Will the offensive line be the weak link for the Dallas Cowboys again this year?
After an offseason that has seen mostly good news, the Dallas Cowboys had a shadow of gloom cross the sun. It has been announced that free agent guard Mackenzy Bernadeau will be out two to three months with hip surgery.
Bernadeau was signed to provide some experience and hopefully an upgrade in performance for the interior of the Dallas offensive line. His acquisition was met with some controversy, mainly over whether he was really an adequate player to bring in. Despite those kinds of misgivings among the fan base, he and fellow guard signee Nate Livings must have been seen as providing enough improvement in the interior of the offensive line that the Cowboys did not use one of their draft choices to acquire an O lineman. With this development, that whole strategy is suddenly called into question.
There are actually several questions, most deriving from the bigger one of "What now?" Since I am not fond of the alternative of running around in panic, rending my clothes, and throwing ashes on my head, I thought it would be a good time to try and get all the various things that the team must look at on the table.
Follow me through the jump to go over the issues - if you can do that without hurting something.
Before looking at what alternatives the Cowboys have to address this situation, there are some other questions about why this happened and why the surgery is happening now. Josh Ellis at DallasCowboys.com points out that Bernadeau had problems with injuries in 2011, and it cost him.
He ran with the first-team offense at right guard in the club's first three preseason games, but a bout with turf toe sidelined him for the end of the exhibition schedule. The club inserted backup Garry Williams into the starting lineup, but he suffered a season-ending injury of his own.
With Bernadeau still hobbled, the Panthers had to look outside the organization for help at the guard position, and signed veteran Geoff Hangartner on Sept. 5, only a week before the regular season began. Hangartner played well, and stole the job from Bernadeau, who would go on to start only one game all season, replacing an injured Travelle Wharton at left guard against the Falcons in Week 14.
There's a lot of people "wondering" whether the team knew that he had some hip issues beforte he signed with the Cowboys. Bryan Broaddus tweeted that the injury happened while he was working out with the team this offseason - after he had signed. Clarence Hill confirms that and adds that Bernadeau initially suffered a hip flexor injury early in the offseason program, but he suffered a set back in his rehab program, forcing him to undergo hip surgery on Saturday to repair a torn labrum.
The timing of the injury is not at all good. He could miss the start of training camp and the first two preseason games. If so, he is almost certainly not going to be ready to step into a starting role, as Ellis observed.
Not only will he need time for his surgically-repaired hip to recover, but it's unlikely he'll be in playing shape after such a long layoff, which could ultimately force the Cowboys to begin the season with another starter at guard.
The torn labrum is an unfortunate turn of events, but the team cannot change the past. Now, it is time to move forward. Just as the team cannot go back and use a draft pick to get a guard/center prospect, it can't do anything about the timing of the surgery. The focus becomes how the team deals with likely not having Bernadeau available to start on September 5 - if that was the real plan to begin with.
Obviously, the best outcome would be to have a starter who is better than just competent emerge from the candidates already on the roster, assuming that Nate Livings will have one of the starting spots handled. Just to review, the usual suspects from last year are David Arkin, Bill Nagy, Phil Costa and Kevin Kowalski. Added to them are the UDFA signees, Ronald Leary, Harland Gunn, and Jeff Adams (who may be able to slide over from tackle).
Of course, this group is now going to have to account for two of the interior positions, since the center slot also has to be filled. This is where the team needs to have some hope that the combination of Mike Woicik and Bill Callahan can provide some significant improvement in performance. I think the best hope is for a couple of the experienced players from last year to step their game up enough to provide protection for Tony Romo and open holes for the running backs. It would be nice for a rookie to emerge and win a starting spot, because that would mean they were pretty darned outstanding, but it is highly unlikely that it could play out that way. It took a first round draft choice to do that last year.
There is also the option of bringing in a veteran off the street. An option that has already been brought up in the comment stream from the original article on this is to bring back Montrae Holland ("Lumpy" to the BTB cognoscenti). He played well last year after coming back a size or two smaller and with the motivation and wisdom gained from being cut before the season. He also knows the playbook.
The negative aspect is that he in essence would be a reversal of what the team is trying to do. The team is getting younger, churning the roster and seeking to improve across the board. Holland would at best be a holding maneuver - and to a certain extent indicate a disheartening lack of progress among the younger players. The same could be said for just about any off-the-street free agent signed - and how good are any of them likely to be at this point?
Of course, it is not certain that Bernadeau was going to be the starter if he was healthy. If he was always an insurance policy, then the team is not much worse off than it was, and he does have time to come back and get into shape during the season. This would still be valuable, since his services as a backup would become more likely to be needed as the weeks roll on.
This is not a good development, but at the moment it does seem a good bit less than catastrophic. If there always was a bit of an "iffy" quality to Bernadeau's role on the team as a potential starter, then this is really a somewhat marginal development. There are still about three and a half months to go before the first game of the season, and this is almost certainly not the only roster position that will be affected by some kind of injury. It certainly does not rise to the level of Raymond Radway and his last second trip to IR as far as long term-impact to the player.
There is no need to panic, although no one is going to stop you if you insist. It is just a sobering bit of news to digest. If things do not go so well, criticism may be justified, but while this might have been handled a bit better, it does not look like a total goat rope. So far.