Thursday, January 30, 2014

Weighing in on the 2014 Dallas Cowboys' staff changes

Last pre-season, I said that Jerry Jones made the right decisions as far as implementing coaching staff changes, but made them in the worst possible fashion.

Jason Garrett clearly was a better head coach for not having play calling duties and for the first 5-6 games of the season Dallas's defense was vastly improved in the 4-3.  Then injuries happened for the second straight year and the defense fell apart.

Dallas's defense ended up being the worst Cowboys' defense in team history.  Injuries played a huge role, but weren't the only factor.

Both Monte Kiffin and the man he replaced, Rob Ryan, are great defensive coordinators, but like all coaches they excel in some areas and fail in others.  Ryan lost his job in Dallas because Jerry Jones and Larry Lacewell thought Ryan was unnecessarily complex in his play calling and that it was stunting the development of the players selected by the scouting department (headed by Jerry Jones).

There is something to the argument. In New Orleans, Ryan has some limitations put on how complex he can be and he again looks like one of the best defensive coordinators in the league.  It is frustrating that Jones did not simply put those shackles on Ryan, rather than scapegoating the guy for coaching a roster filled with aging guys and guys who were drafted despite major injury concerns --- but it is what it is.

Ryan is a great motivator of defensive players and may be the absolute best in the NFL at getting solid play from over matched personnel.  Unfortunately his base scheme was a 3-4 in a year where Larry Lacewell was strongly advocating the switch to a 4-3.  Jones would scapegoat Ryan for the failings of the team in 2012.

Monte Kiffin coaches a very player friendly 4-3 scheme.  It is easy for every position but CB.  Because it is well designed, players do not have to think much in Kiffin's scheme.  They can just react.

Kiffin's scheme requires physical CBs who are willing and reliable tacklers.  Dallas had invested heavily in a pair of young CBs who excell in man coverage and are not willing tacklers.  Both struggled in zone coverage.

The difference between the 4-3 and 3-4 from a cap perspective is where you sink your money.  In the 3-4, it is all about the outside linebackers.  In the 4-3 it is all about the defensive line.  If you lose high dollar players in the area that dominates your defensive spending, you will struggle to replace them.

Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were 4-3 DEs in college.  The thought was that, although they would be undersized 4-3 DEs, the move back to that scheme would be manageable.   Spencer went down with a knee injury in week 1 and was lost for the season.  For the second year in a row, Ware took on a host of injuries.  This time he significantly slowed down due to the injuries, dropping from 11 sacks to 6 sacks.   Ware was easily blocked by single coverage in the season's second half.

Both DE's appear to be too old to play as undersized, full-time DEs.  Both appear to be passing down specialists at this point in their careers.  The move to the 4-3 appears to still be viable, but appears about 3 years too late for Ware and Spencer to be dominant every down players.

As I predicted last pre-season, Jason Hatcher prospered at the 3 technique DT and had a career year.  The scheme change was great for him. Likewise Dallas had the best safety play they have had in several years.  The 4-3 cover 2 has been great for Dallas' young safeties. But it hasn't been great for everyone.

Jones has a lot invested in his starting CBs.  Both struggled mightily in cover 2 once the team's pass rush dried up.

Given the team's investment at CB it makes a lot of sense to move Kiffin into a "helper/gamplanner/ assistant" role with former DL coach Rob Marinelli taking over at DC.

There is an argument that Kiffin was too dogged about staying in the cover 2 last year and that he struggled to adjust to offensive play calling on the fly.  The nut of it was that he was too dead set in his ways --- too committed to the defense he developed --- and too slow to process needed changes within the flow of the game.  Said another way, he was too old to be in that position.  The evidence does support that conclusion.

There is also an argument that, like Ryan, Kiffin is merely the latest fall guy for the failings of the scouting department and the guys signing old players to overly large deals --- both headed by Jerry Jones.  The evidence also supports that conclusion.

Jones and Garrett set out to promote Rod Marinelli into Kiffin's job.  The thought was that Dallas would not be able to convince Marinelli to take it, if it forced out Kiffin.  The fact that Dallas was able to get both parties to come to terms is a little surprising and reflects well on Jones and Garrett, but especially on Kiffin.  It appears that Kiffin was not only able to put aside his ego for the betterment of the team, but also to essentially be the fall guy.  You really cannot ask for more.

Kiffin is likely to be a positive assistance to his good friend Marinelli, while Marinelli is one of the top defensive coordinators in the league.  It would not be at all surprising to see Kiffin improve a defensive game plan or focus on developing key players like under performing LB Bruce Carter.  This looks very workable.


On offense, things are also looking up, although there is likely some major dysfunction and "sore ass" on that side of the coaching staff.

Last year, Jones rammed Bill Callahan down Jason Garrett's throat.  The results were predictably poor.

While Garrett likely loves Callahan's work as an Oline coach, there is likely no way Garrett would have chosen Callahan to be his offensive coordinator.

Callahan was pretty bad last year.   The offense disappeared for games on end, despite above-average blocking and all of the key stars being healthy.  For that to occur, the play calling really has to struggle.

The trouble was Callahan is a guy from the Bill Walsh camp and Garrett is a guy heavily influenced by the Don Coryell camp.  Over the years both schools of offensive thought have been labeled "the West Coast Offense", but they have entirely different core philosophies.  The Walsh camp focuses on quick passes, often stretching the defense wide and uses the run as a garnish.  It is hoping for receivers to run up yards after catch.  Walsh guys consider short passes to be equivalents to runs.

The Coryell camp favors a more physical running game and in general throws the ball a little deeper,  trying to stretch the defense deeper to open up running lanes.  They would rather run the ball to pull the defense in and open up a big pass gain than throw 3-4 yard dinks to WRs.

Garrett played for years in the Norv Turner simplified variant of the Coryell Offense.  His first NFL coaching job was in Miami under Nick Saban and his OC Scott Linehan.

Linehan played QB in college under Dennis Erickson and Keith Gilbertson. He was an offensive coordinator in college under John L. Smith. These are all guys known for aggressive offenses that take some chances. Linehan takes a lot of chances offensively.

Garrett's offense is heavily influenced by both Linehan's and Turner's.

It was a poor idea for Jones to have a career-long Walsh guy --- one who is even less of a run advocate than most Walsh guys --- run the offense of a veteran team used to Coryell concepts.  Dallas last year was a team with little ability in it's WRs to make gains after the catch, which further made Callahan an ill-advised fit.  (One thinks back to the days when Tom Landry brought in a Walsh advocate Paul Hackett and attempted to transition to a west coast offense with a veteran team.  It was equally unsuccessful.)

Callahan frequently forgot about the run in the second half when team usually salt way a large lead.  Several games were lost due to that. (In defense of Callahan, there is again a compelling argument that he may have been trying to keep the egg shells that comprise Demarco Murray unbroken by limiting Murray's carries.  Murray was the only Dallas RB capable of consistently completing pass blocking assignments.  The offense collapse when Murray was out. There is, again, a personnel problem that underlies this.)

Linehan is probably a top 5-10 or so offensive coordinator in the league --- essentially a peer of Garrett.  Linehan is also notable in that he is probably the OC most secure in having his QB force the ball to a star WR and is quite willing to move a star WR around to generate better matchups.

This bodes very well for Dez Bryant.

Additionally Linemen doesn't put a heavy load on his backs as runners, but works them into the passing game pretty heavily.  That is good news for a back like Demarco Murray, who clearly needs his carriers limited and for underutilized Lance Dunbar.  Dunbar is undersized as a runner, but anyone who saw him at UNT recognizes what an uncanny big play threat he is in the open field, despite average speed. For every 10 catches Dunbar makes, he might take one to the house. If he stays healthy, he could really blossom under Linehan as a receiver.

As Garrett's former boss, Linehan will probably have a much easier transition to running Garrett's offense than Callahan did.

On the negative side, Linehan, like Garrett and Callahan, is overly reliant on the pass.  He will lose games due to an unwillingness to run out the clock with the ground game too.

This sucks for frustrated Dallas fans, but he might be slightly better in that regard than Callahan and Garrett --- their play calling suggest neither subscribe to the philosophy of using the running game to run out the clock.

Linehan is not equally deathly allergic to running the ball in the second half with a lead ...He is merely occasionally pass-happy with a lead.

Much of the media conversation in Dallas has centered around what a bad idea it is to prevent demoted OC Bill Callahan from interviewing for other OC positions.  The Cowboys have denied permission for Cleveland and St. Louis to interview Callahan for their open OC positions.  That is somewhat unusual.  The local media credits this policy to Jerry Jones.

The local media's arguments against it center on it being a bad idea to keep a disgruntled coach and that last year's assistant OL coach Frank Pollard should be allowed to be the full-time OL coach.  I have heard one radio personality argue that Pollard was around the OL providing the hands on coaching 80% of the time.  (Given that the source of that statement asked the question, "What does an OL coach do?" on the air, in attempt to ridicule the importance of OL coaches, I cannot speak to the accuracy of that percentage.  It may simply be made up in an effort to save face from quite an embarrassing statement.)

This situation again hits me as a Jerry Jones created problem.

Callahan is one of the top 3-4 OL coaches in the NFL currently.  Now if Garrett felt that Pollard was the key player in the development of rookie center Travis Frederick and a positive factor in the improvements of Pro bowl OT Tyron Smith and the other members of the OL, one would think Garrett would be receptive to letting Callahan go and Pollard taking over.  If Garrett thought Pollard was ready to be an above average NFL coach, he would probably be willing to make that change.

Per Steven Jones, all of the changes were on Garrett's call.  If that is the case, Garrett likely considered a move from Callahan to Pollard to be a major downgrade.  Going from one of the three best OL coaches to a young guy who potentially might be one of the worst in the NFL is a major downgrade for a coach in a win-or-be-fired year.

Now I happen to think the truth may be that Garrett has total control ...within Jerry's desires.

I think the guy who might have a problem with Pollard as the OL coach might actually be Jerry Jones.  I think Jones may want to hang on to Callahan long-term as the OL coach.  I think if this is the case, it is really bad logic on the part of Jones, as Callahan will almost certainly leave next year because Jones prevented him leaving this year.

I also question whether Jones would allow both Callahan and Pollard to leave (with Jones still potentially paying one or both of them for a year) and then have to pony up big money to land a good OL coach from the pro or college ranks for a win-or-get-fired coach. (Jones really had to hire Linehan because he couldn't face the fans going into next season with the same coordinators on staff.  Jones had already taken a media hit for rejecting Garrett's first choice for OC --- Norv Turner.  Retaining last year's coordinators was an issue that could dramatically impact the Cowboys' financial bottom line next year. Replacing the OL coach, presumably to make Garrett more comfortable, is not something that impacts the sales of tickets.)

Jones has appeared to be a great example of the saying "penny wise and pound foolish" over the last few years.  He pays lavishly for over the hill star players or top coordinators, but affords a small budget for head coaches and for years refused to pay to have both an offensive and a defensive coordinator --- like every other team in the league.  This could easily be more of the same ill-advised penny pinching.

Now I think Garrett has been foolish in not publicly coming out in support of Callahan and doing everything in his power to soothe the tensions between himself and Callahan.  Garrett's success this year appears heavily reliant on Callahan.  Callahan was put in a tough spot last year by Jones, just like Garrett. It is difficult to call plays and build game plans in an offense that does not reflect one's offensive sensibilities.

Leaving Callahan publicly embarrassed and twisting in the wind is just dumb, but so far these staff changes have been far more positive than negative.

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