Cowboys Offensive Line: No More Jekyll and Hyde?

If football is war, then the vanguards are the offensive and defensive lines, the battle in the trenches. While the Big Uglies and Big Nasties do not often get the recognition for controlling the flow of a game and forcing coaches to adjust their strategies, their failures will result in highlight reels and lopsided victories. For years, the Cowboys have relied on their veteran offensive linemen to provide Tony Romo and Co. the time and lanes to execute Jason Garrett's potent offensive strategy...but time has been catching up on them.

The offensive line in 2010 seemed unbalanced in a few ways. The efficiency of each player fluctuated dramatically week to week, game to game, and relying on veteran players brought with it more than just injury concerns. Suddenly, mental errors, questionable motivation, and some senior moments made the line inconsistent, but the unbalance went further. The Cowboys rushing attack (left/right) was also unbalanced. Three 2011 draft picks and three undrafted free agent additions to the offensive line is a certain sign that Garrett is paying closer attention. Assigning offensive line coach Hudson Houck the running game coordinator duties is also an important sign. Garrett is clearly putting a plan in place.

The recent release of Leonard Davis is a testament to overpaid, under-performing athletes having no place with the Dallas Cowboys while Jason Garrett is the head coach. Meanwhile, Kyle Kosier and Marc Colombo could be returning, and reports about Robert Brewster's release have been noted. If we take a closer look at the players, we may find that the bad contracts and the need to create cap space are not the only reasons for their release, and may highlight another potential big name release.

It was clear in 2010 that the offensive line was struggling to create a running game. This too deserves closer inspection as the break downs lead to some interesting results.

As per NFL.com

LEFT CENTER RIGHT
  Neg. Yards 10+ Yards Power Runs Neg. Yards 10+ Yards Power Runs Neg. Yards 10+ Yards PWR runs
2010 10 19 57% 10 18 59% 10 12 44%
Rank 5th 18th 19th 19th 4th 23rd 7th 27th 25th

 

Negative yards - Rushes for negative yards.10+ Yards - Rushes for 10 or more yards. Power Runs - Percentage of 1st downs or TDs achieved by rushes on 3rd or 4th down (and 1st and 2nd-and-goal from 2 yards out or less) with two or less yards to go.

The Cowboys had much greater success running behind the left side of the o-line. They had over 30% more 10+ yard runs to the left and also had 13% better conversion rate on power runs for 1st downs.  This should raise some eyebrows. However, across different categories and including runs to center (which is tough to interpret since either guard could have been a focal point in the play) there are some interesting anomalies. While up the middle the Cowboys were one of the most successful teams gaining 10+ yard runs (who says Felix can't run between the tackles?) they also had as much trouble during power runs as they did to the right. What is really odd is that the Cowboys have more "mauler-type" linemen on the center-right side of the line...shouldn't they be successful running there?

It makes me wonder if the problem isn't the maulers' ability to drive block, but that there style of blocking and loss of burst with age don't match Garrett's running game. It seems Garrett is already aware of this problem, as he said:

 "You want a physical team. You want guys who play with emotion, passion and enthusiasm and it shows up in their play. When you have offensive linemen who can set the tone for your football team, that's a good thing and a lot of that is how they come off the ball, how they get into their guy and then how they finish the play.

"You don't want guys who block their guys initially and then watch the action. That's not what you want. You want those guys to set the tone for the play and for your football team and finishing has a lot to do with that. That is an emotional thing but it's also an athletic thing. You need to be athletic enough to finish plays and we feel like these guys are that when you watch them on tape."

We don't have as much tape as Garrett to see what he is talking about, but some measurables could prove just as enlightening. The right side of the offensive line with Colombo, Bigg, and Gurode at center, resemble the linemen of the "mauler-type" linemen that the 90's Cowboys relied on for the power running game led by Emmitt Smith. Yet Mr. Bigg and the powerful Colombo did not provide the type of running lanes that the more mobile Free and Kosier managed on the left side.  The first thing that comes to mind - you can't fit a square peg in a round whole. Clearly Garrett's run game is not based as much on power running as it is on opening lanes with pulling linemen to let the running back find a hole and burst up field, relying on one gap runners like Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray. It seems the less "mobile" linemen aren't providing the execution in the running game Garrett is trying to implement.

Height/Weight Bench Reps Broad Jump 20 Shuttle 3 Cone
The Old Guard
Leonard Davis 6'06" / 370 33 8'09" 5.18 8.20
Montrae Holland* 6'02" / 330+ 30 NA 5.13 8.46
Andre Gurode 6'05" / 315 NA 8'04" 5.05 8.15
Marc Colombo 6'08" / 310+ 30 8'05" 4.60 7.65
Kyle Kosier 6'05" / 300 24 9'00" 4.49 7.34
The Middle Men
Sam Young 6'08" / 315+ 29 8'08"-9'01" 4.87 7.73
Travis Bright 6'04" / 320 34 9'00" 4.72 7.75
Robert Brewster 6'04" / 325 23 8'02" 4.75 7.68
The New Blood
Doug Free* 6'6" / 325 22 9'03" 4.53 7.38
Tyron Smith 6'05" / 310+ 29/31 9'01" 4.68 7.65
David Arkin 6'05" / 300 25 8'07" 4.63 7.60
Phil Costa 6'03" / 310 30 9'04" 4.65 7.66
Bill Nagy 6'03" / 300+ 26 9'02 4.47 7.36
UDFA
Laupepa Letuli - OG/OT 6'04" / 310+ 35 8'09" 4.6 7.7
Kevin Kowalski - C 6'03" / 300 NA 8'04" 4.56 7.15
Jose Acuna - OG/OT 6' 06" 310 20 7'05" 5.4 8.53

This table could prove to be predictive in the futures of Cowboys offensive linemen. Clearly one of the least mobile linemen is no longer a Cowboy. What is interesting is that the front runner to replace him (Holland) may be a surprise cut before the season starts if a younger player like Arkin has an impressive camp. And when you consider Gurode's measurables, it makes you wonder how much longer they'll stick with him.  Garrett's offense requires guys that fire off the line and can get to the 2nd level and execute downfield/openfield blocks. Looking at the table makes the new trend of mobile linemen more than mere coincidence.

In fact, looking at "the middle men" - guys drafted while Garrett was only the offensive coordinator but haven't seen any reps - it makes one wonder if Garrett had as much say over the o-line prospects drafted before he became head coach. While they do seem more mobile than the "old guard" they aren't quite at the level of Garrett's guys. And while their measurables have surely declined, it is also interesting that Colombo and Kosier are two names of the "old guard" that may remain with the team.

It is too early to tell and we don't know who will be (re-)signed or released, but depending on how camp competition goes, there could be a lot of new faces on the Cowboys 2011 offensive line; guys that not only finish plays and approach the game with emotion, but the right kind of guys for Garrett's running scheme. The fact that Garrett made Houck the running game coordinator may be a sign that Garrett wants the o-line coach and the linemen on the same page with his running plans, something he might have missed as an offensive coordinator. It seems the veteran linemen can no longer keep up with Garrett's running style and he is creating an offensive line that should excel at it.

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