but here comes Barry Church to meet Pettis at the ball and to break up another play. Church even thought he had a chance at the interception, but the collision brought on yet another punt and another stop on 3rd Down.
– Rams 7th Drive, 2nd and 1 from their 22 – Last play of 1st Half: This admittedly is not a 3rd Down, but since it made the Rams just go to the locker-room, let’s include it. This time, Jason Hatcher bull rushes former 1st Round pick and left guard Chris Williams right to the side and crushes Bradford one more time. 4th sack of the half – all drive stoppers and the Rams are demoralized.
The Rams would finish the day 1 for 13 on 3rd Downs (8%) and would concede 6 sacks after having given up 0 before coming to Dallas. It was a showing where you looked at the Cowboys defense and began wondering if they are one of the surprises of the early season across the league.
Think about it, they have received nothing from Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer (the bad news is that we are not sure how much they actually will receive from that tandem this season) and lost Tyrone Crawford on the 1st day of camp. And yet, through 3 games, they have been getting consistent pressure on the QB with 4, they have been taking the ball away, and they have been generating a number of aggressive situations where the Cowboys defense appears to be in attack mode.
And besides Marinelli and Kiffin, what did they add, exactly?
– Justin Durant, a 28-year old linebacker from Detroit on a 2-year deal for $2.4 million. – Nick Hayden, a 27-year old defensive tackle who was out of football on a 2-year, $1.3m deal. – George Selvie, a 26-year old defensive end on his 5th team, on a 1-year, $630k deal. – and Edgar Jones, Caesar Rayford, and Will Allen as discards of their respective squads.
and a few draft picks in 3rd rounder JJ Wilcox, 4th rounder BW Webb, and 6th rounder Devonte Holloman who have all played a bit so far.
In other words, a number of bodies. But, none they really had to fight to get on the free agency market. In fact, Selvie was not even in any NFL camp when training camps opened. And given that almost 3,000 players were, that really says something. And since he looks like what you would hope a 1st round pick might look like, we are left scratching our heads on how he slipped through the cracks.
And, with only those replacement level additions all for almost no money or real pick investment (save for Wilcox), we look at the Cowboys defense and consider them at the very least to be meeting all expectations or well above all expectations.
Which leads me back to the cliche about coaching. Perhaps, these jockeys are reaching this group of Cowboys defenders in a way Rob Ryan wasn’t. Or, maybe we are seeing a different approach to losing players to injury and “next man up”. We likely need to let this season develop more before making any bold proclamations, but the early returns are quite impressive.
I have been assured by many from around the league that these two guys – and Marinelli in particular – can routinely pull off projects like Hayden and Selvie. They describe him as a coach who will absolutely push defensive linemen to be the very best version of themselves that they will ever be. And have you ever seen Jason Hatcher look like this? I cannot believe he has been here since 2006 and we are just starting to see what they must have hoped he would become back then.
And if we consider the things that a Kiffin defense is known for: splash plays, pressure on a QB, and getting off the field on 3rd Downs, we would have to feel pretty strongly that this version looks promising.
I always thought Rob Ryan was handcuffed by the personnel issues he was handed and then the injuries that took away huge weapons like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter last season. And that is true, but the takeaways never happened and the team was horrendous on 3rd Downs. They have been in the bottom 3rd in the league at getting off the field on 3rd Downs since they were last in the playoffs in 2009. So, to see them 5th in the league through 3 weeks, especially without Spencer or Ratliff in the lineup is fantastic.
This Rams game will no doubt be remembered for DeMarco Murray showing the ability to bust some long runs down the field again and for a very efficient performance from the offense. But, to see the defense smother a team like they did and to hand the offense the ball with a short field over and over again was most impressive.
Add to that the idea that the NFC is upside down this morning and that 5 of the 6 2012 playoff teams have losing records (Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco, Washington, and Minnesota) it truly is appearing to be wide open for all comers. The Cowboys defense can key this run and with the exception of the late stages of the Kansas City game (basically one drive), the group has really impressed with their ability to limit damage.
Now, with Philip Rivers (8 TDs/1 INT/ 116 QB rating) and Peyton Manning (9 TDs/0 INT/ 130 QB rating) putting them to the test in the next two weeks, we will see this group asked tough questions continuously. Teams will scout their weaknesses and make them defend them. QBs will look for rookie safeties and use veteran tricks. And they won’t get to play a team that will tap out like the Rams did very often.
But, when Kiffin and Marinelli joined this team and I admit that I expected a similar fate to Ryan’s. Without significant player upgrades, you can bring in any coach you want and they won’t be able to make this defense special, I thought. But, the Cowboys have found a number of players and they all seem to be buying into this system of 11.
It is early, but, I might need to rethink my cliches if this can continue. There are many tests ahead that will reveal that answer.