Commentary

Cowboys don't look back on OLB choice

Despite Anthony Spencer's lack of sacks, team doesn't sweat split with Greg Ellis

Updated: November 26, 2009, 1:54 AM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones has wasted as much time second-guessing his decision to release Greg Ellis as Anthony Spencer has spent celebrating sacks this season.

That would be absolutely none.

For the final two seasons of his 11-year tenure with the Dallas Cowboys, Ellis pulled off the odd combination of mentoring Spencer while often complaining about his dwindling playing time and pending departure. Jones opted to cut ties with Ellis in the spring, releasing the 1998 first-round pick to open up a starting outside linebacker job for the 2007 first-rounder.

"I'm totally rewarded by that decision," Jones said. "Not to take anything away from Greg, but to give it all to Spencer. Spencer has been playing outstanding. We've said it's just a matter of time before the stats start showing."

Right now, the stats show that Ellis has five sacks for the Oakland Raiders entering Thursday's game at Cowboys Stadium. That's a half-sack more than Spencer has in his career -- and five more than he has this season.

Despite the lack of sacks, Spencer has not been a disappointment in his first season as a full-time starter.

"I said all along that he's a good player," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "He's played even better the last couple of weeks."

Phillips considers Spencer one of the best outside linebackers he has coached when it comes to playing the run. That's why Ellis was essentially relegated to a situational pass-rushing role in the latter half of last season, which the veteran still isn't pleased about. Spencer has been a force for the league's seventh-ranked rushing defense this season, tying Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff for team-high honors with six tackles for losses.

Spencer has had several near misses on sacks. He's tied for second on the team with 18 quarterback pressures. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers fell across the line of scrimmage as Spencer took him down two weeks ago, so that play went in the books as a 1-yard run. Spencer was credited with a sack when Washington's Jason Campbell was ruled out of bounds before throwing the ball away last week, but that play was overturned by a replay review that NFL officials later acknowledged should not have happened.

"Of course it's frustrating," said Spencer, who intercepted a batted ball to seal the win over Washington. "At the same time, what I can I do? I'm just doing my job and hoping for the best. I mean, that's basically all I can do, just stay focused and confident in what I'm doing."

The Cowboys' front office, and coaches, gave Spencer a tremendous vote of confidence when it decided to cut Ellis. That decision was made at the beginning of organized team activities, before the team had a chance to take a good look at rookie fourth-round outside linebackers Victor Butler and Brandon Williams.

Spencer's promotion certainly wasn't the sole reason to get rid of Ellis, who had made it clear that he would continue to be unhappy in a complementary role. Releasing him cleared $4.15 million off the books, salary-cap space that was used to sign DeMarcus Ware to a lucrative six-year extension.

The Cowboys knew when they made the move that Spencer would have to play the vast majority of defensive snaps. With Williams missing the entire season because of a a knee injury, Spencer rarely gets a break, although Butler has three sacks in limited playing time.

Was Spencer ready to play that role?

"It doesn't matter what I thought," Ellis said on a conference call with Valley Ranch media. "Anthony is a good football player. He's got a lot of room for improvement. He's going to get better and better. But the coaching staff of the Dallas Cowboys felt like it was time to make that move."

Even though Spencer has no sacks, the Cowboys have no regrets.

Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at tim.macmahon@espn3.com.

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