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Players must live up to their potential

SAN ANTONIO -- All due respect to Rob Ryan and all the considerable brainpower underneath his shaggy gray mop, but the man is not a magician.

A defensive coordinator can make a significant difference, as Ryan so humbly stressed while chatting with the media horde Saturday morning at the Alamodome. However, the solution for fixing a defense that allowed the most points in franchise history isn't as simple as changing the scheme.

The responsibility still rests primarily on the padded shoulders of the players, a unit that will probably include only one new starter from the NFC's worst scoring defense. Ryan, who has promised that his Dallas defense will be "great" from the get-go, doesn't debate that point.

Not that Ryan considers that a concern. He's never worked with this kind of talent as a coordinator, which is why he joked that he felt like he was in Hawaii with former Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Keith Brooking, Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins on his squad.

"The players make my scheme," Ryan told a group of Cowboys defenders the first time he met them after his hiring. "My scheme doesn't make the players."

Want proof? Look at Ryan's track record as an NFL coordinator. It's about as attractive as his pot-bellied physique.

The Raiders and Browns had average finishes of 23rd in the league in both scoring defense and yards allowed in a total of seven seasons with Ryan in charge. Those defenses had only one top-10 finish in either category while being run by Ryan, which was when the 2006 Raiders allowed the third-fewest yards in the NFL.

This isn't to question whether Buddy's boy and Rex's twin was a wise hire. His bloodlines aren't the only reason to believe Ryan is a defensive genius. That's made obvious by watching the way his seemingly endless array of blitz packages and personnel groupings have befuddled the Cowboys' offense for most of training camp. Buttoned-down Jason Garrett wouldn't have hired rough-around-the-edges Ryan if he wasn't blown away during their X's and O's discussions.

The Cowboys' defense will be creative this season. It will be complex. It will keep opposing offensive coordinators up late.

"We got a little stereotyped last year," secondary coach Dave Campo said. "This year, we're not going to get stereotyped. I can promise you that right now. I don't know what we're going to be running, but we're not going to be running one thing, I can tell you that."

Oh, how quickly they forget. Wade Phillips is no fool. OK, he played a pretty good fool as a head coach, but Phillips has earned a reputation as one of the NFL's sharpest defensive minds.

Phillips didn't forget how to coach defense in one season. He got fired midseason, first and foremost, because his defensive players horrendously underachieved.

The good news? The core of the 2009 defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFC remains intact. Plus, the Cowboys have solidified the safety position -- the biggest personnel issue a year ago -- by signing Ryan favorite Abram Elam and have a healthy Sean Lee primed to be a playmaking inside linebacker with Brooking in his twilight.

The primary reason the Dallas defense went from first to worst in the conference was the drastic drop-offs in a pair of first-round picks' performances, among other players.

If Ryan gets cornerback Mike Jenkins and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer right, don't be surprised if the Cowboys start doing decent Doomsday impressions again.

Jenkins went from Pro Bowler to a glaring problem in the span of one season. Spencer dominated down the stretch in 2009 and disappeared too often in 2010.

Talent isn't an issue for either player. We've all witnessed them live up to their first-round expectations. The Cowboys desperately need them to do it consistently.

Newman's groin injury, which will sideline him at least the entire preseason, is a significant concern. Still, the talent is in place for the Cowboys to be a top-10 again, if that talent performs to its potential.

"It always comes down to players making plays," Spencer said.

Added Elam: "We're the guys out on the field. No matter how good we get coached or how much time is put in, it's what we do and how we execute on the field that means the most."

Ryan can put them in position to make plays, especially pass rushers like Ware and Ratliff. He can motivate them, which might be more important for Jenkins and Spencer.

But the onus is on the players, most of whom failed Phillips a year ago.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.