The Old Man and his D. No, it's not a lost Hemingway novel, although there was certainly plenty of material to cover this past season in regard to Monte Kiffin and the Tampa 2.
The storybook ending was begging to be written. Oh, how perfect it would have been, the legendary coach, 73 years and willing, taking on a final assignment, perhaps in hopes of solidifying his already mighty legacy. Then again, his motivation was likely more simplistic than that. In his own words, "I don't want to retire. I'm a football coach. I want to coach."
Alas, there was no happily ever after for Kiffin and the Dallas Cowboys defense in 2013. Yes, there were some injuries along the way, and a few highlights here and there, turnovers forced, but in the end, to many, this was the worst defense in the 54-year history of the franchise.
And it's somewhat difficult to debate that. The Cowboys allowed the third-most yards (6,645) in the history of the NFL and saw four quarterbacks throw for at least 400 yards. Know what? No need to really rehash the specifics. It wasn't good. This much we all know.
And in late-January, after much speculation, the team announced Kiffin was being demoted to assistant head coach/defense, with his longtime underlay, Rod Marinelli, receiving a promotion from defensive line coach to coordinator.
So what went wrong? Why didn't the change to the 4-3 and vaunted Tampa 2 work? Well, there are many reasons, but what may be more fascinating to revisit was the optimism about the transition back at training camp. It was there, in a conference room at team headquarters in Oxnard, Calif., that Kiffin generously agreed to teach me the defense that made him one of the legendary coordinators in the history of the game.
There he stood, at the whiteboard, breaking down all the moving parts, the reads, who went where and when. It was a fascinating study and a pretty neat experience. This wasn't Joe Pop Warner Coach showing the new wrinkle in his offense so his kid could score more touchdowns. This was one of the giants of the profession. And in terms of defense, there's Tom Landry's 4-3 Spread, there's Dick LeBeau's Zone Blitz and there's the Cover 2, a.k.a. the Tampa 2, architected by Tony Dungy and Kiffin. And for more than a decade, the third on that list was the most dominant and successful defense in the NFL.
The crux of the Tampa 2 is bend-don't-break, force teams into time-consuming drives with the two safeties splitting the field. The cornerbacks are physical at the line, with the middle linebacker being the key cog, dropping back into coverage, at times 30 yards downfield. The defense rose to national prominence on Jan. 23, 2000, when the Bucs shut down the St. Louis Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf, in an 11-6 loss in the NFC Championship Game. Within a season, the overwhelming majority of the league had implemented it among their schemes, many teams as their base defense.
"I think we felt pretty good about it going in. We were playing the scheme the entire season, for a few years there. It wasn't like we put it in for that game," Kiffin said. "We had a lot of speed on that team; we weren't a big defense. They were called the Fastest Show on Turf, and we kept telling our guys all week, we're going to play faster, too. Both teams were playing on the same turf. We also had to tackle well that day with the offensive speed they possessed. We played them pretty well that day." [embedded_ad]
There were several questions in regard to Kiffin when the Cowboys surprised many by hiring him in January 2013. The first was whether the universally respected icon still possessed his magical touch. After leaving the Buccaneers in 2008, Kiffin spent a combined four seasons running the defenses at the University of Tennessee and USC under his son, Lane. The results for the most part were disappointing with fans of the programs probably more inclined to use a stronger word. When the Cowboys announced the hire, many also reasoned that there's an enormous difference between the offenses of the Pac-12 and the NFL. And there's a whole lot of truth in that.
In addition, Kiffin wasn't a long-term hire, so the question was how quick could the defense transition after spending a decade using a 3-4 scheme. Success was expected to be immediate, that was the lone reason Rob Ryan was released from his duties as coordinator. The defense needed to be top-tier here and now in 2013, and Kiffin was deemed the man for the job.
There was proof also that the transition could happen quickly during a single offseason, from Kiffin himself having taken the Tampa Bay job under Dungy in 1996. The team finished eighth that season in scoring defense and second the following year.
Still, this was going to be a different situation.