Cowboys Young Offensive-Line: Are The Growing Pains Over?

The Cowboys started the 2011 season with three first-time starters along the offensive-line. Two were rookies and one was an undrafted free agent who took the spot of a former Pro Bowl center. While many fans were happy to see the Cowboys changing a long standing philosophy by drafting a first-round rookie lineman, a debate raged over the attempts to rejuvenate the offensive-line with such an extensive overhaul in just one offseason. Yet everyone understood there would be growing pains.

An offensive-line must work as a unit, five individuals blocking in tandem after adjusting to pre-snap reads and recognizing their proper assignments and possible blitz pickups. It's a reason why rookie linemen in the NFL often struggle. They not only face stronger and faster competition using better technique, they also must learn how to recognize schemes which are far more intricately designed and disguised than those of college defenses. It's also the reason that offensive-lines with new starters can also suffer from similar growing pains even without the introduction of rookies.

After 10 weeks and another change along the line, has the Cowboys young offensive-line hit its stride? Taking a closer look...

There appear to be signs that the offensive-line has survived the worst of the growing pains, but it still remains unclear how much credit the Yuglies deserve. One great sign is that Tony Romo has not been sacked the past two games. Of course, the Bills and Seahawks do not have the most dominant pass rushing defenses. Only two teams have fewer sacks than them, though surely getting none versus the Cowboys lowered their rank. Though it should be noted the Bills managed an impressive ten sacks versus the Redskins and the Cowboys were only the second team to keep the Seahawks without a single sack.

Besides the competition, there is another factor that brings to question whether the offensive-line deserves as much credit. In the last two games Tony Romo has had the second and third fewest passing attempts of the season. Fewer times dropping back to pass would obviously mean fewer chances to be sacked. However, considering the amount of time Romo had to throw downfield, the o-line certainly deserves credit for the pass protection. This isn't the passing attack of 2010 that was dominated by two and three-step drops. The Cowboys offense ranks in the Top 5 in the league for passing plays over 20 yards and had several the past two weeks.

Another factor that steals some credit for the improved pass blocking is the Cowboys revitalized rushing attack keeping defenses off balance. Of course, the Catch-22 is the young offensive-line is also a reason for the improved ground game. Right?

In the first five games of the season Dallas managed to rush for 424 yards. In the last four games the rushing total has been 705 yards. Now, this also coincides with the emergence of DeMarco Murray. The dynamic rookie running back has shown great burst, power, and vision as the lead rusher while Felix Jones rehabs from injury. But is the recent success of the Cowboys rushing attack based purely on Murray's talent?

It should not be forgotten that Murray didn't just appear on the team. Though Felix's injury provided Murray a chance to shine as a starter, he also had carries the first five weeks when the team was not rushing well.

Attempts Yards Average
First 5 Games 25 73 2.92
Last 4 Games 75 601 8.01

There is certainly an argument to be made about a rookie getting acclimated and improving as the season progresses as well as a running back benefiting from more opportunities by getting into a rhythm and/or having more chances to bust a run for a long gain. But improving an average from under three yards a carry to over eight yards is rarely accomplished without the aid of an offensive-line blocking better.

In truth, credit for a potent offense can never be given to just one person. Even the best quarterback cannot win a game if the offensive-line can't block and the receivers can't get open. When Tony Romo doesn't get sacked, it's not just because the o-line was dominant. When Murray manages a run for double digit yards, it's rarely a solo act. In fact, when Murray runs for a dozen yards, sometimes it's not just because of his vision and the o-line blocking well; it's also because Romo and the receivers are gashing the secondary. And vice versa.

There is a mystery of Christian faith that every good Greek boy learns. The Holy Trinity is a description of God as the coexistence of three distinct entities. This concept of consubstantiality also exists in football. An offense functions by the unification of three different parts that work in unison: passing, rushing, and blocking. Each one supports the other and together the single entity is stronger. When the line is blocking well the passing attack will be more formidable which in turn will open up running lanes as more defenders drop back into coverage. When a team rushes well, things open up for the passing game as safeties begin to press the box. As the defensive-line begins to worry about recognizing pass or run, the pass rush is slowed and the o-line blocks better.  

Last week's game was a beautiful display of the Cowboys offensive trinity. Against the Bills, the Cowboys started hot and scored a touchdown on the fifth play of the game. After just eight plays, the Cowboys offense had already gained 84 yards through the air as Tony Romo and the passing game were crisp and the Yuglies ruled the line of scrimmage. So when the Cowboys lined up on 2nd & 3 in a three receiver set the Bills defense was so worried about the passing attack that they kept seven in coverage with the closest defender five yards off the line. With the defense doubling down to defend the pass and the ends rushing upfield to crash the pocket, the Cowboys were able to take advantage with a great play call on a delayed draw.

Murrayrun_medium

With the defense reacting to a great passing attack, combined with great blocking and a great effort from the running back, the Cowboys easily gained 13 yards. The Cowboys offensive trinity continued the spectacular display throughout the game and helped Dallas seal it's most dominant victory with a nearly perfect performance by the offense.

And so, does the Cowboys young offensive-line deserve credit for the improved performance of the offense? Yes. Are they helping Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray achieve greater success? Yes. But in turn, Romo's improved play and Murray's inspired running are also improving the performance of the offensive-line. Are the growing pains over? Only time will tell. But the Redskins solid defensive-front will certainly provide a good test on Sunday when the Cowboys travel to Washington to take on a division rival.

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