Cowboys on right track with new defensive staff

IRVING, Texas – The TV cameras always knew where to find Rob Ryan because he wouldn’t have it any other way. The former Cowboys defensive coordinator seemed bitter that his twin brother, Rex, beat him to the punch in becoming a head coach in the NFL.

He believed that becoming defensive coordinator for the Cowboys would finally provide the appropriate platform for a man with such a famous bloodline. But one thing that undermined his stay in Dallas was the fact that no one had a clue what he was trying to accomplish on defense. During his two seasons, the Cowboys were often penalized for not having the correct number of players on the field. His boorish behavior on the sideline only reinforced the utter lack of discipline.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had hoped Ryan’s fiery demeanor would complement Jason Garrett’s placid approach, but the Ryan boys have never been good at sharing a stage. The only time Ryan’s defense showed a shred of consistency was when several players were lost to injury last season and he was forced to simplify his approach.

Jones fired Ryan soon after the Cowboys missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. With the help of his old pal Larry Lacewell, Jerry became convinced that it was time to return to a 4-3 scheme that had been used before Bill Parcells showed up on the scene. The first choice would’ve been Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, but he was still under contract. Jones turned to the man widely credited for inventing the famed “Tampa 2” defense, Monte Kiffin. The 73-year-old Kiffin had been on a sabbatical from the NFL while serving under his feckless son, Lane, at Tennessee and USC. He’d been a brilliant defensive mind at Nebraska and of course with the Bucs, but things weren’t working out with the Trojans.

The Cowboys hired Kiffin and his former defensive line coach Tampa Bay, Rod Marinelli. Hiring Marinelli was a coup for the Cowboys because of what he’d been able to accomplish as defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears. Unlike Rob Ryan, neither Kiffin nor Marinelli aspire to become head coaches again. They are also football lifers who don’t have any interest in retirement. At last weekend’s rookie minicamp, Marinelli was the most vocal coach on the field by a long shot. He was the architect of a defense in Chicago that excelled in takeaways, something that has been lacking for years with the Cowboys.

Jerry believes that landing Kiffin and Marinelli is the equivalent to bringing in a big-ticket player in free agency. And for once, I think he’s onto something. Former Jets and Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards, who worked with both men in Tampa, believes Marinelli will have an enormous impact on the Cowboys.

“I had the privilege of working with Rod. We were all together in Tampa. … You think I got passion? He’s got a lot of passion there,” Edwards told ESPN 103.3 this week. “One thing those guys are going to learn being coached by Rod Marinelli, you are going to give effort. If you’re not, you’re not going to play. It’s going to be harder for those guys to realize this: he is going to punish them more in practice than they’ll ever be punished in a game. If they can just make it through practice, trust me, on Sunday they’re going to enjoy the walk in the park.”

Ryan will take his act to New Orleans, where he’ll join head coach Sean Payton. Perhaps he’ll put his ego aside and focus on being a solid assistant instead of a riverboat gambler, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The Cowboys have replaced him with two men who value substance over style.

“He’s the perfect combination of, not dumbing it down, but getting us at the right level of the playbook,” Jones told reporters during the recent rookie camp. “Having come from college, having had the background he’s had, plus what we need, which was probably a reduced amount of things to do out there with the veteran players we have. That’s not to criticize anybody. That’s a common goal, a common criticism of coaches. But I think he’s the ideal fit for that.”

Now, if the Cowboys could just figure out who’s calling plays on offense.