Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 11/18/11
IRVING It could've been the defining moment of training camp in San Antonio. During a practice at the poorly lit AlamoDome, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones handed his cellphone to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Cowboys were attempting to land free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, a move that likely would've ended Terence Newman's run with the organization. The Philadelphia Eagles swooped in that afternoon and signed Asomugha, leaving the Cowboys in an awkward spot with Newman, their former first-round pick. At the time, it seemed like the Eagles were throwing haymakers at the rest of the league. But everything blew up in their faces and now they sit in a last-place tie in the NFC East with a 3-6 record. After missing significant time with a groin injury, the 33-year-old Newman has become a major part of perhaps the most-improved defense in the league. He's playing with a chip on his shoulder, as evidenced by his refusal to speak to reporters following his outstanding game against the Buffalo Bills. Newman leads the Cowboys with four interceptions, three of which have come in the past two games. Reporters hovered around his locker Thursday at Valley Ranch, but Newman made them work for an interview. He put his arm around one reporter not this one and said, "I'm only talking to you." In an amusing scene, Newman circled the locker room several times at a brisk pace while at least six other reporters strained to hear what he was saying to the chosen writer. The cornerback's always been a bit sensitive, and this was likely his way to let reporters know that he remembers how quick they were to dismiss him during training camp. "A lot of people doubted me and I think that's easy when you have people that doubt you," Newman said as he led the small delegation. "You go out and try to prove people wrong. That's what anybody would do." The Cowboys had the 26th ranked passing defense in the league last season. Cornerback Mike Jenkins took a huge step backwards after making the Pro Bowl in 2009, and Newman had to play through an injury for much of the season. With Newman out again at the start of this season, it appeared the Cowboys' secondary would once again be compromised. Instead, it's become one the strengths of this team. The Cowboys ranked 13th in the league against the pass and only one team (Houston) has more than the Cowboys' 13 interceptions. They had seven at this sama point last season. Last year, the Cowboys gave up 13 plays of 40 yards or longer. This year, only the Pittsburgh Steelers have yielded fewer than the Cowboys' two. Safety Abe Elam signed with the Cowboys in free agency and quickly became a sounding board for the rest of the secondary. He played for Ryan in Cleveland, so he was the only player with a working knowledge of what Ryan was trying to accomplish. Elam attributes the group's success to a strong trust that exists among the players and coaches. "We all believe that if a guy like Terence is out, Alan Ball is going to step in and play just as well," said Elam. "Everyone has the same status with this group, so there's no panic when guys get injured. We want to prove that we're the best secondary in the league." Across the locker room, cornerback Orlando Scandrick is chastising a reporter for saying the Cowboys needed a cornerback in last April's draft. Despite signing a lucrative contract extension before the season, Scandrick still has the uncanny knack for being able to turn anything into a slight against his ability. The former Boise State star still seethes about slipping to the fifth round of the '09 draft. Even the Cowboys secondary coach, Dave Campo, could have a chip on his shoulder about the way his job status was handled this past offseason. Head coach Jason Garrett had told Campo that he wanted him to remain on the coaching staff, but the Cowboys also showed strong interest in Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton, who eventually became defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. Garrett assured me Thursday that things were never awkward with Campo. "We were trying to add as many talented coaches as possible," said Garrett. "I wanted Dave to stay no matter what happened." For his part, Ryan has changed the mentality of this defense. He gives his defensive backs a tremendous amount of freedom compared to other coaches. And he tries to keep things fun by starring in skits with other coaches during team meetings. Safety Barry Church, who moonlights as a linebacker in the nickel package, said that Ryan sometimes asks defensive end Jason Hatcher to play the role of Earl Campbell in a Skoal commercial from the early 1980s. Just like Campbell, Hatcher ends the commercial with the classic phrase, "Skoal, brother." "I've never been around a coach at any level who makes football this fun," said Church. "And with Rob, there's a lack of over-coaching. He lets us use the technique that works best for each individual. There's just no comparison to last season when it comes to communication. We're constantly talking on the field, so there's no confusion." Ryan didn't make good on his promise to kick the Eagles' ass, but he has brought a completely different mindset to this secondary. So what if they're a little on the sensitive side.
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