Opposing Views: Will Phil Costa Be The Cowboys' Center In 2012?

One of the hot-button topics among many Cowboys fans these days is the center position. Today, we're bringing that discussion to the BTB front-page, but not in the form of a standard article. Instead, we've assigned two writers, CotySaxman and yours truly, the task of arguing the case for and against Phil Costa.

Both of us get three turns each to present arguments that support our positions. You, the BTB community can weigh in on the debate in the comments section and also vote for the winning position.

After the break, the two of us present our opposing views: Will Phil Costa be the Cowboys starting center in 2012?

Point: OCC

Counterpoint: CotySaxman

Costa wasn't as bad as people think, especially in the second half of the season.

The Cowboys have been stockpiling flexible talent.

I'll use the Pro Football Focus grades to make my point here because they are the only service so far that provides an assessment of each individual along the line.

Through the first six games of 2011, Costa had a cumulative grade of -11.0 per PFF. That is pretty bad. But after that very rough start, Costa's grades stabilized. In fact, over the next ten games, Costa had a cumulative grade of +1.3, which is slightly above average.

So what changed between the first six games and the remaining games? I could argue that as he gained more experience, his game improved, or that the strength & conditioning program made him better, but those were probably just minor things.

The biggest impact was that Montrae Holland rejoined the line at left guard in week 7. Holland compiled a cumulative grade of +5.9 for the season. The combination of Nagy and Dockery, who played left guard at the start of the season, had a cumulative -13.2 grade.

Playing next to a gimpy Kyle Kosier on the right and an overmatched rookie on the left caused a lot of instability in the interior of the line, and Costa took the brunt of the criticism. With the stabilizing presence of Holland, Costa's game improved markedly.

I believe Costa's performance down the stretch gave the coaches confidence in Costa's ability to hold down the center spot in 2012, and is also one of the key reasons why the Cowboys did not bring in a veteran center.

Phil Costa will be the starting center for the Cowboys in 2012. Get over it.

Let’s talk about David Arkin, Bill Nagy, Kevin Kowalski, Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ronald Leary, and Harland Gunn. All of these names belong to interior linemen brought to Dallas since the 2011 draft that remain with the team. The significance of this fact is that Phil Costa came to Dallas as an undrafted free agent after failing to inspire confidence in any of the 32 teams over 7 rounds and 255 selections. In 2011, the decision had been made to part ways with Andre Gurode, which likely played a large role in the team’s decision to draft two interior linemen (Arkin, who, according to our own Birddog26, has been training at the OLine Academy to become a center, and Nagy, who’s considered as likely to play center as guard) and bring in fan-favorite UDFA Kevin Kowalski.

The Cowboys have not shown confidence in Costa being the long-term solution at center. Their continued attention to the position in the draft and free agency indicates, more likely, that they are looking for alternatives. Does the fact that the Cowboys did not draft along the offensive line indicate their confidence in the current group? No, not necessarily. More likely, the positions along the line are simply not valued as highly as the quicker, more nimble positions. And despite the low value placed on center play, the team is still not sufficiently satisfied with Costa to allow him to keep his position, uncontested.

Contrary to popular misconception, the Cowboys activity along the interior offensive line indicates a keen dissatisfaction with their 2011 level of play. While still unwilling to spend highly on the position, the Cowboys have nonetheless committed cash resources and roster positions to a wide-cast web, searching for better alternatives. It doesn’t take a second-round pick to upgrade from an undrafted free agent.

Almost all first year starters at center struggle, but they usually get better in the following years

There were six centers drafted in 2010, the year Costa went undrafted. The first two were immediate starters (Maurkice Pouncey and JD Walton), but none of the others have yet emerged as candidates for starting positions at Center.

19 centers were drafted between 2009 and 2011. Last year, only seven of those 19 drafted players started the majority of games for their team as the center. Additionally, one undrafted free agent from those three years also started: Phil Costa for the Cowboys.

Those seven draft picks were Maurkice (PIT) and Mike (MIA) Pouncey, both first rounders, Alex Mack (CLE, 1st), Eric Wood (BUF, 1st), Max Unger (SEA, 2nd), J.D. Walton (DEN, 3rd) and Jason Kelce (PHI, 6th).

In their first NFL season, only Alex Mack had a positive grade (a phenomenal 19.5) out of this group. Mike P. (-1.7), Maurkice P. (-4.2), Kelce (-14.6) and Walton (-16.8) all had negative grades. Unger and Wood didn't started at guard and only took over the center position in their third year.

If you use Costa's +1.3 grade for the last 10 games last year as a measuring stick, Costa compares pretty well to some of these highly touted draft picks.

Consider also that an offensive line usually can only tolerate one rookie starter per year before performance deteriorates. The Cowboys last year operated with up to three rookies, and we were lucky that Tyron Smith played as well as he did.

The point here is that almost all rookie offensive linemen struggle in their first years. Costa was no exception, but like most other rookie linemen, he'll likely be better in the following year.

Back in 2010, six centers were selected to either start or compete for positions on NFL rosters. Costa was not among them. In order, Maurkice Pouncey, J. D. Walton, Matt Tennant, Eric Olsen, Ted Larsen, and Erik Cook were selected in the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 6th, and 7th rounds. The expectations for these men should be suitably higher than for Costa. How have they fared so far?

Maurkice Pouncey and Eric Olsen became instant starters, while the other four have yet to make an impact and challenge for the starting position in the middle of the line. Two of them were waived by their original teams. One of the bottom four has caught on as a replacement starting left guard (Ted Larsen).

These are all centers rated (in most cases, substantially) higher than Phil Costa. When looking at the career trajectories of the late-round picks from that year, I’m not stricken by a warm-and-fuzzy Costa-for-President feeling. Rather, I look at the one successful player, who cracked a starting line-up by way of a position change, and see little hope for a second success story coming out of the center position at the bottom of the draft.

As Cowboys fans, we’ve witnessed more than our share of UDFA success stories, but, looking back, has Phil Costa shown any of the flashes of greatness that Tony Romo or Miles Austin showcased? More importantly, did either Tony or Miles show flashes of complete incompetence as some have attested to with Costa?

The extra beef on Costa's right and left side in 2012 will make him play much better.

All the strength and conditioning in the world won't fix his shotgun snap.

Last season, Brian De La Puente of the Saints played his first ever NFL snaps, ended up playing in 16 games and starting 12 as the center for the Saints. Along the way he accumulated a very good +6.2 grade. De La Puente was an undrafted free agent in 2008, and in the three years prior to joining the Saints, he changed teams six times, never getting a single NFL snap, before landing with the Saints. So how did that guy manage a +6.4 grade?

In New Orleans, De La Puente (6-3, 306) was sandwiched between All Pro guards Carl Nicks (6-5, 343) and Jahri Evans (6-4, 318) two really good and pretty big guys.

For too long, fans have looked at the center position in isolation, but it's the whole interior O-line that has to work as a unit. This offseason, the Cowboys got bigger, perhaps better, but certainly younger along the interior O-line. It's unlikely that NTs and DT will find it as easy to blast up the middle as they did last year. Costa (6-3, 314) will play next to Nate Livings (6-5, 332) and Mackenzy Bernadeau (6-4, listed at 308, Garrett said he's 325) or potentially Ronald Leary (6-3, 324). In the interior O-line, size does matter after all, and the Cowboys feel like they did enough by signing three big guards that will help Costa and the interior line to hold up against pass-rushers that come right up the middle.

While we're on the subject of that Washington Redskins game, let’s talk about the center position. No other position on the line handles the ball on every play. No other team has the ability to generate turnovers through mental mistakes the way that the center can.

We’d seen enough of that with Gurode, hadn’t we? Tony Romo has already proven his improvisation ability; therefore, I see no benefit in maintaining the elements of unpredictability that have necessitated such displays. Over the course of his career, Gurode was never able to ease the nerves of Cowboys fans, cringing before every shotgun snap (and did I mention that we use the shotgun quite a bit?), much like we’ve done with field goal kicks in years past.

Regardless of the strength and conditioning coach’s impact this offseason, I’m not seeing any reason to expect improved accuracy from Phil Costa. Years of playing with the French-Canadian snapping machine L.P. Ladouceur did nothing for Gurode; why should we expect improvement from Costa? Bill Callahan’s teaching everybody to play center. It’s likely he’ll find someone more reliable than Costa.

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