This is not where you want your linemen to be. - Wesley Hitt
The Cowboys managed to beat the Browns in overtime, but once again the team came out of a game with more questions than answers. And the biggest problems, just as they have all year, concern the battered offensive line.
The Dallas Cowboys got back to .500 and still keep some hope alive of reaching the playoffs. But in defeating the Cleveland Browns, they may have lost their best player on the offensive line, Tyrone Smith, for an undetermined number of games.
This leaves the Cowboys facing the prospect of going into at least the Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins with a lineup of Jermey Parnell, Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Derrick Dockery and Doug Free. The players behind whom the Dallas runnning backs could only manage 63 yards on the ground. The protection who gave up seven sacks and ten hits on Tony Romo.
With the opponents the Cowboys face over the final six weeks, they do have a chance to sneak into the postseason. It is highly doubtful, however, that they can do so without some serious improvement in the line play. Even if Phil Costa or Ryan Cook comes back at center, which is still considered a possibility, and if Smith is not out for a significant time, this is still a troubled and ineffective unit.
Dallas has to make fixing the offensive line a priority once the season plays itself out. Unfortunately, they also have a few other needs, like safety, and depth at virtually every skill position, and the looming question of whether they need a replacement for Anthony Spencer.
The NFL is a win now or else league. If a team does not find immediate success, the coach's job is in jeopardy. In only his second full season as head coach, Jason Garrett is seeing a frenzy of rumors about Jerry Jones bringing in a replacement for him. After a wave of speculation about Sean Payton earlier this season, the media is now all agog about Jones having a few private moments with Mike Holmgren.
But an offensive line is not an easy thing to fix overnight, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the attempt to set things right in 2012 are pretty much not working out. Free agents Livings and Bernadeau have had their struggles, but the real issue on the line, outside the loss of Smith, is right tackle Doug Free. He had several bad plays again in the Browns game, and this is just a continuation of a trend going back to the 2011 season. Dallas may have to make a hard decision. Free represents a large (around $8 million) cap hit next year, but he could get Tony Romo killed out there. At some point, you have to face up to when something fails, or live with the consequences of not addressing the problem.
With one more year to go on the John Mara orchestrated cap penalty, Dallas has even more limitations in dealing with these issues than most franchises. The draft can only help so much, and as this year has clearly proven, drafting talent in no way assures that said talent will ever be able to contribute. At least a part of the problems the Cowboys are facing on the offensive line is due to the seemingly endless series of injuries that kept the planned starters form working together.
It is possible that the current starters may develop into a functional unit after another offseason of work. It is also possible that they will never be any more than they are now, or even regress. I am fairly certain this will not get fixed in 2012, and I am not at all hopeful it will be improved enough in 2013. But this is the most important problem for the team.
Cleveland showed how a solid line makes the skill players look better. Imaging what Romo could have done if he had gotten over 100 yards from the running game and only been sacked a couple of times? Most importantly, what if he had only been really pressured a half dozen times or so, the way Brandon Weeden was? With the apparent maturation of Dez Bryant, who had a career best day and was a key element in the win, Romo now has three reliable targets, and there are some hints of players like Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and James Hanna being ready to step up.
But even the elusive Romo has to have protection and some help from the ground game, which he is not getting. And the real problem is not the receivers or having the best running back out with injury. It is the erratic and often woeful play of his line.
I would love to give you a sweeping and arrogantly confident answer to this problem, but I will freely admit that I do not have one. As I said, I think it is going to take two more years, at least, to really get this straight, and that may be too much time as far as Jason Garrett's future is concerned. If he is replaced by Jerry Jones, at least in part because of the failure of the line to do its job, I hope everyone remembers just who gave Free his large contract. Of course, indications are that Jerry is pretty happy with Free and his linemates right now.
The Cowboys may be able to pull it together enough to sneak into the playoffs, but that will be despite the offensive line, I think, not because of it. And this has to be addressed if Dallas is to face anything other than continued mediocrity in the near future.