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Rob Ryan Gets Last Laugh Against Dallas

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Maybe Rob Ryan wasn't the problem with Dallas's defense last season. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.
Maybe Rob Ryan wasn't the problem with Dallas's defense last season. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

Billed as a match between gunslingers Drew Brees and Tony Romo, the Sunday night matchup instead proved to be one marked by payback for a guy on the sidelines.

Last year the Cowboys chose to make defensive coordinator Rob Ryan the scapegoat for a brutal season for the defense that included poor play (but also injuries). Ryan, now the defensive coordinator for the Saints, had to relish a great performance by a defense that was wretched last year. When this game was still close, Ryan’s squad made sure the Cowboys never had a chance.

Dallas scored first. Darren Sproles fumbled a punt, and the 'Boys were in business. But they managed only a field goal to go up 3-0. The Saints erased that quickly. The Cowboys had one great chance to get back in the game. They scored in the second half, going 89 yards in just five plays, to make it 35-17, and then recovered the onsides kick. But Romo was called for intentional grounding and then threw two incomplete passes. Chance over. Game over. Irene, goodnight.

All game long Romo looked off balance, uncomfortable, even befuddled. But why? Ryan mostly showed blitz but then rushed just four guys.

Some columnist in Dallas is bound to say that the play calling was at fault, and that Romo must share the blame. Maybe. But let’s give Ryan and the Saints defense credit.

Two guys covered Dez Bryant most of the game, and he made only one big play. The Cowboys fell behind big-time when the Saints proved to be unstoppable toward the end of the second quarter. Dallas made some rushing yards early but then had to give it up.

The Cowboys’ offense managed no first-down conversions. Zero for nine. Ouch.

We knew going in that the Cowboys would probably need to win in a shootout, always a tall order in the Superdome.  Many probably thought Romo & Company had a shot, especially after they won in the last minute last week while the Jets’ ground-and-pound beat the Saints.

But the Saints offense, which looked a bit off with Marques Colston out against the Jets, was impossible to stop with Colston back. It didn’t seem to matter what the down and distance were. They passed and ran at will. Mark Ingram finally started to deliver on the high expectations out of Alabama, and gained more than 100 yards.

It was a massacre. Brees looked as good as I’ve ever seen him.

The numbers tell the story. The Saints set a new record with 40 first downs despite not passing for their final two drives. In their seventh and final touchdown drive, they didn’t pass once. Brees finished with only 392 yards passing because the team was rushing so well and the game was a blowout. (The Saints gained 625 yards.) He would’ve been the fifth quarterback to pass for 400 yards against the Cowboys.

The word "clinic" was tossed around by announcer Cris Collinsworth. It was appropriate in two ways. Brees sliced up the Cowboys like a surgeon, going eight for 10 on third-down conversions. And many of those third-down plays were long plays. Fifteen yards, 12 yards, no problem.

Of course, as Collinsworth said, the Dallas defense is now “unrecognizable” because of injuries, and their dressing room is now like a clinic. Sean Lee got hurt early in the game, and the defense got worse immediately. DeMarcus Ware was playing with little push on one of his legs. A second linebacker joined Lee on the sideline.

NBC had a telling statistic: Dallas has played 17 different defensive linemen during the year, and their line appeared to hold up mostly because of Ware. With him not at full strength, the Cowboys line was dominated by a strong Saints offensive line. Dallas’ defensive woes were understandable, especially given how dialed in the Saints offense was. But the Cowboys offense was pitiful, their underperformance unacceptable given the team’s perennially high expectations. They looked clueless out there.

Romo was 10-of-24 for 104 yards. The Cowboys gained just 193 yards.

Maybe Ryan is a genius. But the Cowboys failed to adapt. If I’m Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones, I’m more unhappy with the offense than the defense. And if I’m Garrett, I’m sweating. Fair or not, the fans and ownership expect results. Last year Ryan was blamed; this year it might be the head coach.  

The Cowboys’ loss makes the NFC East picture even murkier and a forecast impossible. The Eagles beat the Packers and are tied with Dallas at 5-5. (And Nick Foles has thrown 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Whoa.) The Giants have to be overjoyed – they beat the Raiders to go 3-6, so they’re just one game back in the loss column. Watch out. (The Redskins are also in the hunt, but they have to be kicking themselves for losing to a bad team Thursday night.)

We’ll find out more about the Saints when they play the 49ers. That shapes up as one of the best games of the season.