OXNARD, Calif.– Former Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson spent just two years in Dallas. He's been with the Jets and finished with the Panthers. But his only Super Bowl ring came from his time in Tampa Bay, where he had a front-row seat for Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense that eventually became the model for many 4-3 schemes around the league.
Johnson has since retired and has moved on to a successful broadcasting career as an analyst for ESPN. The former receiver helped anchor SportsCenter this past week from California and had some interesting things to say about the Cowboys' move to the 4-3 scheme.
Johnson thinks Kiffin will help a lot. He thinks defensive line coach Rod Marinelli will have an active role and will also make a difference. But at the end of the day, his biggest question centers on the players they're asked to coach.
Johnson says just because it worked with the Bucs doesn't mean it automatically translates here.
"I think they have two great defensive minds in Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, but there's no Warren Sapp running out there," Johnson said. "There's no John Lynch. DeMarcus Ware could be better than Simeon Rice. But can Bruce Carter be as good as Derrick Brooks? I don't think so. Can Sean Lee be Hardy Nickerson? Can anyone in the secondary be Ronde Barber?"
Johnson was part of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII winning team that included Kiffin, Marinelli and current special teams coach Rich Bisaccia on the staff.
Now, he does believe in those coaches and said the aforementioned players were a product of good coaching. But Johnson said it's a balance, and one he doesn't think will automatically correlate here in Dallas.
"I think it's a little bit of both. But you have to have players," Johnson said. "That's the bottom line. If you don't have that instinct and that guy, it doesn't matter. Everyone else tries to duplicate the Tampa 2 scheme that they ran and Monte did for 15 years when his defense was in the Top 10 every year. But there's no Hardy Nickerson running around here."
It's easy for Johnson to be critical. Not only does he have a Super Bowl ring mainly because of the defensive success, but his job now requires him to be skeptical, especially of a team that has missed the playoffs the last three years.
On the other hand, the Cowboys' coaching staff is more than optimistic in the personnel to make the switch.
"When we sat down and looked at it this offseason, we evaluated every player on defense," head coach Jason Garrett said. "We tried to see how each player would fit. And at the end of the day, we thought it would be a good move to make the switch and we had the personnel to do that."
Kiffin, who turned 73 last February, has shown plenty of energy here during training camp. But he matches that with confidence, too.
"I really like this group," Kiffin said. "We've got some talented players. Really great talent. That DeMarcus Ware is something else. But with the linebackers and cornerbacks … I'm excited what we've got here. I knew early on we could (make the switch)." [embedded_ad]
Like Johnson said, the key player in the Cowboys' scheme is Ware, who is better than any defensive end Tampa Bay had. And he's arguably better than Julius Peppers, a perennial Pro Bowl performer who was also a key member for Marinelli's Chicago teams the past few years.
Still, Marinelli sounds like Ware tops the list of pass-rushers he's coached.
"He's special," Marinelli said. "I've been around special. I've had that, and he's special. Now it's just a day-to-day grind of fundamentals so we can give him playing as fast as he can play every down. That's a process right now you go through. But I'm excited when I think about what he can do for us."
On the inside, the Cowboys believe they have the players to make the switch.
On the outside, there are legitimate question marks – even from a player who has been close with both the scheme and the Cowboys both.