Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan were hailed before the season as reasons the Dallas Cowboys might finally break through their funk of mediocrity in 2013.
Ten games into a season that has the Cowboys back at their familiar .500 mark, Kiffin and Callahan are now under fire.
Never mind that the 5-5 Cowboys remain in a first-place tie in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles heading into this weekend’s bye. Both men acknowledge that their work hasn’t been good enough.
Kiffin’s 32nd defense is not only ranked last in the NFL, it’s been historically bad. The Cowboys have allowed 4,398 yards so far, putting them on pace to allow 7,037 for the season, which would be the worst in team history and the second worst in NFL history. No Cowboys defense has ever finished the season ranked worse than 20th.
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Callahan took over play-calling this year from head coach Jason Garrett and has guided what has generally been an explosive Cowboys offense since Tony Romo became quarterback in 2006.
The Cowboys’ offense ranks 19th in yards per game (327.8) this year, the lowest Dallas has ranked since finishing 30th in 2002.
Owner Jerry Jones and Garrett somewhat gave both men votes of confidence this week and said there will be no changes during the bye week.
But for Kiffin and Callahan to return next season, they know they probably must be better over the final six games and help the Cowboys make the playoffs.
Of course, even then, it might not be good enough for Kiffin, considering that Jones openly second-guessed his decision to fire Rob Ryan and hire the 73-year-old defensive coordinator after Sunday’s 49-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Jones said: “We thought it was best for us to go in the direction that we are, and it doesn’t look good right now. Hopefully we can make it look good, but I have all the feelings that you have when you want to look back at a decision.”
“Oh, I’m not in that deal at all. I’m not going there,” Kiffin said Wednesday after Jones’ comments.
But he admitted that the team’s performance is frustrating.
“Oh yeah, sure it is, but that’s part of the job, you know,” Kiffin said. “It’s tough for everybody, coach, everybody on the staff, it’s not a whole lot of fun, but that’s part of coaching. If you want to be a coach there’s going to be some ups and downs.”
Jones and Garrett blame some of the defensive woes on a litany of injuries that have ravaged the defensive line and secondary, resulting in the Cowboys allowing more than 600 yards of offense to the Lions and Saints in two of the last three games.
They believe the Cowboys will improve when some injured players return after the bye.
Kiffin plans to use the bye week to evaluate everything and says his focus starts with himself, not the players.
“You’ve got to look at yourself as coaches and stuff, and I think you always want to win before the bye week It starts with coaches now. It’s not ‘Oh, you guys can’t play.’ You don’t do that. You look at yourself, our whole staff, starting with me. We critiqued some things on tape and this and that, and maybe we tweak this and tweak that. We’ve got to do better.”
Kiffin said he’s never had a defense this bad before in terms of yardage. But he said he’s been down this road before and come through it OK.
“One time when I was at the [Tampa Bay Buccaneers] we played the Oakland Raiders that year and we got beat 45-0,” Kiffin said. “We came back and we ended up pretty good.”
That was 1999, and the Buccaneers rebounded from that embarrassing loss and made it to the NFC Championship Game.
Certainly all will be forgiven with Kiffin if the Cowboys copy what the Buccaneers did that year.
To do so, they will also need vast improvement from Callahan’s offense.
No Romo-led offense has finished worse than 11th since the 2006 season began. Five times the Cowboys have finished in the top 10. They finished 13th in 2008 when Romo missed three games because of injuries. Even in 2010, when Romo missed 10 games, Dallas was fifth in offensive yards.
The biggest change from last year’s unit that finished sixth in the league to this year is Callahan. The thought that his presence as a play-caller would make the team more efficient in the red zone and put a greater emphasis on the run has been a pipe dream so far.
“When you’re not as successful, you’ve got to go back to your fundamentals, go back to what’s worked well for you and really get back to the core of your offense,” Callahan said. “That’s basically where we’re at and the thought process that’s been generated throughout the last few days, going back to what we’ve been good at and try to eliminate some of the things that aren’t good. Again the bye week allows you to look at yourself, scout ... see where you can make some changes.”
The Cowboys have struggled mightily since putting up 522 yards in a 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos on Oct. 6.
After passing for 506 yards against the Broncos, quarterback Romo has passed for 206 yards or fewer in three of the last five games and has had his five lowest completion percentages of the season.
The Cowboys have also struggled of late in getting top receiver Dez Bryant and Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten involved.
Callahan blames the offensive woes on third-down trouble. The Cowboys rank 30th in the league in third-down efficiency and were 0 for 9 in the loss to the Saints, during which Romo passed for 128 yards, the lowest of his career when he has started and finished a game.
“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Callahan said of the third-down struggles. “ You know, whenever you look at your total yardage and ... you don’t have those numbers, there is a direct correlation to sustaining drives. You’re limiting your opportunities when you don’t convert.
“Not good enough. Just not good enough. Sustaining drives is huge. We’re really disappointed. We’re doing everything we can to remedy that and fix every aspect of our third-down plan.”