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Star-Telegram: Cowboys’ defense still has a lot to prove


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OXNARD, Calif. — Brian Stewart said he is out of the headline-writing business, which is a terrible loss to the media, the NFL and Dallas Cowboys fans.

This time a year ago, the first time the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator was asked where his defense should rank in the NFL, he boldly proclaimed his unit should be No. 1. The candor made for a memorable headline, landed him in a tiny bit of trouble, and put the level of expectation squarely where most people expected on the defense.

The Cowboys’ defense didn’t quite finish No. 1 in the NFL; it had to settle for No. 9. It was a unit, however, that improved dramatically from the season before.

But, "I’m just asking, 'What have we really done?’ " Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty said. "It’s potential. And when it’s potential, that just means you haven’t done it yet."

The Cowboys’ defense is called "good" and is hoping to show it indeed one day can be called "great," perhaps even "dominating." But considering the number of high draft picks spent on this defense, combined with money spent, the defense hasn’t yielded the "wow" the owner/general manager banked on.

"We’re getting to the point where he [Jerry Jones] can see his [return on investment]," Cowboys linebacker Bradie James said. "You try not to [talk] about last season, but we were decent. We weren’t bad. For us to go to the next level, we have to knock on the door of greatness and get there."

The Cowboys hired a head coach who built a league-wide reputation for making good defenses great — hence the self-appointed "Mr. Fix It" tag on Wade Phillips. Last season, the Cowboys’ defense improved in nearly every major statistical category.

Still, it never did quite dominate when needed.

There might not be any more painful example of the defense failing to hold the momentum than when it allowed the New York Giants to race down the field to score the tying touchdown in the final seconds of the first half during the playoff loss.

The plan is for that not to happen again.

"We’re just trying to be as good as we’re going to be, no matter what year it is," Phillips said. "But I think the second year, being more familiar [with the defense] and if you have the same people overall, it certainly helps you."

On the defensive front ...

A look at the Cowboys’ defense, by the numbers:

9 First-round draft picks the 2008 Cowboys’ defense figures to have: Greg Ellis (8th), Roy Williams (8th), Terence Newman (5th), DeMarcus Ware (11th), Marcus Spears (20th), Bobby Carpenter (18th), Anthony Spencer (26th), Mike Jenkins (25th), Adam Jones (6th)

72 Approximate guaranteed millions of dollars the Cowboys have committed to the 15 major defensive players.

27 Average age of the expected starting defense when the season begins.

2009 The off-season when outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is scheduled to become a free agent. Expect the biggest signing bonus in team history for a defensive player.

5 Cowboys defenders who made the Pro Bowl last season: Ware, Williams, Newman, Ellis, Ken Hamlin.

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