Cowboys' Coleman leaves big shoes to fill

Coleman is 'impossible to replace' according to teammates, but the Cowboys are going to have to try.

IRVING, Texas – One of the things that somehow escaped my attention this season was that defensive end Kenyon Coleman had become one of the primary leaders on this Cowboys team. The only thing that has stood out in my mind about Coleman over the years was that Bill Parcells once nicknamed him "The Strong Dog."

But when I stopped by Jason Hatcher's locker Wednesday, as I do each week, he was basically suggesting that Coleman's impact on the defense was immeasurable. In fact, he called Strong Dog the "spiritual leader" of the defensive line. Who knew the Holy Grail of Rob Ryan's defensive unit was this quiet man who's been regarded as a decent run-stopper for much of his career.

"You can't replace him," Hatcher told a rapt audience.

Well, the Cowboys are going to have to try since Coleman's been placed on injured reserve with a torn triceps. The obvious answer in the "next man up" theory is former first-round pick Marcus Spears, who was a healthy scratch in Baltimore and hasn't played a lot since. He admitted to me Thursday that it's been painful to watch from the sideline, but he's continued to prepare as if he would see a lot of snaps.

"It's a fine line," Spears told "When I get to the point where I don't mind not playing, then it's time for me to retire. But at the same time, I want to be a great teammate. When guys come to the sideline, I need to let them know what I'm seeing.

Spears does admit that not playing has allowed him to be as fresh as he's ever been nine games into an NFL season. He "dinged" his knee in the loss to Seattle and it took him a couple weeks to be at full strength. But now he's ready for the homestretch.

"This is the best I've felt during a season ever," he said. "Ever."

But since Coleman is apparently impossible to replace, the Cowboys have also turned to practice squad phenom Ben Bass for help. Bass was signed to the training camp roster after a nice showing as a rookie minicamp-invitee. The 6-5, 283-pound Bass, who played at Plano West, only started one game as a senior at Texas A&M, recording one sack. If he didn't live nearby, the Cowboys wouldn't have given him a second thought. But given the way Bass played against the Oakland Raiders in a preseason game and then performed on the scout team, talent evaluators at Valley Ranch will be clamoring to take credit for him. Hatcher basically told reporters that Bass abused the Cowboys' first-team offensive line before realizing how that sounded.

"No offense to our offensive line," Hatcher added sheepishly.

Most of the assistant coaches are off limits during the week, but one told me off the record that Bass would have a "Baptism by fire" against the Browns. He said the Cowboys had no plans to ease Bass into the rotation. They feel like he's ready to go.

Hatcher said that Bass and rookie defensive end Tyrone Crawford remind him of former Cowboys defensive end Stephen Bowen and himself when they first arrived in the league. Bowen signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Redskins two offseasons ago and Hatcher has emerged as one of the Cowboys' best defensive players.

"Great example of a guy, came in presented with an opportunity," Jason Garrett said of Bass. "You try to draft guys as well as you can draft them, then you sign guys as well as you can sign them after and you think you know more about some than the other guys. We liked him, but from Day 1 he came in and showed us be belonged here in some way, shape or form.

"He really took advantage of the opportunities. He learned. He grew before our eyes and just made a lot of plays both defending the run and also rushing the passer. He's the guy, kind of came from nowhere, certainly from obscurity and showed us he deserved to be on this football team."

This is also a chance for Rob Ryan to stick it to an organization that never seriously considered him as a head-coaching candidate. The Cowboys hired Ryan based on the success he had with the Raiders and Browns, teams that weren't long on talent. Hatcher wouldn't reveal what Ryan has said to his team this week, but he seemed to suggest the coach definitely had a score to settle Sunday.

Of course, that could be a tougher task than any of us realized now that we know what Coleman meant to this team.