"Lemme, lemme, lemme upgrade..."
I'm not talking about HD cable. I'm talking about the Dallas Cowboys offensive line. We all know the standard story: Dallas has a talented starting five but never recovered when LG Kyle Kosier went down in the Rams pre-season game. Backups Cory Proctor and Broncos recruit Montrae Holland were unable to fill the hole.
That narrative contains a grain of truth. Dallas was much, much better when Kosier gave the team his seven quarters of play. The slow '08 meltdown, a contrast to the complete collapse in '05, nonetheless marks the second time in the last four years that Dallas has been caught short on the offensive line. And it again shines the light on the team's greatest shortcoming of the post-Jimmy Johnson era, one that neither Jerry Jones nor Bill Parcells have been able to correct.
If the team hopes to improve, this story must be re-written.
Offensive line has been the black hole for several Dallas personnel departments, going back to the late '90s. The team has drafted 21 offensive linemen since Larry Allen was selected in the '94 draft's 2nd round. Only three of those can be rated as hits, players who started multiple years and played at a solid level. Two of them, Flozell Adams and Andre Gurode, anchor the current Dallas line. The third, Oliver Ross, had three decent seasons for the Steelers in the mid-'00s.
The remainder are a testament to the worst of Jerry 1.0 and of the Parcells days: George Hegamin, Shane Hannah, Cha'Ron Dorsey, Clay Shiver, Steve Scifres, Tyson Walter, Kelvin Garmon, Solomon Page, Al Johnson, Justin Bates, Rob Petitti, Jacob Rogers, James Marten, etc., etc. If Doug Free fails to emerge, Parcells and his protege Jeff Ireland will have a perfect, in the worst sense, 0-for-9 draft record with offensive linemen.
The price tags on free agent linemen have blown up in recent years, as the demand for quality linemen has far outpaced supply. When a team finds just two O-line starters in fourteen years, it puts itself as the mercy of the market. Such are the Cowboys, who have signed Marco Rivera, Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis to huge deals in recent years, because they could not develop their own young linemen.
Some of these players have earned post season honors. Three current Cowboys, Adams, Gurode and Davis, were tapped to the '07 Pro Bowl team. But are the Cowboys getting the maximum return on their massive investment? I don't think so.
Let's compare the performances of Cowboys line and their rivals in New York the past four years, in rushing rank and in sacks-allowed rankings:
|Year||N.Y. Rush||Dal. Rush
||N.Y. Sacks||Dal. Sacks|
Both of these clubs have their offensive linemen signed to long-term deals, but New York is getting more bang for its buck. The Cowboys line has never ranked higher than 13th in rushing yards. By contrast, New York has never ranked lower than 7th is the top rated rushing attack this year.
There's no comparison in pass protection. Despite the fact that Dallas has the mobile Tony Romo and New York has the less mobile Eli Manning under center, the Giants have ranked better than Dallas every year save one.
The problems, as all fans know, go beyond run blocks and blitz pick ups. The Cowboys linemen, regardless of whether Tony Sparano or Hudson Houck coach them, are annually among the least disciplined lines in the game. An ESPN breakdown of o-line performance from 2004 through mid-season 2007 found that Dallas was one of the five most penalized lines in that span. The Cowboys' line committed 147 penalties, an eye-popping 42 per season, or 2.6 per game.
Dallas appeared to have compounded its penalty problem when it signed Leonard Davis in '07. Davis ranked 3rd in penalties in that span, and drew flags at an even higher rate than Flozell Adams, who was the 7th most penalized player. Add Marc Colombo's penchant for false starts and Andre Gurode's difficulties with shot gun snaps and snap counts and the Cowboys have four linemen with efficiency issues.
The Cowboys minimized Davis' shortcomings by moving him to guard. He's still taking a lot of penalties, but has cut his penalty rate by half, because he's no longer playing unaided at left tackle, as he did his last years in Arizona.
This year, the o-line had a relatively light penalty year -- by their low standards:
|LG - Proctor/Kosier||4|
|C - Gurode||3|
|RG - Davis||6|
|RT -- Colombo||7|
That's an average of 2.1 penalties per game. If this Cowboys line run-blocked on par with the '90s lines, who ranked in the top five every year from '92 through '95, or offered Romo air-tight blocking in exchange for their brain freezes, this might be tolerable. They do neither, however. The miscues compound the team's overall problems and undermine the skills each big ticket player brings to the game. The veterans are talented, but they make too many mental mistakes, and take too many plays off.
Romo's interception ratios and his bad decision percentages were about the same as his '07 numbers. His fumble totals rose considerably this year. Most of this is Romo's fault. Some blame, though, goes to the line. Look at the relationship between sacks allowed and turnovers by the Cowboys QBs the last four seasons:
|Year||Sacks Allowed||QB Fumbles/Lost|
As the sacks allowed dropped by half from '05 to '07, the QBs turnovers fell to almost nothing. The protection broke down way too often this year, and the turnovers shot back up.
"If I were in Baltimore I might call Dallas and see if I could acquire one of its young offensive tackles. I would prefer 2007 fourth-round pick Doug Free, but doubt the Cowboys would trade him. Dallas is one of the few teams that has five very good offensive tackles."
-- Michael Lombardi, Frankly Football, CNNSI.com, August 1, 2008
If only Lombardi's statement was true. The tackles he referred to were the starters Adams and Colombo, and backups Free, Pat McQuistan and James Marten. Marten was cut in September . McQuistan likely will be gone before the '09 season begins. The team waffled on subbing him for Proctor at mid-season, even though the UFA from Montana was again having trouble with bull rushers. Dallas also passed on using McQuistan at left tackle when Adams was suffering with a neck stinger that sapped the energy in one shoulder and a severely swollen finger.
The Cowboys, like many other teams, have a maxim that they do not draft players to be backups. They're willing to be patient with linemen, but they expect some productivity by year three. Proctor just finished his fourth pro season. McQuistan ended his third. The team has likely reached its limit with both.
Because of his team's inability to draft offensive linemen, Jerry Jones has had to pay blue-chip money to a red-chip line. Given the dearth of prospects, what choice has he had? The team has made offensive line Priority A, B and C this draft season, and we should all hope the scouts have as much success there as they did with running backs and cornerbacks last April.
This year's draft crop is especially rich in center prospects and I would not be surprised to see the Cowboys take one in with Cleveland's pick in the early 3rd.
"But they're going to be backups, with so many big salaries on the o-line," you say. So? Free aside, the team knows it does not have a backup who can press any of the starters for his job. And Free did not take to Hudson Houck's coaching this year. He was inactive for thirteen of the Cowboys' games and did not play a down that counted this year. Montrae Holland is a decent backup, and little more. He ate his way out of a starting job in Denver. How confident are you that he won't show up in San Antonio next July at 400 lbs?
Dallas needs replacements for McQuistan and Proctor, so why not get good ones? The team probably saw its line's peak play in '07, when the starters were healthy. Dallas can't afford to go another season hoping the starting five all another sixteen games injury-free. A Ron Stone-caliber OG or OT (or preferably, both) would help the coaches sleep better at night. They would make a vet or two sweat for his job security. Pressure can focus the mind, and these guys need all the pressure they can get.
Dallas found out the hard way that it didn't have five good offensive tackles. What's worse, it found out it didn't have five good offensive linemen, period. That's one big reason the Cowboys won't be playing playoff football this weekend.
You know the remedy, and I know the remedy.
Sing it, Beyonce!
Lineman of the Year: Marc Colombo was the most consistent lineman. He handled the big rushers on his side and run blocked more consistently than any of his peers. The toss right to Marion Barber was Dallas' best run play, in week one and in week seventeen.
Disappointment of the Year: Leonard Davis. Sure, Flozell Adams had more penalties, but he toughed out some serious injuries. Davis had no excuses for his miscues this year. He's the most dominant Cowboys lineman when he's on, but he's the most frustrating when he's off. His Baltimore game was the worst by a big-name Cowboys player this year. I ran out of fingers to count his missed blocks and blown pass assignments that night.