Sweeping changes have arrived at Valley Ranch, including a somewhat surprising switch back to the roots of the 4-3 defense.
The 4-3 defensive scheme was invented primarily by former Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry, who along with numerous other coaches at the time were trying to figure out how to stop Cleveland Browns all-world running back Jim Brown.
The nickname “Doomsday” was born from a great run of Landry defenses that dominated most of the 1970s. Defense was considered a strength of those great teams and numerous Hall of Fame-caliber players flourished in it.
A similar standard was set in the 1990s when former head coach Jimmy Johnson brought his smaller, quicker version of the 4-3 to the Cowboys in 1989. With an immediate stockpile of draft picks following the Herschel Walker trade, Dallas ushered in numerous bodies specially designed for this championship defense.
With the recent hiring of Cover 2 guru Monte Kiffin—hired to replace Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator earlier this month—the biggest question is how Dallas’ best defensive player, DeMarcus Ware, fits into the 4-3 defensive equation.
The history of this franchise offers a great example of how this transition should go for Ware, again on his way to Hawaii for another Pro Bowl, after having led the team in sacks for the eighth straight season.
The 1992 Cowboys might not have won a Super Bowl without the presence of then-recently acquired pass rusher Charles Haley. The six-year veteran arrived unexpectedly in Dallas just days before the regular season opener against the defending world champion Washington Redskins.
In short, Haley was easily the missing ingredient to a defense that was already hard to run on. Now the pass rush was going to get there more often, and Haley’s presence was immediately felt in that Washington game at Texas Stadium.
The rest is obviously a quite glamorous history of success with the Cowboys.
But long forgotten is the fact that Haley had to transition from outside linebacker in San Francisco’s 3-4 alignment to defensive end with the Cowboys. Well into his career, this was a switch that was made seamlessly as best I can recall.
Like Haley, Ware has to make the exact same transition but without switching teams. Also like Haley, Ware did play defensive end in college, so both players were not engaging in a 4-3 scheme for the first time when they first encountered it in the pros.
Ware has been a mainstay for the Dallas defense, literally, since the day he was drafted. He’s been arguably the best pass-rusher in the NFL for most of his career.
But as it went for Haley, it could also go for Ware.
Remember that Haley was his typical Pro Bowl-self for about the first three seasons he lined up with the Cowboys. Over his last two to three seasons, Haley’s back would become less and less reliable. It got to the point where Haley didn’t even practice in the month of December and by the end he didn’t practice at all.
Ware now will line up in a more physically demanding position some eight years into his career. Defensive line isn’t exactly like outside linebacker, although Ware’s anticipated job description will be the same: rush the quarterback.
The question won’t be so much whether or not Ware can get pressure from up on the line. Unlike some, I don’t think that Ware is winding down just yet. I do know that he was injured for most of last season, culminating in shoulder surgery for the seven-time Pro Bowl selection.
A healthy Ware is still a matchup problem no matter where he lines up.
The real question now is for how long Ware can hold up. Remembering that he’s older than Haley at the time of his transition, it’s fair to recognize that Ware, who will turn 31 by training camp, has some miles on him.
Will playing on the defensive line shorten Ware’s career?
Probably, but by how much nobody can tell.
Ware brings a little more bulk to the line than Haley did. Ware is also a little shorter which gives him a little better leverage than Haley could get. Haley’s back started giving out because he was so tall and skinny, relatively speaking.
To this point, Ware doesn’t seem to suffer from chronic back issues that threaten his playing time or overall contribution.
Most important is that Ware gets some help up front. He needed it in the 3-4 but never really got much prior to Anthony Spencer’s breakout season in 2012.
It's looking less and less like Jay Ratliff will be factored in to the Cowboys' long-term plans, especially in the wake of his arrest this week.
Ware needs that help now in this 4-3 and this will be the top offseason priority beyond upgrading as many as three positions on the offensive line.
If things go the direction that Kiffin wants, he’ll have a highly volatile defensive tackle that commands double-teams often. Whether this ends up being Ratliff or another tackle on the roster, or a draft selection come April, Dallas has to get more pressure.
But this is what Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme is all about. Remember that the original alignment all came about in an effort to stop Jim Brown in Cleveland.
It’s apparent that Kiffin will not utilize the same personnel for his scheme that the Cowboys used back in the 1990s. First of all, Kiffin doesn’t have those players in Dallas, and his own history shows an ability to adapt to the players he has opposed to forcing players into a system.
Another option for Kiffin would be to line up Ware at weak side linebacker on rushing downs and simply walk him up to the line on a regular basis. Kiffin could then line up four defensive tackles, essentially giving him a five-man defensive line when he wants. It would also beef up a defensive front that has been too small for too long.
Will DeMarcus Ware still lead the Cowboys in sacks in 2013?
But for now, Ware is still the focal point of the Cowboys defense. It is time to be thinking long term, however, because it’s just as difficult to find great pass-rushing defensive ends for the 4-3 as it is to find great pass-rushing outside linebackers in the 3-4.
With all of this in mind, I think Dallas is most likely to spend free-agent dollars on a proven commodity that earns instant respect on the defensive line. This will not only move this defense towards becoming the traditional strength it once was, but it might also extend the career of Ware.
Instead of breaking down as quickly as Haley, Ware might be more of the Jason Taylor mold. The Miami Dolphins future Hall of Fame defensive end is 38 right now—he hung up the cleats at 37.
Yes, there’s time for Ware to prosper in the 4-3 scheme and expect most of this to come at defensive end.