- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Rob Ryan readily admits to a lot of wrongdoing during his first season as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator.
He fesses up to throwing too much too fast at his players. He fell on the sword for several play calls. He even accepted the entire blame for a blowout loss in Philadelphia, calling himself out for providing additional motivational fodder for the "all-hype" Eagles with his mouth and putting together a terrible game plan.
But Ryan has no regrets about the biggest mistake he made last season. In fact, he still doesn't consider boasting about having the best defensive talent in the NFL to be a mistake.
That doesn't mean he necessarily believed the bull that kept spewing from his big mouth. Ryan had reason to embellish the praise of his players after arriving at Valley Ranch.
"Those guys had been beaten down so much that, in my opinion, I don't think they had the confidence to go forward," Ryan said.
That's a pretty pathetic statement about a bunch of professional football players. But it should seem a reasonable assessment to anyone who watched that defense quit on Wade Phillips en route to allowing the most points in franchise history the previous season.
Nevertheless, Ryan pumped up expectations while inflating fragile egos with all his brash boasting. That made him an easy target -- please resist size jokes for a man who has dropped more than 50 pounds the past few months -- when the Dallas defense fell well short of his preseason predictions that it'd be the best in the league.
Ryan got average results (16th in points allowed) from an average defense, yet a lot of people portrayed him as the scapegoat for an 8-8 season that ended with a whimper.
"That's OK," Ryan said. "Hey, keep the target on me this year and see what happens."
Ryan still won't come out and admit that personnel was the Dallas defense's biggest problem last season. ("I don't know, it's a hell of a lot better than what I had in Cleveland," he said.) He doesn't have to point fingers at the players. It's painfully obvious that the talent wasn't good enough.
First of all, Phillips didn't suddenly remember how to coach defense while driving down Interstate 45 to his new home in Houston. The Texans ranked among the NFL's stingiest defenses -- one year after being among the worst -- in large part because the Houston front office hit home runs with some offseason additions.
The Cowboys' front office spent big to plug defensive holes in March and April, which is further proof that the talent wasn't nearly as good as Ryan wanted the world to believe a year ago.
A couple of the most sensitive veterans from that defense, a pair of players who needed their egos stroked, signed one-year contracts with AFC teams to reunite with former Cowboys defensive coordinators. The Cowboys accomplished their goals of finding upgrades for Terence Newman and Bradie James, signing cornerback Brandon Carr and inside linebacker Dan Connor in the first week of free agency.
The Cowboys also signed safety Brodney Pool, a potential stopgap starter. And they made defense the focus of their draft, using their first four picks on defensive players, highlighted by moving up to take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick.
Ryan's defense still has flaws, starting with the safeties. But Dallas also has the most dominant pass rusher in the NFL (DeMarcus Ware), a four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle (Jay Ratliff), a $50 million cornerback they believe will be worth every penny (Carr) and the highest-graded cornerback on their draft board since Deion Sanders (Claiborne).
If the Cowboys defense gets average results this season it will have underachieved, unlike last year.
"I know one thing: I'm happy as hell with what we've got here," Ryan said. "I'm going to say it again: If we play the way we're capable of, then we'll be shutting a lot of people up. And there's a lot of them to shut up out there. A ton of them."
Of course, Ryan won't be shutting up. He might actually have the personnel now to prevent him from putting his foot in his mouth when he predicts success.
5hEric D. Williams