Spagnola: Another Tale Of Knowing When To Fold'em

IRVING, Texas – Here is an old tale, and no pun intended, please.

Once upon a time – hey it was 24 years ago now – current Fox pregame analyst Jimmy Johnson became the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The year was 1989. He had made his name in college football, first as a defensive whiz and then as the head coach of the Oklahoma State Cowboys and later, as he likes to say, at The U, where he won a national championship with the University of Miami.

Oh yeah, he had become one of those walk-around head coaches, mostly because his pal from their days at the University of Pittsburgh, Dave Wannstedt, had become his defensive lieutenant along the way. But when it came to coordinating an offense, calling offensive plays, Jimmy didn't know … well let's put it this way, he knew enough one night before a road game in the team hospitality room to diagram a couple of plays for us skeptics on a cocktail napkin.

But that was it, OK.

So when he came to the Dallas Cowboys, Jimmy would be at the mercy of his offensive coordinator, and he couldn't bring his guy from The U, Gary Stevens, with him. Well, as this story goes, in order to pry Wannstedt away from Don Shula and the Dolphins to become his defensive coordinator in Dallas – Wannstedt had just taken an assistant's job two months prior with Miami – Jimmy, again, as the assumption went, agreed to bring Shula's boy, Dave, the quarterbacks coach with the Dolphins who wasn't seeing eye to eye with some guy named Marino, if you can imagine that, along too as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator.

The Cowboys offense that first year was horrid, mostly having to do with the personnel, especially after trading away Herschel Walker four games into the season. Remember, until this 2012 campaign, that team held the club record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season (1,409) on its way to a 1-15 record. The next year wasn't much better (1,500 yards rushing), as they went from averaging a paltry 12.8 points a game (seriously) and being shut out three times to 15.3 points a game.

This wasn't cutting it, and Jimmy knew he couldn't fix it himself. In fact, the Tuesday after the Cowboys were beaten 24-6 by San Francisco, dropping their record to 3-7, I ran into him near the locker room after his weekly press conference. His prized first-round pick that 1990 season, Emmitt Smith, to that point was averaging 12.3 carries a game for 50.9 yards a game.

In that loss to the 49ers, Emmitt carried the ball six times for 40 yards, and the up until then the shy Emmitt – if you can believe that, too – said afterward something to the effect of, "It's going to be hard for me to gain 100 yards a game with only six carries." And to that point, only once in those first 10 games had the Cowboys scored more than 17 points.

So while chitchatting with Jimmy about the offense, and Emmitt's complaint, he said he was going to have to speak to Shula about putting a higher importance on running the football. He did.

And viola, the next week, Emmitt touched the ball 25 times – four catches for 114 yards – and not only did the Cowboys beat the Los Angeles Rams, 24-21, they went on a four-game winning streak, getting to 7-7 before Troy Aikman suffered a shoulder injury against Philadelphia, effectively ending any playoff hopes, losing the final two games.

Soon after the season ended, Jimmy fired Dave Shula as his offensive coordinator after just two seasons. He knew this team needed help.

After his second dalliance with Stevens failed again, and after trying to interview at least three other candidates, at the recommendation Ernie Zampese he hired some wide receivers coach from the Rams named at the time Norval Turner.

You know the rest of the story.

The very next season, Emmitt rushed for 1,711 yards. The Cowboys averaged 21.4 points a game and finished 11-5, winning a wildcard playoff game before losing at Detroit. And check this out, here were the usual starters on those two teams:

  • In 1990 – Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Tommie Agee/Alonzo Highsmith, Michael Irvin/Dennis McKinnon, Kelvin Martin, Jay Novacek, Mark Tuinei, Crawford Kerr, Mark Stepnoski, John Gesek and Nate Newton.
  • In 1991 – Aikman, Smith, Daryl Johnston, Novacek, Irvin, Alvin Harper/Alexander Wright, Tuinei, Gogan, Stepnoski, Gesek and Newton.

Mostly, the change was the coordinator. Jimmy sensed he needed help, and he didn't dilly-dally around, hoping things would come around.

Now enter Jason Garrett, the second-year head coach. He's an offensive guy, coordinating this offense for the past six years. But on the other side of the ball, like Jimmy, he's at the mercy of his coordinator. He's not the guy to fix the defense or give assistance to the coordinator, same as Jimmy couldn't bale out Shula.

And so that brings us, in a roundabout way, to Monte Kiffin, officially announced as the Dallas Cowboys' next defensive coordinator, basically hired on Friday to replace Rob Ryan, fired on Tuesday after just two seasons.

No one is placing blame on Ryan and the defense for back-to-back 8-8 records. But Garrett and owner, president AND general manager Jerry Jones just knew they had to make a change on defense. There was a disconnect there, even though Ryan and his defensive staff did a near-miraculous job duct-taping this defense together after losing essentially six starters, if you count nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick, to injury by season's end while also playing with the one-armed DeMarcus Ware the final month of the season.

This move is about two full seasons, not just the final half of the 2012 season. I mean, did you feel good about this defense last year? This move is about, when healthy, allowing Seattle to rush for 182 yards, and mount drives of 90 and 88 yards with a rookie quarterback in his second NFL start when the group was healthy. This is about a defense that could not generate turnovers, finishing with nine recovered fumbles (tying for second fewest in club history) and just seven interceptions, matching the franchise record-low set during that 1989 season and tied by the 6-10 club of 1997.

Not surprising then that those 16 takeaways this season is the 53-year, franchise single-season low, one less than even the 1-15 season of 1989. (Somehow we keep getting back to 1989, don't we?) Sacks decreased from 42 to 34.

This is about the Cowboys wanting better, and unwilling to keep waiting around.

Over 13 seasons as defensive coordinator at Tampa Bay, where he made the "Tampa 2" defense in vogue, and of course personnel has something to do with this, but think about it, over 13 years, Kiffin's Buccaneers defenses averaged 39 sacks, 19 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries. Averaged, now. Goodness, only once since 1999 have the Cowboys finished with more than 19 interceptions in a season, and only three times since 1996 has Dallas recovered more than 12 fumbles in a season.

So don't think the Cowboys simply woke up Tuesday morning to say, that darn Rob Ryan, I think we'll fire him. Oh no, this had been in the back of minds for at least a month, ever since the 72-year-old Kiffin announced on Nov. 29 he would be leaving Southern Cal and had interest in resuming his 26-year NFL coaching career after spending the past four in college working for his head-coaching son Lane.

Guarantee you Larry Lacewell got into the ears of Jones and Garrett, letting them know that one of the all-time best defensive coordinators in the NFL, as well as during his days in college at Nebraska and Arkansas, suddenly was available. I've been told the Cowboys actually had kept an eye on him at USC, going out there to check out his energy in practices.

To me, then this is more about maybe who became available than the overall performance of Ryan. And remember, the Cowboys first looked at Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator, then Greg Manusky – Fangio deciding to go with Jim Harbaugh to San Francisco and Manusky deciding to go to San Diego – before turning to Ryan.

Kiffin spent the day Friday arriving early with Garrett, trying to put together a defensive staff, actually interviewing the current assistants (all still with at least one more year on their contracts) and also trawling for guys he knows, maybe some of his old cronies like Rod Marinelli, still under contract as defensive coordinator with the head coach-less Bears. Hey, Lovie still is out there.

Remember, though, secondary coach Jerome Henderson made a favorable impression on folks out here at The Ranch this first season with the Cowboys; Matt Eberflus helped patch that linebacker crew together and Brian Baker is an experienced 4-3 defensive line coach. We'll see.

So Kiffin becomes the 11th defensive coordinator in Cowboys history, and right or wrong, sometimes you got to pull out the ol' No. 2 pencil and use the eraser.

Right Jimmy?

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