O.K., so in trying to figure out where the Cowboys are, what's the number one question mark? What's the one position that perennial homer and optimist Tom Ryle doesn't even mention when he writes a front-page story about training camp battles? What's the one unit we didn't draft to improve? What's the position where our free agent pick-ups supplement some overtaxed UFDAs with. . . more overtaxed UFDAs?
No, you don't get a cigar for answering that the O-line will be at the Center of the Cowboys' failure or success this year. Our pass rush isn't going to stink unless Ware is injured. Our run defense is just fine as long as Spencer keeps racking up his TFLs, which we all know are as important as sacks. Er. . . moving on. . . Our secondary, for the first time in years, is actually a strength, and our ILBs are worth salivating over. Murray was the pleasant surprise of the draft, Felix ain't chopped liver, Vickers is a tool in the JG arsenal, and Romo + Witten + Miles + Dez = lots and lots of yardage.
But oh, the O-line. I think it's safe to say that when the bottom drops out, it will be G, C, G that is to blame. (Or, perhaps, an unexpected meltdown from our tackle play--Free's still a question mark and Tron has never played the Left side.) I'm not completely panicking for two reasons. First, JG has consistently managed some pretty good YPA rankings even when he had even less to work with. Second, with a bunch of young, raw guys, we can hardly get worse from one season to the next--can we? But I would have to say that the biggest I Told You So which I expect to see as the season progresses is this: Why didn't we fix the O-line? The biggest pleasant surprise will be if this unit actually performs well.
Here's my question: What counts as success for our O-line? Visions of line-of-scrimmage dominance may be a bit much to ask, as JG seems to rely on speed and scheme while picking smaller, faster guys. Screens and draws, misdirections and scrambles, will still award us our share of dynamic plays. Yet at the end of the game, as we need to wind down the clock--or inside the 10, grinding our way into the endzone--what can we realistically expect from this bunch? What would cause you, however grudgingly, to admit that JG knew best and the O-line held up?
Measuring O-line play is awfully difficult, when you think about it. Yes, Romo is known for being elusive. He's also known for holding onto the ball, progressing through reads, long after the usual play is over. Do we judge the O-line by sack count, or (even better) by sacks that take place inside the first 4 seconds?
Or is it the running game we care about? If so, should sheer yardage make us happy with our O-line? Or are we going to count rushing TDs as the measure of O-line success? Or, perhaps best, we could simply count rushes for 3 yards or less and see how that number compares to other teams--that way an off-to-the-races screen won't outweigh all the times when Felix and Murray have nowhere to go.
Whether we choose our own metrics or go with PFF, how good is good? Will we be happy with an O-line that is in the top 50% of the league? Or do we demand more of the Cowboys, judging our players (and coaches) as failures unless we crack the top 25%--or 10%? Can we be a good, even elite team with a decent but not dominant O-line?
I propose that we make a wager, a bit of a challenge, before the season starts. Take the PFF rating of our O-line, individually and as a unit. Take the number of total sacks AND pressures allowed, but discount those that come after 4 seconds. Take the rushing YPA. Throw those numbers into a blender, and compare them to a) the NFL average, and b) last year. How good do we have to be in order for you to admit that JG knew what he was doing? How bad do we have to be in order for you to admit that the Cowboys were fools not to fix this ailing unit?