Commentary

Cowboys' defense rests on Rob Ryan

Flashy coordinator has no excuses if unit doesn't plug holes from last season

Updated: August 9, 2012, 5:34 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

OXNARD, Calif. -- This is the season we find out whether the Dallas Cowboys' Rob Ryan should be considered among the NFL's best defensive coordinators or whether he's been living off the reputation of his daddy and his brother.

[+] EnlargeRob, Buddy and Rex Ryan
AP Photo/Julio CortezRob Ryan (left) has his work cut out for him if he intends to match the defensive accomplishments of dad Buddy and brother Rex.
Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears' defense -- one of the best in NFL history -- created the 46 defense. You can't discuss the history of the NFL without mentioning his name.

And New York Jets coach Rex Ryan is widely considered one of the best defensive minds in the game based on his work with the Baltimore Ravens and the Jets.

Rob Ryan certainly has their bluster. And swag. And oratory skills. He can only wish he had their résumés.

In eight seasons as a defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Cowboys, Ryan has had one unit -- the 2006 Raiders -- finish among the NFL's top 10. The rest have ranked between 14th and 31st in yards allowed. None of his defenses has allowed fewer than 20.8 points per game.

Granted, he has taken over some raggedy defenses, but the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-today league.

We certainly didn't see much from the Cowboys' defense last season to suggest Ryan was the defensive guru some proclaimed him to be when Jason Garrett hired him.

The Cowboys yielded 21.7 points and 343.2 yards per game, good for 16th and 14th, respectively, in the NFL. Clearly, it was an improvement over the defense that had allowed 27.3 points and 351.8 yards per game under former coach Wade Phillips the previous season, but it was a unit that was seemingly at its worst during winning time.

The Cowboys blew five fourth-quarter leads, and Ryan, noted for his creativity and schemes, didn't affect the Cowboys' pass rush. The Cowboys were tied for seventh with 42 sacks, but DeMarcus Ware had 19.5 of them.

Ryan can't take credit for Ware's exploits because he's a disruptive force no matter who's running the defense.

Ryan's exotic blitzes and packages that were designed to disrupt offenses and confuse quarterbacks and opposing offensive coordinators were ineffective. Too many times, quarterbacks had way too much time to exploit the Cowboys' defense, one of the reasons they compiled an 88.4 passer rating with 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
AP Photo/Gus RuelasRob Ryan's Cowboys will seek a simple approach to stopping opposing offenses -- particularly those within the division.

Last season, Ryan had excuses. The lockout prevented him from installing his defense during the offseason, and nagging injuries to Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins wrecked his defense.

The excuses and alibis don't exist this season.

Not after owner Jerry Jones spent $50 million on cornerback Brandon Carr, the player Ryan called the best player available in free agency. General manager Jerry Jones then moved up in the draft and selected cornerback Morris Claiborne, the top-rated defensive player.

Add those players to the triumvirate of Ware, linebacker Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff, and Ryan has enough talent to make his scheme work. Hey, you can even add outside linebacker Anthony Spencer to the mix since the Cowboys put the franchise tag on him, so he'll earn about $10 million this season, and they keep telling us he's among the top five players in the NFL at his position.

It's up to Ryan to either devise a scheme to hide the Cowboys' other holes or improve his players through coaching.

Ryan understands the Cowboys' defense must play better.

That's one of the reasons he ain't talking smack about his defense or the NFC East during training camp. Maybe Garrett asked him to tone it down a little. Or maybe he didn't.

Witten We're in the K.I.L.L. system this year. We keep it learnable and likable. That's what we do. Some people say K.I.S.S. -- keep it simple stupid, but we don't deal with stupid people, so we kill them.

-- Rob Ryan

The reality is Ryan knows his defense received way too many butt-kickings last season for him to arrive at training camp with an array of pithy comments about his unit's ensuing dominance.

Any defensive success the Cowboys have must start in the NFC East. The Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants averaged 27 points and 410.8 yards per game against Ryan's defense last season.

Wow.

The Cowboys' NFC East rivals scored at least 20 points in five of six divisional games, including three with more than 30 points. New York and Philadelphia swept the Cowboys, who needed a pair of fourth-quarter rallies to beat last-place Washington.

Of the 64 plays of more than 20 yards the Cowboys yielded last season, 33 occurred against division rivals.

Considering Eli Manning and Michael Vick are quality quarterbacks, and the division is full of big-play receivers such as Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and New York's Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

Of course, it'll help if the Cowboys can get lined up right this season. Way too many busted coverages and mental mistakes resulted in disaster last season.

"Our philosophy is that we want you to throw the ball the furthest for the least amount of yards," Ryan said. "If we give up a throw in the flat, we could care less.

"We're in the K.I.L.L. system this year. We keep it learnable and likable. That's what we do. Some people say K.I.S.S. -- keep it simple stupid, but we don't deal with stupid people, so we kill them."

To do so, Ryan has simplified the defensive audible system, and he said he's seen few mental mistakes with the starters. The first real test occurs Monday against Oakland.

"The No. 1 thing is eliminating bad football and eliminating mental mistakes and letting us play the way we're capable of playing," Ryan said. "That's all of us taking a hard look in the mirror. That's not just a player thing; it's also a me thing.

"My coaches do a great job, but that's on me. Any time there's a mental mistake, I take it personally because I'm a better teacher than that -- I know I am."

We're about to find out. His future in Dallas might depend on it.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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