What Went Wrong: Defensive mediocrity

This is the second installment in ESPN Dallas' five-part series on things that went wrong for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011. For more, click here.

No. 4: Mediocrity from Rob Ryan's defense

Rob Ryan promised greatness from a defense he declared had the most talent in the NFL.

He delivered mediocrity with a unit that needs to be upgraded at several spots next season.

The Dallas defense was average as a whole -- 14th in total defense (343.2 yards per game) and 16th in scoring defense (21.7 points) -- and dreadful when it mattered most. The New York Giants averaged 34 points and 473.5 yards in two wins over the Cowboys that determined the NFC East title.

Ryan often enabled his players by insisting that all the blame should be placed on his wide shoulders. There were some grumbles that his three-thick-playbook scheme was too complicated, causing mass confusion and leading him to simplify game plans in the final few weeks.

Of course, Wade Phillips’ scheme was supposedly too simple and predictable, but it worked pretty well this season for the Houston Texans’ second-ranked defense. At some point, the blame needs to be pinned on the players.

Ryan seemed to realize that in the last couple of weeks, particularly during an angry halftime rant after Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles marched 87 yards in 50 seconds for a touchdown, prompting him to rip the players for poorly executing a good game plan.

Several defensive starters will be gone next season, starting with longtime left cornerback Terence Newman, a two-time Pro Bowler who was terrible down the stretch. Ryan will return, barring the surprising development of a team wanting him to become its head coach after under-delivering so badly in Dallas.