Two bits of history and my first positional ranking of the year cross paths this morning, and they tell a potentially chilling tale.
Two years ago, I got a couple of minutes in Oxnard with Tom Ciskowski, who explained that the team's scouts spend their first two weeks, before the NFL pre-season games and before the big college programs start practicing, scouting the Cowboys. Each scout is assigned an area of the team to grade and all turn in reports before hitting the road.
With the San Antonio portion of camp done, and with the Hall of Fame Game in the books, I reviewed both the game and my camp notes and prepared my own preliminary offensive line rankings. They suggest that the team has not found a suitable replacement for the seemingly replaceable Cory Proctor. This should trouble Cowboys fans who can recall his play, and Rob Petitti's and Torrin Tucker's, and who may have forgotten these key bits of offense line trivia:
November 1993 -- The Cowboys are closing out a 37-20 rout of the Vikings when Pro Bowl center Mark Stepnoski tears a knee ligament. Dallas is 10-4 but has a major hole in the middle of its offensive line. The Cowboys initially try backup Frank Cornish, before moving RG John Gesek into the pivot, replacing him with backup guard Kevin Gogan. Gogan's muscle keeps the power running going -- Dallas averages 30 points in Gesek's five starts and the team wins out.
November 1995 -- Dallas hammers a very good Chiefs team on Thanksgiving Day to reach 10-2, but Pro Bowl center Ray Donaldson's season-ending ankle dislocation tempers the holiday cheer. Backup Derek Kennard replaces Donaldson and the team's running game sags, before it makes a playoff push. The hefty Kennard can't match Donaldson's standard, but he gives Dallas decent, consistent center play.
Two championship runs which each overcame a Pro Bowl center lost to major injury.
Could the Cowboys overcome a similar injury to incumbent Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode? Pore over my rankings and draw your own conclusions:
1. Doug Free, LT -- He's been nearly flawless in camp and in the game. Working against Demarcus Ware every day will hone your skills. He's not getting the recognition right now, but if Free maintains his level of play, he'll get his credit before the season ends.
2. Kyle Kosier, LG -- He's not flashy. He's not a masher. He's won't dazzle you with his pulling speed. He's Steady Eddie, which moves him ahead of some more talented but more whiff-prone teammates.
3. Andre Gurode, C -- When he's on, he's on. He can move big nose tackles and he can pass block effectively most of the time. He'll miss linebackers getting out in space and quick interior rushers can beat him from time to time. Even with his flaws, he's still one of the NFC's better centers.
4. Marc Colombo, RT -- He's mean, he's tough and his surprisingly agile for a guy who suffered a severe knee injury which almost ended his career while a Chicago Bear. He's very effective pulling on toss plays. Plays hurt, and until last January, played well hurt. People rip Colombo for his meltdown in Minnesota, but I recall Colombo shutting down guys like Julius Peppers and Michael Strahan in 2008, while playing on a sprained ankle.
5. Leonard Davis, RG -- Bigg can still maul people on runs. He also gets beaten more than his line mates. Davis lacks great feet and speedy rushers and linebacker twists give him fits. Colombo took most of the blame in the Vikings loss, but a few of Ray Edwards' sacks came on twists inside, where he beat Davis. Bigg looks good right now, but September and October have not been problems; he has faded in December and has lost some weight this off-season to help his stamina.
6. Alex Barron -- Was beaten by an Jonathan Fanene speed rush to the edge, but played fairly well the rest of the time. He can play right tackle as well, though he played all his San Antonio downs on the left side. Seems to have kicked Flozell Adams disease, at least for the time being; I only counted one offsides penalty against Barron in the Alamodome.
7. Robert Brewster -- He's girthy. He's very girthy. He plays right tackle and he wears number 79. He looks like Sherman Plunkett, a bad-body right tackle who was one of the Jets' "mother hens" for Joe Namath in the '60s. He's not pretty, and he needs a lot of work, but Brewster played both OT spots Sunday night and didn't get his QB killed. (He did blow one assignment on the left side which let Frostee Rucker drill Stephen McGee.) He looks much better on the right side, and may settle in there, but he's going to need lots of reps and improvement before Colombo feels any heat. If Colombo got hurt, I'd expect the team to plug Barron into his spot.
8. Mike Tepper -- for a half, this guy looked steady. He got a big push on some running plays. He threw a Bengals tackle with a strong two-hand punch. He hit people pulling. He's got a chance to stick, with Pat McQuistan struggling at right guard and with Montrae Holland out with a hamstring injury.
Tepper got sloppy in the second half, however, and got pushed around a bit by Bengals rookie DT Geno Atkins. He's another kid who could be decent with more work, but you wouldn't want to start him if Kosier or Davis got hurt.
9. Travis Bright -- really struggled with interior quickness against the Bengals. He shows some straight line power, but also got pushed back quite a bit. Slanting DTs made Bright look like he had smeared Crisco on his jersey -- they just slid past him to the quarterback.
Incomplete -- Montrae Holland. He's got a hamstring injury, and has missed a lot of time with various leg ailments. He's got a Brewster-esque body, so you wonder how quickly he can rehab that hammy?
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Stay healthy Andre. You too, Kyle and Leonard. The cupboard looks pretty meager behind you. I feel pretty good about the first six spots on this list, but would feel a lot better if Brewster and Tepper were 9 and 10.
This team could, at minimum, benefit from a solid center to slot in at 7. Having another guard to slide into the 8 spot wouldn't hurt either.
Dallas won two Super Bowls in the '90s because line depth kept the offense on track when it hit some injury potholes. If would be a shame if a lack of similar OL depth derailed this team's championship ambitions.