Three days remain before the start of a season in which the Dallas Cowboys' defense has a lot to prove to a lot of people. Linebacker Anthony Spencer, who's one of the members of that defense with the most to prove, is keenly aware of this. You don't have to tell Spencer the Cowboys gave up the second-most points in the league last year. You don't have to remind him that he had a down year after finishing 2009 so impressively. He knows. He's seen the tape.
"You can't mail days in in this league," Spencer told me in a phone interview Thursday. "And I definitely found I was doing that last year."
This is a surprising admission from an NFL player to a writer -- the kind that startles a shrewd interviewer into scrapping his next couple of planned questions and following up. So, for the sake of you, my dear blog followers, that is exactly what I did.
Spencer told me he was reviewing game tapes from last season and spotting mistakes he'd made that didn't make any sense to him. In the pass rush, he'd take the wrong angle or attack the line at the wrong spot -- little detail things he knows not to do but was doing anyway. So he decided to investigate further, and he dug up some practice tapes. What he saw there was a guy wearing his uniform but not always working very hard on those little detail things in practice.
"So this year, definitely been focusing more in practice," Spencer said. "That's been my big thing, and I think it's going to make a big difference."
Well, yeah. I mean, that's why you practice, right? I'm sure it won't come as much consolation to Cowboys fans -- or to fired coach Wade Phillips -- to hear that Spencer has fixed this not-always-trying-hard-in-practice thing now. But Spencer is at least honest about it, and determined to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"Everything's a learning situation," he said. "And I definitely learned a lot last year."
Spencer is 27 years old and entering his fifth NFL season. If the Cowboys' defense is to rebound to its late-2009 levels, an individual rebound by Spencer is absolutely critical. Playing the outside linebacker spot opposite DeMarcus Ware, it's Spencer's responsibility to make opposing offenses fear credible pass-rushing threats from both sides, not just Ware's. Spencer had only two sacks after Halloween last year, and they both came in the season finale against Eagles backups.
This year, he needs to be better, and he knows it. He's energized by new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his deception-oriented schemes. Like everyone else on the team, he talks of the difference in practice tempo and focus in the first full year with Jason Garrett as head coach. And he says the whole defense is determined to make sure 2010 doesn't repeat itself.
"I think we have new energy and the motivation just because of the type of season we had last season," Spencer said. "I think we're a proud group and we know we can do better, and I think we will."