Jason Hatcher has to wonder what life would have been like playing the 4-3 all along

If only the 4-3 had come along a little earlier in Jason Hatcher’s career with the Cowboys.

Or Rob Ryan.

The current defensive scheme or the former defensive coordinator might have had Hatcher rolling along like he is now — tied for the team lead in sacks, second in quarterback pressures, with a tackle for loss and a pass defensed in only two games — much sooner.

He wonders, too.

“Kinda sorta. When I came out of college, I came from a 4-3, and when I got here, I two-gapped,” the veteran defensive lineman said. “And I really didn’t like it. I didn’t really like it. But this scheme, it gives me the opportunity to be an athlete again. So I’m enjoying it again. I’m really happy with where I am right now.”

So is everyone else at Valley Ranch. Hatcher has been the most pleasant surprise out of the Cowboys’ move to the 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who believes he has something special in the 6-foot-6, 299-pound Hatcher when he plays at defensive tackle as opposed to defensive end in the Cowboys’ former 3-4.

“I had a kid named Keith Millard way back in the late ’80s with the Minnesota Vikings,” Kiffin said. “He was tall like Hatch. There aren’t too many 3-techniques that play that well — they’re too tall to be a 3-technique; they’re more defensive ends. Hatch is one of those kind of guys. I think he’s special.”

But Kiffin is not the first Cowboys defensive coordinator to think that.

Ryan told Hatcher the same thing. Those words from the former Cowboys defensive coordinator, fired at the end of last season and replaced by Kiffin, had as much an effect on Hatcher as the scheme change.

“Coach Rob was the first one to actually come in and believe in me,” Hatcher said. “He actually put it back into me, because this league, man, people around this organization, around the league, whatever, they don’t know how to tap into you and make you become a better player.”

Hatcher, a third-round pick in 2006 out of Grambling State, was a backup defensive end for his first five years with the Cowboys, playing behind Chris Canty and Marcus Spears for a while, and later, Igor Olshansky and Kenyon Coleman.

It was in Ryan’s first year, 2011, that Hatcher started.

“He just told me, ‘You could be the best in the league, you know?’ ” Hatcher said of Ryan, now leading the New Orleans Saints defense. “Which I already knew. But opportunity didn’t present itself. I was behind guys that I had to just sit behind, because that’s the way it is. Sometimes you just got to wait for your opportunity, and that’s what I did. My opportunity came at 31 years old, eight years in.”

It is rare for a football player to mention his age.

But for Hatcher, like the years on the bench and the switch to the 4-3, it is motivation. He knows he is closer to the end of his career than the start. He wants to take advantage of what he calls the best team he has played on.

Teammates see it.

“When I first came in, he had the same ferocity, but he might take a snap off here and there,” fourth-year safety Barry Church said. “But now it’s like every snap, he’s going all out. That’s what he tells us every day after practice: ‘It’s coming down. My career’s almost done, I’m trying to do everything I can to get to the Super Bowl.’ He’s been proving it. He’s been slapping offensive linemen left and right. His play on the field is tremendous.”

Coach Jason Garrett said Hatcher is playing as well as he ever has, winning the edge against linemen by being able to rush upfield first.

“More than anything else, you’re just seeing him play with a relentless spirit both defending the run and running to the football at the end of the down, but also getting to the quarterback,” Garrett said. “He’s playing really, really good football.”

Hatcher shrugs. He doesn’t think so. It’s like he remembers the words of doubt from early in his career more than Ryan’s words later.

“You guys know, if I have a good game I feel like I had a crappy game. I’m so hard on myself,” he said. “My wife gets on me all the time, you know. She’s like, you had so-and-so-and-so-and-so. I say, that ain’t good. I missed a tackle or something like that. That play that I messed up on just eats away at me.

“I think it’s a good thing and a bad thing. But it’s a good thing where you won’t get complacent. I don’t want to get complacent. I want to look up at the end of this season, man, and I want to be the best to do it.”

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