- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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The man the Dallas Cowboys have apparently targeted to be their next defensive coordinator is Monte Kiffin, a man who would be 73 when next season starts, who has 26 years' worth of experience coaching in the NFL and who is known as the pioneer of the "Tampa 2" defense. If Kiffin is who they bring in to replace the fired Rob Ryan, it would surely represent the "different direction philosophically" that head coach Jason Garrett cited as the motivation for Ryan's firing.
Tampa 2 would certainly mean a switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, which would turn DeMarcus Ware into a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end for the first time in his career. I asked Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson about this idea earlier this week, and he said he didn't love the idea of Ware as a 4-3 end. His reasoning: "Just a little closer to the ball, more wear and tear, more battling with bigger bodies. And he is already showing signs that his body could be beginning to break down. I don't see a true 4-3 DE on the roster, which would then catapult that to their No. 1 need, which then will make it tougher to address things like offensive line and safety."
Which is an issue, but remember, these Cowboys project to be about $18.2 million over the salary cap at this point, so they may have to find some odd and unconventional solutions. Tyrone Crawford, their third-round pick in last year's draft, is probably a fit at a 4-3 end spot long-term. The question is if Crawford could be ready (or big enough) to be a starter in 2013. But assuming they can't fit Anthony Spencer under the cap, they may have to try it. I imagine Jason Hatcher would move inside to defensive tackle and help the pass rush from there. And Jay Ratliff would also likely thrive in a 4-3, but he's causing cap problems for them too.
The Tampa 2 needs speed at the second and third levels, and asks linebackers to be strong in coverage. I think the Cowboys would be in good shape there with guys like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, who are strong in coverage and have the speed to potentially stay on the field in passing situations in a Kiffin defense.
The Tampa 2 sometimes will replace linebackers with safeties to increase the overall defensive speed, and here again the Cowboys have an issue. Barry Church's expected return from injury would help, but it's not a position at which they're deep. They like Matt Johnson, whom they took at the tail end of the fourth round in April, as a playmaking safety. But he didn't exactly develop this year, and they'd be taking a chance if they were relying on him to fill a significant role next year. The price would be right, though.
And there is some question as to whether or not press cornerbacks like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne fit into a system such as this one. The Cowboys signed Carr to a $50 million contract last offseason and used their first two picks of last year's draft on Claiborne, so you'd hate to all of a sudden install a system into which they don't fit neatly. That would have to be addressed, and the extent of the investment the franchise has in those two players would require them to make sure they maximize their abilities in whatever defense they use. It's surely not out of the realm of possibility that Kiffin tweaks his system around the personnel he has. The good coaches are the ones that do that.
Traditionally, Kiffin's defenses have preached the importance of forcing turnovers, even if that means taking a risk on giving up a big play. Since only three teams in the league -- the Eagles, Colts and Chiefs -- forced fewer turnovers in 2012 than the Cowboys did, Kiffin's reputation as a takeaway hawk is likely part of the reason Garrett and Jerry Jones have decided to go after him. Obviously, there's no guarantee that a coaching change would make the Cowboys better at forcing turnovers if they're using the same players that couldn't force them in 2012. But there is a chance that changing the mindset of the defense on this matter could have an impact in that area. And there's more than a chance that Jones would expect it to do so.
Kiffin is 72 years old, and that's a concern among Cowboys fans who wonder if his best coaching days are behind him. But he's been on the radar of a few teams this offseason (Andy Reid supposedly talked to him about being defensive coordinator in Kansas City), and he's still well regarded in NFL circles as a top defensive mind. Above all, bringing in Kiffin would signal that the Cowboys have a definite plan about what to do on defense. And that matters.