Spencer’s strong play continues to impress Cowboys
Second-year starter emerging as a force in Dallas defense
SAN ANTONIO — Wade Phillips was raving about the standout play by one of his outside linebackers. Then the Dallas Cowboys coach compared that player to Hall of Famer to-be Rickey Jackson.
Phillips wasn’t discussing Cowboys sacks leader DeMarcus Ware. The head coach-defensive coordinator instead was talking about Anthony Spencer, the linebacker on the opposite side of the four-time Pro Bowler.
“He’s become a dominant player at his position. That’s awfully important for us,” Phillips said. “Anthony has to drop, he has to whip the tight end and then he has to rush. Being able to do all three of those things, he came on in the middle of last year and just played as well as anyone I’ve been around.”
While Ware still dominated on his side as the primary pass rusher with more than 10 sacks for the fourth consecutive season, Spencer emerged as a force on the other when finally given the chance a year ago to be a full-time starter. He was nearly as unstoppable as Ware once he settled into his expanded role.
“He has come along very well. Taking pressure off me and having players like that, it’s great,” Ware said.
“I’ve never been a person lacking confidence,” Spencer said. “I have the utmost confidence in myself and my ability to play. Once you start making those plays, it becomes a lot easier to make them all the time.”
Spencer had six sacks in the last six regular-season games, after having none in the first 10 games. He also had one sack in each of the Cowboys’ two playoff games and 77 tackles over that closing eight-game span for the NFC East champions.
“I worked hard at it,’’ he said. “I put a lot of extra time into it.’’
Phillips believes Spencer and Ware make up the best tandem of outside linebackers in the NFL right now. And they might wind up being the best duo he has seen in his nearly 3½ decades coaching in the league.
“I’m not sure they aren’t, but let’s let them do it again,” Phillips said.
Spencer plays on the same side that Jackson did for Phillips, who was the defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints from 1981-85 during Jackson’s first five NFL seasons.
“I don’t see a lot of difference as far as how (Spencer) plays that position,” Phillips said.
Jackson is being inducted next month into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, where the Cowboys play their preseason opener. Reporters, not the coach, shared with Spencer the comparison to Phillips’ former pupil.
“It’s great to hear my coach say that. At the same time, you don’t want to get complacent.
“I feel like I have got a long way to go. I look at more the things I’m not doing right than the things I’m doing good,” Spencer said.
After being drafted out of Purdue, Spencer became only the fourth rookie linebacker to start a season opener for Dallas. (Ware was another, in 2005). Spencer started his first six NFL games filling in for an injured Greg Ellis, then didn’t start again until last year when the veteran was cut after 11 seasons.
“It was just a me coming into my own type of thing, because when Greg was here, I was in and out of the game. And then when he was gone, I was in the game full time,” Spencer said. “Everyone has their moment. Either you’re ready for it or you’re not.”
Anthony Spencer averaged one sack per game over the Cowboys’ last six regular-season games in 2009.