Rob Ryan gets a pass -- for now

IRVING, Texas -- It's OK to admit Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan did a nice job keeping an injury-ravaged unit from total collapse during the second half of the season.

You're even allowed to concede the Cowboys' defense absolutely did its job Sunday night against the Washington Redskins.

No joke.

Forget about Alfred Morris' 200 yards rushing. Or Robert Griffin III's 10.3 average per carry.

Instead, focus on the bottom line: With three minutes left in the game, Washington had scored 21 points and RG III did not have a completion of 20 yards or more.

In the first meeting of the season between the teams, RG III passed for 304 yards -- 179 came on four completions -- and four touchdowns.

This time, Ryan's defense controlled him. Sort of.

And it still wasn't enough.

The Cowboys lost, which means America's Team will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

So everyone, as they should be, gets scrutinized.

After Jason Garrett and Tony Romo, the brash, smack-talking defensive coordinator must be at the top of the list as we continue to study whether he's a terrific defensive coordinator or just a dude living off the reputation of his daddy and his brother.

Understand, Garrett could've ended any and all speculation about Ryan's continued future as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator Monday afternoon, but declined.

"We're not going to get into staff conversations now," Garrett said. "I have a lot of confidence in Rob Ryan. There's no question about that."

The best thing Ryan did this season is not throw a pity party when injuries wrecked his defense.

In the end, the Cowboys had four defensive starters injured, not including nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick. Injuries limited perennial Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff to five games.

Against Washington, linebacker DeMarcus Ware played situationally because of elbow and shoulder injuries that will each require surgery to repair in the offseason. And star linebacker Anthony Spencer sprained his ankle and missed several plays on Washington's go-ahead touchdown drive.

The Cowboys tried to make their playoff run with guys off the street, such as defensive backs Sterling Moore, Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah playing key roles along with linebackers Ernie Sims and Alex Albright and defensive lineman Brian Schaefering.

"I thought he did a really good job managing that situation and I thought our defensive staff did a good job managing that situation and getting these guys ready to play in a short period of time against some competitive opponents," Garrett said. "We became more and more decimated as the year went on and we had to make adjustments in our schemes to fit what these guys were capable of doing.

"It was challenging, but he never blinked. He understood what he had and tried his best to put the best defense out there that he could."

All of that is true, but the problem with Ryan's defensive is that it lacked identity early in the season, when he had access to all of his best players.

Late in the season, Ryan utilized primarily zone coverages so the Cowboys wouldn't give up big plays. The idea was to force teams to drive the length of the field in hopes somebody, anybody would make a play along the way to foil the drive.

The Cowboys didn't do anything well -- and that's a problem.

They ranked 22nd in offensive points allowed (22.4 points). And 25th in yards per play (5.77). And 28th in 10-play drives allowed with 32.

They intercepted just seven passes. No team intercepted fewer. The Cowboys created just 79 negative plays, 31st in the NFL.

Not good enough.

The injuries aren't an excuse, but they're a legitimate reason why it's difficult to determine just how well Ryan did this season. There does come a time when a unit can get compromised because of injury.

If you don't think that happened to the Cowboys this season, then you didn't watch the games. Or you choose to ignore the truth.

Ryan has done enough to earn another year, his third in Dallas. But we need to see results next season.

When the season starts, the Cowboys' quartet of linebackers -- we'll assume Spencer gets the franchise tag -- should be among the NFL's best. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr represent a quality cornerback tandem and Ratliff and Hatcher will be playmakers on the defensive line.

The Cowboys will add some contributors in the draft and maybe free agency. Talent won't be an issue.

Then we'll finally know for sure whether Ryan, who has never been a coordinator for a team that finished over .500, can get the job done.