IRVING, Texas -- No player symbolizes the crash of the Cowboys’ defense more than Mike Jenkins.
He was a rising star in 2009, a Pro Bowl cornerback in his first season as a starter for a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFC.
What the heck happened in 2010? Well, the stats tell a chunk of the story. According to Stats Inc., Jenkins allowed 954 receiving yards, the second-most in the NFL. He was flagged nine times, including a league-high six times for pass interference. Not coincidentally, the Cowboys’ defense collapsed, allowing the second-most points in the NFL.
His swagger was shattered, even before he suffered the self-inflicted embarrassment of giving up on a play instead of trying to make a touchdown-saving tackle in the nationally televised blowout loss to Green Bay. It’s up to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his staff to repair it.
“Mike’s a young player, and sometimes things don’t go well and your confidence is not what it should be,” secondary coach Dave Campo said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. I think if you look, the last half of the season he played much better than the first half of the season. I have no doubt in my mind that he’ll transition that to the next part of it.
“I think he got started slow with the penalties; that kind of spooked him a little bit and he didn’t play the way he’s capable of playing. I’m excited that he’s still a young player. Now, if the guy was a 10-year player and he wasn’t playing well, I’d be a little nervous. But I think he can respond.”
Jenkins, of course, wasn’t the only Dallas defensive player whose performance plummeted last season. There’s a reason there will likely be a new starter at free safety and defensive end and perhaps other positions. Fellow recent first-round pick Anthony Spencer also took a large step back, although new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan doesn’t exactly agree with that assessment.
“Damn, that Spencer regressed, huh?” Ryan snapped with a strong dose of sarcasm. “[Beep], I think he’s going to be outstanding. I really do. If he got worse, I can’t wait to see him better, because I really like the way this guy works. He’s smart, he knows protections, he’s got a million moves. He’s going to be tremendous in our system. I can tell you that for sure.”
That was the first part of Ryan’s reply to a question about how he could get Jenkins and Spencer to play as well as they did in 2009 after their regression last season. He wasn’t quite as effusive in his praise of Jenkins.
“Mike Jenkins -- looking forward to getting to know him and working with him,” Ryan said. “Looking forward to that.”
That’s as vague as possible for somebody as brash and opinionated as Ryan. While Ryan didn’t call out Jenkins, he made it clear that the standard for Cowboys’ cornerbacks would be extremely high under his watch.
“They'll have to be cover guys first in our system and they have to be accurate tacklers,” Ryan said. “Anything other than that, that's not us. We have to get tremendous players out there on the corner and be able to shut down receivers and again be accurate tacklers.
“There is no place in football for a coward and it's definitely not on a corner for us. It's a marquee position and that's what it is here and in the NFL.”
Ryan is right. That’s why getting Jenkins right should be such a high priority.