Cowboys defensive coordinator Kiffin could be Garrett's lifeline

IRVING -- Monte Kiffin couldn't help his son win at Southern California.

But the Dallas Cowboys are betting that a return to his NFL roots will help the 72-year-old defensive savant save Jason Garrett's tenure as head coach and take the franchise back to its glory days.

Kiffin, who resigned from USC after a disappointing 2012 season, was hired as Cowboys defensive coordinator Friday, replacing Rob Ryan, who was fired on Tuesday.

Garrett touted Kiffin's history of success in the NFL in a news release to announce the hiring, one that is crucial to his own survival. The 2013 season could be make-or-break for Garrett after back-to-back seasons in which the Cowboys finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

"Monte Kiffin's level of experience and track record of success as an NFL defensive coordinator are unmatched," Garrett said in the release. "I am really looking forward to the contributions that he will make to our coaching staff and our football team. He has produced NFL defensive units that have consistently performed at a high level in a scheme that has stood the test of time."

Kiffin, who will turn 73 in February, finished roughly two days of interviewing with Garrett and owner Jerry Jones excited about returning to the NFL and the opportunity to remake his reputation with the Cowboys.

"I came away from the interview process with Jason with a feeling that Dallas is the right place to be," Kiffin said in a statement. "He has this team headed in the right direction. They're close, and I am confident that there are quality pieces in place for us to be able to get the job done."

Kiffin is a 47-year coaching veteran, including 26 in the NFL. He is widely known for his Tampa 2 defense, which he perfected during 13 years as defensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He spent the past four seasons working for his son, Lane, at Tennessee in 2009 and at Southern Cal the past three seasons.

Kiffin resigned at USC under heavy criticism because of the Trojans' struggles on defense and sought a return to the NFL.

The Cowboys believe more in Kiffin's NFL track record than his lack of success at USC. The Buccaneers ranked in the top 10 in defense during 11 of his 13 years. His defense was the backbone of Tampa Bay's 2002 team that won Super Bowl XXXVII, leading the NFL in fewest total yards allowed per game (252.8), scoring defense per game (12.3) and interceptions (31).

What Garrett probably likes most about Kiffin are his emphasis on fundamentals and the simplistic scheme of the Tampa 2. The Cowboys believed that Ryan's schemes at times were unsound and led to too much confusion on the field.

"I know Monte from spending time together with him with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and had a chance to see him coach up close on a day-to-day basis," Garrett said. "His ability to teach everything -- from the smallest fundamental details to the big picture of the overall defensive scheme -- was always very impressive to me."

Jones stressed a need to get back to fundamentals when he talked Jan. 2 on his radio show of changes the team needed to make in the off-season, even if it meant changing the way the Cowboys did things.

Garrett gave a hint to that when he fired Ryan on Tuesday, citing the team wanted to go in a different direction philosophically.

The Cowboys are doing that with the shift from Ryan to Kiffin, which means they are also moving from the 3-4 defense, which they have employed since 2005, back to the 4-3.

The Cowboys believe inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter can make the conversion to middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, respectively. That would necessitate finding a strongside linebacker.

DeMarcus Ware, who has been an outside linebacker in the 3-4, would move to defensive end. The other defensive end spot becomes a focus of the April draft if the Cowboys don't re-sign Anthony Spencer, an outside linebacker in the 3-4.

Another issue is defensive tackle. While 3-4 defensive end Jason Hatcher and nose tackle Jay Ratliff are a fit for a 3-technique tackle spot (on a guard's outside shoulder), they would not be as a 1-gap tackle (between the guard and center) to stop the run. It could be a fit for Marcus Spears, but it also should draw attention in the draft and/or free agency.

While Kiffin built his reputation on using the Cover 2 scheme (safeties covering the two deep zones) in the secondary, the Cowboys said he is good at allowing his defenders to do what they do best.

So they don't believe he is married to limiting man-to-man cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in a zone scheme.

More change may be on the horizon.

Running backs coach Skip Peete was fired Monday. The defensive assistants will have to interview with Kiffin for their jobs, and the Cowboys might be thinking about adding an offensive coordinator/play-caller.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.



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