IRVING, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys sealed an agreement Friday with new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, a source told 105.3 The Fan. Talks progressed so quickly in recent hours that discussions at Valley Ranch almost immediately turned to candidates to fill out the defensive staff and ways to maximize the roster’s existing talent. (Talk, I’m told, that features free agent Anthony Spencer and how to fit him into Kiffin’s 4-3 and into Jerry Jones’ strapped salary cap.)
The team announced the move on its website later Friday.
For as much pomp as a stated “new philosophical direction” on defense generates, it only means something if there’s substance behind it. In name, and in legacy, the Cowboys could not have done better than hiring the 72-year-old Kiffin.
“Why hire guys who learned the 4-3 from Kiffin,” a source told me as we broke the Thursday news that Kiffin walked into Valley Ranch at 7:45 a.m. alongside coach Jason Garrett, “when you can just hire Kiffin himself?”
But in terms of a direction that is best suited for today’s NFL?
That’s more wait-and-see.
“Monte Kiffin is, without a doubt, one of the finest, sharpest defensive minds in the history of football,” former Cowboys coach Barry Switzer told me.
And that’s a start.
ITEM: The defining on-field motif in the NFL over the past couple of seasons has been the college game’s influence on the NFL with its spread looks and mobile quarterbacks. We have three years of data at USC to suggest that Kiffin is slow in adapting to it.
The entire theme of last year’s Cowboys offseason was rebuilding the cornerback position to play man coverage; Kiffin does very little of that. Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr have alterations to make.
The question that the Cowboys face as they switch to a 4-3 is how to adapt that to the styles of their personnel, suited more for the 3-4. Dallas played lots of 4-3 under departed coordinator Rob Ryan. The job, no matter who holds it, now demands that pressure players put on pressure (wasn’t Spencer underused there last year?). And it also demands an ability to counter stuff like the read-option.
“The Cowboys have the personnel to do this,” assures Larry Lacewell, the long-time college football guru and a Jones confidante. “Monte is going to love this personnel.”
The college game Kiffin leaves behind is creeping toward the pro domain he’s set to return to. The more modern it gets, the more that Cowboys fans joke about Kiffin’s age.
“I wouldn’t bother much with the jokes, even though they are funny,” Switzer said. “They get in the way of evaluating the guy. And when you evaluate Monte, he’s outstanding.”
ITEM: Understand that Kiffin was allowed to leave USC ostensibly on his own terms as a gesture of respect to the father of USC head coach Lane Kiffin, and wasn’t a choice Kiffin had say in. Over the final month of the college season, it became the program’s worst-kept secret that Monte Kiffin was on the way out and a replacement was heading in. So while Kiffin’s resume is unmatched as a defensive coordinator, just keep in mind that this is also a coach whom a major college program felt they’d be better off without.
It’s fair to note that a quarter-century of NFL excellence cannot be offset by a mediocre run at USC. It’s also fair to dig into USC a bit.
In that last month? Well, that’s when Kiffin’s defense took a gashing of epic proportions. The headliner was against Oregon, which put up the most points (62) and yards (730) in a game by a USC opponent in the program’s vaunted history. That came just one week after Arizona dropped 588 yards on the Trojans, including 469 from dual-threat QB Matt Scott. Two weeks after Oregon, USC lost to arch-rival UCLA for the first time since 2006 on the strength of 171 rushing yards from Bruins running back Johnathan Franklin.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Kiffin said after the Oregon game. “I’ve never heard of that many yards. We just gotta do better coaching ’em. I take full responsibility.”
There were problems there that Monte Kiffin could not control, or reasonably have a chance to fix. But, after studying the past three seasons of Kiffin’s defensive game-planning, it could be argued that the architect of the Tampa 2 was highly reluctant to deviate from a defense he created and changed the sport with, possibly too reluctant.
ITEM: Speaking in Kiffin’s favor from the USC viewpoint, there is this: The players like him. He still is a great teacher, still hands-on, and he emphasizes explaining the concepts over yelling at his charges. Such an approach likely will work even better back in the NFL.
It also fits well with Garrett — and with owner Jerry Jones’ stated desire to upgrade the club’s fundamentals, including the simplistic “tackling.”
And his NFL players — especially in Tampa, where he spent 13 terrific years highlighted by a Super Bowl win — rave about him. He is an iconic and even beloved defensive coach, and as with Pittsburgh’s 75-year-old Dick LeBeau, maybe Kiffin’s age adds to the legend.
ITEM: The Cowboys don’t seem to have the money to sign “Kiffin-style” players. (A source tells me, however, that the club is already “thinking creatively” about keeping Spencer and even adding talent — maybe by subtracting others and biting the future financial bullet.) They do have the personnel to do some of what’s needed in the front seven, and, with the 18th overall pick, will have the defensive line as a probable priority, along with the offensive line. But here’s a name to keep in mind for your April draft boards: USC safety T.J. McDonald, the son of 49ers former Pro Bowl defensive back Tim McDonald. T.J. McDonald was a possible first-rounder last year. Now, he’s more likely to go in the third. He was one of the few players Kiffin moved around, often playing a hybrid LB-S role and as a prominent blitzer in that 3-4 scheme. A Kiffin safety ideally needs to be a center fielder. McDonald isn’t that, but he could help by virtue of his talent and his knowledge of Kiffin’s schemes.
Meanwhile, it’s not hard to envision DeMarcus Ware as a destructive force at defensive end, like Simeon Rice in Tampa Bay. Same with rangy linebackers such as Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Dallas doesn’t have a Warren Sapp. But when the Cowboys last played the 4-3, they had LeRoi Glover. Maybe Jay Ratliff simulates that.
ITEM: As for Cowboys assistants: Normally, a defensive coordinator has a few coaches he likes working with and brings them from stop to stop. In Kiffin’s case, whoever they are, they probably aren’t coming from USC. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron has a rep as one of the college game’s best and coached that unit for the Saints in 2008, but he’s a loyalist to Lane Kiffin. LB coach Scottie Hazelton and DB coach Marvin Sanders just joined the staff last year from other college jobs, and Hazelton in particular is a Cover 2 disciple. Neither had ties to Kiffin before then, so it would be surprising, then, if either followed Kiffin.
So instead, consider the possibility that some Ryan guys presently on the Dallas staff interview favorably with Kiffin and Garrett moving forward. And then dig into Kiffin’s impressive coaching tree (including the likes of Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Herm Edwards) and consider the possibility of guys such as Rod Marinelli and Raheem Morris, both former NFL head coaches now working as assistants.
Said Lacewell: “Monte knows everybody in the NFL. And they know him. It’ll be tough to get guys like Rod and Raheem; that’d be a dream team if they do that. But Monte will attract good coaches, no doubt.” ITEM: We’re told there are more changes being considered at Valley Ranch, along with this week’s firing of running backs coach Skip Peete. Is Dallas getting all it can from its special teams coach and its tight ends coach? What’s the optimal way to handle Garrett’s playcalling? (Garrett himself told me, “Everything is on the table there.”) And while we’re at it, does anyone on Jerry Jones’ impressive list of “unofficial consultants” want to sign on full time?
Those moves are coming.
The move with the iconic Monte Kiffin is done, and if it’s only about applying himself and maybe polishing his USC-tainted legacy, this just might work.
“I don’t have any hobbies,” Kiffin said recently. “I don’t hunt. I don’t fish. I don’t golf. It’s just family and football.”