OXNARD, Calif. –It's not that the Cowboys defense didn't improve in 2011, Rob Ryan's first year with the club. It did. Just not enough.
After allowing an unfathomable 436 points in 2010, the Cowboys gave up just 347 last year, and the defense rose from 23rd overall in 2010 to 14th a season ago. However, that was after Ryan's unit had led the league in total defense for almost half the season. By the end of the year, the group was ailing, with the secondary in particular a sore spot.
So, in this day and age, with the window seemingly shutting or the hole closing, perhaps, the Cowboys were left with little option but to spend both money and draft picks. In addition to recruiting new coaches for the secondary, the team handed out eight contracts that could be worth almost $80 million to defensive players – veterans Brandon Carr, Dan Connor and Brodney Pool, and draft picks Morris Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson and Caleb McSurdy.
The unit could feature as many as five new starters this year, highlighted by the cornerbacks. Carr and Claiborne have been lining up opposite one another with the starting defense since Monday's first workouts of camp.
"We're going to push each other each in practice," Carr said of his new right-side counterpart, Claiborne. "Training camp's going to be good for him because he's been out of OTAs and whatnot. He's here working and eager to learn, and he's challenging receivers."
While the bold move upward in April's draft should've put everyone on the defensive side of the ball on notice, Monday's alignment certainly did, as Claiborne has already vaulted fifth-year veteran Orlando Scandrick.
Don't get it done, and you can be replaced.
"Competition makes everybody better," Ryan said. "Some people don't want it. They don't want that. But this is going to make us all better. We've got great coaches in here to push these guys and it's going to be great. This isn't a one-man show at all."
The "one-man show" Ryan referred to would be outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who piled up 19.5 sacks last year. Even Ware can't beat a double-team every time, though, and he didn't consistently get help from his fellow pass-rushers or the Cowboys' coverage players in 2011. By upgrading the secondary, Ryan could be open to getting creative up front and blitzing more freely this year.
"We have some things that will help DeMarcus," Ryan said.
If nothing else, the defense will be younger and more athletic in 2012, having moved out 30-something contributors Terence Newman, Bradie James and Keith Brooking, to make way for a new generation of talent headlined by second-year starter Sean Lee.
The Cowboys defense having been an up-and-down unit through the direction of Bill Parcells, Brian Stewart and Wade Phillips, those who have been around the longest are hoping for more consistency. With Ryan's system in place for a year, and his handpicked people now choreographing and executing the scheme, the fortunes of the club might rest on the defense's improvement.
"We've been through that turmoil of having the lockout and then not having a good season, having the season end the way that it did," Ware said. "Now guys are ready. We feel very close to each other. We had the offseason. We had the OTAs, we had the minicamps where you can build that team camaraderie. I feel like this team is a totally different team than it was last year."