When Rob Ryan was fired, a lot of hot air was taken out of the Cowboys’ defense.
No one talked a better game than the Cowboys’ former defensive coordinator — so much so that it caused coach Jason Garrett to muzzle Ryan last year — but the problem was that the performances didn’t often live up to the bluster.
Certainly, Ryan had the excuse last season of losing five defensive starters to injury, but even before the injuries the unit failed to take hold and the on-field confusion two years into his tenure was inexcusable.
So the Cowboys made the switch to 73-year-old defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and his simpler, more technically sound Tampa 2 scheme and the 4-3 defense.
The move has brought a more understated approach, but not a less confident one. Kiffin and sidekick, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, are as sure about their ability to turn around the Cowboys’ defense as Ryan was — if not more so.
“None. Zero. None. Zero. None. Done it too long,” Marinelli said when asked if had any doubts about this defense working in Dallas. “I believe in it. I guess, there are two things: One, when you believe in the system, and [I] believe in myself as a teacher. We’ve had great success with it; we know it works.
“It really fits really talented players, too. It’s all those things. It’s having the talent, but this system forces that talent level to rise with effort, getting to the ball. I have great confidence in it. I always have.”
The thing about Marinelli is that when he says it, you believe him. It’s not like the fast talk of a used car salesman as it sounded at times with Ryan.
As a former Marine, Marinelli speaks with the force and conviction of a drill sergeant.
And why not.
Bill Parcells once described confidence as being based on demonstrated ability.
Sure, Kiffin had his problems at USC and the University of Tennessee, but his system is tried and true in the NFL dating to his days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he served as coordinator from 1996-2008. His units ranked into the top 10 in the NFL in yardage and scoring defense 11 times in 13 years there, including 2002 when they were first in yards, points allowed per game and interceptions en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVII.
Marinelli served as his defensive line coach for 10 years at Tampa Bay before a failed stint as head coach in Detroit. He was the defensive coordinator in Chicago the past three seasons and simply picked up where he and Kiffin left off in Tampa — directing stout defenses with a knack for causing a bunch of turnovers.
The Buccaneers averaged 33 turnovers per season under Kiffin. The Bears averaged 41 the past three seasons under Marinelli, including a league-best 44 last season.
Ryan and the Cowboys managed 16 last season.
The confident Marinelli has no problem saying that coaching was part of the problem.
“It’s on player and coach,” Marinelli said. “But you got to emphasize it every day. It’s something we’ve got to do.”
How did Ryan’s record match his machismo?
Ryan has ranked in the top 10 only once in nine years as a coordinator, proving to be more of a great quote than a great coach.
He was the Raiders’ defensive coordinator from 2004-2008, ranking 30th, 27th, third, 22nd and 27th. He led the Browns to 31st and 24th rankings in 2009 and 2010 before coming to Dallas and spearheading defenses that finished 14th and 19th overall the past two seasons.
Ryan is now working his empty voodoo in New Orleans as the Saints’ defensive coordinator.
Meanwhile, coaching is making a difference so far with the Cowboys.
Even secondary coach Jerome Henderson, who came to Dallas last season as a Ryan protégé, has noticed the difference.
“They are confident,” Henderson said. “But they are confident for a reason. They have history of being successful in this system. They can show you a track record of a system that works. It’s built on sound principles. They are confident in their system because they have worked so hard at it. They have seen it be successful, and they know what it’s capable of. I’ve learned a lot.”
Confidence matters when it’s based on demonstrated ability.