Blasts from Defensive Pasts

And so Rob Ryan becomes the 9th (by my count) Defensive Coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, 10th if you count Tom Landry, who it appears took care of the defensive play-calling as Head Coach from 1960-1972.

Here’s a brief list of the Dallas Cowboys’ Defensive Coordinators (the DC’s DCs)

Ernie Stautner: 1973-1988

Dave Wannstedt: 1989-1992

Butch Davis: 1993-1994

Dave Campo: 1995-1999

Mike Zimmer: 2000-2006

Brian Stewart: 2007-2008

Wade Phillips: 2009-2010

Paul Pasqualoni: 2010

Rob Ryan: 2011 –

It’s hard to argue with the merits of NFL Hall of Famer defensive lineman Ernie Stautner as DC, as he led several Top 5 defenses and coached defensive legends such as Harvey Martin, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Randy White, Thomas Henderson, Bob Breuing and Everson Walls during his tenure (I mention defensive draftees/free agents because the DC must have been consulted a little during the process, and such players must have been developed somewhat by the DC and their staff). In 1977, his Doomsday II defense was his best squad, although I also view his 1985 defense with fondness, as they gave up some big plays and some points, but also forced 47 turnovers and collected 62 sacks. Of course, it must have helped Stautner to have the Founder of the Flex as his boss.

Dave Wannstedt helped create a defense from scratch, Doomsday III if you will, culminating in the NFL’s #1 defense (yardage allowed)  in 1992, along with a Super Bowl performance that resulted in nine turnovers. During his tenure, defensive stalwarts like Tony Tolbert, Russell Maryland, Larry Brown, Dixon Edwards, Leon Lett, Kevin Smith, Robert Jones and Darren Woodson were drafted and coached up by Wannstedt and his staff; but it wasn’t until Dallas added Charles Haley in a trade before the 1992 season started that Wannstedt’s defense reached the next level. Haley may have been a nightmare at times, but he was a defensive coach’s dream. Wannstedt’s defenses prior to the addition of Haley tended to be the “bend but don’t break” type, with his 1991 playoff squad getting to the opposing QB just 23 times and forcing a measly 23 turnovers. His defense did have a classic goal-line stand in the 1991 wildcard game against the Bears, only to be picked apart the next week by Erik Kramer (!) in the divisional playoffs.

Butch Davis had the good fortune to take over a defense that was largely intact from the year before, and he did well to coach the 1994 defense to a #1 ranking (yardage) and the most sacks in the league (47), despite a few starters, including Ken Norton Jr.

Dave Campo also was in a good spot when he took over as DC in 1995, plus he had the added luck of having Deion Sanders on his squad. Although he was blessed with a smooth start, considering that Campo’s defensive lineups changed quite often throughout the years and that the Cowboys offense started sputtering from 1996 on, he did a good job to keep the defenses ranked either in the Top 5 in terms of yardage allowed (4 times) or points allowed (twice) several times. His 1996 defense is one of my personal favorites, as it held eight opponents to 10 points or less and won several games for the team after the offense struggled through suspensions, injuries, age and bad coaching.  The Cowboys won games by scores like 17-3, 10-6 and 12-6, and held potent offense like the Super Bowl champ Packers to a garbage-time TD and the AFC Champ Patriots to two field goals. Leon Lett was having a Defensive MVP type season until he was suspended the last few games of the year for drug use.  I consider Campo to be one of the more underrated of the Cowboys DCs.

(An interesting note – the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s won three Super Bowls with three defensive coordinators.  Their only competitors for 3 Championships in 4 years, the Patriots, were all coached by DC Romeo Crennel.  Interestingly, the 70s Steelers won their four Super Bowls with two different D-coordinators, Bud Carson in 74-75, and George Perles in 78-79).

Mike Zimmer became DC in 2000 and stayed a surprisingly long seven seasons. Of course, he was “present at the creation” when the Cowboys transitioned from their traditional 4-3 to the 3-4. During his tenure, prominent defensive players like Roy Williams (#31 and #38), Terrence Newman, Bradie James, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Jay Ratliff and Bobby Carpenter (psych!) were chosen in the draft. Zimmer’s 2003 defense led the league in fewest defensive yards allowed and was second in points allowed, which is the best combined performance in Dallas Cowboys history.  Even more impressive was the fact that the defense had to work with a 2003 offense that appeared better suited for 1961, starting Quincy Carter, Troy Hambrick and Kurt Vollers. Yet even that franchise-record defense wasn’t very cataclysmic, garnering just 32 sacks and 25 turnovers, and its’ pathetic performance in 2004 led directly to Parcells installing the 3-4.

Wade Phillips was hired as a defensive mastermind, and Brian Stewart was his underling at DC. To this day, I am not certain who ran the 2007-08 Cowboys defense, Phillips or Stewart, but for the sake of argument let's say Stewart was in charge. Stewart’s 2007 and 2008 squads were both Top 10 defenses in terms of yards allowed, but were middle of the road when it came to points scored against. To his credit, his defenses did get a combined 105 sacks in his two years, but the lack of turnovers, combined with needing a scapegoat for the 2008 season ending 44-6 loss to the Eagles, meant that Stewart had to go. Defenders like Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, Victor Butler and Sean Lee arrived under the Phillips/Stewart regime.

When Phillips finally and officially took over the reins in 2009, we eventually witnessed what appeared to be a petty dominant defense, finishing #9 in yards allowed but just barely missing out on allowing the fewest points in the league for the first time in team history, as the Jets played their season-finale against a Bengals team that wasn’t trying. And for the first time in team history, the defense recorded consecutive shutouts. But the dearth of turnovers continued even in 2009, and the first 8 games of 2010 showed the defense as a whole and several individual players as being completely and utterly unable to build upon the success of the previous season.

 For reasons that may never be explained, the Cowboys suddenly and immediately became a big-play defense during Pasqualoni’s eight-game tenure, snagging 20 turnovers, scoring four touchdowns and recording 18 sacks. But his squad still gave up plenty of yards and points, and had multiple instances of giving up clutch scoring drives to the opposing team, so it was a mixed bag.

It seems like every Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinator has enjoyed some measure of success. It remains to be seen what sort of results Rob Ryan’s Cowboy defense will produce, but I think it’s possible considering some of the players that he has at his disposal, plus having an effective offense (in theory), that he could be successful. The wildcard will be his eye for defensive talent and his ability and that of his staff to coach them up and place them in the best position to succeed. If Ryan does all this well, his tenure here could very well end up like that of Wannstedt or Davis, i.e. a couple of good seasons and then off to a better position.   

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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