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Was Switching Over To 3-4 A Good Move For The Cowboys? Stats Say No.

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Was Switching Over To 3-4 A Good Move For The Cowboys? Stats Say No.

By Vince Grey

For 42 years the Dallas Cowboys played a 4-3 defense. We are now completing the ninth season of the “great” 3-4 switch. I won’t even bring up all the Super Bowl victories (5), NFC Championships (8), and Division Titles (19) we won during those 4-3 years. Instead, I’ll focus strictly on defensive statistics.

There are three ways to track defensive units: yardage allowed, points allowed, and turnovers. I decided to eliminate turnovers because that number is incredibly unpredictable from year to year and tends to even out over time. In other words, teams that force a lot of turnovers on defense generally see their numbers decline the following season, and vice versa.  Takeaways have no predictive power and are largely the result of luck.

That leaves yards and points. While the NFL uses yards as its primary measuring stick for rating defenses, I prefer to look at points. While I’m not saying yardage means nothing, at the end of the game, the winner has the most points, not the most yardage. If the other team can’t score, you can’t lose.

For a proper comparison between the 3-4 defense and the 4-3 variety, I’m using the past nine seasons as our 3-4 barometer.  I could have taken any period of time for the 4-3, but decided that the seven season from 1996-2002 would be best, because (a) that’s the closest time period, and (b) like 2003 to 2011, Dallas had no Super Bowl appearances, as well as some good and bad years, record-wise. Of course, the NFL is definitely much more pass-friendly and offensive-oriented lately.  Thus, I will use seasonal rankings rather than head-to-head comparisons.

3-4 Defense (2003 – 2011)

Average rank in points allowed – 15.5     Years as a top five unit – 2

Average rank in yardage allowed – 11.3  Years as a top five unit – 1

4-3 Defense (1996 – 2002)

Average rank in points allowed – 11.3     Years as a top five unit – 3

Average rank in yardage allowed – 10.4   Years as a top five unit – 3

As anyone can see, the 4-3 was a superior unit for Dallas, in both points and yards allowed.  With a smaller sample size (seven seasons to nine), the 4-3 defense had twice as many top five rankings. Frankly, except for two seasons, the 3-4 has been a big disappointment in Dallas—a very average, very mediocre defensive unit that doesn’t dominate against the run consistently and certainly has a lot of issues against the pass, both in terms of rushing the passer and secondary play.

And it’s not like Dallas hasn’t used high draft picks trying to make it work. Since 2003, DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Marcus Spears, Terence Newman, and Mike Jenkins were all first round picks (as was Bobby Carpenter), while Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Kevin Burnett (no longer with team) were second-rounders.

So why did Jerry go for the switch? Part of it was his belief that you could build and maintain a good 3-4 for less money than a 4-3 and that 4-3 defensive linemen are more difficult to find than 3-4 linemen. Frankly, I think the first part is total bunk.  As for the second—that is perhaps so, but there’s a reason most NFL teams play the 4-3.  It’s simply a superior defense, all things considered, especially for pressuring the quarterback.  The other reason was then-head coach Bill Parcells, a died-in-the-wool 3-4 man, as Jerry wanted the Big Tuna in Big D at that time.

But Parcells is long gone, and Jason Garrett—a Jimmy Johnson disciple—is here now. Jimmy believed in the 4-3. I wonder what Jason truly thinks about it.

Perhaps Rob Ryan can work some magic and make the 3-4 a top defensive unit in the next season or two. I have serious doubts, not so much because of Ryan as due to our questionable personnel.  Plus, it just feels wrong.  Always has.  Always will. It’s. . .tradition. Dallas is a 4-3 town. A 4-3 team. Think of it this way. . .what if Jerry decided to make the blue uniforms the primary version and use the white only occasionally? Or change the star to a picture of a cowboy riding a football? Or get rid of the cheerleaders?

See what I mean? Tradition.

At some point, I hope Jerry sees the light and goes back to the defense that took us to so many championships: the 4-3 defense.

 

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One Response to Was Switching Over To 3-4 A Good Move For The Cowboys? Stats Say No.

  1. Vince_Grey says:

    BTW, if you take out the two seasons they were actually any good, our 3-4 averages a poor 19th in points allowed those other seven years.

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