Grading the Dallas Cowboys' Hire of Monte Kiffin as Defensive Coordinator

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystJanuary 11, 2013

The Dallas Cowboys wasted no time in hiring a defensive coordinator to replace Rob Ryan, who was fired on Tuesday, and in doing so team owner Jerry Jones wasted no time in showing why the team is badly in need of a general manager.

According to the Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys hired 72-year-old Monte Kiffin on Friday, who was the defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2008 before spending the last four years in the college ranks with his son Lane, first at Tennessee and then at USC.

Kiffin is a highly regarded NFL mind, and with good reason.

As the father of the Tampa 2 variation of the 4-3 defense, Kiffin created a scheme that has been widely imitated across the NFL, and his Buccaneers defenses were among the best in the NFL for a very long time, ranking in the top 10 in total defense in 11 of Kiffin's 13 seasons in Tampa Bay.

Kiffin was the only person the Cowboys interviewed, and it's a hire for which the writing was clearly on the wall, with David Moore of The Dallas Morning News reporting that when Ryan was fired, head coach Jason Garrett indicated that “At this time, the decision has been made to move forward in a different direction philosophically on defense.’’

However, that doesn't make the decision a good one.

I'm not talking about Kiffin's age, although that's a subject that will surely come up. Sure, Kiffin will be 73 in February, but Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau is two years Kiffin's senior, and it's not like the Steelers defense is in shambles.

Kiffin's age is relevant only in that it gets him a discount at Denny's.

With that said, though, Kiffin's recent track record is relevant, and for all the success Kiffin has had in the past, that success has seemingly abandoned him of late.

Kiffin's last season in Tampa was marred by controversy, as, in 2008 the Buccaneers came apart at the seams defensively down the stretch, becoming the first team in NFL history to miss the playoffs after starting the season 9-3.

Accusations were made at the time that Kiffin effectively "quit" on the team long before announcing his decision to join his son at Tennessee. Although Kiffin denied those claims at the time according to The Tampa Tribune, the circumstances of his departure from the NFL has left a bad taste in many mouths.

Kiffin's performance as a defensive coordinator in college just soured that taste even more.

Kiffin's defenses at Tennessee and USC were average at best, and while Kiffin's supporters will no doubt lay some of the blame in that regard on personnel, the USC defense in 2012 was such a disaster that Kiffin was basically left no alternative but to resign or be fired by his own son.

Then there's the not insignificant matter of the Cowboys making the switch to a 4-3 defensive front, which they haven't employed as their primary defensive alignment since 2004.

As Moore's article in The News points out, this isn't the sea change that some may think, as the Cowboys played in a 4-3 front about 15 percent of the time last year, but there are still going to be some major changes.

DeMarcus Ware, who has become one of the NFL's most feared pass-rushers over the past several seasons, will have to make the switch to defensive end, and that switch isn't going to be an easy one with Ware recovering from shoulder surgery and trying to rebound from an injury-marred 2012 campaign.

ESPN's Ed Werder reported Friday that fellow outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who set career highs with 95 tackles and 11 sacks in 2012, will be allowed to depart in free agency rather than being asked to make a similar switch.

That leaves a substantial hole on the Dallas front seven.

Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are "press" corners, which flies in the face of Kiffin's Tampa 2 zone looks. Either they're going to have to adjust their play or Kiffin is going to have adjust his scheme, and either way you're potentially looking at two very expensive square pegs in round holes.

Never mind the Cowboys' weakness at safety, an integral part of Kiffin's defense.

That's an awful lot of question marks facing the defense for a team that will enter next season with its annual "Super Bowl or Bust" mentality.

Listen, I hope I'm wrong. As a fan of defense I have a phenomenal amount of respect for Monte Kiffin's accomplishments in the NFL. He's one of the true defensive innovators of the modern era.

However, I can't escape the feeling that in signing on for this ill-fitting hire, all Jason Garrett has accomplished is putting the last nail in his head-coaching coffin in Dallas.

In which case we could see father and son reunited again in 2014, and that's a thought that should terrify fans of the Dallas Cowboys.

The team could have done worse, but will all but certainly discover in hindsight that they could have done better.