With Kiffin, Jerry Jones Tries Going Back to the Future

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Your coaches are capable, GM
Jerry, but are you?

Jerry Jones, it seems, is always trying to get back into his comfort zone.  In the Cowboys glory days of the ’90s, the team ran a power-heavy version of the Don Coryell-influenced passing attack run by offensive masterminds like Joe Gibbs and Ernie Zampese.  On defense, Dallas ran what was originally derided as a “college defense” a speed-heavy, wide-end 4-3 developed by Jimmy Johnson and his coordinator Dave Wannstedt at the University of Miami.

These two schemes, and an abundance of young talent, fortified by the Herschel Walker trade, gave the team a tactical edge.  Dallas’ defensive speed proved an effective antidote to the West Coast offenses which were terrorizing the league at the time and Norv Turner’s scheme, imported from Zampese’s Rams, solved the blitz protection issues which sank his predecessor David Shula.

Our man Jerry has never strayed far from this tactical combo, and last week’s hiring of the former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has brought him back to the formula which won Dallas Super Bowls.  It may not make all the fans in Cowboys land happy, but it puts Jones back in his comfort zone.

Jones had restored the offensive familiarity back in 2007, when he hired Jason Garrett to be his offensive coordinator.  While Garrett had worked under Zampese in Dallas and the West Coast maestro Jim Fassell in New York, his current playbook most closely resembles the version Mike Martz ran for the Rams, using big receivers and vertical passing to offset an erratic running attack.

On defense, Jones gets a coordinator who runs things in the manner that Wannstedt, Butch Davis and Dave Campo did in the go-go ’90s.  Run a pressure-heavy 4-3 which plays more zone and minimizes mistakes.  Personnel packages are slimmed, defensive looks are reduced, and more zone coverage is used, increasing the odds for turnovers.

Can going back to the future work in an NFL which is abuzz with the words, “quarterback revolution” and “zone reads?”  It’s possible.  If you look at this weekend’s playoff games, you see quite a few teams playing variants of Kiffin’s Tampa-2.  The Falcons and the Seahawks were both using under 4-3 front Kiffin prefers in their tussle yesterday, though Pete Carroll’s scheme could be dubbed the Seattle-3, since it’s base coverage is a cover-3 which parks free safety Earl Thomas in the middle of the field and challenges teams to throw at the ‘Hawks massive corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.

The Patriots coordinator emeritus Bill Belichick swapped his long-time base 3-4 scheme for a 4-3 in recent years, citing the difficulty in finding proper talent once the majority of teams began running 3-4 fronts.  Atlanta’s head man Mike Smith worked with Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio on Brian Billick’s 2000 Ravens, which used a simple Jimmy Johnson style 4-3 and set a record for fewest points allowed in a season.   Zone read QB or not, the under 4-3 remains alive and well.

The bigger Cowboys challenge may be re-stocking the offense. When I was writing for The Boys.com back in ’95, I noted that the Triplets Cowboys were very offense-heavy, despite their defensive peaks.  They scored 28 points or more in every one of their eleven playoff contests between ’92 and ’95 save one, and won ten of those games.   The outlier was Super Bowl 30, where the victorious Cowboys scored 27.

28 points used to guarantee a playoff win.  Now, it merely keeps you from getting run out of the park.  Every team in this weekend’s divisional playoffs scored at least 28 points.  How can the Cowboys again reach that rarified offensive air?

By channeling early ’90s GM Jimmy Johnson and beefing up the offensive line.  The current team has receivers and tight ends who can perform on par with the starters off those squads and Jason Witten could play on any Cowboys team in any era.  DeMarco Murray is a capable back and Tony Romo led an offense which averaged 28.4 points per game in Garrett’s inaugural year of 2007.  It’s no coincidence that ’07 was the last year the Cowboys had a massive, healthy, relatively youthful offensive line.  Today, Tyron Smith is the only starter who could challenge for a spot on the ’90s squad.

Monte Kiffin may have the defensive nous, but if GM Jerry can’t get Monte and Jason the line talent they require, ’90s style football will remain nothing more than a fond memory.

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Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com