Cowboys' issue: Players are problem

IRVING, Texas -- Rob Ryan apparently needs to take a drive down Interstate 45.

I mean, gee, look how much smarter it made Wade Phillips!

Say what you want about Phillips' head-coaching credentials, but the man has always been widely respected for his X's and O's wizardry as a defensive coordinator. Until last season, at least.

Wasn't it all ol' Wade's fault that the Dallas Cowboys' defense fell apart in 2010? Phillips got fired in the middle of the season, but he still took the brunt of the blame for the Cowboys allowing the most points in franchise history, much less the NFC.

Good thing he figured out how to coach again while steering that U-Haul to Houston. The Texans have the NFL's top-ranked defense despite losing Pro Bowl pass-rusher Mario Williams to injury early in the season.

The Cowboys hired Ryan to clean up the mess, but that defense reached a whole new level of stink in Sunday night's loss to the New York Giants with the NFC East lead on the line. Never before had the Cowboys allowed a 400-yard passer, 100-yard receiver and 100-yard rusher in the same game. Never before in NFL history had a team managed to lose a game in which its quarterback had a 140-plus passer rating, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But the 34 points Tony Romo & Co. provided weren't enough to offset the defensive debacle.

If you listen to some folks who watched the Cowboys defense's dazed-and-confused act against the Giants, the issue is that Ryan's scheme is too complicated. There are some players who will agree with that. Ryan even said that he might need to "eat a little humble pie" and simplify things schematically.


The real problem is as plain and simple as could be.

"We've just got to play better," nickelback Orlando Scandrick said, honest and accountable as could be. "We tried a simple scheme last year and it didn't work."

Oh, yeah, that's right. The whispers once Wade got the boot were that his scheme -- the same one that allowed the fewest points in the NFC the previous season -- was too simple, too predictable.

Dallas' defensive players need to play better the next three games to give the Cowboys a decent chance to make the playoffs. If the Cowboys are going to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders, they need to get better defensive talent in the offseason.

Ryan strongly disagrees with that point. That's partially why he's such an easy target this week.

The man opened his big mouth right after he got to Valley Ranch and declared that the Cowboys had the best defensive talent in the NFL. And he won't back off that bold statement.

"I've got better players than everybody else," Ryan said, "and that's just a fact."

Really? The statistical evidence certainly doesn't support that case.

Ryan's defense has been the epitome of average all season. The Cowboys rank 16th in the league in scoring defense, 16th in total defense.

That's a heck of an upgrade from last season, but that's about as faint as praise could possibly be. And the problem is that this defense is trending the wrong way.

Ryan stresses that the Dallas defense has been pretty good other than two terrible performances. That's kind of like when the former head coach here would mention that the defense was pretty solid other than those two long touchdowns that cost the Cowboys the game.

Plus, the Cowboys still have to face the Eagles and Giants again, likely needing to beat both of them to make the playoffs. And, if the Cowboys are going to make a real run, they'll have to beat even better offenses.

The truth is that this defense has three cornerstone players -- outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, nose tackle Jay Ratliff and inside linebacker Sean Lee -- and a whole bunch of question marks. Throw a dart at the defensive depth chart and you're pretty much guaranteed to hit a draft need.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins has first-round talent and deserves credit for fighting through injuries all season, but he's on-again, off-again. Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, another former first-round pick, has flashes of brilliance that are lost in long stretches of mediocrity.

Cornerback Terence Newman is way past his prime and looks like he's on his last legs after a few weeks of actually playing well enough to earn his massive contract earlier this season. Inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking are tough, old warriors whose glory days are long gone.

The rest of the defense is filled with JAGs, to borrow a term from Bill Parcells. The just-a-guy list includes safety Gerald Sensabaugh and Scandrick, even though they've been given five-year, $20-plus-million contract extensions this season.

If they want to prove that assessment wrong, Saturday night in Tampa Bay would be a great time to start. Then they better keep it coming against the Eagles and Giants.

Ryan, who vows to fix the occasional communication issues that have caused mass confusion for the Cowboys' defense, wants the blame for everything that's gone wrong to fall on his wide shoulders.

"If there is a defensive problem, it's right here," Ryan said. "It's not on anybody else. It's just me and I'm going to fix it. Hell, our players are going to fix it. More importantly, they are the guys on the field who are going to kick some tail."

Ryan's at least right about the part that's most important.

There's an old saying among Texas high school football coaches: It ain't about the X's and O's; it's about the Jimmys and Joes.

That's the kind of wisdom Wade Phillips might have picked up during his drive down I-45.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.