IRVING, Texas—Rob Ryan gave brief, bland answers to the first couple questions he was asked at his initial gathering with reporters since becoming defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys. It was so out of character that he wondered aloud, "Am I boring enough yet?"
The charade didn’t last long.
Just three minutes in, Ryan used an expletive to emphasize just how great of a job he plans to do. He then smiled and said, "Sorry. Only one so far. I was guarded early, but, hell, that’s on me."
Finally warmed up, Ryan began offering the kind of bold predictions football fans expect from the Ryan family, ones that Cowboys fans are hoping he can back up.
Ryan insisted his unit can be among the best in the NFL this season despite being among the worst in franchise history last season. He vowed they would be tough and aggressive. He also declared himself the right guy to be running the defense for this club, even if he is the son of former Dallas tormentor Buddy Ryan. Rob’s credentials: two Super Bowl titles as linebackers coach with New England and a defensive coordinator since 2004, spending five seasons with Oakland and the last two with Cleveland.
"We’re going to be a great defense," Ryan said. "If I never said that, if I didn’t believe that, then you’ve got the wrong guy. But the right guy is standing here in front of you. ... It’s going to be great. The proof is in the pudding. Anybody can talk the talk, but I can walk it."
Outspoken like his twin brother, Jets coach Rex Ryan, Rob has long, stringy gray hair and a belly so big he asked cameramen whether they had wide enough lenses. Everything about him seems contrary to his new boss, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, a trim Ivy Leaguer with close-cropped red hair who prides himself on never saying anything flamboyant.
But they also have a lot in common—from being sons of longtime NFL guys with siblings who are also in the business to being proponents of physical play. Garrett added hitting to practices after he replaced Wade Phillips midway through last season and talks often about wanting his team to hit often. Ryan said he would work on tackling every day.
"We are going to have a defense the way he wants," Ryan said. "He hired me to run the defense and not give out public speaking deals. I will be ready to go. I will be a strength, not a liability."
Phillips knew his Xs and Os but is hardly a dynamic personality. Ditto for his immediate replacement as defensive coordinator last season, Paul Pasqualoni. So having Ryan in charge should bring a lively new vibe to the defensive meeting rooms.
"I don’t know if I got swag or not," Ryan said, only to quickly add, "I’m sure I do.
"I’m just going to be me," he continued. "That’s usually been good enough."
Ryan will keep the 3-4 scheme implemented years ago by Bill Parcells, but will deploy it differently. He likes to confuse quarterbacks by moving guys around and disguising who is coming from where. While Cleveland wasn’t very good last season, Ryan made it clear his defense wasn’t to blame.
"We were in the top five or seven in about every smart category there was: points allowed, turnovers, hardest to score on in the first and third quarter, where coaching means something," he said. "We were the only team in the league that hadn’t given up 30 points until that last one. ... I think we were one of three teams that were in the top 10 in the league in red zone, turnovers and points, in all those categories, which is pretty good."
Defense was a big reason the Cowboys started 1-7, costing Phillips his dual jobs as coach and defensive coordinator. They wound up allowing the most yards and giving up the most points in franchise history, a befuddling drop for a unit that the previous year was among the league’s best—especially at season’s end—and had virtually the same players.
"This league is hard and the ball doesn’t always bounce your way," Ryan said. "That doesn’t mean we can’t come back from it and have one of the best units this year. That’s what we’re going to have."
He has some solid building blocks in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who led the NFL in sacks, and nose tackle Jay Ratliff. Ryan squelched any notion of Ratliff moving from the middle of the line to the outside.
He also praised veteran inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking, said he’s excited about young inside linebacker Sean Lee, and said outside linebacker Anthony Spencer "is going to be tremendous in our system, I can tell you that for sure." Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins were considered to have regressed last year instead of building on solid 2009 seasons.
So why did Dallas stink last season? Ryan stayed away from that subject, saying, "I’m not here to farm anyone else’s land."
That was about all he managed to hold back on. Well, that and the looming lockout and what it might mean for implementing his plans.
"I came in here just trying to be humble and boring," Ryan said. "That’s one thing I accomplished today. I’m not going to say anything about" the labor situation.