Senior Writer

D key in Dallas? Rob Ryan brings edge, multiple looks


Rob Ryan's style is in sharp contrast to Jason Garrett, but the head coach says of Ryan, 'we really hit it off.' (AP)  
Rob Ryan's style is in sharp contrast to Jason Garrett, but the head coach says of Ryan, 'we really hit it off.' (AP)  

SAN ANTONIO -- Cowboys coach Jason Garrett looks like the buttoned-down Princeton grad he is, his red hair Marine-cut trim, shirt-tail always tucked neatly into his sweatpants, and a real calm about the way he walks around his practice field.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan couldn't be more opposite. He has long gray hair that is more pirate than coach, almost always falling in his face. He wears his huge shirt hanging out of his pants in part to cover up a belly that makes him Coach Everyman. But more than anything, it's his mouth that's the biggest difference.

Ryan fires off F-bombs in machine-gun fashion. Loudly. In a five-minute time span, during a teaching-only drill Saturday, Ryan ripped off five of his favorite curse words. In a vacant Alamodome, with no fans allowed for this practice, the words traveled far and loud.

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"I don't even know I'm doing it," Ryan said.

The players do.

"The first day I was like, 'Wow,'" Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "After that, it was cool. You get used to it."

Garrett hired Ryan to turn around a Dallas defense that gave up more points than any other in Cowboys history. He didn't know the man, other than by reputation as defensive coordinator at other spots, including last year in Cleveland.

So when I asked him about their divergent looks and ways, Garrett just chuckled.

"Once we got a chance to visit with each other, we really hit it off," Garrett said. "It's the old adage of not judging a book by its cover. We're both passionate about football. I have so much respect for what he's done as a coach. We're excited to have him on our staff."

If the Cowboys are to bounce back from a sub-par 2010 season that included Wade Phillips getting fired after eight games and Garrett moving from offensive coordinator to head coach, they will have to show marked improvement on defense.

That's why Ryan is such an important hire. He is Rex Ryan's twin brother. He's also Buddy Ryan's son. Like those two, Rob has that aggressive approach and doesn't care at all what people think about him.

Like those two, Rob is also considered a defensive wizard. This could be the spot that vaults him to his head-coaching job. Rex Ryan has become a media darling in leading the Jets to two AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons. He is fast with a quip and brings a refreshing change to a profession that can be staler than two-week-old bread.

Amazingly, Rob might be even edgier than Rex. When Rex was trying to get a top job, he lost weight and cut his hair. Rob isn't doing that.

"-------" he said. "If a haircut keeps me from becoming a head coach, I don't want to coach for that ------- team anyway."

No imagination needed to fill in the words. But you get the point. He doesn't care. All he wants to do is coach football. How he looks doesn't matter.

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"He's a big guy I need to listen to and see what he's talking about," Ware said. "I tell him, he has all that wisdom with that hair. He's the big Silverback."

Ryan will change the way the Cowboys play defense. They will be much more exotic with their fronts. You could see it in the work I watched over two days.

They will sometimes have one lineman down and six or seven other guys in the box. They will come from all angles, making it tough for a quarterback to call out protections, making it tough for the line to pick rushers up. Others will show rush but drop out.

I liken it to a stepped-on ant pile. They scatter quickly in all directions at the snap.

The player who should benefit most from this change is Ware. Under Phillips, he lined up on the right side all the time. It was easy to find him, which meant it was easy to double him, easy to slide protection his way.

Now he will line up on the right, the left, down, as a nose, as a linebacker standing up -- anyway you can imagine.

"He gets 20 sacks a year, but he gets doubled every play," Ryan said "If we can set some one-on-ones for him, it would be nice. We don't think he'll ever come complete free, but if he gets a one-on-one it's like coming free for him."

Ware has had 20 sacks just once in his career, that coming in 2008. But he has had at least 11 in each of the past five seasons, including 15½ last season to lead the NFL. I consider him the best pass rusher in the league.

Now that he is being moved around, he should be even better.

"It's a totally different philosophy," Ware said. "We have a coach who comes with tenacity and also has a system that utilizes the players and has multiplicity to it. You have guys dropping, rushing. You might have three responsibilities on one play. Sometimes I will be acting line I am rushing, but I won't. But I will still be coming a lot. You have to account for me. Only you won't know where I am coming from or what I am doing. It used to be I'd be on the right side, and you knew where I was."

Ware sniffed the single-season sack record with his 20. But this could be the year he takes it down. Michael Strahan had 22½ in 2001.

"I need it," Ware said.

Will you get it? "I hope so," he said. "I have a chance."

The Cowboys will need better play in the back end if they are to truly turn things around on defense. That means corners Mike Jenkins and Terrence Newman have to play better. There is still a lot of uncertainty at safety, but they could add a player there in the next few days.

With Ryan, the rush might be able to cover up some of those problems.

"I used to say I was the most famous Ryan after my dad, but Rex has passed me," Rob said. "Ideally, I'd love to have my chance to do that. Right now, I want to be the best defensive coordinator in football. I want to prove it this year. That's why I am here."

If he can turn things around in Dallas, that time should come. Ryan, like his brother, is a good football coach -- even if he looks like he just walked in from a ride with a bunch of bikers.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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