Monte Kiffin is rumored to be the Dallas Cowboys ‘new’ defensive coordinator. Even his old players didn’t see this one coming.
Former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said he figured the 72-year-old Kiffin would get another shot in the NFL. He just didn’t expect it to be with Dallas.
"I would never have guessed Dallas two weeks ago," said Brooks, who still keeps in touch with Kiffin.
Kiffin would convert the Cowboys back to a 4-3 scheme. The Cowboys played the 4-3 from their first season in 1960 until Bill Parcells’ third season in Dallas in 2005 when he switched to the 3-4. The Cowboys have played the 3-4 since.
"I don’t know if he has the players there yet. I hope he does," Brooks said. "I just know what we did to make our defense great. Some would say it’s so simple, but at the same time, it’s so complex. You always hear about Dallas, ‘They’ve got talent. They’ve got talent.’ Well, now it’s time to roost. They can answer the question: Do they really have talent?"
Brooks compared DeMarcus Ware to Simeon Rice. Rice had 69 of his 122 sacks in his four years in Kiffin’s Cover 2 defense.
"For the most part, all he’s doing is going after the quarterback," Brooks said. "We know [Ware] can do that."
The Bucs had John Lynch at safety, Warren Sapp at defensive tackle, Brooks at linebacker, Ronde Barber at corner to go along with Rice. Sapp and Lynch are Hall of Fame candidates this year.
That is a big reason in 13 years in Tampa, Kiffin’s defenses ranked in the top 10 in total defense all but two years — 11th in 1997 and 17th in 2006 — and top 10 in fewest points allowed for all but 2006 (21st). Six times they ranked in the top 10 in takeaways.
Kiffin also had top assistants in guys like Rod Marinelli, Lovie Smith, Joe Berry, Mike Tomlin, Herm Edwards.
"That was a big part of his success was his assistants," Brooks said. "They have to know how to teach. …He believes every player can be coached."
Brooks knows one thing: Kiffin will be more motivated than ever after four years in the college game coaching for his son and a disappointing departure from the Bucs in 2008.
"Our defense once he made that announcement he was leaving, it’s on record we didn’t play well," Brooks said. "That doesn’t sit right with him. I know that bothers him. He is motivated in that sense. He wants to earn his reputation back."
Monte Kiffin, a man who would be 73 when next season starts has 26 years’ worth of experience coaching in the NFL. He is known as the pioneer of the "Tampa 2" defense. If Kiffin is who they bring in to replace the fired Rob Ryan, it would surely represent the "different direction philosophically" that head coach Jason Garrett cited as the motivation for Ryan’s firing.
Tampa 2 would mean a switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, which would turn DeMarcus Ware into a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end for the first time in his career. Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said he didn’t love the idea of Ware as a 4-3 end. His reasoning: "Just a little closer to the ball, more wear and tear, more battling with bigger bodies. And he is already showing signs that his body could be beginning to break down. I don’t see a true 4-3 DE on the roster, which would then catapult that to their No. 1 need, which then will make it tougher to address things like offensive line and safety."
Which is an issue, but remember, these Cowboys project to be about $18.2 million over the salary cap at this point, so they may have to find some odd and unconventional solutions. Tyrone Crawford, their third-round pick in last year’s draft, is probably a fit at a 4-3 end spot long-term. The question is if Crawford could be ready (or big enough) to be a starter in 2013. But assuming they can’t fit Anthony Spencer under the cap, they may have to try it. I imagine Jason Hatcher would move inside to defensive tackle and help the pass rush from there. And Jay Ratliff would also likely thrive in a 4-3, but he’s causing cap problems for them too.
The Tampa 2 needs speed at the second and third levels, and asks linebackers to be strong in coverage. The Cowboys would be in good shape there with guys like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, who are strong in coverage and have the speed to potentially stay on the field in passing situations in a Kiffin defense.
The Tampa 2 sometimes will replace linebackers with safeties to increase the overall defensive speed, and here again the Cowboys have an issue. Barry Church’s expected return from injury would help, but it’s not a position at which they’re deep. They like Matt Johnson, whom they took at the tail end of the fourth round in April, as a playmaking safety. But he didn’t exactly develop this year, and they’d be taking a chance if they were relying on him to fill a significant role next year. The price would be right, though.
And there is some question as to whether or not press cornerbacks like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne fit into a system such as this one. The Cowboys signed Carr to a $50 million contract last offseason and used their first two picks of last year’s draft on Claiborne, so you’d hate to all of a sudden install a system into which they don’t fit neatly. That would have to be addressed, and the extent of the investment the franchise has in those two players would require them to make sure they maximize their abilities in whatever defense they use. It’s surely not out of the realm of possibility that Kiffin tweaks his system around the personnel he has. The good coaches are the ones that do that.
Traditionally, Kiffin’s defenses have preached the importance of forcing turnovers, even if that means taking a risk on giving up a big play. Since only three teams in the league — the Eagles, Colts and Chiefs — forced fewer turnovers in 2012 than the Cowboys did, Kiffin’s reputation as a takeaway hawk. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that a coaching change would make the Cowboys better at forcing turnovers if they’re using the same players that couldn’t force them in 2012. But there is a chance that changing the mindset of the defense on this matter could have an impact in that area. And there’s more than a chance that Jones would expect it to do so.
Kiffin is 72 years old, and that’s a concern among Cowboys fans who wonder if his best coaching days are behind him. But he’s been on the radar of a few teams this offseason (Andy Reid supposedly talked to him about being defensive coordinator in Kansas City), and he’s still well regarded in NFL circles as a top defensive mind. Above all, bringing in Kiffin would signal that the Cowboys have a definite plan about what to do on defense. And that matters.
John Lynch is a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He credits a big part of his success to the eight years he spent in Monte Kiffin’s defense in Tampa.
"Monte was one of the finest coaches in any sport, at any level I have ever been around," said Lynch, who had 541 tackles, seven forced fumbles and 23 interceptions in 11 years with the Bucs. "I think what he did was revolutionary on defense in terms of what we did. I think the beauty of it was the simplicity. We didn’t try to trick people. He believed in doing a few things and doing them, and learning the intricacies so well that it was kind of a deal where, ‘Here it is. Go ahead and stop it.’ You have to great players to do that. I know that. At times that seemed to denigrate the role of the coordinator, but I thought to the contrary. I thought that was brilliance of him."
Like Derrick Brooks, Lynch believes his former defensive coordinator will be highly motivated if he gets a job with the Cowboys. Kiffin burned some bridges with the way he left Tampa in 2008. The Bucs fell apart once Lane Kiffin became the coach at the University of Tennessee, and it became obvious Monte Kiffin would join his son in Knoxville. The Bucs lost their final four games — allowing 31 points per game — to fall to 9-7, the first team in NFL history to miss the playoffs after starting 9-3. Jon Gruden was fired three weeks later.
Monte Kiffin’s four-year stint in college football wasn’t much rosier. USC finished 60th in total defense this past season, allowing 394 yards per game. They also gave up 24.31 points per game.
In four seasons coaching for his son — one season at Tennessee and three at USC — Kiffin’s teams were 32-19, allowing 24.2 points and 371.8 yards per game. It was atypical Monte Kiffin defenses.
"He’s got something to prove," Lynch said. "The way it ended in the NFL. The way he went out at SC. We were just around him at the reunion [at Tampa], and he seemed like the same ol’ Monte. If it does happen, I’m excited. I know this: He’ll get the guys more passionate and caring more about what he’s doing than anybody."