In the offseason, the one area of the team I hoped the Cowboys would fix was offensive line. As I pointed out in a very long fanpost, if we want to have any hope of reaching the Super Bowl -- which certainly should be the goal with Tony Romo, Demarcus Ware, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, Demarco Murray, Felix Jones, Sean Lee, Jay Ratlitt, and others on the team -- we are going to have to have a high quality offensive line. Not a marginal line. A high quality offensive line.
Of the 8 Cowboys teams to play in the Super Bowl, each of those O-lines had a MINIMUM of three Pro Bowlers, and I believe a majority (I haven't looked back to my detailed post) had 4 or 5 Pro Bowlers among the front 5. That's just how the Cowboys have always done it.
The last time the Cowboys had a quality offensive line was 2007, with Flo, Kosier, Gurode, Davis, and Columbo, and they blocked our way to 13-3, best in the NFC. (They also fit the 3-Pro Bowl minimum, with Flo, Gurode and Davis getting nods.)
We all know that line broke down. Flo went first, and the rest followed over the next few years. This offseason we finally let Kosier go because of injuries and age.
We have replaced them with a line that is a sad joke. We have one potential Pro Bowler along the line, Tyron Smith. He's moved to Left Tackle, where he should be. But, as this is his first season there, we should expect some growing pains. Smith was great last year, but he still gave up quite a few sacks. Still, this is the one spot on the line where optimism is deserved.
At left guard, we potentially have Nate Livings, an undrafted 30 year old who was rated one of the worst O-linemen last year, and who was no longer wanted by a playoff-bound Cincy team. Of course, Livings would be an upgrade over who's backing him up, but he's hurt and out for our first pre-season game. So until he can practice and play steadily and show us something, we should have no optimism that he will be an upgrade over Montrae Holland from last year. Behind Livings, what do we have? David Arkin? He's one of the highest drafted of our linemen -- 4th round? -- but he didn't have enough to be activated for any games last year, and it's not as if he's blowing people away this year. Phil Nagy? (See below.) Derrick Dockery? Dockery was brought in last year in hopes he could hold down the left guard spot, but as soon as he started playing, he got hurt. Montrae Holland supplanted him and lasted until he tore a triceps muscle at the end of the season. Another year older does not suggest Dockery will be any better.
At center, we have undrafted Phil Costa, who everyone hopes and prays is better than last year. Of course, it would be hard to be worse, as he ranked among the worst centers in the league last year. And behind Costa we have no one. Kevin Kowalski is hurt, and in danger of losing a roster spot. (Also an undrafted guy.) Phil Nagy has a high ankle sprain in the same ankle he broke last year. Nagy is a 7th rounder who couldn't even start for his Wisconsin team, and whose departure allowed us to re-sign a slimmed down Montrae Holland and immediately upgrade the line. Also behind Costa is Mackenzy Bernadeau, another unhealthy guy who we'll talk about at right guard. And David Arkin, who needs circus music to accompany his comical shotgun snaps. What if Costa gets hurt? (He missed at least parts of a couple games last year as I recall, with Kowalski subbing.) Or, perhaps worse, what if Costa remains healthy?
At right guard, Mackenzy Bernadeau, a 7th rounder I think, was signed when the Panthers had no interest in keeping him. Bernadeau has the distinction of winning some contest for strongest man, but that didn't translate into a starters job in Carolina. Fans nicknamed him "the turnstyle" for the way he let rushers into the backfield. We have no idea if Bernadeau can do the job because he's had hip surgery and hasn't really been able to practice. Yet the team is relying on him to anchor right guard and back up Costa at center. Does anyone think he'll really be an upgrade over an aging and injured Kyle Kosier this year? Behind Bernadeau, we have the underwhelming Arkin, and Ronald Leary, an undrafted lineman with a degenerative knee injury. Leary might become the best of this motley group, but does anyone think he can anchor a championship line as a rookie?
At right tackle, we have Doug Free, a 4th rounder who showed enough promise to get a big contract to play left tackle, only to regress badly last year, esp. in the second half of the season. He MAY rebound at right tackle, but this is not guaranteed. There are plenty of ferocious rushers from that side in the NFC East, plus we have the Steelers and Ravens and other tough teams on the schedule this year. Despite these considerable warts, Free likely rates as our second best lineman.
When the team suffered lots of injuries along the line in camp, we quickly brought in Montrae Holland, Derrick Dockery, and Daniel Loper. Problem is, the team signed the worst two of these guys, neglecting to ink the only legitimate starter -- Holland -- among them because of money.
Despite this horrible state of affairs, there is a lot of talk about this or that, as if any of it is going to matter when teams start to overwhelm our undermanned line. Or, optimism is put on the shoulders of Bill Callahan, who I think is a great coach. But he can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Without an offensive line that can give Tony Romo time, Romo may well get injured again (as he has been in two of the last three years). We have capable backup Kyle Orton, but no one would think Orton could do better behind the same porous line.
We also signed Lawrence Vickers, who's a great addition. But without linemen up front, will our running game break out? Will Murray remain healthy? We know Felix Jones can't stay upright, and Philip Tanner is not demonstrating durability.
If the line is bad, Jason Garrett can't really call the offense he wants. It's hard to throw the ball deep because there isn't time. Without the deep threat, teams stack the box and stuff the run. The offense doesn't go anywhere.
If you look at last season, Dallas' offense finished in the middle of the pack. That's pretty pathetic given the exceptional skill players we have. The reason? A weak offensive line.
I've been biting my tongue so far, waiting for some pre-season games to see if somehow a miracle could occur. But after Bob Sturm's excellent post this morning, I decided I'd vent now and hope I'm proved wrong.
We have a very daunting schedule this year. Last year, we lost 4 times to NYG and Philly, and barely beat Washington (on two late-game plays by Romo and Bryant). Now that Washington has RGIII and not Rex, we could lose one or both of those games too. Plus the Steelers, Ravens, Bears, New Orleans, Atlanta ... I'm not optimistic. I think it's possible we could finish last in the NFC East -- if Romo got hurt, we should count on it.
We might also squeak by well enough to make the playoffs (turnovers would help a lot here), but even if we do, the O-line isn't going to lead us anywhere.
Is it too late to do anything? I would feel a little bit better if we brought Montrae Holland back. Make Livings and Bernadeau beat him out for starting guard spots. Let Bernadeau actually compete with Costa at center. Even if Holland didn't start, that would tell me our free agents were doing better than Holland did last year, and I'd trust the depth far more than I trust any combination of Arkin, Nagy, Leary, Dockery, Loper, or others. It's really stupid for a billion-dollar franchise to try to cheap out on the offensive line.
You are welcome to convince me otherwise. I don't think I've been this pessimistic about the Cowboys' chances for many years.
I have other reasons for pessimism.
Third WR will be a hole unless we sign someone. Some of what we have might develop, as Austin did, but none of them look like quality options for 2012. That will allow teams to double Dez and Austin and get to Romo before anyone is free. We'll be even more screwed if Dez and/or Austin miss games, which has happened each year they've been together. I think Plaxico Burress could be a bad inflluence on Bryant, so I don't know if he's the answer. But someone needs to be.
Like Bob Sturm (post link above), I worry about safety, which can sink you even if your CBs are much better. Our opponents are masters at the deep pass. Without a great safety in the back, we could easily get burned. Church is fine close to the line. Can he really roam the deep turf too?
I also worry about RB health. Murray, Jones and Tanner were all hurt last year. Why do we think it won't happen again? And CB health. Claiborne keeps getting nicked, and Jenkins won't be ready for weeks. Fortunately, Carr is a beast.
What do I like that's new? Brandon Carr. Carter/Connor instead of James/Brooking. Vickers. Crawford. Dez's much better conditioning. James Hanna (who will become a real weapon if he just blocks well enough to be trusted to play). Tyron Smith at left tackle. Mo Claiborne. Jenkins as depth CB.
If only we had an offensive line .... we might win something.