The Cowboys fired a cutting-edge defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan over philosophical differences. Ryan’s unorthodox methods often left the players confused and out of position.
The hiring of the Monte Kiffin, 72, is an effort by the Cowboys to move away from exotic looks and two-man pass rushes and get back to basic, sound defense.
But in doing so, did they swing the pendulum too far the other way?
Take a look around the NFL. The times they are a-changing.
The latest change came Wednesday when the Eagles hired Oregon’s Chip Kelly to be their head coach. Kelly’s Oregon offense was a trend-setter in the development of spread-option attacks, and it’s a trend that has taken root in the NFL.
Just last weekend, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran past the Packers’ defense using a pistol offense developed at his alma mater, Nevada.
Kaepernick’s performance sent shivers down the backs of defensive coordinators around the league. The era of the running quarterback is dawning, again.
The theory used to be that running quarterbacks can’t survive in the NFL because they would take too much punishment. Kaepernick is 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds – he can take a hit. He’s also fast enough to run away from your linebackers and defensive backs if he gets the angle.
Russell Wilson, another example of the modern, mobile quarterback, got the Seahawks to the playoffs as a rookie this year.
The Cowboys saw one of these new-age quarterbacks up close this season in Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III. On one good leg, Griffin juked the Cowboys around the edge several times in the season finale to claim a playoff berth.
Of course, RGIII also proved the theory that running quarterbacks can’t stand up to the punishment of a 16-game NFL season. The Eagles’ Michael Vick, a forerunner of the modern running QB, has also had a difficult time staying healthy.
Then again, you have to catch them to hit them. There’s not much evidence that Kiffin’s defense is very good at catching spread-option quarterbacks.
Kiffin resigned from USC apparently out of frustration at defending those high-octane spread offenses. No team deviled him more than Kelly’s Oregon squads, and now Kiffin will get to match wits with Kelly twice a season.
In three games against the Kiffin defense, Oregon went 2-1 and averaged 601 yards and 50 points. No wonder Kiffin wanted to return to the safety of the relatively conservative NFL.
Except the NFL is starting to copy elements of these wacky college offenses, which are rapidly losing the “gimmick” label. Kelly’s Oregon offense is based on sound principles and is a run-first philosophy. It only seems like the Ducks are a circus offense because they put up circus-like numbers with their no-huddle, hurry-up style.
Kiffin is known as the architect of the Tampa 2 defense. Its base look employs two deep safeties, each responsible for one-third of the deep part of the field with the middle linebacker dropping back to cover the middle.
Playing two safeties deep gives the Oregon offense a numbers advantage, since in a four-wide look that leaves just five defenders in the box to stop the run. Bring the safeties up to defend the run, and Oregon throws seam routes downfield.
Kelly’s offense forces opponents to defend the entire field. It’s a pick-your-poison method, like all good offensive systems.
The key is having the personnel to run it. The Eagles may be in no better shape to employ Kelly’s offense, personnel-wise, than the Cowboys are to run Kiffin’s version of the 4-3.
At one time, Vick would have been perfect for Kelly’s offense, but at 32 he’s showing lots of wear and tear. Nick Foles, a spindly 6-6, is definitely not suited for the Oregon offense.
The successes of Kaepernick, Griffin and Wilson will put mobile passers in high demand. NFL-quality mobile QBs will probably be no easier to find than Manning and Brady clones currently are. We’re not talking about a league-wide revolution, at least not overnight.
But we are talking about the NFC East, which will have two teams running spread-option elements in the Redskins and Eagles. The Giants aren’t likely to toss out Eli Manning just to jump on the latest trend, but facing a QB with two Super Bowl rings presents a different challenge.
Is Kiffin up to those challenges on a weekly basis? Kiffin will turn 73 next month, and much has changed since he was last in the league in 2008.
How useful will Kiffin’s vast knowledge be in an NFL rapidly adopting facets of the college game? Kiffin made his name as an innovator more than a dozen years ago.
Cowboys supporters might counter that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will be 76 next season and shows no signs of slowing down. Of course, LeBeau runs a 3-4, and despite his success, you don’t see teams running out to hire septuagenarians.
The Cowboys are banking on Kiffin being able to combat 21st century offenses by simplifying things. Running a version of the Tampa 2 should lead to less confusion and put defenders in position to make plays.
Kiffin didn’t win that battle often enough at the college level. With NFL-caliber athletes, he might have better luck, but we won’t know until the season kicks off.
All we know for sure is that the Cowboys couldn’t live with a gambling defensive coordinator in Ryan. Now they’re gambling themselves that a coach with a storied NFL past can bring them a brighter future.