The Cowboys have always been a product of energy and attention. The franchise’s stars have not so much attracted headlines as they have demanded them. The team’s vaunted history is built on a foundation of legends, dynasties, stories and dreams.
That’s the reason Tony Romo draws more criticism than any player in football despite being one of the most productive quarterbacks the league has ever seen. It’s the reason fans were never happy with Wade Phillips – his regular-season winning percentage was overshadowed by late-season ineptitude and a lack of charisma. It’s also the only reason Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan is seen as a savior and not a hack.
Ryan is a master of the art of response. He’s funny, inspiring and has a ton of magnetism. He always has a good, quotable answer to any question, seems to love his players and is the only man more confident in his ability, his team and its direction than Jerry Jones. But for all the charisma and ra-ra spirit, Ryan has seemingly fallen short in one respect: creating an effective defense.
Ryan’s unit has pulled out two good performances in the last seven weeks. They were in consecutive games: one against Seattle, the other against Buffalo. Once a top 5 group in many respects, his defense has dropped to 15th in opposing QB rating, 16th in points against and 23rd in yards per play. They didn’t register a sack on any of Eli Manning’s 47 pass attempts and rarely got close to the Giants quarterback during last night’s game. They allowed Brandon Jacobs to run 19 times for 101 yards. And they absolutely crumbled in the fourth quarter, allowing the Giants to march down the field for nearly 11 minutes and score two touchdowns in the final two and a half.
Rob Ryan has maintained a belief in his defense throughout the year. He brashly stated “I’m the best at what I do.” He’s been very high on his players, saying Orlando Scandrick was ‘one of the best corners in football,’ Jay Ratliff was ‘unprecedented’ as a nose tackle and Demarcus Ware was the best defensive player he’d ever seen. Claims like that can’t simply be dismissed. Ryan drew sizable praise early in the season as his defense held more than held its own, with many prophesying he would land a Head Coach job on the strength of a one-year campaign in Dallas. But at this stage, Ryan’s's focus should be on damage control, not promoting himself as a potential head coach.
When interviewed last Thursday, Ryan said this game was a ‘must win.’ Obviously, the latest collapse isn’t all on his shoulders. The defensive personnel on this Cowboys squad is mediocre at best; the secondary is highly suspect, the defensive line lacks explosiveness and the linebackers would have trouble in coverage against some college football teams. But if Romo draws all the criticism for the Cowboys offense, shouldn’t Ryan be responsible for an embarrassing defensive display? The defensive coordinator has spent the past two months coasting on a good early stretch and a lot of bravado. Meanwhile, Wade Phillips, for all his bumbling, ‘country bumpkin’ ways, has gone to Houston and transformed one of the league’s worst defensive units into one of its best.
Rob Ryan may be a good defensive coordinator. He may be a great defensive coordinator. But his resume doesn’t show it – his last defensive unit to finish in the top half of the league in yards per play was five years ago, when the 2006 Raiders were 2nd in football. The pep talks and confidence can only go so far. Because while he appears custom-made for a fanbase which embraces his personality, his overall presence may create as many issues as it fixes.