The greatest unknown about the Cowboys 2012 offense is (of course, as usual) the offensive-line. With the last of the over-the-hill veterans jettisoned, the Cowboys must now rely on a couple of free agent acquisitions and the Yuglies from last season to continue to improve...but let's not forget the interesting untested competition also added to the roster.
As I began to yell with glee back in August of 2011, with the Audacity to Hope for a rejuvenated and blossoming young offensive-line, I once again find myself excited about the prospects of this unit growing into their own as they prepare for the 2012 season. First, the much awaited Mike Woicik strength and conditioning program will have some time to yield results. While he surely came in and immediately changed some habits, Woicik will now have a full offseason to instill even greater long-term benefits to the entire roster. As a positional group, the Yuglies seem primed to be the nexus for these benefits of a rejuvenated, youthful, hungry, and well-trained Cowboys team.
Doug Free and Nate Livings represent the oldest of the group and are still at the peak of their careers. The rest rarely surpass their mid-twenties, and a promising and possibly franchise left tackle seems driven and on track. A huge reason young linemen struggle in the NFL is because of the strength and conditioning demands required at this level of competition. Defenses are much stronger and faster than their college counterparts, and linemen need to be stronger to endure the much more savage and demanding NFL trenches. Mike Woicik could be the greatest thing to happen to the careers of the Yuglies - a statement I feel many NFL players with Super Bowl rings and formerly coached by Woicik could attest too.
I am also excited to have Bill Callahan begin to instill his own approach at teaching technique and designing blocking schemes. But at the heart of my excitement always stands the youth of this offensive-line. It seems nearly impossible that good coaching combined with hard working players would do anything but make this line improve every day, and from one season to the next. I see excellent coaching motivators and tons of potential talent along the roster, things needed to (eventually) create a dominating offensive-line. In 2011, a young offensive-line with three new starters had their ups and downs. Some fans remember only the downs. Others remember the ups of the Yuglies, a line that fought hard every day, managing clean pockets for Tony Romo to scan deep and helped revive the Cowboys running game. Now, this has been a topic of debate, so let's take a closer look.
More after the jump...
Were the Yuglies Better than the Old Line of 2010?
In 2010, the Cowboys rushed for 1,786 yards with a 4.2 yard average. In 2011, the Cowboys rushed for 1,807 yards with a 4.4 yard average. A simple glance at team statistics shows very little improvement. However, many fans remember a better rushing attack in 2011. What's the deal? Well, in 2010, Miles Austin, Tony Romo, and Jon Kitna actually ran 44 times for 278 yards. In 2011, those players combined for only 27 rushes and 47 yards. Just on the surface, it would appear a lack of a running game (not to mention breakdowns in pass protection) forced Garrett to rely on reverses to Miles and quarterback scrambles for rushing yards. Without Cam Newton as your quarterback, those quarterback scrambles reveal missed opportunities, not an offensive strategy working successfully. If the season totals are adjusted after removing the rushing attempts of these three players, the totals show a different story.
2010: 384 rushing attempts for 1,508 yards - 3.9 yard average
2011: 381 rushing attempts for 1,760 yards - 4.6 yard average
Not only did the Dallas quarterbacks have to scramble less, the team also dramatically increased the success of the rushing attempts made by the running backs.
This same context is required when comparing the statistics for the Yuglies pass protection. In 2010 the o-line allowed 31 sacks but in 2011 allowed 39 sacks. But the 50% difference in QB rushes (37 vs 25) must be considered. Also, memory will show that in 2010 Garrett was compensating for his old o-line and had his passing game rely on far more quick-step drops, also helping Jon Kitna who had to take over for the injured Tony Romo. In 2011, the Cowboys passing attack again included deep routes and required more time from the blockers to help let plays develop. This is one reason why the team improved their passer ratings (2010 - 90.4, 2011 - 100.1) and improved their average passing from 7.3 to 7.8 yards. The team also had more pass plays for 20+ and 40+ yard gains in 2011.
The improvement of the o-line from 2010 to the Yuglies in 2011 may not be remembered and/or may not be considered significant, but I expect them to continue to improve this season and help the Cowboys offense become more efficient. Especially since it won't only be the 2011 players improving on last year's performances, there is even more young talent that has joined the roster.
All stats from NFL.com
Who Will Lead the 2012 Yuglies?
I think the starting lineup for the Cowboys o-line will be based purely on competition at camp and gameday readiness, with contracts and age having virtually no influence. That alone, the 2012 certainty of a team made up of the hardest working, not the highest paid, is exciting. How many Yuglies will be on the 53-man roster, however, will also depend on the depth at other positions and the versatility of the offensive-linemen.
OCC has a great post about the offensive-line and included some quotes from o-line coach Bill Callahan.
The one that sticks with me...
"The good thing about Bill [Nagy] is that he's very versatile, having played both guard spots a year ago, " Callahan said, "He's trying to improve his craft this season at that position as well as learning all the new center calls and techniques, so what we're doing is basically cross-training all those players."
As for the starting line-up, I think it's safe to assume Tyron Smith will win out at left tackle and Doug Free will again excel on the right side.
The rest of my predictions:
The grumbling will continue in 2012 as nay-sayers are shocked that Phil Costa again wins out as the starting center. Mackenzy Bernadeau will win the starting job as guard, and Bill Nagy will come back as the other starting guard after beating out the rest of the competition. The Yuglies will prove more an asset than a detriment this season.
You will also note that each of these guys can play every position along the interior of the line.
While I'm pleased with the depth of young linemen on the current roster, it does make things interesting (and difficult) for the 53-man roster. I believe the Cowboys may try to keep ten linemen this year, primarily because they will fear losing rookie Ron Leary if they attempt to send him to the practice squad. But if the depth at other positions forces them to keep only nine on the 53-man roster, it will likely mean that another team will win the services of guys like Kevin Kowalski, David Arkin, or Leary.
I think the primary backups at guard will end up being Nate Livings and David Arkin. Livings provides experience and Arkin provides upside and versatility (has experience as a tackle in college if things go bad). As a result, the Cowboys could keep only Jermey Parnell as a backup swing tackle and be forced to try putting rookie Jeff Adams on the practice squad.
In short, I currently project nine Yuglies on the 53-man roster. They all have upside and can play multiple positions along the o-line.
Smith, Free, Parnell (LT/RT), Nagy, Bernadeau (G/C), Livings (LG/RG), Costa (C/G), Arkin and Leary (G/RT).
Only time will tell what happens leading into and during the 2012 season, but I am truly excited about the young talent found on the Cowboys roster, especially at offensive-line. I'm excited about the variety of starting lineups that could come out of training camp depending on the outcomes of some fierce competition. I'm excited at the prospect of having the Yuglies, a young and hungry group fighting for their jobs, and all of them with the upside of getting better every day with a head coach that is all about being great every day. I'm excited that it won't be the oldest group of high-priced mercenaries preparing for the battles in the trenches...the only time that works is in movies like The Expendables.