I think the time has come to scrap the 3-4 defense in Dallas. If you recall, Bill Parcells was rather late in installing the same scheme he had relied upon throughout head coaching stints with the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets.
With all three of those former teams, Parcells reached either the conference championship game or Super Bowl.
When Parcells arrived in Dallas for the 2003 off-season, he knew he did not have the personnel required to run his familiar 3-4 scheme. As any good coach should do, he played to the strengths of the team as opposed to putting a bunch of players at the wrong position.
As a result, the Cowboys would finish with the top-ranked defense in the league, and also claim their first playoff birth following three consecutive 5-11 seasons from 2000-02. Still lacking a premier pass rusher, Dallas was still tough to run on, and it's worth noting that it was playing a last-place schedule that season.
After a major slide in '04, Parcells decided it was time to make the switch to the 3-4 official. The 2005 NFL Draft was littered with 3-4 personnel, and Dallas has pretty much followed suit since then.
Former head coach Wade Phillips, Parcells's successor, was also a student of the 3-4 alignment, and isn't it funny that neither one of those coaches could find a way to properly utilize then-Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams?
We all remember how Williams literally changed football games by himself on numerous occasions, but by 2005, he was reduced to playing center field or covering tight ends downfield, not exactly what Williams was ever known for.
It is appropriate to say that the 3-4 switch killed the career of Williams. In some ways this transition continues to hurt this franchise because some guys just aren't in the right place.
And what about gifted and hard-playing linebackers like Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley? You realize that Coakley had seven consecutive seasons of 100-plus tackles? Did you know he's tied for the club lead in defensive touchdowns? Coakley and Dennis Thurman each have five!
Nguyen merely led the team in tackles in three of his first four seasons starting at middle linebacker. The 3-4 switch showed those guys the door as well.
I wonder what interim head coach Jason Garrett thinks of this 3-4 business as of late. On Thanksgiving, Dallas gave up a total of 83 yards to the Saints running back combo of Julius Jones and rookie Chris Ivory. But those rushing yards came on only 17 carries. That comes to an average of just under five yards per carry. This is not going to get it done!
In the face of mediocrity and with no more Parcells or Phillips at Valley Ranch, is there much need to keep the 3-4 defense anymore?
We already know that Marcus Spears is a free agent after this season. With the depth the team currently has at defense end, is it not worth looking into possibly getting more of these 3-4 ends, like Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher on the field at the same time?
And what about Jay Ratliff, easily the best lineman on the roster? Dallas could play Ratliff a couple of different ways in a 4-3 scheme, thus increasing the likelihood of good matchups. Ratliff has quickness, athleticism and great height no matter where he is lined up. I could see him being just as destructive on the inside as Leon Lett once was.
I could also see Ratliff possibly playing 4-3 defensive end just like Reggie White used to, or the way Mario Williams does in Houston. Rushing the passer is what Ratliff does best, and it’s time to maximize this strength.
Ratliff is generally wasted at the nose guard spot in the current 3-4 scheme as this just isn’t the place for a 300-pound lineman who is a better pass rusher than run stuffer.
In returning to the 4-3, the Cowboys would then look at the linebackers and probably like what they see in a young but promising Sean Lee, drafted in 2010 out Penn State, definitely a 4-3 school.
In fact, most of Dallas starting defenders came from 4-3 colleges such as Bradie James from LSU, Anthony Spencer out of Purdue, DeMarcus Ware from Troy and even Keith Brooking from Georgia.
Just consider a Dallas front four consisting of Ware and Ratliff at end and Bowen and Hatcher at tackle. Obviously Dallas could shape the 2011 draft around this move and possibly skip a few other pieces that might no longer be necessary … like a nose guard who weighs more than 330 pounds!
The secondary should not skip a beat, as this area would be affected the least by a change in front seven personnel. This could make finding a strong safety a bit easier now that the pass rush should intensify as the rushing yards allowed would have to decrease.
At least I believe that this defense, as is, would be much more potent with more of these ends involved in the action.
I have no idea if the Cowboys will make this move. They may have issues with Ware playing with a hand to the ground. They could be concerned about Ratliff being too slow for end and Spencer being too small. All I know is that this defense is not much better than average. Their stats don’t really concern me as much as the results and those are not too impressive.
Can anybody remember the last time the Cowboys front had multiple tackles for a loss in a game? It never happens when teams run on the Cowboys, especially up the middle.
Winning football requires two basic elements. The first is running the ball well, and that is a different discussion. The second is stopping the run, and many would argue that this is actually first. I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that point. The Cowboys have no choice other than to address it.
Switching back to the 4-3 is the way to go.