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Cowboys' Player-Led Workouts: Can They Learn New Defensive Scheme?

Although the NFL offseason is by no means finished—give the simple and obvious absence of a free agency period—the behavior of the Cowboys front office since season's end has made it increasingly clear that 2010’s woes are to be pinned squarely on Wade Phillips. More specifically, they seem to be betting the defensive unit which suffered a catastrophic collapse will be able to return to the dominant form it displayed during the end of the 2009 campaign.

On one level this makes perfect sense; from 2003-2009, the Cowboys spent heavily to fortify the defensive side of the ball, and bolstered that with several key free agent acquisitions. Last season's starters or rotation-guys boasted five first-rounders as well as a second rounder (Sean Lee) and a third (Jason Hatcher). The Dallas front office cannot continue to neglect the offense in order to reinforce an already loaded (and expensive) unit, no matter how severe their 2010 el foldo (and for confirmation of how severe it was, look no further than O.C.C.'s excellent post below).

The fact that Dallas neglected to spend more premium picks on "D" suggests that they are betting last year’s collapse was not due to a talent dropoff so much as it was to poor preparation and bad execution of the scheme. In other words, the story goes like this: the fact that they gave up the most points in franchise history is all on the coaches, not the players. Conveniently, nobody around Valley Ranch is going to dispute this, because those coaches are all gone.

Read more after the jump...

Wade Phillips was summarily dismissed, to be replaced by Paul Pasqualoni, who moved on at season’s end. Enter arguably the Cowboys’ most important offseason acquisition: new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Historically, Ryan has maximized the talent on his defensive unit, so we are likely to see the accuracy of the Dallas brass’ assessment that its all about the coaching...

...or at least we would if this was a normal offseason. The NFL’s labor dispute is least likely to negatively impact the teams who enjoy continuity, the organizations who will be retaining the same coaching staffs and the same schemes, with the same concepts and numerology. This is true of the Cowboys offense, which will be running the same scheme for the fifth consecutive year.

The defense, however, is another matter.  Certainly, Ryan runs a 3-4 scheme, as did Phillips. But the similarities end there. On almost every other level, their concepts are different. So, the defensive players desperately need a full offseason to get acclimated Ryan’s D—and, more importantly, to become confident enough with it that they can shake off the uncertainty and tenuous play that characterized the majority of their 2010 season.

The Dallas Morning News recently ran a story in which several defensive players substantiate this. Although an admirable number of players have been showing up for player-organized workouts, the defensive guys are clearly behind the eight ball. They had almost no time—literally the one day when the lockout was lifted—to acquaint themselves with Ryan’s system.

Apparently as many as twenty players were able to get to Valley Ranch through that one-day window in order to meet with the new defensive coaching staff. During that brief opening, the players tried to gather as much info as possible from Ryan about his complex scheme. Now, as they gather for workouts, they are trying to install it without coaching supervision.

The good news is that, in Ryan’s absence, heady veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking have served as surrogate coaches. The bad news is that they don’t know the defense any better than the rest of the guys.  As reserve cornerback Bryan McCann notes, "I wouldn't say anybody has more knowledge of the defense than anybody else."

It does appear Ryan’s charges are doing the best they can. McCann admits:

It's kind of hard because we're looking at cards….We don't know why we're doing it. We're doing what the card is telling us to do. [But if] you went up and got your own playbook [during that one day window], now it's a matter of studying it and knowing what is going on when you come out the next day.

And, in this offseason of uncertainly, that’s really the most that we can ask.

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