IRVING — After fielding a worse pass defense in 2010 and 2011 than in any other two-year span in team history, the Dallas Cowboys finally had enough and made a number of moves to revamp the secondary in the off-season.
The two biggest players in the overhaul were cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Terence Newman.
Carr, 26, regarded as the best player in free agency by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, was signed to a whopping five-year, $50.1 million contract to come from the Kansas City Chiefs and become the shutdown cornerback the team has coveted since the departure of Deion Sanders.
Newman, 34, who never fully lived up to expectations as a former 2003 first-round pick of the Cowboys and became the primary scapegoat for the team’s secondary woes, was unceremoniously dumped because of his salary, declining play, age and injury history.
When the Cowboys (6-6) face the Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) Sunday, Newman and Carr will be on the same field together for the first time since the off-season moves.
The statistics say the Bengals, who signed Newman to a reduced one-year, $825,000 contract shortly after being released by the Cowboys, got the better end of the salary cap deal so far.
Revitalized and motivated to prove the Dallas Cowboys wrong, the nine-year year veteran has more tackles than Carr as well as more pass deflections and more interceptions.
And according to Stats Inc., Newman has also given up fewer touchdowns and fewer completions, despite the same amount of targets.
Still, the Cowboys are pleased with the moves.
"Terence was a really, really good player for this team for a long time," coach Jason Garrett said. "We just felt as an organization that it was the right time for us to make a move there and to move on and go in a different direction. I told him when I talked to him, ‘You’re going to be playing for a long time and just keep doing what you’re doing.’ He’s playing very well right now."
From the Cowboys’ point of view, the individual statistics only tell part of the story. The pass defense is statistically better than it was last season at this point despite a plethora of injuries.
Carr was just one of two important off-season moves made by the Cowboys, who also drafted Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick.
Carr also went from being given the task of covering the opponent’s top receiver all over the field at the beginning of the season to being used at safety and in the slot because of injuries.
"Brandon Carr, he’s been a really good player for us," Garrett said. “At different times, we’ve had him in different spots, assuming different roles. He’s played some safety for us. I think he’s playing well.”
Carr said his play has been "up and down" because he has been moved around, because so many different guys have been in and out of the lineup with injuries and because everyone is still getting used to each other.
He also knows that his "up and down" play has already drawn criticism because of the $50.1 million contract that had people expecting Deion Sanders-like production.
"They can say what they want to say, I can handle the scrutiny," Carr said. “I have been dealing with that since I came into the NFL. It hasn’t deterred me from anything. Everybody is entitled to an opinion. I’m in a position where I’m fair game to everybody. I can handle whatever they have to say. I know it’s out there. All I can do is come every day, keep getting better and keep working.”
For Newman, the scrutiny, criticism and subsequent release resulted in some bitterness.
He was once considered a foundation building block for the future of the Cowboys along with quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Jason Witten and linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Newman was admittedly disappointed he didn’t get a goodbye from owner Jerry Jones when he was informed of his release in March.
He said he knew the decision was coming and worked out at the Cowboys facility every day in the off-season so they could tell him face to face when the moment arrived.
Garrett handled the goodbye with Newman, who hopes to see Jones and exchange pleasantries before the game.
“I mean a person can be bitter all they want, but it’s not going to change anything,” Newman said. "I’m happy, playing pretty well, winning football games, so that’s my No. 1 focus. There’s no reason for me to be bitter. It’s months and months after the fact. It is what it is."
Newman, who played with injured ribs in 2010 and then through toe, neck and hamstring injuries that affected his play last year, said the change in scenery and fresh start has been good for him.
He chose the Bengals because of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who held the same position in Dallas when he was drafted in 2003.
“This definitely was a place that I wanted to come because obviously I had a relationship with him,” Newman said. "I knew what to expect and I knew it would be the best opportunity for me to jump-start and get back to playing the football that I had been playing in previous years."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Newman has been a big part of a defense that has the Bengals in the thick of the wild-card playoff chase.
Unlike the inconsistent Cowboys, the Bengals are riding a four-game winning streak behind a defense that’s allowed just one offensive touchdown in the past three games combined.
“His ability to know what’s important. I think getting back with Mike has been great for him, because day in and day out he knows he’s going to get coached from sunup to sundown as all of our guys do when they walk in this building,” Lewis said. “I think that was something he felt comfortable with.”
From a bitter departure to a comfortable reunion — at least until kickoff.
Rookie Darrion Weems signed his contract in the locker room Wednesday afternoon. He then began the process of getting to know his new teammates.
The Cowboys have had a lot of new faces lately. Center Phil Costa became the 10th player the Cowboys have placed on season-ending injured reserve this season. Six of those players, including Costa, are starters. (Rookie safety Matt Johnson is the player the team designated as returnable injured reserve.)
Costa partially dislocated his ankle against Carolina on Oct. 21 and has missed the six games since. He played in only three games this season — 120 total plays — after injuring his back in the first series of the season against the Giants and missing the next three games.
In Costa’s absence, Dallas has started two other centers, Ryan Cook and Mackenzy Bernadeau.
Weems was signed off Denver’s practice squad. He now is with his fifth team since signing first with the Vikings this summer as a rookie free agent out of the University of Oregon. He also had short stints in New England and Indianapolis.
Weems started 22 of 41 college games, including all 14 at left tackle as a senior.
Despite his late start to joining the Cowboys, Weems said he isn’t looking at this as an audition for 2013.
"It’s now," Weems said. "It’s about now. I’m here now and work hard now and do what they tell me to do now."
The Cowboys were forced to make a move to their practice squad Wednesday. The Raiders signed running back Jamize Olawale off the Cowboys’ practice squad. Dallas replaced Olawale with tight end Chase Ford, a rookie who briefly was on the Eagles’ practice squad.
RELATED: Cowboys waited on Costa because he ‘really improved’ this year and might have still helped
The Cowboys gave center Phil Costa a chance to come back from the dislocated ankle he suffered at Carolina six weeks ago because in the limited time he had been healthy this year, he had played well.
But this week, they finally put him on injured reserve.
“We feel like he could have provided some presence for us toward the end of the year,” coach Jason Garrett said Thursday at Valley Ranch. “But when you start counting, how many weeks until we think he’s back and how many weeks left in the season, you kind of do that math. We made that decision.
“He did some real good things in the limited time he played this year. Just has to get that thing better and get ready for 2013.”
Costa played in only three games, but he finished only one. He played only the first three snaps of the season opener at the Giants before leaving with a back injury, the full game at Baltimore on Oct. 14 and then the first half of the game at Carolina the next week, when he was hurt in the second quarter.
“We were all very hopeful,” Garrett said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football for us this year. He missed a lot of training camp. But when he did come back, he played well. He really improved from last year.”