Good defensive coordinators don't grow on trees. You don't see very many minivans with "My son is an honors defensive coordinator in the NFL" bumper stickers.
A qualified guy with experience in the 3-4 defense? Even better. At least, that has to be what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is thinking. But the hiring of Rob Ryan last weekend is more than just about what it can do for the Cowboys. The move serves both parties well.
Ryan just saw his twin brother, Rex, advance to his second straight AFC Championship Game as a head coach. While the long-haired, footloose and fancy-free version waits for his chance to get a head-coaching job, the move to Dallas certainly gives him a chance to knock his résumé out of the park.
For Dallas, this move was all about getting a proven commodity to run their 3-4. While some feel he was the organization's third choice, Ryan inherited a not-so-talented defense in Cleveland and made it respectable in 2010. The Browns finished 13th out of 32 teams in points allowed (20.8), despite their 5-11 record. More importantly, Jones clearly believes in the 3-4 system and getting pressure from outside linebackers, where he feels the team is well-equipped with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Former head coach Bill Parcells' confidence in the 3-4 led to an organizational shift in philosophy, as Dallas ran a 4-3 in the first 45 years of its existence.
Ryan will be the fifth defensive coordinator to run the 3-4 in Dallas since 2005, and he'll be charged with turning around a unit that often performed miserably last season. While Dallas pulled its britches up during the back half of the season with Jason Garrett running the ship, and Paul Pasqualoni babysitting, bringing this group back to its 2009 level will be solely Ryan's responsibility. It will also be opportunity knocking, as everyone around the league knows the struggles of America's Team.
For Ryan, kick butt here, and you can potentially be a top man elsewhere. That's an area he has yet to have any luck. His name has been mentioned here and there the last few years as a head-coaching candidate, including recently in Carolina. But he's never been more than a member of homecoming court, partially because his defenses haven't always performed well, and presumably due to the Ryan family's somewhat obnoxious style. His brother couldn't get a nibble either a couple of years ago, until the Jets decided he wasn't too quirky to run a team. Woody Johnson, Mike Tannenbaum and the rest of the Jets organization have been rewarded for that jump in the pool. Perhaps other clubs will be willing to cannonball off the diving board if Rob proves his mettle by jump starting a Dallas defense seen as lacking discipline and leadership.
So how does he do that?
For starters, Ryan must motivate a group that often didn't play with a sense of urgency, while giving up a franchise-record 436 points. Lighting a fire under "pass-rushing" linebacker Spencer, who had just five sacks, would be a start. Next, Ryan needs to get better play out of his 30-somethings at inside linebacker, Keith Brooking and Bradie James. If that's impossible at this point, or either is cut, then younger players, such as Sean Lee, will have to be molded into an every-down player. To his credit, Ryan was able to siphon that last little bit in the tank from a couple of old linebackers, David Bowens and Scott Fujita, in Cleveland this season.
Where Ryan will earn his money, though, is by revamping a bargain brand secondary. Corner Terrence Newman got burned frequently last season, and is on the wrong side of 30. Safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Alan Ball missed more assignments than Cam Newton did classes at Auburn. Okay, who knows how many that is, but any Cowboys fan will tell you that the safety play has not been a strong point since some guy named Woodson with a 28 on his back retired. Ryan will need some help from the draft in this area, and it might be time for Dallas to tab a safety in the first round.
While taking a safety or a corner high in the draft might not be as sexy as grabbing a guy like Dez Bryant was last April, Jones has to take comfort that he has a proven teacher who would ensure the club got the most out of that choice. Ryan has also proven to be flexible, running a 4-3 during his tenure in Oakland and, like Rex, not being afraid to move players around to get the most out of them. That includes playing some 46 defense that his father, Buddy Ryan, made famous back in the day.
Jones can also take pride in knowing that he hired someone as eccentric as himself to be the DC, despite the fact that Ryan looks like Van Halen's bass player, while Jones resembles a Texaco CEO.
That's exactly where this situation plays into Ryan's favor. Jones has always allowed his guys to be themselves, whether it was Michael Irvin and Charles Haley, or former special teams coach Joe Avezanno.
The last beneficiary of the Ryan hiring might be the fans, who grew tired of watching the defense make mistake after mistake while Wade Phillips looked on as if he was doing long division in his head. Say what you want about Ryan, but he will get animated and fire up these guys, and not take poor performance lying down.
With personal incentive for Ryan, and Dallas getting a tailor-made coordinator for its lackluster defense, eHarmony couldn't have manufactured a more mutually beneficial relationship.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.