ARLINGTON -- It's been four years since the Dallas Cowboys selected Anthony Spencer in the first round out of Purdue.
Seemingly, the biggest impact he's made since then is the trend of scraggly beards on the roster.
Guard Kyle Kosier, backup quarterback Stephen McGee, nose tackle Josh Brent, offensive tackles Doug Free and Pepa Letuli, defensive end Jason Hatcher, center Phil Costa, linebacker Kenwin Cummings, guard Bill Nagy and running back Felix Jones are among players sporting scruffy beards -- though Spencer's is more Kimbo Slice than Bohippian.
"This is my look now. I can't let it go," Spencer said. "I like it. It just keeps growing back. I'm not going to do the San Francisco [Giants] guy [Brian Wilson]; it's not going to get like that. I'm just going to keep it around this area. I cut it down when it gets too long and out of control."
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If the Cowboys had their druthers, Spencer would do the full Wilson with his beard and his game.
Unlike Wilson, who is one of baseball's best closers, Spencer's career -- though not totally a disappointment -- has largely left the Cowboys wanting.
Drafted in 2007 to give the Cowboys a pass rushing complement to DeMarcus Ware, Spencer has 15.5 sacks in four seasons.
After recording a disappointing 4.5 sacks his first two years and bringing up "bust" talk, Spencer was seemingly on the verge of putting it all together in 2009 when he recorded six sacks over the final six games. He added two more in the playoffs. Nobody on defense was playing at a higher level at the end of the season.
But instead of building on that performance, Spencer took a step back in 2010, notching just five sacks while again failing to give the team a consistent threat opposite Ware, a two-time NFL sack champion.
Spencer knows what's being said about him. He says he's his own biggest critic and doesn't worry about that.
But he is prideful and wants to be accountable to his teammates, so he spent the off-season working to improve his game and is motivated to be better in 2011.
"Whenever you have a season like that, the only thing you can do is work and work harder than you did the previous season to work on the things that you weren't doing. That's what I basically did," Spencer said.
He lost weight and put on more muscle, going from 255 pounds last season to 250.
Spencer believes his renewed personal commitment along with the complicated schemes of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will result in a big year.
No longer will he solely be lined up on the left side. Spencer, like Ware, will be moved all over the line, including nose guard, in hopes of creating mismatches, unpredictability and pressure.
"Just the way that it's changing around, moving us around, it's going to be hard for a team to game plan on certain players and lock in on what we're doing," Spencer said.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett refuses to acknowledge that Spencer's play has been a disappointment. But he readily admits that Ryan's scheme will make a huge difference compared with Wade Phillips' 3-4 attack, which was criticized for being predictable and stale.
"He's a guy who can be a very good pass rusher, who can be a very good defender," Garrett said. "At different times, Spencer has been more productive than other times. Hopefully, in this new scheme, you'll see him in a couple of different spots being effective in both areas. Once the games start, we're hopeful that we see a guy who's been as productive as he's been throughout his career."
Ryan went even further, promising that Spencer "is going to be tremendous in our system, I can tell you that for sure."
If Spencer doesn't come through with a career-best year, this will likely be his last in Dallas. He is in the final year of his rookie contract.
The good news for the Cowboys is they are not solely relying on him to complement Ware anymore. Ryan's scheme is expected to spur breakout performances from several other defenders.
So far no one has improved more in camp than third-year backup outside linebacker Victor Butler, who has been a terror in practices and the first preseason game. He has been so good that the Cowboys say they are going to find ways to get him on the field.
He could be with Spencer. It could be in lieu of Spencer if he doesn't finally put it all together.
"Victor Butler's had a very good start to training camp, had a very good game the other night," Garrett said. "He's a guy who's showing up on a more consistent basis. Again, we're looking for guys to do that, and we're looking to somehow find opportunities for them."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.