From the beginning of the 2013 season, the move by the Dallas Cowboys to sign veteran guard Brian Waters looked like a brilliant move. He brought his experience and talent to an offensive line that had a rookie, Travis Frederick, starting at center and a former practice squad player, Ronald Leary, seeing his first NFL action at left guard. His presence at right guard seemed to be a stabilizing factor on the often suspect Doug Free at right tackle, leading Pro Football Focus to have Free graded for several weeks as the best tackle in the league. While you may not buy into PFF's grading system, or at least the accuracy with which it is applied, there is little question that Free, and the line as a whole, was playing much better.
Then came the game against the Detroit Lions on October 27th. And halfway through the season, Waters was gone with a triceps injury. This sent a shudder through Cowboys fans, as that meant that Mackenzy Bernadeau, the player Waters pushed out of a starting job, was going to have to step in and replace him.
Shades of 2012 passed before many eyes, reminding us how Bernadeau and Nate Livings had been brought in to play the guard positons, and were seen by many to have both been failures. Although some (notably Bryan Broaddus at DallasCowboys.com) maintained that Bernadeau was not as bad as many thought, most of us (and I include myself) felt that the team was much better off with Bernadeau out of the linup, and sincerely hoped we would never see Bernadeau have to move up from the backup job he managed to retain. I feel that the line is the key to the success of the offense, and always has been. So I was among the mournful who contemplated life with Bernie starting.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but I want to say this: Mr. Bernadeau, I sincerely apologize.
The line has not fallen apart with him in for Waters. In fact, there are signs that some parts of the offense, namely the running game that we have all been pining for most of the season, are better with him in there. Bob Sturm looked at the role that played in the come from behind victory against the Oakland Raiders on Thanksgiving in his weekly Decoding Callahn post (which he is calling Decoding Garrett again since he believes Garrett is doing more than just relaying the plays from the booth), and he has some very strong praise for the work Bernadeau did on the long run by Lance Dunbar in that game.
Now, as Dunbar hits the hole, look at Bernadeau just bulldozing his man back. Perfect work here.
(To see the illustrations, make sure you click the link above - and if you haven't, consider making Sturm a weekly must-read.)
Speaking of the rushing game (and Bernadeau's possible impact on it), there seems to be a trend going on. In the four games since he took over the starting job, the Cowboys have rushed for 36 yards against the Vikings (in a game where the offensive pretty much went totally to the pass early), 89 in the blowout on the bayou against the Saints, 107 in the first game after the bye against the Giants, and 144 against the Raiders. And in those four games, the Cowboys are 3-1. Coincidence?
Perhaps. There are still four games to play, but I like where things seem to be heading. And not just for the stretch run coming up. With Tyron Smith continuing to show he is one of the up and coming left tackles in the league (he is noted for handling the blind side protection of Tony Romo while working on an island, letting the tight ends go over to help out Free), the left side of the line is already playing well in both phases of the offense. Fredbeard has proven he is worthy of that first-round pick the team spent on him, and Leary seems to be getting over some of the red-shirt rookie woes that were plaguing him earlier in the season. Free has been more inconsistent since he got off to the hot start, according to PFF, but he still is doing a better job than he was last season. And with Bernadeau filling in capably for Waters, suddenly the offensive line may be at least workable. Given the youth involved on the left side, there is even reason to hope that things will improve into the next couple of seasons with the current lineup. From left to right, the current ages of the starting line are 22, 24, 22, 27 and 29. If there is improvement rather than dropoff going forward, this could hold together for a while. And consistency is important in O line play.
As I said, PFF's grades do not always seem to reflect what really happens on the football field, but when they align with things like how Sturm evaluates the game, I feel better about using them for comparisons. According to them, Bernadeau is grading out as a +4.7 for the season, including +2.4 for the Raiders game. But he has only played four games as a starter, and accumulated 443 snaps overall. Most starters who have played the entire season have accumulated around 850 snaps. Based on that, Bernadeau would be expected to grade out at around a +8.8, which would put him somewhere in the top 12 or 15 guards in the league.
After the past couple of years, I don't think anyone can really complain about that kind of performance. Another statistical site, Football Outsiders, has a different ranking system where they look at the offensive line as a whole. They rank the Cowboys at 15th in the league in run blocking, and 12th in pass protection. Again, after the rather pitiful performances prior to this season, those are rankings I think the team can live with now, and build on. And as I indicated above, the trend seems to be going in the right direction.
I don't know what Brian Waters wants to do next season. He certainly graded out well himself, and the improvement in the line seems to be driven more by Leary getting his feet under himself than anything else. I certainly think the team has to consider discussing a possible return for Waters, if the price is right. Should the team choose not to try and bring Waters back (if he is so inclined, which is not at all certain), then they would be looking at a situation where they may have the five starting spots on the offensive line set for next season. This would let them have a spot to draft a young guard, but with starters all accounted for, they don't have to go with a high draft pick, freeing those first two or three rounds to go with, say, defensive line, defensive line, and perhaps, defensive line.
But Bernadeau has turned what to do about guard into options, not necessities. With at least four more games to go, he may make things like whether to go after Waters again totally irrelevant. And I will not be the only one having to eat a wee bit o' crow.
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