IRVING, Texas – When he’s not making bold promises that he rarely backs up, Rob Ryan daydreams about following his twin brother as a head coach in the NFL. That’s one of the reasons the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator lost 65 pounds via surgery this past offseason and finally got a haircut.
He wanted to at least look presentable in case an opening came along. And though it might not look like it on the surface, Ryan actually has the opportunity of a lifetime now that starting linebacker Sean Lee is out for the season with a busted big toe.
Yes, I’m saying that losing the Cowboys’ best defensive player and team MVP (through six games) might be the best thing that could’ve happened to Ryan. He now has a built-in excuse for this defense not being able to play a role in a playoff run. It was just last week that owner/general manager Jerry Jones used his weekly radio show to say the Cowboys had the type of team that could compete for a championship. That’s probably not what a coaching staff wants to hear when its team is sitting there with a 2-3 record. But on Wednesday at Valley Ranch, Jerry was hedging his bet.
“We’re going to have to adjust for him,” Jones told reporters. “We’re going to have to make injury adjustments. I’ve said all along I think this team has an opportunity to be a contender, but the one exception that I made was, sitting as we’re sitting right now health-wise, injury can make a difference and does in the NFL.”
So Jason Garrett and Ryan can breathe a sigh of relief. Apparently Jerry only envisioned a Super Bowl run if Lee could remain healthy for an entire season. Other teams such as the Packers, Giants and Steelers have lost numerous players to injury on their way to the Super Bowl in recent years, but apparently Lee is a deal-killer for the Cowboys. That’s why losing him for the season might be the best thing that ever happened to Ryan. I’m not saying he would ever root for this type scenario, but it certainly takes some pressure off him.
If the Cowboys limp home with another 8-8 season, Jones will talk about how Lee’s presence would’ve likely equated to one or two more wins. And if you don’t believe me, please refer to the portion of Jerry’s playbook marked “seasons 1997-2011.”
The reality is that Lee is an enormous loss for this defense. He’s emerged as one of the best leaders on the team and he has seven career interceptions despite missing time due to injury over the past three seasons. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is a more dynamic player than Lee, but he’s been a reluctant leader. It would be out of character for him to suddenly become a vocal presence on that side of the ball. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff has a ton of respect from his teammates, but he’s not one of the more accountable players you’ll come across in the league. Maybe defensive end Jason Hatcher, who has emerged as a solid player for Ryan, can help pick up some of the slack.
“We can’t throw a pity party over Sean being out,” Hatcher told FoxSportsSouthwest.com on Wednesday. “You miss a guy like that and it hurts, but we have to keep going.”
It’s probably a good sign that Garrett didn’t even bring up Lee’s injury while addressing the team Wednesday morning. Players in this locker room do a good enough job coming up with excuses on their own. It’s not like they need help from the head coach.
But now Ryan, a man who hasn’t met expectations here, has a chance to showcase his creativity. He can’t just plug in veteran Dan Connor for Lee and hope that everything turns out all right. Ryan will have to alter his approach in trying to replace his best all-around player.
If he doesn’t succeed, the owner will likely have his back. But if the defense somehow flourishes, then Ryan will look like a genius.
Losing Lee is not the best-case scenario for the Cowboys. But like it or not, it plays right into Ryan’s hands. And if he’s half the coach he says he is, then he’ll capitalize.
Lee’s injury has lowered expectations for the Cowboys. And that’s why Ryan’s once again operating with a net.
It’s hard to get yourself fired when the owner’s willing to lower the bar at any minute.