Fisher: 3-4 Not the Complete Answer

In those decade-ago TV ads, then-Cowboy Deion Sanders was trying to sell two types of pizza when he delivered the punchline: "Both."

Sanders' good buddy, Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, doesn't know from pepperoni or sausage. He's trying to stuff the run, not stuff the crust. He's trying to deliver wins, not pies. Still, Zim has himself a Deion-like dilemma: The boss, InfalliBill Parcells, has mandated the implementation of the 3-4 defense, an alignment with philosophies and terminologies that Parcells is comfortable with, but. … well, let's eavesdrop on a private hallway conversation between Zimmer and standout linebacker Dat Nguyen:

Zimmer: "Hey, Dat, how's the new playbook coming?''

Nguyen: "I'm starting to get the terminology down.''

Zimmer: "It's a whole new way of talking, huh? Kind of feels like you're a rookie again.''

Now, don't panic, Cowboys fans. Parcells isn't playing "Windtalkers'' here, trying to prevent the enemy from breaking his code. It's just that the 3-4 – while it arguably could be an eventual key to Dallas success – presently makes it difficult to gauge just how good this Cowboys defense might become.

Unless, of course, we get into an actual game and the 3-4 gets dumped.

Yeah, you read right. All this talk, all this learning, all this labor. … and we predict there will be moments in games when the much-ballyhooed 3-4 will be but a memory.

Seems odd right now, because for instance, virtually 100 percent of the defensive work at the June minicamp was on the 3-4. And it was the focus of the draft and it's in all the headlines and it's all the rage and it's what all the popular kids are doing nowadays. ( I heard the Cowboys' transition to the 3-4 is supported by Paris Hilton: "That's hot!'' she purred.)

Still, there remains the distinct possibility that once real NFL ammunition is being fired, Parcells will have his precious 3-4 at his disposal. … and Zimmer will have his security-blanket 4-3 at his. … and the fellas might have to arm-wrestle or flip a coin or play "Paper, Rock, Scissors'' to see who's will be done.

That's where the "both'' comes in.

"You're probably going to see a lot more 3-4 than 4-3 at this point,'' Zimmer tells The Ranch Report. "But you never know what will happen once we get going. … Any system is good if you do the right thing and put the players in the right spots and they make plays. … we've got some playmakers who have to be on the field.''

And some of those playmakers – five-time Pro Bowler La'Roi Glover being the most prominent – find themselves on the second unit because of the demands of the new 3-4 defense. There are obviously some advantages to the 3-4; with the right personnel, it can be more difficult for the opponent to arrange blocking assignments, and it is still relatively uncommon, so some teams might be less than fully acclimated to working against it. Furthermore, it is the manifestation of Parcells putting HIS stamp on HIS team.

We were taking about this with old friend Michael Irvin the other day. He doesn't care, 3-4, 4-3, whatever. But he cares about Parcells' taking charge.

Says Irvin: "The 3-4 isn't about players. The 3-4 is about Bill. The 3-4 is about the Dallas Cowboys now being fully Bill's Dallas Cowboys.''

When Michael Irvin voices support for Bill Parcells, I generally tend to want to know where I sign up to join. But you do fear trying to fit round pegs into square holes here. Should you fit your personnel into a system? Or should you design a system that fits your existing personnel?

How much sense does it make to take Glover off the field and replace him with, say, pedestrian linebacker Scott Shanle, all for the sake of employing a different alignment?

"I want to be on the field, and I plan on being on the field,'' says Glover, presently a nose-tackle backup to Jason Ferguson, another of those "needs-to-be-on-the-field'' guys. "I want to start, I want to be on the field for key plays, and I want to be on the field at the ends of games. That's what I forsee.''

The solution? Use both. Use the 3-4. Use the 4-3. A fastball pitcher still must have a curveball in his arsenal, right? And the element of surprise is an advantage, right? I mean, the pitcher doesn't announce to the hitter what is about to be served up, just like the Cowboys don't have to detail to the opponent when they'll face what, right?

"Here's my big beef,'' Zim says. "People get caught up in ‘can't-do's.' They think because a guy did one role well, he can't do another thing. They get put in boxes.
I say give me seven gifted front-seven players and let's roll. I say no matter how Parcells' wishes dictate the starting lineup, as a game unfolds, there will be plenty of opportunities to use a conventional four-man front, plenty of opportunities to pass-rush from exotic spots, plenty of opportunities to juggle people in such a was as to set up a winning chess match against the opponent. So get ready to see "both.'' And "all.''

"Here's my big beef,'' Zim says. "People get caught up in ‘can't-do's.' They think because a guy did one role well, he can't do another thing. They get put in boxes. Take Ray Lewis with the Ravens. They used to play a 4-3. He was great. Then they won a Super Bowl in a 3-4. He was great. Now Baltimore is going back to a 4-3. And guess what? He'll be great.

"Good players will play good. Now let's see how many good players we have.''

In the rush to over-analyze and celebrate Parcells' installation of the 3-4, some of us have gotten away from Zimmer's "good-players'' standard and instead stacked up those "boxes.'' For instance, one media outlet, in discussing Greg Ellis' chances of earning playing time over a Cowboy rookie named Chris Canty, noted that the newcomer was more physically suited to playing end in the 3-4 because of that defensive style's particular demands. The reporter painstakingly noted that the newcomer is 6-7 and 279 pounds, while Ellis is but 6-6 and 271 pounds.

Think we're over-boxing the 3-4? Ellis is "too small'' by an inch and eight pounds? Give Greg Ellis longer cleats and two extra breakfast muffins and suddenly he's transformed himself into a physically idea 3-4 end? C'mon. Let Canty go through two-a-days one time and he'll lose nine pounds, making him inappropriate for the position by nightfall? Ridiculous.

In the defensive line, Zimmer is fond of Glover and Ellis and newcomer vet Ferguson. He's a big fan of linebacker Nguyen (he thinks he'll excel in the 3-4). He's raving about rookie Demarcus Ware, who is listed as a defensive end but "we're giving him quite a big of (outside linebacker) work,'' Zimmer says, "and I watch him and say, ‘Whoa, what he just did was really something.'' Zimmer believes Roy Williams back at strong safety gives Dallas an elite player there and that cornerback Terence Newman is a confidence boost away from being a star.

There might be three or five or even seven new starters on this defense (after last year's effort, that has to be an upgrade thing), along with an alignment that comes with the Bill Parcells Good Housekeeping Seal.

So with what seems to be a lineup populated by talent – Parcells says this Dallas team has more positive attributes than any he's supervised – is Zimmer ready to predict greatness, or at least goodness?

"Not yet, I really can't,'' he says. "I've got a project on my hands right now. But check back with me. Usually, at some point in training camp I have a pretty good idea. Give me one or two preseason games. I'll have a better feel once guys are flying around as opposed to what we're doing now, which is thinking too much.''

By all means, stop the thinking. Stop the indecision. Settle the problem. When it comes to the 3-4 vs. the 4-3, place orders for "both.''

Mike Fisher is the editor of DallasBasketball.com and hosts a daily sports-talk show, "Fish For Lunch,'' noon-to-3 on 990 Texas Talk Radio (990am, and 990texastalkradio.com)

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