IRVING, Texas – The response, "We don't like change for change's sake," could be heard in some form or fashion from the mouth of head coach Jason Garrett on multiple occasions this year.
He didn't want to make any changes just to see how they'd turn out without a specific purpose or basis for the move. That seemed to be widely accepted within the Cowboys' organization, which made the firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan seem peculiar, particularly regarding its timing.
Sure, one can look at the finale of the season, the win-or-go-home game – or in Ryan and Skip Peete's case, the win-or-get-going game – against the Redskins. A clearly unhealthy Robert Griffin III, though not quite as gimpy as he'd be throughout his playoff matchup against the Seahawks a week later, continued to run the zone read to perfection. Nothing could stop that play or running back Alfred Morris from tearing apart the Cowboys' rushing defense.
At this point, let's go back to something else Garrett and owner Jerry Jones reiterated: The injuries aren't an excuse. It makes sense that, yes, injuries happen to all 32 teams across the nation. But not like this.
Not every team loses its promising young safety in the third game of the season. Not every team loses its leading tackler at inside linebacker after six games. Not every team then loses its other young, up-and-coming inside linebacker, its run-stopping defensive end, its third cornerback and both of its nose tackles before season's end.
And certainly, not every team loses all of these components and still competes for a division title in Week 17.
But that was the case, and what followed that loss would be uncomfortable, as Jones had promised. The front office wasted no time getting rid of the running backs coach and defensive coordinator, leaving those at Valley Ranch wondering what's to come next.
After the Ryan firing, it doesn't appear anyone should feel particularly safe, considering the problems hardly started and ended at defense in another 8-8 finish. OK, so the defense finished 19th in the league in passing defense and 22nd in rushing defense, featuring such a depleted group that at one point Brandon Carr looked around and saw just two teammates on defense he'd actually played with extensively in the preseason and offseason.
But most of the defensive problems existed before all the injuries, right? What happened against Seattle and Chicago that they scored 27 and 34 points, respectively, against the Cowboys?
The Seahawks game began with a fumbled kick return by Felix Jones, recovered at the Cowboys' 29-yard line. The defense held strong inside the 10-yard line, forcing a field goal. The next touchdown Seattle scored came on a blocked punt.
The next week against Tampa Bay, the defense held the Buccaneers to 10 points. After the Tampa Bay game, which ended the season of starting safety Barry Church, the Cowboys still led the league in total defense and ranked second in passing defense.
One week later against the Bears, quarterback Tony Romo threw five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Allowing 20 offensive points to Chicago doesn't sound too shabby. The Cowboys still ended that game in the top five in the league in total defense and passing defense.
That's not to say the defense was perfect early on or all year by any means. Its struggle to create turnovers has been well-documented, and without a healthy DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer was the only reliable player to rush the passer.
It's possible Ryan isn't the long-term solution at the spot. Many times, the defense looked confused and rattled before the snap. Sometimes, the defense didn't have the correct amount of players or the right personnel on the field. But the injuries on defense were too great to ignore, leaving one to wonder how the defense could have performed a year later with the starting personnel intact and Ryan at the helm.
The player reaction after news of Ryan's release got out said it all. Many of Ryan's defensive players came to his defense on Twitter, and while some players issued a shorter, more emotional, angrier response, Jason Hatcher seemed to sum up most of his teammates' feelings more completely and extensively.
"It was a privilege to play under Coach Rob Ryan!" Hatcher tweeted. "One of the greatest. Sad day. I'm hurting right now."
The uncertain, uncomfortable feeling Hatcher's dealing with can't be too different from the rest of his teammates and coaching staff in Dallas, wondering what could come next.