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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Updated: January 11, 8:27 PM ET
Evidence says blame Dallas defenders

By Jean-Jacques Taylor
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- This week, Wade Phillips spends his days creating a game plan to help the Houston Texans advance to the AFC Championship Game. Who knows what Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is doing since there's no football to play.

During the second half of the season, we spent countless hours trying to figure out why the Cowboys' defense fell apart when it mattered most. Is it the scheme? Or the players? Is it a lack of mental toughness? Or not enough players with a hateful mentality?

Phillips' success as Houston's defensive coordinator a season after he was fired as the Cowboys' head coach/coordinator has revealed an answer even the most fervent fan can't ignore: It's the players.

Wade Phillips
The Cowboys' defense struggled under Wade Phillips in 2010 and didn't get much better after he departed.

After all, the players gave up 436 points -- the most in franchise history -- in 2010 in Phillips' simple scheme, which they told us didn't fool anyone.

And they blew multiple fourth-quarter leads and failed to compete in the first half of a win-and-get-in game against the New York Giants in Ryan's complicated scheme.

Houston hasn't had any problem executing Phillips' scheme. The Texans finished the season ranked second in the NFL in defense (285.7 yards per game) and fourth in points allowed (17.4), even though their best player, Mario Williams, missed 11 games.

More than anything, this should confirm that Phillips is a genius defensive coordinator and an awful head coach.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys are just awful on defense.

Ryan's unit lacks athleticism, size and playmakers. The more I think about it, all of Ryan's seemingly mindless chatter about his great defense was probably designed to boost the confidence of his group.

It makes sense.

How could most of them have any confidence after being abused the way they were in 2010 when they yielded more than 20 points 12 times, including more than 30 eight times.

While Ryan's intentions were good, it was dumb idea for two reasons.

First, it raised expectations among fans. And when the defense didn't perform, the backlash was more severe than it would have been if expectations had been tempered.

Second, you don't help players when you lie to them. The truth is always better.

Besides, most players can handle the truth. And those who can't need to be cut anyway. There's no way to prove it, but some of the Cowboys' players, such as Orlando Scandrick, seemed to buy into Ryan's hype and start to believe they were better than they actually were.

That's the kind of atmosphere that leads a player to think he played well if he had only two or three bad plays in a game since there are about 65 defensive plays in each game.

But if a player yields two 60-yard touchdown passes in a seven-point loss, he receives high grades from Ryan and his staff since he correctly did his job on 63 of 65 plays.

I know, unbelievable.

When Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, Jason Garrett and Ryan meet during the offseason to figure out how to improve the defense, any conversation should start with new personnel.

Anthony Spencer, Terence Newman, Kenyon Coleman, Keith Brooking, Bradie James, Abram Elam, Alan Ball and Frank Walker, each of whom participated in at least 331 plays, should have all played their last game in a Cowboys uniform.

Ryan, if he's going to have any real success with the Cowboys, needs better players to implement his scheme.

Much better.

That means a starting cornerback -- because Scandrick is good in the slot and average at best outside -- and a safety who can hit.

And they must find a pass-rusher because Spencer is good against the run -- as Garrett has told us more times than we care to remember -- but you use first-round picks on outside linebackers to sack quarterbacks. Anything else is a bonus.

Ryan also needs to move Jay Ratliff to defensive end because his skill set is wasted at nose tackle regardless of whether he made the Pro Bowl. He's not a consistent impact player at nose tackle because he's double-teamed so much.

At end, he won't get double-teamed nearly as much, and Ryan can move him inside in obvious pass-rushing situations so Ratliff can rush the passer against guards and centers who are usually inferior pass-blockers.

The only way this defense will improve is with a significant personnel overhaul.

Phillips' performance in Houston has showed us that.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.