Jerry Jones' promise of an 'uncomfortable' atmosphere at Valley Ranch was not an empty threat. We found out that much early this week when the Cowboys fired Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan following two years of more quality quotes than quality defensive series. Whether or not he was a bad defensive coordinator is up for debate, as injuries seriously hurt the unit's chances. But there's no debating that over two years, his defense was consistently one of the poorest in the NFL.
- Let’s start with Monte Kiffin’s “resignation.” Understand this: the fact that he was allowed to leave ostensibly on his own terms was a gesture of respect to the father of USC head coach Lane Kiffin, and not a choice Kiffin had say in. Over the last month of the 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 who a major college program felt it would be better off without.
- Why over 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, just one week after Arizona dropped 588 yards of their own, including 469 from dual-threat QB Matt Scott. 14 days 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 here that I should offer some amount of defense for the circumstances Kiffin was working under. USC, as widely noted, is playing under scholarship reductions that cap its roster at 75 scholarship players, 10 fewer than the maximum. That’s hardly insurmountable in and of itself -- between transfers, pro defections, and ineligibilities, a lot of schools have fewer than 85 scholarship players on their roster – but what flew under the national radar was just how little depth former coach Pete Carroll left at several positions before taking the head coaching job with the Seattle Seahawks.
That resulted in two developments that hamstrung Kiffin’s chances for success – 1. USC played a huge number of underclassmen over the last few seasons, many before they were ready and
2. Lane Kiffin made the decision not to tackle in practice in order to avoid injuries to key players. It’s not hard to envision how disastrous that combination can be – players who don’t know the schemes and who haven’t practiced tackling getting tossed into crucial game situations – and in many instances, it played out in the exactly as badly as one would imagine. Oregon, in particular, exploited that to the fullest; re-watch the game tape and it’s truly staggering how many plays could have been stopped yards earlier if USC’s defenders at the second level wrapped up properly. Moral of the story: there were problems there that Monte Kiffin could not control, or reasonably have a chance to fix.
- But, after watching the last three seasons of Kiffin’s defensive game-planning, it’s the schemes that are of much greater concern. It’s certainly understandable why the architect of the Tampa 2 would be reluctant to deviate from a defense he created and changed the sport with, but in his USC tenure Kiffin was almost comically obstinate. Not only did Kiffin stick to the basic personnel set of his Cover 2 the overwhelming majority of the time, but he hardly ever played man, either, in spite of him having the conference’s best cover corner in Nickell Robey (what that means for Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr, who knows?).
When the going got tough, Kiffin’s recourse was to stick it out and hope that the other team would eventually play into his defense rather than adjusting to their attack. Too often, that approach failed. Case in point, against UCLA, redshirt freshman Brett Hundley connected on 15 of his first 17 passes, most of which came on the same combination of easy swing passes or throws over the middle of the zone. That pattern repeated itself over the course of the entire game, in spite of his line being unable to generate much of a pass rush without blitz help or that freshman quarterback finding the same windows over and over again.
- It might have been more defensible had USC, even with their sanctions, not had better athletes than most every team they faced. But they did, and Kiffin rarely put most of them in the best position to make plays, or let his talent play to its strengths. The linebacking corps was rebuilt as a smaller, faster unit with the intent of slowing down those spread looks and in the second half of the 2011 season, Kiffin did well to attack downfield to close down space and make tackles. That approach was noticeably absent at every other point in his tenure, including last year when those linebackers spent most of their time backpedaling into coverage, only to watch helplessly as the ball would be given to a ball carrier near the line of scrimmage with yards of space to work with. Again, no adjustments.
- Speaking in Kiffin’s favor, there is this: though: the players do like Monte the person. He still is a great teacher, still hands-on, and emphasizes explaining the concepts over yelling at his charges. Such an approach will likely work even better back in the NFL with grown men instead of college kids. The problem is the concepts he’s teaching and espousing increasingly appeared obsolete in the face of newer, faster, smarter offenses.
- The Kiffin quote that sums all that up, after the Oregon debacle: “It’s mind-boggling. I’ve never heard of that many yards. We just gotta do better coaching ‘em. I take full responsibility.”
- The one new wrinkle that was brought in this year, and I’d argue not nearly enough, was a 3-3-5 look on third downs. It was a look that played to USC’s strengths – safety depth, and speed on the defensive line – and was aggressive enough to confuse offenses. Whether that scheme makes its way to Dallas is impossible to say. But there has been evidence that Kiffin can change things up. He just doesn’t do that nearly enough.
- Branching off that, a name to possibly keep in mind for your April draft boards: USC S TJ McDonald, the son of former 49ers All-Pro Tim McDonald. TJ McDonald was a possible first-rounder last year, and now is more likely to go in the third. He’s more of a downhill player but can play in coverage, and was undoubtedly the team’s defensive leader last season, in addition to its team leader in tackles with 112. He was also one of the few players Kiffin moved around, often playing a hybrid LB-S role and a prominent blitzer in that 3-4 scheme. He wouldn’t be the centerfielder the Cowboys have yearned for since Darren Woodson retired, but he’d be a rookie who would play right away by virtue of his talent and his knowledge of Kiffin’s schemes.
- As for assistants, here’s where things could get interesting. Normally, a defensive coordinator has a few coaches they like 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, not Monte, and even moreso to USC the school after coaching there from 1998-2004 in addition to this stint. To sum it up, he’s not going anywhere.
The other two position coaches, LB coach Scottie Hazelton and DB coach Marvin Sanders, just joined the staff last year from other college jobs. Hazelton in particular is a Cover 2 disciple, but neither had ties to Kiffin before then. It would be surprising, then, if either followed Kiffin, especially since this isn’t seen as a promotion within USC circles as much as Kiffin having to leave the fold to find another job.
- My prevailing thought is this: 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, Dallas could not have done better than hiring the 73-year-old Kiffin. But in terms of a direction that is best suited for today’s NFL, it would be hard to do worse. The defining on-field motif in the NFL over the last 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 woefully behind in adapting to it.
The entire theme of last year’s offseason was rebuilding the cornerback position to play man coverage; Kiffin does very little of that. The question that the Cowboys face now is, if they do switch to a 4-3, how to adapt that to the styles of their more 3-4 suited personnel; Kiffin oh-so-rarely adapted to anything at all. There is a chance that a return to the NFL is a boon for Kiffin’s career, and it’s going to be a better fit for his style of play. But the college game Kiffin leaves behind is creeping towards the pro domain he’s set to return to. The more modern it gets, the more reason Cowboy fans have to worry that this hire is one with an eye on the past instead of one looking down the road.
The only other thing Mike Piellucci has ever been this passionate about was the strength of Matt Leinart's colllegiate resume, so he's to be taken seriously. He covers the school for Annenberg Digital News, and is a worthwhile follow on Twitter at @mikelikessports. Most of his tweets are about things other than USC athletics, so don't worry about that too much.