The 2012 Cowboys and the 90s teams both feature unheralded LGs named Nate. Coincidence? I think not.
This offseason, many of us were disappointed in the Cowboys' failure to fortify the interior of the offensive line in free agency or to spend a high draft pick on the likes of a David DeCastro. This last week's offensive struggles, which all begin with Dallas' makeshift line, have allowed an army of naysayers to crawl out of their little cubbies to offer a resounding chorus of doomsday prophecies and "I told you so's".
In response, I'd like to remind you of the Cowboys lines in the 90s, to whom shortsighted historians have given the lion's share of credit for Emmitt Smith's extended greatness. Listening to this revisionist history, one might be led to believe that the team started five first-round draft picks, with a couple of seconds and thirds as backups. Perhaps a bit of real history is in order. I want to focus on the 92-93 Cowboys, who boasted the league's most feared running game, so it's safe to say that their offensive line was in good working order. They were, in fact, a fearsome bunch.
But they weren't made up of particularly high draftees. Across the front were LT Mark Tuinei, a UDFA initially brought to camp in 1983 as a defensive tackle; LG Nate Newton, another UDFA who had bounced around the league for a couple of seasons before settling in Dallas (where he stuck largely because they Cowboys were so desperate on the O-line), center Mark Stepnoski, a 1989 third-rounder; RG John Gesek, a tenth-round draft choice by the Raiders in 1987 whom the Cowboys picked up as a "plan B" free agent prior to the 1990 season, and RT Erik Williams, taken in the third round in 1991. In 1993, Gesek gave way to Kevin Gogan, who the Cowboys took in the 1987 draft's eighth round. In 1993, Stepnoski was injured in week 13, and Gesek took over at center for the remainder of the season and the Super Bowl run.
A strong argument can be made that Williams was the only physical specimen of the group. The rest were undersized (Stepnoski and, to a degree Gesek), or physically limited (Tuinei, Newton and Gogan). Yet they became one of the best offensive lines in recent memory, clearing the way for the NFL's leading rusher three consecutive years (1991-93), and doing a solid job keeping Troy Aikman clean (although he was sacked 23 and 26 times in 1992 and '93, respectively).
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To my mind, the poster children for those offensive lines were the right guards, John Gesek and Kevin Gogan. As we've seen, neither guy had much of a pedigree. As eighth- and tenth-round selections, neither would have been chosen in today's seven-round draft system. Think about this for a moment: as much as we decry the Cowboys' lack of investment in the offensive line in recent years, four of the top six guys on those dominant 92-93 lines would have been UDFAs; the other two were third rounders.
I have long felt that Jerry Jones's mental model of the ideal team makeup is derived from those teams. Because the 90s Cowboys managed to create a dominant line without investing a slew of high draft picks, I believe Jerry doesn't believe it's necessary - or a wise allocation of draft picks - to do so. Clearly, a dominant line can be built by using reclaimed and salvaged materials. So, what has kept them from engineering a repeat?
I think its the offensive line coach. The Cowboys offensive line coach from 1989 to 1992 was Tony Wise, an energetic and meticulous teacher who deserves a lot of credit for the team's early-90s turnaround. He took a bunch of fringe players and, working with strength coach Mike Woicik, made them into Pro Bowlers. Sound familiar?
But here's the rub: Wise needed three years to work his magic. And the improvement didn't follow a steady upward curve; there were some scary weeks in which they regressed badly. In week three of the 1991 season, for example, the Eagles came to town and completely dominated the Cowboys in a 24-0 win, reserving a specially potent can of whoopass for the offensive line: by the final gun, the Cowboys had managed only 90 total yards and Aikman had been sacked eleven times (!!) for a total of 67 yards in losses. Pundits loudly proclaimed that Aikman was never going to survive behind this line, and all but dismissed Dallas' chances. But that proved more an aberration than the norm; ultimately, the team finished with the league's leading rusher and receiver and, in terms of completion percentage, its second-rated passer.
In 2012, it's clear the Cowboys are banking on a similar O-line transformation, one based on superb coaching more than elite draft status. In Bill Callahan, I think Jason Garrett has his Tony Wise, a coach capable, over time, of molding free agent types into a strong, and perhaps even dominant, unit. Indeed, watching Bill Callahan work with the offensive linemen throughout camp, I'm reminded of Wise, both in terms of his pedagogical acumen and work ethic, and the staggering size of his task: this line has a lot of work to do, but it has the guys to make it happen.
How might we handicap the offensive line position battles? A few scattered thoughts:
We know who the starters are: Unless a Pro-Bowl interior lineman in his prime comes free and agrees to a below-market contract, I think the five starters are clear: Tyron Smith, Nate Livings, Phil Costa, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Doug Free. What we don't know is when - or whether - they will cohere.
The tackles are (mostly) set: Smith and Free are backed up by Jermey Parnell, an athletic project who is progressing and has looked pretty good in camp, and acquitted himself well against the Raiders. The burning question here is whether they will retain Pat McQuistan as the other backup OT. Parnell can play the "swing," so it's possible McQ could be a casualty, especially if they bring in a backup center. If they don't I think he'll stick, as he's been taking an increasing number of center snaps. In his first tour of duty, he was a special teams regular. Combine that with backup RT and OC duty? That's a lot of bottom-of-the-roster versatility.
Questions at guard: The gameday roster usually features a guard-center swing; David Arkin, who has probably received more training camp snaps than any other player - and at both positions - is the likely lad for such duty. Rookie UDFA Ronald Leary is another candidate, although he has leveled off in the last week, especially against interior quickness. Guys like Ratliff and Crawford give him fits. I can't see them keeping three backup guards, which portends a Derrick Dockery dismissal.
The wild card: With Bill Nagy now officially out, the lone OC-OG swing candidate is Kevin Kowalski. Unfortunately, we haven't seen him because of tendinitis in his ankle. If "Killer K" can log some preseason time, he has a chance to claim that spot. Sadly, there has been no indication thus far that this might become a possibility; unlike other rehabbing players, he hasn't even been seen working with trainers on the sidelines. Assuming that he can't make it back in time, I see the O-line battle playing out something like this:
OT: Smith, Free, Parnell, *McQuistan
OG: Livings, Bernadeau, Arkin, Leary
OC: Costa, *veteran backup. McQuistan
As this suggests, the Cowboys will take only nine O-linemen. I'm basing this largely on the depth on the defensive front seven, where someone like Adrian Hamilton has more upside than a Dockery. If they only keep nine, then McQuistan is in a battle with someone currently on another NFL roster - a more solid backup OC option than anybody they have at present. Although Arkin can probably come in and play for a quarter, having him start at center for a stretch of regular season games is a scary prospect, and one I think it too terrifying for the Dallas coaching staff to contemplate. If I were a betting man, therefore, I'd place my hard-earned dough on another team's late cut, with McQ getting the boot.
What do you think, BTBers? Love this list? Hate it with a passion? Then hit the comments section and let us know!