Turnover battle critical for Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- Coaches will try just about anything to get a point across.

Monte Kiffin is no different.

A football is attached to the wall near the entrance to the defense/special-teams meeting room inside the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility. As the players walk to their seats, they have to swipe at the ball. As they leave the room, they have to do the same thing.

"Punch in, punch out," linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said.

The "drill" serves as a reminder of how critical turnovers are to a team's success.

At the recently concluded rookie minicamp, Kiffin, the Cowboys' new defensive coordinator, had the defensive players picking up every loose ball as if it was a fumble. It was a strange sight to see a cornerback run down an incomplete pass and sprint up the field.

On every running play, the defensive players had to attempt to strip or punch the football free from the offensive player.

"Anytime there's a loose ball, we're going to get it," coach Jason Garrett said. "We're going to get 11 guys to the football and we're going to practice scoop and score, practice knocking the ball out."

When "turnovers" and "Cowboys" are discussed, it's almost always about Tony Romo's interceptions. It is rarely about the lack of turnovers created by the Dallas defense. It has not mattered much who has coached the defense, be it Rob Ryan, Wade Phillips or Mike Zimmer.

Last year the Cowboys' defense created 16 turnovers. One a game. The only teams worse than the Cowboys in 2012 were Indianapolis (15), Philadelphia (13) and Kansas City (13).

It didn't take long for the Cowboys' defensive rookies to know they better get the ball back.

"Turnovers win games," undrafted safety Jakar Hamilton said. "They put a high interest on it. I want to say the Bears had 44 turnovers last year and I think the Cowboys only had 16. We're real big on turnovers."

That Hamilton could recite the statistics correctly speaks well of his listening skills. That Hamilton would know Chicago's takeaways is not by chance. Among the many reasons the Cowboys wanted Rod Marinelli as their defensive line coach was his tie to that Bears defense. Last October, Marinelli's defense intercepted Romo five times, returning two for touchdowns.

Chicago's defense produced nine touchdowns last year, one shy of an NFL record. The Cowboys have had nine defensive scores in the past four years combined and they have won all nine games.

Last year, teams across the NFL with two takeaways in a game had a 75-48 record. Teams with three takeaways were 83-20. The Cowboys had five games last year in which they forced two turnovers and went 4-1.

This attention to turnovers is not Cowboys specific, and certainly it's not new.

Be it Ryan, Phillips or Zimmer, turnovers have been emphasized and drilled in practice. Ryan went so far as to change the category from "turnovers" to "takeovers" last year, hoping that a simple name change could change the defense's fortune.

It was a nice mind trick, but it didn't work.

There is a nature versus nurture argument regarding turnovers.

Some players just might have a knack for creating turnovers no matter how many times they are required to punch in and punch out or pick up a loose ball in practice. Sean Lee comes to mind. Others don't have that knack. Pick most of the Cowboys cornerbacks here.

"If you look at certain guys probably throughout their career, some guys since Pop Warner have been around the ball and made plays and that probably has something to do with athletic ability, quickness, speed, maybe the ability to catch the ball and maybe their instincts," Garrett said. "So you want to attach as many of those guys to your team as you can, and as coaches we want to make sure we emphasize the importance of trying to do that and drill it.

"We have to do a better job of that and we'll continue to try to emphasize that because turnovers make a huge difference. Obviously when you take the ball away from an opponent it gives you many more scoring opportunities. We have to do a better job of that."