INDIANAPOLIS -- The Dallas Cowboys were having internal discussions about a philosophical defensive change from the 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 even before last season ended.
Not long after their season-ending loss to the Washington Redskins, the Cowboys looked at their defensive pieces to see if there was a way to make a smoother transition. And this came before Monte Kiffin was hired as defensive coordinator.
"You just go through all those scenarios and at the end of it we felt good about, 'Hey, we can do this and it won't take us three years to do this,'" coach Jason Garrett said. "And we certainly want to continue to add pieces to it and make that defense better, but we felt good about the flexibility and versatility of the guys we already have."
Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli agreed with Garrett's analysis after they joined the staff. They used players such as Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher as frames of reference for DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter.
But it's one thing to feel good about the pieces. It's another thing to know if the pieces will actually work.
In 2010, Denver finished last in yards (390.8) and points (29.4) allowed while running a 3-4 defense. The following season, coach John Fox's first with the Broncos, Denver finished 20th in yards and 24th in points. In 2012, the Broncos were second in yards and fourth in points.
Miami made the move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 last year after hiring Joe Philbin as coach. The results were not that much different from 2011. Miami finished 21st in yards allowed and seventh in points in 2012 after finishing 15th in yards and sixth in points in 2011.
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland offers an interesting perspective on the move because of his ties to the Cowboys. He was the Cowboys' vice president of pro and college scouting in 2005, when Bill Parcells made the decision to make the move to a 3-4 defense.
"I thought that was a more difficult transition because we were going to play true two-gapping 3-4 defense," Ireland said.
But it didn't take long. In that first draft, the Cowboys took Ware, Marcus Spears, Kevin Burnett, Chris Canty and Ratliff. They also added a prototype 3-4 nose tackle in Jason Ferguson in free agency.
Like the Cowboys, the Dolphins felt they had pieces in place for their move last season. Cameron Wake moved from outside linebacker to defensive end. They had defensive tackles in Paul Soliai and Randy Starks and a strongside end in Jared Odrick. At linebacker, they moved former Cowboy Kevin Burnett to the weak side with Karlos Dansby in the middle.
"If you have the skill set, I don't think it's that difficult a transition," Ireland said.
Like all 3-4 teams, the Cowboys used a lot of four-man lines. The nickel defense is a 4-3 scheme with Ware and Anthony Spencer playing defensive end. The Cowboys' 3-4 under Rob Ryan and Wade Phillips was not like the old rock-'em, sock-'em 3-4 defenses that relied on brute strength to win every battle.
"Most people don't realize that everyone is kind of both -- 4-3 teams get in 3-4 spacing and 3-4 teams get in 4-3 spacing," Fox said. "It's really what fits your personnel best and what's easiest to teach and for the players to learn. You just try to put people in the best position you can, and that's what coaching is. You teach them techniques that will help them perform at a high level."
As the Cowboys pondered the shift, they saw Ware the same way the Dolphins saw Wake.
"We felt like when Wake was in a three-point stance he probably was a better rusher than he was in a two-point stance," Ireland said. "I don't know that about DeMarcus. I'd have to study that, but I'm sure he's equally efficient in a three-point or two-point stance, so I don't think it will be that tough."
Ireland sees 4-3 pieces in Ratliff, Tyrone Crawford, Lee and Carter.
"What I know about what they do is somewhat limited," Ireland said, "but from what I've seen, I don't think it's going to be drastic."