Rob Ryan's defense seems to be taking majority blame for the Cowboys' faltering December/January and ultimately their 8-8 finish. The reason: it's hard to point fingers at a career year from quarterback Tony Romo and the second-most total yards gained in team history (6,008).
The defense indeed struggled most toward the end of the season, allowing yardage totals of 510, 386 and 437 in losses to the Giants (twice) and Eagles. The Giants scored 68 points in two wins over Dallas, including one to decide the NFC East last Sunday.
Before that, non-elite quarterbacks Rex Grossman, Matt Moore and Kevin Kolb averaged 254.3 passing yards during a three-game stretch in late November and early December. The Cowboys won two of the three games by a combined four points to enter December 7-4, but there were warning signs about the defense then.
Still, team owner/GM Jerry Jones believes Ryan has the group in the right direction, and further improvements are coming.
"I like philosophically what happens on defense," Jones said Tuesday on KRLD-FM. "If you look at some of the best defenses around, philosophically they match up with what Ryan does. We're going to have more time to work with the players than we had in the offseason to institute some of the things he does.
"Philosophically I like what we're doing there on defense. We've got to get better and not give up the big plays."
Like the 57 pass plays over 20 yards this season, more than the 56 they allowed in 2010.
The Cowboys did improve in total defense and scoring defense this year, ranking 14th and 16th respectively. And perhaps it's worth noting that the two teams with home-field advantage in this year's playoffs, Green Bay and New England, have the league's worst- and second-worst ranked units. Then again, those two offenses and New Orleans scored more points than any team in the league. The longer a defense is on the field, the harder it is to protect the end zone.
The only two additions to this year's starting defense were two Ryan players from Cleveland, Abe Elam and Kenyon Coleman. The Cowboys have the 14th pick in April's draft, and if not there, it's safe to assume the 2012 class overall will have a defensive mindset.