Last offseason, many of us were disappointed in Dallas' failure to fortify the interior of the offensive line with a big-name free agent or two or to spend a high draft pick on the likes of a David DeCastro. The 2012 season's offensive struggles, particularly the moribund running game, were attributable in no small part to poor O-line play. This offseason, therefore, a legion of Cowboys fans have climbed onto their soapboxes, proclaiming that fixing the offensive line must be offseason priority number one.
I'm not sure the organization agrees. Indeed, Jerry Jones indicated in his recent sit-down with reporters during the Combine that he's much more comfortable with his Big Uglies than are Cowboys fans, largely because Tony Romo's mobility and Jedi-like 360-degree vision compensate for a "porous" front five. In response, fans and pundits have grimaced and shaken their collective heads at Jerry's continuing neglect of the team's weakest position group.
Although oft covered, certain aspects of this topic merit further consideration. In the past month, we have had handful of thoughtful posts on the state of Dallas O-line. Together, they provide a compelling analysis of the situation and proffer a compelling (if not media-friendly) thesis that runs something like this: the plan upon which they embarked a year ago is a good one and needs to be seen through to its conclusion - one that couldn't be achieved last largely due to the multiple injuries the group suffered.
I'd like to begin with a post by Dr-P, who garnered honorable mention honors the last time this awards show came to town and this time around (I know, I'm ruining the suspense) takes home FPOTW laurels. Here, he cogently articulates a set of factors - coaching, continuity, talent, and depth - that he considers integral to upgrading the OL. In doing so, the illustrious P not only summarizes the recent literature that addresses each category, bur also gives us a terrific rubric for evaluating the Dallas O-line. I'll address them in reverse order herein:
Depth: The optimal situation at any position is to have veteran starters and young depth. Preferably, this depth consists of players with upside who the team is grooming for (and who are capable of succeeding in) starting positions. Ideally, these youngsters will be as good as, if not better than, the men they replace. If we look at the offensive line roster, this is mostly what we see: veterans (Livings, Bernadeau, Free) backed up by second- or third-year players (Leary, Arkin, Parnell, Weems), many of whom the team thinks may have more upside. While we may not be in love with the players in question, the basic equation is positive.
Talent: This is where Cowboys Nation gets its collective underoos in a bunch. But 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).
To my mind, the poster children for those offensive lines were Gesek and Gogan. 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 high-round 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. None of them could approach Tyron Smith's elite skillset. One must ask: were they any more "talented" than Dallas' current bunch?
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 premium draft picks - to do so. Clearly, a dominant line can be built by using reclaimed and salvaged materials. So, what kept them from engineering a repeat in recent seasons? Two things: continuity and coaching. And wouldn't you know it, those are the next two categories on Dr. P's list of key factors.
Continuity: In another, equally enlightening, post - part IV of his excellent "Trend Analysis" series - the selfsame Dr-P takes a closer look at our favorite O-line whipping boy, Mackenzie Bernadeau. Dr-P uses Pro Football Focus's game-by-game grades to trace out the arc of Bernadeau's season, which he divides into four discrete sections:
- Part I: Big Mac opens the season after having no offseason due to his recovery from surgery
- Part II: Now healthier, Number 73 makes major improvements, finishing at a high level.
- Part III: Ryan Cook is hurt, so Bernadeau moves over to center, and then back to guard
- Part IV: A repeat of Part II: Back at RG, he starts slow and improves every game to end at a high level (again)
In short, Bernadeau improved steadily, then fell off when he was forced to make a position change, then improved steadily again. From this evidence, we must wonder what an entire offseason's worth of work (and steady improvement) would have meant for his in-season game. Extending this to the entire unit, the good doctor writes:
We should note that the OL, as a unit, was much better by the end of the season, compared to early in the season...The key is to get the starters healthy and practicing together. They did not play as a unit until the last week before the opener. That lasted for 3 snaps. The OL took some time to adjust, but they did. They were playing well until Cook went down with another injury. Yet again they adjusted over time
Thus, Dr-P suggests, the real issue is less about talent than it is continuity. When these players are given time together (and with their new coach), they show steady improvement, to the point where they begin to play well. Because of this, and because of the aforementioned depth, Dr-P concludes, next season, the team "can work on continuity more than evaluation." And this brings us to our final factor...
Coaching: Again, allow me to begin with some history. 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. Given their recent behavior, 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 last summer, I was reminded of Wise, both in terms of his pedagogical acumen and work ethic. A recent post by CaliforniaCowboyy, this week's honorable mentions, confirms this. CC is a coach who apparently worked on a staff with some other coaches who worked Callahan when he was the head coach at Nebraska, so he's able to relay some great anecdotal info about Dallas' current O-line coach.
Some of the highlights, to my mind, were that Callahan's "work ethic is second to none." He's a "ball-busting perfectionist" - but in a good way. The dude doesn't take shortcuts. Along these lines, "Bill coaches guys HARD and is not the warm and fuzzy type." I noticed this in Oxnard; Callahan never took a snap off, and won't let his guys do so, either. Because of these traits, CC adds, "I'm confident we will see a lot of improvement in year two under Callahan. More than any other unit in football, the offensive line relies on chemistry."
Due to an almost comic series of injuries to the O-line in the Spring and Summer, that chemistry (which must be bred of a continuity that never developed) was in short supply throughout 2012. Nevertheless, CC, like Dr-P, notes that, as" the season went on, I saw noticeable improvement." I think the Dallas brass share that assessment. So, if the Cowboys again fail to sign a free agent headliner or to draft a first round lineman, its not because they want to repeat 2012's horrifying narrative. Rather, its because they trust Callahan, and his new assistant coach, Frank Pollack - in conjunction with strength and conditioning mastermind Mike Woicik - to coach ‘em up, just as Wise and Woicik did in the early nineties.
Hey, it worked before. We can only hope that they approach the same results this time around...
BTBers: hit the comments section and join me in congratulating this week's winner, Dr-P, and thanking all the other fine FanPosters for their superb work!