Even if a running back is the most talented in the league, his greatness will not shine if his offensive-line is terrible. Those who try to debunk this "myth" often point to Barry Sanders. While the human highlight reel often made defenders look foolish, he also has the most runs for negative yards. Many people place the blame for this dubious distinction purely on his offensive-line, but the truth is this was because his backfield dancing didn't always work out. It is often overlooked that Barry actually had a good o-line for much of his career. But let's talk Dallas Cowboys.
DeMarco Murray had a phenomenal rookie season cut short by injury. In the thirteen games he played, Murray averaged only 12.6 carries but nearly surpassed 900 yards rushing. And though injuries to fullback Tony Fiammetta and some interior linemen hampered Felix Jones' season, he did improve on his 2010 yards per carry average. While there are reasons for concern regarding the Cowboys young offensive-line and the one-year overhaul Jason Garrett attempted, it is often overlooked that this line (which began the season with three first-time starters) actually performed better than the old 2010 edition. Though DeMarco Murray is clearly talented and should have a bright future, his highlight reel from 2011 would not be possible if not for the hard work of the Dallas Yuglies.
The Cowboys lineman that has drawn the most criticism recently is starting center Phil Costa. The reasons for this unabashed bashing? Usually, it's his negative PFF grade for 2011. While many have shown that the first-third of the season was the reason he ranked so low in overall grade, it is still often overlooked that he had positive grades for two-thirds of the season. It is also forgotten that in the first-third of the season Costa had a rookie guard starting beside him. It is also often forgotten that he was a first-year starter. Everyone accepted the fact that this young line would have growing pains, but some seem incapable of forgiving Costa his mistakes. For those that use DVR or NFL Replay to go back and study the play of the offensive-linemen, it becomes pretty clear that Phil Costa actually showed promise in 2011 and continues to improve week to week.
But for those that refuse to believe fans like myself, those that think Phil Costa was a starting caliber center in 2011 and will once again win the job in 2012 based on merit (not the lack of another option), please watch the DeMarco Murray video after the jump. I would suggest you watch Murray's highlights the way I watch football games. During the first viewing, enjoy the incredible display of vision, angles, speed, and power that Murray showed as a rookie. But then rewind and/or watch the clip/plays several times again, this time concentrating on what the offensive-line was doing.
DeMarco Murray Dallas Cowboys Highlights (via GainsMedia)
Let me first be clear, I am very excited about DeMarco Murray. While the blocking on these highlights certainly helped him gain yards, Murray did a lot of work behind the line of scrimmage (using vision to find the cut-back lanes) and also racked up plenty of yards after contact or after making defenders miss. However, close study of this video also makes certain other things evident. Virtually every Murray highlight on this video is actually also a Phil Costa highlight. While other blockers also did a great job (Tyron Smith is very fun to watch), the following write-up is centered on the Cowboys center. Phil Costa is wearing #67.
00:10 - While this clip does not show Costa, it does show that Montrae Holland lacked something that Costa displays everywhere else in the video. The young man plays to the whistle and finishes his blocks. Jason Garrett has gone on record stating he wants hungry linemen that do exactly that, and in this clip, you will notice Murray is breaking the tackle of two Rams defenders and because Lumpy doesn't work to the final whistle, he allows a third defender to come in and make the play.
00:25 (:32 replay) - Costa sticks with his stretch block (one of the hardest blocking assignments depending on the defender's position) and provides Murray the chance to cut-back and take advantage of the pile-up created by Kyle Kosier and Tyron Smith.
00:40 - What appears to be the same play design (though not the same success by the right side of the line) Costa again sticks with his block, winning the battle and allowing Murray a chance at the cut-back lane. Side note, once again, Tyron Smith is a beast.
1:20 (1:26 replay) - Costa pulls after helping with a chip block and manages to slow down the pursuit of a second defender as well.
1:33 - Costa is solid at the point of attack, helping Kosier double and again stopping the pursuit of another defender. Once again, Tyron Smith is a beast.
1:50 - It's tough to tell, but it appears Costa is the lineman that has completely anchored himself even while being savagely attacked by a choke-hold.
1:53 - Costa helps Holland with a chip-block and again works to find another defender to block (though none appears).
2:03 - Costa gets pushed back off the snap and has a defender behind him during a stretch block. While it isn't pretty, he does stop the defender from making a play in the backfield.
2:19 - Blitzing linebacker gets a great jump on the snap and Costa gets beat, but he still manages to force the defender to the opposite side of the play.
2:23 - Costa ensures back-side pursuit can't get to the play and then goes hunting for a second block.
2:28 - Murray manages to make London Fletcher (very talented linebacker) look foolish, but he would not have gotten downfield if Costa doesn't "finish the play" and block #95.
3:00 - Can't see how the play begins, but you can see Costa trying to run downfield and slow down a linebacker that is clearly faster than him, but he keeps working and does slow him down a bit.
3:02 - Costa gets to the second level and seals out the linebacker.
3:20 - This is a quick pass to Murray in the flat, and you will notice Costa is in the second level sealing a defender from getting to the outside.
3:23 - While it isn't pretty and doesn't last for long, Costa manages to get an open-field block on a defensive-back to spring Murray on this big play.
3:27 - Holland pulls and the defensive tackle lined-up over him gets a great jump into the backfield. Despite the penetration and though losing ground, Costa manages to hold off the defender and eventually seals him from the play.
3:32 - Costa gets push up the middle though the run goes to the outside.
3:37 - Tough to see Costa, but he has sealed the left side of the running lane.
3:46 - Costa anchors and stuffs defensive-tackle (can see him in front of Romo).
3:55 - Everyone does their job, (Holland, Costa, Kosier all packed together) and John Phillips gets a great lead block.
4:06 (4:20 replay) - Costa gets a good push off the line of scrimmage and then seals the running lance as Murray passes right next to him. Definition of finishing the play, Murray is nearly ten yards downfield and Costa is still driving back the defender. Fiammetta and Witten do a great job as well.
4:43 - At first, Costa gets pushed back, but his second effort sends the defender a few yards off the line of scrimmage before getting pancaked.
4:48 - Tough to tell which linemen is Costa; he is either the one (left of screen) keeping #96 from getting anywhere near the play, or he has pulled and is dominating #98 (center-right of screen) at the point of attack, allowing Murray the opportunity to bounce it to the outside.
4:54 - Costa pushes the defender off the line of scrimmage, but gets turned around as the defender tries to escape. Making sure to finish the play, Costa manages to seal the running lane using his back.
Clearly, this is just a small sample of successful plays. I am not claiming Costa never got beat or that he is one of the best centers in the league. However, it does seem pretty clear that Costa did his job more often than many fans seem to think. You might also note that Costa had a great game against the Rams, the same game Murray set a franchise record. Phil Costa is a strong, feisty, and mobile run-blocker and does a great job getting into position to seal out defenders. He never quits on a play. While his pass-blocking and ability to hold 3-4 nose tackles at bay are a work-in-progress, I am excited to see him continue to develop. Perhaps this will get some fans to rethink their position on Costa's ability to play in the NFL. Perhaps it will only slightly reduce some peoples' worries. But if nothing else, it does show why I continue to defend Phil Costa.