OXNARD, Calif. -- For Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, the learning curve is over. The cavalry has arrived, in terms of better cover cornerbacks who can benefit pass rushers in the second season of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's pressure scheme.
Now, it is up to Spencer -- who signed an $8.8 million franchise tag in the spring -- to post the type of numbers that will convince the Cowboys to make him a long-term member of the team beyond the 2012 season.
Spencer, the team's first-round pick in 2007, considers himself more than capable because of his increased comfort level in Ryan's scheme, which the Cowboys tried to learn without benefit of off-season workouts last season because of an NFL lockout.
"It's like learning chemistry. You learn it in steps and you can't move past this step without learning the one that comes before it," Spencer said. "We're on a good pace now ...Last year, it felt like everything was shoved in my face in a big mess."
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Spencer, 28, knows he must register more than six sacks -- his total last season -- as the primary pass rusher opposite Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware (19.5 sacks last season) to warrant more time in Dallas.
"This is a 'what have you done for me lately' league. If I'm not doing my job, I don't expect to have a big contract," said Spencer, who cannot re-sign with Dallas until after the season because of the franchise tag. "Right now, we're doing things to try to make that happen. I'm going to do my job to the utmost. And try not to worry about anything else."
That includes a hamstring ailment, the first of Spencer's career, that kept him out of Saturday's workout and will keep him off the field during today's Blue-White scrimmage. Coach Jason Garrett said Spencer is expected to return next week.
With personnel and scheme tweaks in place for 2012, Cowboys coaches and officials envision Spencer bringing more sacks to the table this season to accompany last year's otherwise solid numbers: 74 tackles, 31 quarterback pressures, eight tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
Garrett said he is not convinced players push themselves any harder in contract years than other years. But if that motivates Spencer, so be it.
Garrett said Spencer ranks among "the top five in the league at his position" when you factor in his overall game. But he acknowledged the sack total needs to rise. So did Stephen Jones, the Cowboys' director of player personnel, who cited a "big gap" between the parties in terms of financial expectations in regard to a long-term deal. Hence, the franchise tag and plans to revisit the issue after the season.
"We think he had a good year last year," Jones said. "But he's more on the DeMarcus side of the money. We're more on the other side. There's a big gap. ...Hopefully, he's right. I'd like for him to go get 16 sacks and have a big year."
In his first five NFL seasons, Spencer never has had more than six sacks in a regular season. In 2009, he had eight, counting the playoffs.
But Ryan agreed with Spencer's assessment that pass rushers should show marked improvement this season with greater comfort in the scheme and the addition of cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, the two projected starters.
"If you don't have a pressure corner, then it takes half your playbook away," Ryan said. "We finally have the corners to make this defense go. There is a lot of stuff that goes with that."
Part of that includes more blitz opportunities and fewer coverage assignments for guys such as Spencer. Ryan envisions a double-digit sack season for him.
"I know everybody wants him in double digits. And I hope he does it just to get people off his back because he's a damn good football player," Ryan said. "Anthony is an unsung hero out there. He's kind of that underappreciated, eighth-inning reliever that does all the great work and then gets no love for it. He's [Rangers reliever] Mike Adams."
Typically, Rangers saves go to closer Joe Nathan like most of the Cowboys' sacks go to Ware. Ryan said fresh wrinkles, as well as better corners, should help Spencer better equalize the distribution this season.
"We're expecting him to do that and I know he'll do that," Ryan said.
Spencer understands he needs to make the most of his opportunity. The first step involves rebounding from his hamstring ailment. Spencer said he was "not at all" worried about long-term ramifications.
"But I've never had anything like this before. So we'll see," he said.
Although he will be in a make-or-break season in regard to a long-term contract, Spencer said he does not carry those thoughts to the field.
"I don't think about my contract at all," Spencer said. "I'm just going to keep doing the things I've been doing and try to get better in the pass rush when I get my opportunities. With the moves we've made, it's going to be hard for us not to be a good defense."
For Spencer to remain a part of that unit after this season, he'll need to boost his sack total.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760