ARLINGTON (AP) – Victor Butler was easy to spot in the Dallas Cowboys’ preseason opener. Wherever Tim Tebow went, Butler followed.
Butler wasn’t a “spy” assigned to stalk Tebow. It just seemed that way, a strong indication the third-year outside linebacker is ready to break free from his role as understudy to DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
It’s also further proof why many feel Butler could be the Cowboys player who benefits most from the arrival of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive scheme.
“Oh, yeah,” Butler said, smiling wide. “When you’ve got a guy who’s taken the leash off you, letting the dogs hunt, it feels good. There’s no restrictions. There’s no cage. There’s no box — go hunt, go eat, whoever’s got the ball, kill ’em. I love it.”
The Cowboys have loved Butler’s potential since drafting him in the fourth round in 2009. Coach Wade Phillips struggled to get him onto the field because that usually meant taking out Ware or Spencer.
When Butler did play, he usually made an impact.
As a rookie, he helped seal Dallas’ first win at Cowboys Stadium by sacking Carolina’s Jake Delhomme twice and forcing a fumble late in a Monday night game. Last season, against Jacksonville, Butler made the most of his only snap, sacking David Garrard. He has five sacks over his first two seasons, with 32 solo tackles in 31 games.
Whatever hang-ups kept Butler off the field for Phillips and his staff have been wiped away by Ryan and incoming linebackers coach Matt Eberflus.
And, of course, there’s that system they are implementing.
“It’s designed to put players in position to make big plays,” Butler said. “Now, as a player, when you’re in the position, you’ve just got to make the big play.”
Butler has been doing that since the start of training camp. His blue No. 57 jersey has constantly been seen in the middle of the action during practices at the Alamodome.
Part of it also could be his maturation as a pro. After two full seasons, he understands how to handle the offseason, how to practice and the other nuances that can only be developed through time. Most coaches believe the third season is a make-or-break year for guys to show whether they’ll be able to put it all together, and it appears Butler has figured it out.
“I don’t want to say he’s one of the more veteran players on the team, but there are a lot more younger guys around, so all of a sudden he feels a little bit more established,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Maybe (he) takes a little responsibility with that and hopefully continues to grow.”
Butler describes it as his focus and accountability going way up.
“I mean, you know what you’ve got to do; you know how to do it now,” he said. “So now it’s just a matter of coming out and doing it the right way.”
Against Denver, Butler had five tackles and a tackle for a loss. Then there was the one that got away.
He had a clean shot at sacking Tebow, but Butler tried hitting him too high and wound up rolling over the quarterback. He still slowed Tebow enough for lineman Clifton Geathers to bring him down for the sack.
“Everyone wants a Tebow sack — it’s like getting an Xbox for Christmas,” Butler said, showing the kind of way with words that could enhance his popularity with fans.
Fans also might like the rest of his description about that play.
“You’ve got to know with a guy like that, the Ben Roethlisbergers and the Donovan McNabbs, you want to hit him in the body,” Butler said. “That was a mistake I made. It was a rookie mistake and I’m not a rookie. That’s something I’ll fix for the next game.”
The new coaches may already be helping by putting Butler into more situations where he can succeed. At the risk of reading too much into a single play of the preseason opener, and in the lone series featuring the first-team defense, Butler found himself on the field with Ware and Spencer.
Perhaps it’s a wrinkle that will be fully explored. Or maybe it was just a reward for his hard work thus far. Regardless, chalk it up as another example of why Butler is among the many who describe Ryan’s approach as “player-friendly.”
“When you’ve got a guy who believes in you like your mother believes in you, you want to go out there and make plays,” Butler said. “Everybody makes mistakes at one point in time and you’ve got a defensive coordinator who’s not going to go over there and chew you out. He’s going to say, ‘Hey, this is what you did. This is how you need to fix it. Get in there and don’t let it happen again.”‘
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press)