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Matt Gagne
September 05, 2011
A big man with a big name blows in to fire up a soft defense
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September 05, 2011

2 Dallas Cowboys

A big man with a big name blows in to fire up a soft defense

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The Cowboys use words like humbling and embarrassing to describe the 2010 season, which began with owner Jerry Jones saying that he hoped his team would play in Super Bowl XLV at his new $1.15 billion stadium but ended with the franchise's first losing record in six years. The Dallas offense sputtered without quarterback Tony Romo, who missed the last 10 games with a broken collarbone, while the defense surrendered a club-record 436 points and 5,628 yards of total offense. The only bright spot came last November when, with his team in last place in the NFC East with a 1--7 record, Jones fired coach Wade Phillips and replaced him with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who sparked the team to a 5--3 finish.

It's no surprise, then, that Jones, buoyed by that success, made another coaching change in the off-season. To light a fire beneath his underachieving defense, he went out in search of a Rex Ryan clone and found just that. On Jan. 19, Jones hired veteran NFL defensive guru Rob Ryan, the twin brother of the brash Jets coach, away from the Browns. Ryan naturally opened his first training camp in Big D by taking an implied shot at the Eagles, saying he didn't think Dallas qualified as "the all-hype team. That might have gone to someone else, but we're going to beat their ass when we play them." Asked to whom he was referring, Ryan said, "I don't know" and stalked off.

The fiery Ryan, a graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State, could hardly be more different from the Princeton-educated Garrett. Ryan is large, long-haired and loud. The Cowboys' coach, who will continue to call offensive plays, is slender, clean-cut and polished. When Garrett speaks, he frames his comments with hand gestures that indicate precision. When Ryan talks, he puts his entire body into the effort, projecting power.

But the contrast is fitting, because it's not the offense that must be drastically overhauled. Gone are running back Marion Barber and wideout Roy Williams—two underperforming big-name veterans who were cut to make room under the new salary cap. With Felix Jones, who caught 48 passes last year, now the clear No. 1 at running back, there's a chance to open up the attack. Dallas already has a corps of talented receivers, led by wideouts Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, who led the team with 94 receptions and nine TD catches in 2010.

A more open game should suit the mobile, improvisational Romo, who's entering his sixth year as the starter and says he's ready to begin "the second phase" of his career by reaching out to "guys at other positions about what needs to be done." The Cowboys could use some leadership. Tyron Smith, a 6'5", 307-pound first-round pick, will be starting at right tackle. And Bryant dazzled last year as a rookie, but his season was cut short by a broken right ankle and marred by a handful of off-field incidents.

But defense is the overriding concern. The Cowboys return 10 of 11 defensive starters—including a trio of Pro Bowlers in cornerback Terence Newman, linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nosetackle Jay Ratliff—and they're counting on Ryan to rejuvenate them. Before dropping to 23rd in total defense last season, Dallas finished eighth in '08 and ninth a year later. The Cowboys had the second-best scoring defense in '09, and the second worst last year (27.25 points per game).

Ryan's mission is to take that same defense—which had become predictable, stale and uninspired—and make it better. "There's a whole different attitude," says Ware, who led the NFL with 15½ sacks. "We're going to attack teams. We're going to dictate the game. Offenses won't know where we're coming from."

The Ryan brothers, who both use a 3--4 scheme, may share a defensive philosophy—Ratliff describes it as organized chaos—but their success hasn't been identical. In six years with the Ravens and the Jets, Rex's defenses haven't finished outside of the league's top six. In Rob's seven seasons with the Raiders and the Browns, his units were among the NFL's bottom six on four occasions. Dallas insists it knew exactly whom it was getting. "He's a fun guy to play for," says Garrett. "His players love him."

"[Ryan] brings a swagger and a confidence. You want to play better for him—it's contagious," Witten says. "Then you have Jason [Garrett] being calm, cool and collected, keeping everything in order. It's a great marriage."

Being in harmony with Garrett is of less concern to Ryan than wins and losses. "When you come into someplace new, you don't give a s--- about how anything went before," Ryan says. "We want to be a great defense, one of the best in the league. We're here to win games and a championship."

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