After a disappointing inaugural season as the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan not only took responsibility, but he pointed the finger directly at himself for the team's performance. On the surface, it's a noble gesture that Ryan would take the blame despite the glaring weaknesses and lack of talent that existed in 2011.
Ryan, always bold and outspoken, brought his reputation as an accomplished coordinator to the Cowboys in 2011 in the hopes of reviving an under-performing unit. While the lockout robbed every team of an offseason and Ryan never had the opportunity to properly install his complex 3-4 scheme, the Cowboys were still in prime position to win many ballgames.
Unfortunately, they didn't win enough of them. Crushing defeats against the Jets, Giants, Lions, Cardinals and Patriots were total gut punches that left fans in a catatonic state of disbelief. Getting gashed in the run game and exploited vertically were second nature to this defense. By the end of the season, the Cowboys were on the outside looking in.
Statistically, the Cowboys finished 16th in points allowed and 14th overall in total defense. That puts the Cowboys squarely in the middle of the pack. What's worse is ending up 23rd overall in pass defense. But that's what you get when the secondary was an annual issue that was never properly addressed.
Ironically, 2011 was a defensive improvement from the Cowboys' 31st ranking of 2010.
Adding Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr while subtracting Terence Newman, Alan Ball and Frank Walker will help the pass defense. But being in the middle is not acceptable for this team—not when you're giving up 12-point leads with four minutes left.
From an optimistic point of view, adding Carr and Claiborne to free agents like Dan Connor and Brodney Pool will improve this defense. The Cowboys have also made the commitment to getting younger and faster on defense, and the offseason was just a reinforcement of that. While the Cowboys couldn't fill every need, Ryan's high-risk, high-reward scheme should have more to work with as he fully implements his defense.
The fact that the Cowboys were able to accomplish more with less in 2011 despite missing the playoffs leads me to believe greater possibilities exist in 2012 with a major talent upgrade.
So, where do the Cowboys go from here on defense, and what are the expectations for Ryan ?
Ryan was brought to Dallas to assemble and come up with a defense that can stop the high-powered attacks in the NFL, cause confusion and be counted on to win some games when the offense can't. In 2011, the failure to accomplish his goals do seem to be a little bit more palatable given the glaring deficiencies on this team.
For 2012, that can no longer be the standard. When you watched the Cowboys go up and get Claiborne then solidify the pass rush with Wilber and Crawford, it became very clear where the commitment was placed and who was very influential in this strategy.
With the benefit of an entire offseason of OTA's, minicamps, study sessions, a full training camp and a collection of new defensive talent, it's time for Ryan to take the wheel and steer this defense to its fullest potential.
With the commitment the Cowboys have shown to improving this defense, Ryan now must prove that he can make this collection of players into a sustainable, formidable and effective unit. With the type of resources the Cowboys put into this offseason and the decision to getting players like Claiborne, there is no more time for excuses.
In 2012 Rob Ryan must transform all of his confidence and brashness into tangible results. That process already seems to be well underway.