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Can Ware excel as a defensive end?

Can Ware excel as a defensive end?

Depending on whom you ask, Tom Landry either revolutionized or invented the 4-3 front. When he became head coach of the expansion Cowboys, Landry’s teams always fielded four down linemen. And by the time he was forced out, the 3-4 fad that dominated the ’80s had subsided, resulting in Dallas running a 4-3 front every season from 1960 to 2004.

In 2005, several key changes happened in Dallas. Bill Parcells was hired as head coach in ’03, but he didn’t implement a scheme shift right way. After Dallas ranked 27th in points allowed in ’04, though, changes were necessary. With two first round picks, the Cowboys selected 3-4 outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and 3-4 defensive end Marcus Spears. Dallas also signed Jason Ferguson, who had played nose tackle for Parcells with the Jets. With the pieces in place, Dallas ran a 3-4 defense each of the last eight seasons. Ware has become one of, if not the, greatest 3-4 outside linebackers of all time. But after eight years of Parcells, Wade Phillips, and Rob Ryan, Dallas is returning to its 4-3 roots under Monte Kiffin.

Kiffin, of course, is most famous for the outstanding defenses that he and Tony Dungy created in Tampa Bay; the Tampa-2, after all, has became part of football nomenclature. But I don’t want to go into whether the Cowboys are well-positioned to switch fronts (they’re not) or who will play what role in 2013 (Ware and Anthony Spencer are moving to defensive end, Jay Ratliff will move from NT to DT, and newly rich Sean Lee will play as a true middle linebacker, and he might be even more valuable in this system). Instead, I want to take a 30,000 foot view.

In 1974, the 3-4 defense was introduced to the NFL by Bum Phillips in Houston, Lou Saban in Buffalo, and Chuck Fairbanks and Hank Bullough in New England. I thought it would be interesting to see how teams that switched fronts fared in their first season. On caveat: I wanted to exclude schizophrenic teams like the current Bills (4-3 defense in 2009, 3-4 in 2010, 4-3 in 2011 and 2012, and now a 3-4 again in 2013).  According to my records, 74 teams in NFL history have switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, or vice versa, after running the same front for the three prior years.

On average, how do these teams fair in year one of the switch? When I analyzed the performance of teams that hired head coaches with defensive backgrounds, I focused on points allowed and yards allowed, so let’s use those two metrics again.  First, let’s look at teams who, like the 2013 Cowboys, switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. The most recent example is the 2012 Dolphins, who ranked 6th and 15th in points and yards allowed in 2011 while playing a 3-4, and then 7th and 21st in those categories as a 4-3 defense last season.

TeamYearHCDCPA Rk N-1YA Rk N-1PA Rk Yr NYA Rk Yr N
MIA2012Joe PhilbinKevin Coyle615721
CLE2011Pat ShurmurDick Jauron1322510
NWE2011Bill Belichick--8251531
HOU2006Gary KubiakRichard Smith32312524
BUF2001Gregg WilliamsJerry Gray1832921
CAR1999George SeifertJohn Marshall27302626
NWE1996Bill ParcellsAl Groh25281419
DET1995Wayne FontesHerb Paterra19241423
NOR1995Jim MoraMonte Kiffin27251822
DEN1994Wade PhillipsCharlie Waters10192528
ARI1994Buddy RyanRonnie Jones72143
NYG1994Dan ReevesMike Nolan15811
CIN1994David ShulaLarry Peccatiello20162615
GNB1994Mike HolmgrenFritz Shurmur9256
MIA1993Don ShulaTom Olivadotti11102420
IND1993Ted MarchibrodaRick Venturi16212728
ATL1993Jerry GlanvilleDoug Shivley28282825
SFO1993George SeifertBill McPherson3151615
KAN1992Marty SchottenheimerDave Adolph713135
SDG1992Bobby RossBill Arnsparger211944
TAM1991Richard WilliamsonFloyd Peters22242511
RAM1991John RobinsonJeff Fisher25212723
SEA1990Chuck KnoxTom Catlin1614119
NYJ1990Bruce CosletPete Carroll25271723
HOU1990Jack PardeeJim Eddy26131411
RAI1990Art ShellDave Adolph101074
CLE1989Bud CarsonDan Radakovich6647
MIN1986Jerry BurnsFloyd Peters1716511
PHI1986Buddy RyanWade Phillips10101217

On average, these defenses weren’t too bad — they were just slightly below average in terms of both points and yards allowed (I would have expected to see these switches after some really bad seasons). On the other hand, the defenses barely improved, either. Had the average defense here been much poorer in Year N-1, we’d have to consider general regression to the mean principles. Here, though, these defenses were already around average (at least, on average). Changing defenses usually involves some growing pains, so perhaps these results are positive for Cowboys fans. The 2012 Cowboys were 24th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed; I wouldn’t be too excited about a big jump just because of a switch in formation, but there doesn’t necessarily have to be growing pains, either.

What about defenses that switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4?

TeamYearHCDCPA Rk N-1YA Rk N-1PA Rk Yr NYA Rk Yr N
IND2012Chuck PaganoGreg Manusky28252126
HOU2011Gary KubiakWade Phillips293042
WAS2010Mike ShanahanJim Haslett18102131
BUF2010Chan GaileyGeorge Edwards16192824
ARI2009Ken WhisenhuntBill Davis28191420
DEN2009Josh McDanielsMike Nolan3029127
GNB2009Mike McCarthyDom Capers222072
KAN2009Todd HaleyClancy Pendergast29312930
MIA2008Tony SparanoPaul Pasqualoni3023915
NYJ2007Eric ManginiBob Sutton6201918
SFO2005Mike NolanBill Davis32243032
CLE2005Romeo CrennelTodd Grantham24151116
OAK2005Norv TurnerRob Ryan31302527
DAL2005Bill ParcellsMike Zimmer27161210
SDG2004Marty SchottenheimerWade Phillips31271118
ATL2002Dan ReevesWade Phillips2430819
BAL2002Brian BillickMike Nolan421922
NWE2000Bill Belichick--781720
NYJ1997Bill ParcellsBill Belichick2927624
STL1986Gene Stallings--2415214
DET1985Darryl RogersWayne Fontes23171918
NYJ1985Joe WaltonBud Carson202138
SEA1983Chuck KnoxTom Catlin5122427
SDG1983Don CoryellTom Bass24252826
RAM1983John RobinsonFritz Shurmur28271515
PIT1982Chuck NollWoody Widenhofer1122417
BAL1982Frank KushBud Carson28282626
NOR1981Bum PhillipsWade Phillips28282411
SFO1981Bill WalshChuck Studley262722
MIN1981Bud GrantBob Hollway11262117
GNB1980Bart StarrJohn Meyer13232225
CLE1980Sam RutiglianoMarty Schottenheimer20241223
ATL1980Leeman BennettJerry Glanville2625516
CIN1980Forrest GreggHank Bullough2828149
NYG1979Ray PerkinsBill Parcells16221419
STL1978Bud WilkinsonTom Bettis23241513
KAN1978Marv LevyRod Rust27282220
NYJ1978Walt Michaels--24262727
PHI1977Dick VermeilMarion Campbell1921710
MIA1977Don ShulaBill Arnsparger1526516
DEN1976John RalstonJoe Collier18968
OAK1976John Madden--731218
HOU1974Sid GillmanBum Phillips26241822
BUF1974Lou Saban--1014125
NWE1974Chuck Fairbanks--16182013

Well, this one looks better, but we still have to remember that there’s some regression to the mean at play here. What do you think of these results?

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  • James

    One nitpick: Ware was a DE in college and converted to OLB after he was drafted.

  • Chase Stuart

    At 247 pounds, Ware was never going to be a DE in the pros — he was only able to do that at Troy. He’s put on some weight now, which will help, but I’m still skeptical about the transition here.

    • Mike

      To be fair, he’s reportedly somewhere in the 260-265 range right now.

  • Landon

    Frankly I find this to be waaaaay to generalized. The 4-3 that Kiffin plays is not the same as other 4-3s. In the same way that Rob Ryan and Wade Phillips’ 3-4 were different. Kiffin’s system, is a lot closer to Phillips D than Ryan’s D. A 1 gap system is where these DL cut their teeth, and now they are returning to that technique.

    • Chase Stuart

      Hence the 30,000 foot view language. This post is not designed to tell you where the 2013 Cowboys will rank in points allowed, but to appeal to historians who are curious about trends that can be inferred from the dozens of teams who have switched fronts. And to provide a listing of those teams.

  • Richie

    Has anybody done any comparisons to see if there is any general trend towards one scheme being better than the other? Since my football career ended during summer practice of my freshman year in high school, I never really learned the intricacies of defensive techniques. I read the piece (by Jene Brammel?) on FootballGuys that tried to explain defensive schemes. I definitely learned a few things there. I haven’t even seen any other writers try to break down defenses like that.

    But I always kind of feel that these announcements of changing to a 4-3 (or vice versa) is just kind of a way to make fans think you are doing something to improve a team. Is it really that big of a difference? I know part of it is personnel, but I’m skeptical. Also, what percentage of times do defenses even run from their base package? Less than 50%?