When Rob Ryan was announced as the new defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, the opinions seemed to fall into two general areas. One was that he was a brilliant defensive coordinator from one of the most respected coaching families in football and was just what this team needed. The other was that he had really only had one year when his team had been very good, and in the rest of his career as a DC he had gotten occasional good performances from generally overmatched units. Part of the second viewpoint was the fact that he was going to have to make the defense work with mostly the same personnel who had been so ineffective in 2010, which did not seem to be a formula for success.
After three games, it is starting to look like the first opinion was the most accurate, as he has forged a team that is second in rushing defense (yards/game) and fifth overall. (Stats from StatFox.com). And he has done it without bringing in any high profile free agents (although Jerry Jones did try). Instead, he has gotten the players to buy into his system and brought in a few unspectacular but apparently valuable players. And despite the often lamented loss of the offseason due to the evil and pernicious lockout, he has done it so much faster than many (like me) would have thought possible.
Kegbearer did a post on the defense earlier, and I think it is excellent. I just wanted to add a couple of other things about what I see going on with the team from my point of view.
One thing that was brought up frequently during the off season was that Rob did have a couple of players in DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff that were arguably better than almost any of the players he had to work with in his other stops. And here, he undoubtedly caught a break when he had a third star emerge in Sean Lee. But even with three really superior talents, he still had to get the rest of the defense to work around them.
This is where I think he stands out as a coach. In another life, Rob would have been one heck of a Marine Drill Instructor. The main job a DI has is to take a bunch of young, often underperforming people, and get them to do things they never thought they could do, and do them superbly. That is exactly what Ryan has managed to do. My favorite example is Always Anthony Spencer. After years of not performing up to expectations, he has suddenly emerged as the near perfect bookend to DWare, getting a sack in each of the first three games. Part of this is being in Rob's system, which I think gives him more opportunity than Wade Phillips' scheme which used him primarily as a run stopper, but I also believe that Rob has lit a fire in Anthony's belly.
Another thing that caught my attention were three free agent signings. Kenyon Coleman and Abram Elam were brought in early to help fill some holes, and Frank Walker was picked up later as the injury bug kept felling cornerbacks. None were considered great signings, just competent. OCC put up some numbers on how the team graded out against Washington, and both Elam and Coleman did well (Walker did not see much action thanks to Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins both being in the game). Coleman was particularly impressive, grading behind only Ware and Ratliff on the front seven.
This is, to me, a demonstration of the fact that a "just a guy" (JAG) can become a "right kind of guy" (RKG) with the right leadership and motivation. Here, RKG does not refer to their moral character or off the field behavior, but to the work they put in during practice and what they leave on the field during the game. Given the history of some of the Dallas veterans, it looks obvious that things have changed remarkably on this team. Last year, Jenkins was roundly criticized for giving up on some plays. This year, he is gutting out injuries because his team needs him on the field. That is what I would call a learned behavior.
It is early in the season, of course, but the trends are looking very good. Keg pointed out how the points given up in the fourth quarter had gone down in each of the first three games. I noted another trend. In the first two games, Sean Lee dominated the tackle stats (all numbers quoted from ESPN.go.com). Against the Jets, he had 12, and no one else had more than four. Against the 49ers, he had 11, and the next player only had five. But against the Redskins, he was credited with eight. Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh each had seven, and Coleman had six. When the season started, I felt a twinge of concern that Lee was carrying so much of the load himself, but now it looks like some of his teammates are starting to catch up to him.
I think the defense is still finding itself, and it is getting better each week. It is early, but I think the question about Rob Ryan was answered. He looks like just what this team needed.