At present, Nate Livings (number 71) is the only sure thing in the interior of the Cowboys' offensive line.
Since the end of the 2007 season, when the interior of the Cowboys' offensive line was outclassed by the Giants in a shocking home loss, those three positions have been one of the team's foremost weak links. In the intervening years, we have suffered through the Cory Proctor experiment (2008 pass blocking grade from Pro Football focus: a painful -18.9); the precipitous decline of Leonard Davis; Kyle Kosier's drop-off due to a barrage of injuries and, finally, in 2011, an influx of not-ready-for-prime-timers. Is it any wonder that Tony Romo has missed 13+ games in that time frame?
In 2008, the problem was a reflection of the team's larger "stars and scrubs" roster-building philosophy. Behind good, solid vets like Kyle Kosier sat scrubeenies like Proctor, who were perhaps capable of finishing a game or two before being exposed. When Kosier went down for an extended period, Procter became an obvious weak link and the entire offensive operation suffered. With global changes in the team's personnel philosophy (competition throughout the roster) comes a new problem, a two-sided coin with one side shiny and the other befouled. The shiny: the Cowboys have quite a lot of depth at the three interior line positions; if a starter were to go down for several games, his replacement wouldn't likely provide a significant drop-off. The befouled: its not certain any of the starters are better than average NFL players. As a result, Dallas' offensive coaches, O-line coach Bill Callahan in particular, have a lot of sifting to do.
Much of this is because of uncertainty surrounding Mackenzie Bernadeau, who underwent hip surgery last month and isn't expected to return until training camp. When he and Nate Livings were signed as free agents back in March, most observers assumed that they would immediately be penciled in as the starters at right and left guard, respectively. When the Cowboys subsequently neglected to add a center during the draft, it appeared that the undersized incumbent (and the object of much of BTB's collective ire), Phil Costa, would again start at the pivot. When reports surfaced in May that Callahan had Costa watching tapes of his former center with the Jets, the similarly undersized Nick Mangold, it seemed to cement Costa's position as starter.
Is it really that straightforward? What, then are the permutations? Make the jump to see more variables...
Not all pundits share the position that Costa will be the starter in 2012. In a recent interview, the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota noted that the Cowboys had wanted to give Bernadeau a chance to compete with Costa for the starting gig (Carolina drafted Big Mac in 2008 with the intention to move him to center, so he practiced at the position extensively in his rookie season). Let's assume for a moment that Machota is correct and Bernadeau figures deeply into the Cowboys' plans at center. What would that mean for the position he would vacate in the depth charts of our imaginations: right guard?
If Bernadeau were to beat out Costa, who would line up next to him? To my mind, the most obvious candidates would be Bill Nagy, David Arkin and Ron Leary. With Big Mac sidelined during mini-camps and OTAs, Arkin and then Leary received first-team reps. Both come with question marks, however; Arkin (as O.C.C. reported in a recent post) has used the offseason to develop more "anchor strength," which was such a problem last year that the Dallas coaches decided he needed a redshirt year to work on his strength. Leary, on the other hand, has plenty of anchor, but is a rookie with a knee sufficiently damaged that, despite his draftable grade, all 32 NFL clubs were scared off this April.
Compounding this uncertainty, of course, is the fact that all we know about either player has come from offseason work, which is strictly regulated by the new CBA. The respective offensive and defensive lines aren't able to engage in any real contact until training camp, so its only then that we'll be able to judge Arkin's new-found anchor or Leary's ability to mix it up with the big boys at the pro level. As for Nagy, training camp will be the first real assessment of whether, and to what degree, he has recovered from the fractured ankle suffered against the Patriots last October. If he's fully recovered (and hasn't lost too much weight room time), he could prove another viable option at both guard and center.
At present, given the above and other uncertainties, I see the following as possible outcomes, with the names more or less in depth chart order:
OC: Costa, Kevin Kowalski, Bernadeau, Nagy
RG: Bernadeau, Arkin, Leary, Nagy
With left guard as a constant - indeed, Livings seems to be the one sure thing in this equation - I count fourteen equally viable possible starting combinations (can you tell me with any certainty that any of these candidates is truly head-and-shoulders above any of the others?). If we include Kowalski or, gulp, Montrae Holland, as candidates at guard or if Livings is nicked or doesn't measure up for some reason, then the possibilities grow exponentially.
And there is one more potential variable. With Bernadeau sidelined, Machota proposes, the organization is more likely to keep him at guard, which will necessitate bringing in another candidate at center. The message, according to Machota, is clear: the Cowboys aren't content with Costa at center. If Machota is echoing something he has heard at Valley Ranch, and the Cowboys' personnel guys are scouring opposing rosters' centers, then the offensive braintrust must contend with another set of permutations, meaning that there could be almost twenty possible OC-RG combos for Callahan and Co. to sort through. If I were him, I'd include an extra-large bottle of Tylenol when I'm packing for Oxnard. It looks like he'll need it.
What do you think, BTBers: how would you solve this complicated set of variables? Would it require something stronger than Tylenol?