When Rob Ryan joined the Cowboys, he took over a defense that in 2010 played well below expectations. His reputation of taking defenses without star players and creating a suffocating pass rush raised the expectations for the defense's play in 2011. Unfortunately, that defense played almost worse than the unit that contributed to Wade Phillips being fired.
With centerpiece players like DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Sean Lee, shouldn't they have played better? Why does this unit consistently underperform? It begs the question, "Is Ryan able to elevate this defense from mediocre to elite?"
Granted, the circumstances were far from ideal when Ryan first showed up at Valley Ranch in January 2011. The league was facing a lockout before the next season could begin, which kept players from being able to meet with him and learn the intricacies of the scheme he would implement. Ryan's regular pressure and blitz packages are extremely complex and take a lot of time and practice to master.
The lockout prevented the players from having extended access to him until training camp in late July—leaving very little time to understand the playbook before the start of the season. The player-run practices during the lockout were great for team chemistry and cementing the on-field leaders, but no one there knew the scheme well enough to teach it at the level that was needed.
The direct results of this were the camera shots that showed the defensive players looking to the sideline confused about the play. It happened at least once per game. That defense had enough issues when lined up properly—this confusion only added to the touchdown totals.
In addition to a compressed installation schedule, he had a few personnel roadblocks to overcome as well. Ryan's defense is predicated on being able to send as many rushers as possible as frequently as possible. In order to do this, his schemes need cornerbacks that can cover receivers in man-to-man situations.
By putting the secondary on islands by themselves, Ryan has the freedom to send every player not covering a receiver to pressure the quarterback. Every player not being used to cover Victor Cruz is one more man that Ryan can throw at Eli Manning. The Cowboys' cornerbacks were not able to handle anyone in man coverage, which forced Ryan to alternate between compromising his defensive principles and leaving the secondary in no-win situations.
Before the 2012 season kicks off in the Medowlands in September, Ryan will have had a full offseason to teach the team the methods to his madness. After Organized Team Activities, mini camps and training camp, the defense will finally be able to understand that audible that Ryan calls out on third down as the play clock winds down. This will keep players in the best possible position to make a play. It also helps that the team was able to cut Terence Newman, who was a liability covering anyone, and add Brandon Carr—a physical cornerback who excels in man-coverage schemes.
The Cowboys want to have an aggressive 3-4 defense, and many think that Rob Ryan is the perfect coordinator to turn that dream into a reality—but no one knows for sure. Fans can hope he will bring back memories of the Doomsday Defense, and the media can predict sack totals. But the only thing that is certain is that Ryan will have two less excuses if the defense plays poorly in 2012.
And if that happens again, he could go the way of Wade Phillips and Brian Stewart.