OXNARD, Calif. — The twin brother of Rex Ryan is a lot of things, but shy and retiring aren’t on the list. Rob, the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, showed up at training camp in San Antonio last year and immediately vowed his new team would kick the Eagles’ ass.
But as the Cowboys began their second week of camp Monday, Ryan continued to play it close to the vest. He has a new look – sans 60 pounds – and a fresh approach when it comes to dealing with the media. Ryan said last week that he intended to keep his “mouth shut,” which came as a shock to reporters who’ve come to crave Ryan’s quotes as a reprieve from head coach Jason Garrett’s more robotic approach.
On Monday, Ryan explained to FOXSportsSouthwest.com why he felt compelled to come out swinging last August.
“Last year, I thought we needed to come in with something in our neck,” Ryan told me, referring to his unit’s lack of swagger. “I didn’t honestly feel like we had that. I wanted to come in here and let it loose a little bit.”
Players loved the fact that Ryan believed in them, but they were slow to catch on to his scheme. Ryan tried to force-feed a lot of different packages, but the Cowboys looked confused from the start.
“We were the worst preseason defense in the history of football, and I think you guys did a good job of documenting that,” said Ryan.
The Cowboys gave up 244.1 passing yards per game to finish 23rd in the league. And they were at their worst in four games against the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Ryan didn’t have the personnel to play press coverage, which kept him from using a lot of his blitz packages. By the end of the season, it seemed like a major accomplishment if the secondary lined up in the correct coverage.
But with the arrival of cornerback Brandon Carr via free agency ($50 million) and rookie Mo Claiborne, Ryan should have a lot more freedom this season. He couldn’t count on Mike Jenkins because of injuries and Terence Newman because of declining play. He campaigned for help at cornerback, and Jerry Jones delivered in a big way.
It also helps that starting inside linebacker Sean Lee is now the unquestioned leader of this defense. He’s made plays all over the field during camp, and Garrett encourages his players to try to emulate Lee. Second-year running back DeMarco Murray, wide receiver Dez Bryant and Lee are the players who have stood out the most to this point. Lee sounded almost disgusted when the conversation turned to communication breakdowns last season.
“We’re going to have better communication,” Ryan said. “The communication errors last season were unacceptable. We cannot have bad mental mistakes. Hopefully that stuff’s in the past.”
Lee believes the Cowboys are a “thousand times more comfortable” than they were at this point last year. Having a full offseason with Ryan has allowed everyone to get on the same page. But even the players seem amused to hear that Ryan is vowing not to make any headlines this season. They probably recall the week he said Cowboys wide receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant were better than Lions All-Pro Calvin Johnson. Of course, Johnson responded by scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lead an improbable comeback win.
It’s notable that Garrett has become much more candid with his answers during this camp while Ryan attempts to embrace this more humble approach. The defensive coordinator claims that no one has asked him to dial back his hubris, but that’s hard to believe. Asked point-blank whether he ordered Ryan to go easy on the predictions in this camp, Garrett certainly didn’t use the word “no.”
“I think it’s important for our team to do our work every day and let our actions speak for themselves,” Garrett said. “That’s an important concept for our players to understand and our coaches to understand. We want to have a confident group of guys, but ultimately we have to do our jobs and demonstrate we are a good football team by playing the right way and winning football games.”
“So you did talk to him?” a reporter joked. Garrett simply smiled and then excused himself from the interrogation.
It’s hard to say whether Ryan can keep this up for a whole season. Based on family history, you’d have to say it’s a longshot. But the good news is he no longer feels compelled to stroke his players’ egos with over-the-top quotes.
“This group is motivated on its own,” he said. “They don’t have to hear me say anything.” Now, someone please send the real Rob Ryan back to camp.