Nearly half the NFL regular season is in the books. After a start which saw some scary offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys (and some very rough patches for other NFC teams like the Green Bay Packers/Chicago Bears) most offensive lines appear to have settled down and started playing better as units. The Cowboys have been no exception with the pass blocking and penalty problems much improved. But -- with the injuries at running back it's been hard to tell whether injured backs or a unit that simply can't pass block are more to blame for putting the full load on Tony Romo's arm.
At any rate, the Cowboys seemingly have run through all the bizarre ways a mediocre team can lose. Statistically there's also evidence they've faced some of the toughest defenses in the league in the first half of the year and now face among the worst in the 2nd half. That means the Boys have a chance to put together a nice run against a seriously weakened collection of opponents, and to do it when this team has traditionally peaked in 'Romo-vember'. Whether a November and early December string of wins will result in a playoff spot remains to be seen. But Jason Garrett knows how poor this team's record looks since last November. While Red's job is not on the line his ability to get this team to buy into his 'process' and 'accountability' message could be with possible job consequences looming for next year.
The competition for the NFC's last wild card spot behind likely top five finishers San Francisco (West champ), Chicago/Green Bay (North champ and runner up, not necessarily in that order), Atlanta (South) and New York (East) appears to be close. Dallas also must hope to have a better record in conference play than the Cardinals or Vikings who might be in the hunt in late December when the Lions, Buccaneers, Saints, Eagles, Seahawks and Redskins are all likely to be out of it.
In Part One of this series, I looked at the New York Giants 2011-2012 Super Bowl winning line and asked whether a line previously maligned as weak and unable to run the ball could at least improve to become average enough to win a championship. In Part Two I took up football mensa's challenge to examine the case for drafting at least one OL with a top 100 pick EVERY YEAR and looked at the paragons for drafting offensive line in the NFL, perennial AFC contenders New England, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.
Now in Part III we look at this week's opponent, the nearly penalty-free front five of the 'flawless' Atlanta Falcons. In Part IV I plan to wrap up the series with a look at the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers o-lines as 'the best of the rest' among NFC playoff contenders we see later this year.
THE DIRTY BIRDS O-LINE - BEST IN THE NFC?
Based on the passing game production and how few times Matt Ryan has been sacked this year compared to his drop backs, you'd have to rank the Falcons at or near the very top of the conference among offensive lines. True the 49ers line might be stacked with younger and higher draft picks, but the Dirty Birds are certainly leading the way for the most efficient passing attack in the NFC this season (though what the Giants have done with their aging o-line since Game 1 is arguably more impressive from a coaching perspective).
So now we look at where the Falcons starting front 5 (and a few of their backups likely to dress for this game) came from:
LT Sam Baker, 27 6"5 312 USC 1st Round (21st overall) 2008
It all starts on the blind side and Baker is one of the best, coming from a SC program where he was first team all PAC-10 three seasons in a row (2005-2007).
RG Justin Blalock, 28 6"4 329 Texas 2nd Round (39th overall) 2007
Again the Falcons built through the draft here, nabbing one of Mack Brown's best offensive linemen of the 2000s and a Dallas native I would've liked to have seen wearing the Star. However Dallas was a playoff team in 2006 while the Falcons were devastated by the arrest and suspension of Michael Vick and the sudden departure of their head coach, so they were in better position to make this pick.
C Todd McClure, 35 6"1 295 LSU 7th Round (237th overall) 1999
It must be nice being able to have the continuity of the same guy snapping the ball for a franchise over a decade. After McClure was drafted in 1999 he tore his ACL in training camp and missed the entire season (it's interesting to note he was selected after the Dirty Birds Super Bowl appearance season and before two losing seasons prompted former Cowboy Dan Reeves' ouster). But since the ACL injury he's been a picture of durability starting 175 out of 179 games. Hard to find a guy like that in the draft or anywhere, especially near the 'Mr. Irrelevant' pick. It makes you wonder if Dallas missed something with the injury to 2011 7th rounder out of Wisconsin Bill Nagy whom the Lions apparently think can be groomed to play center in the NFL if not any other position. Since having the same guy anchor the center position for a decade seems unlikely, the best you can hope for if you're Dallas front office is probably to make sure you always have good center depth.
RG Garrett Reynolds 25 6"7 317 UNC 5th Round (156th overall) 2009
A mid round gem, but one who took some time to develop (Reynolds has only started 7 out of 17 games he's been active). Reynolds was tall enough to play tackle in college but moved inside in the pros -- not unlike 2011 4th round small school tackle David Arkin. A pick like this demonstrates the wisdom of giving an offensive lineman at least two seasons to marinate, either on the practice squad or inactive roster, before throwing him to the wolves. Let's hope Arkin will be ready to start or at least be a solid Center/Guard backup.
RT Tyson Clabo 31 6"6 331 Wake Forest UDFA
Clabo is the exception along this line that proves the rule. Meaning there's no question the Falcons have built a solid oline through the draft, but they hit on a UDFA who's bounced around the league with four stints and three teams before becoming a Pro Bowler with the Falcons in 2010 at the age of 29.
Notable backups -- Peter Konz 23 6"5 317 Wisconsin 2nd Round (55th overall) 2012
Konz was a player many BTBers coveted in the 2012 draft, but who for some reason was not the player Jerry Jones said the Cowboys would've targeted had they kept their 2nd round pick instead of trading up for cornerback Mo Claiborne (that was Utah's Bobby Wagner, who would've made for a fierce 4-3 look this season before Sean Lee went down). But it's noteworthy here too because the Falcons have drafted McClure's replacement and a backup/replacement for Clabo in Holmes.
Lamar Holmes 23 6"5 323 S. Miss. 3rd Round (91st overall) 2012
There's no question the Falcons have built an offensive line through the draft that is now in its prime and able to contend for titles over the next several seasons, with at least one if not two potential starters already in the fold as backups. In fact I would argue since the Niners Anthony Davis has struggled somewhat and the Falcons have built their line with fewer top 100 picks they've done an even better job of o-line building in Atlanta than in San Francisco. Regardless of the outcome of Sunday Night Football this week, Dallas could learn a thing or two about drafting o-linemen from the Falcons.