When Monte Kiffin was hired to replace Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys last winter, he thought he’d have a potentially dominant defensive line. DeMarcus Ware was regarded as one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL and defensive end Anthony Spencer was the best player on the Cowboys’ defense last season with 11 sacks and 106 tackles.
But three games into the 2013 season, this D-line looks nothing like the one Kiffin and his top lieutenant Rod Marinelli envisioned. Spencer, who’s only played in one of the three games, was placed on injured reserve and will likely undergo microfracture surgery on his knee. Spencer will be compensated $10.6 million (franchise tag) for those 34 snaps he played against the Chiefs.
Jerry Jones expressed hope that Spencer would return to the Cowboys next season, but that topic’s for another day.
Kiffin told me during training camp that he was worried how this defensive line would look if Jay Ratliff and Spencer weren’t able to participate in any preseason games.
But that was before journeymen such as George Selvie and Nick Hayden proved to be much more than camp bodies. In the Cowboys’ first three games, Selvie has been extremely productive.
“The next man up has been George Selvie for most of training camp and the preseason and the start of the season,” Garrett told reporters Wednesday. “He’s taken full advantage of his opportunity to play. We’ve have some other guys we’ve brought in in recent weeks who will be involved in that mix as well. We will give those guys opportunities going forward, but George is the guy who is going to take his place. He’s done a good job so far and we’ll continue to expect great things from him.”
If Kiffin and Marinelli can hold this defense together with this collection of players, they truly will look like miracle workers. But I fully expect the Chargers and Broncos to try to exploit the Cowboys’ lack of quality depth along the defensive line. Selvie has been able to rush the passer, but he hasn’t been tested by the run.
The Cowboys hope that Ratliff (groin) will return after the sixth game, but it will take him some time to get in football shape. Marinelli will likely move reserve defensive tackle Caesar Rayford to defensive end, which is his natural position. Rayford was playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme for the Indianapolis Colts before he got released at the end of preseason.
I talked to a high-ranking member of the Cowboys organization Wednesday who said Rayford’s “length and speed” should make him a nice fit as Selvie’s primary backup. Last season the Cowboys didn’t have a lot of answers when starters such as Bruce Carter and Sean Lee suffered injuries. It looks like the pro personnel department has done a much better job creating depth early in the 2013 season.
It also helps that veteran Jason Hatcher has flourished in his move to defensive tackle in Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme. What you hope is that Spencer’s injury doesn’t eventually cause the Cowboys to move Hatcher back to defensive end. He’s been a disruptive force in the middle of this defense and that has apparently emboldened him to become a more vocal leader.
Whether or not you believe Hatcher called out Tony Romo in a practice last week, it’s obvious he’s emerged as the primary leader on this defense.
I still believe the Cowboys should’ve selected defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd in the first round. But so far, Kiffin and Marinelli are finding ways to hold the fort.
The silver lining is the Cowboys appear to have more margin for error this season than at any time in the past decade because of a remarkably weak NFC East. Still, losing Spencer is a tremendous blow.
The Cowboys will have to lean on Kiffin and Marinelli more than ever in the absence of Spencer. And so far, they act like they’re up to the task.