Crisis brewing in Cowboys' secondary

IRVING, Texas -- When Rex Ryan finally became a head coach, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome called New York Jets counterpart Mike Tannenbaum to congratulate him on hiring a great defensive mind and offer a half-kidding warning.

"He's got a sign around his neck that says, 'I NEED CORNERS,'" Newsome said.

Ryan tells that story to illustrate how important he considers the cornerback position, especially in a blitz-happy scheme that relies heavily on man coverage. He certainly can't complain about his corner situation with high-priced stars Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie as starters and 2010 first-round pick Kyle Wilson as the nickel back for one of the NFL's most dominant defenses.

Maybe Ryan's twin brother ought to consider investing in billboards around the Metroplex.

The Dallas Cowboys might not have a full-blown cornerbacks crisis yet, but one certainly seems to be developing. Rob Ryan's intelligence as Dallas' new defensive coordinator will be irrelevant if the dire situation doesn't get rectified.

There's a decent chance Dallas won't have either of its starting corners when the twins meet at MetLife Stadium for Sunday night's season opener. Owner/general manager Jerry Jones said Terence Newman isn't available after missing the entire preseason with a groin injury. Mike Jenkins was expected to play after also sitting the preseason due to a stinger, but his status is in jeopardy again after he injured his knee during Wednesday's practice.

The Cowboys are confident they can count on Orlando Scandrick. They better be after giving a guy who has never been a full-time starter a five-year, $27 million contract extension, a strong indication that Newman's days in Dallas are numbered. The Cowboys keep insisting they can count on Alan Ball, who moved back to cornerback after a failed stint as the starting free safety. And they might have to count on Bryan McCann, whose contributions would ideally be limited to special teams in his second season as an undrafted player out of SMU.

"I think anybody can make an excuse, but we don't have to," Rob Ryan said. "We're going to be at our best."

Well, it can't get much worse than last season. That's why the Cowboys' corners merited major concern -- no matter what Ryan or Jones says -- long before the starters became trainer's room regulars during training camp.

Rex Ryan remembers an old scout saying over and over that teams can lose games the fastest at quarterback and cornerback. The Cowboys provided painful evidence of the latter during their crash from preseason Super Bowl contender to 6-10 last season.

Newman and Jenkins went from Pro Bowl alternates on the NFC's stingiest scoring defense in 2009 to major parts of the problem in 2010, when the Cowboys ended up on the wrong end of the franchise record book by allowing a conference-high 436 points.

There weren't many, if any, worse cornerback tandems in the NFL last season. According to Stats Inc., Jenkins allowed the second-most passing yards (935) in the league, as opponents averaged 10.7 yards per attempt when throwing his way. Newman's numbers weren't much better. He allowed 871 yards, the sixth most in the league, and 9.3 yards per attempt. Oh, and Jenkins led the NFL in pass interference penalties with six.

Nobody needed a good training camp and preseason more than the pair of starting corners. All they got was a good view of the action while standing on the sideline.

"They've got the talent, no question," Rob Ryan said, explaining his reasoning for believing in Newman and Jenkins despite their struggles last season and preseason absences. "They study. They ask great questions. They want to learn the system. Our corners have a little bit more freedom in our system here. So I think they're two smart guys and they can see why we do things and understand that, and I think they'll play faster and even better."

At least Newman had an excuse for his awful 2010. His play regressed after he suffered a rib injury, which required him to take pain-killing injections before several games.

Not that the Cowboys can take any comfort in that. Newman has been nagged by injuries since signing a six-year, $50.2 million contract extension in 2008. His toughness isn't an issue, but he has a history of not performing well when fighting through injuries. A cornerback who relies on speed and quickness is a liability when he's a step slow.

"He's a guy that has to have it just right," Jones said, "and we want him to get it just right."

Pardon me for being pessimistic that a 33-year-old cornerback will get just right after missing six-plus weeks due to a groin injury.

The Cowboys can't be surprised that Newman is a multimillion-dollar question mark entering the season. But they failed to provide adequate insurance in the offseason.

The only move Dallas made that added depth to the cornerback corps was Ball's position change. The Cowboys bid on Nnamdi Asomugha, as did the Jets, but the Cowboys made a low-ball offer before the All-Pro signed with the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles. They waited until the fifth round to draft a cornerback and ended up cutting Josh Thomas.

Now they have to hope that Rob Ryan, with a lot of help from the Cowboys' medical staff, can turn back the clock on the corners a couple of years. If not, the Cowboys could bring a high first-round pick along with a huge "I NEED CORNERS" sign to the scouting combine.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.