Now that two teams have played the latest edition of The Game to End All Games, drawing the curtains on the 2012 NFL season, its time to put the Cowboys campaign to rest. I'll do so with the final installment in five-part series on decisions, moments or (over) reactions that had significant long-term repercussions over the course of the 2012 season: a review of the story that became the 2012 campaign's overriding narrative: the woeful state of the offensive line. To my mind, the root of the problems up front can be found as far back as April, at the draft, and in May and June, during OTAs and mini-camps.
An earlier post in this series engaged with the flip side of the trading-up-for-Mo-Claiborne: losing out on a top interior lineman. The Cowboys, you'll recall had kicked the tires of several offensive guards and centers by inviting them to Valley Ranch for pre-draft meetings. The majority of these players - OG-OT Cordy Glenn, OC Peter Konz, OGs Amini Silatolu, Kevin Zeitler and Jeff Allen - were thought to be late-first to mid-second rounders. Trading up for Mo meant missing out on one of these guys (as it turns out, all were off the board by the time Dallas' would have been on the board in the second round, which is why Jerry Jones proclaimed that the Cowboys would have taken LB Bobby Wagner).
In many ways, the trade-up could be thought of as the "decision" that I'm writing about today. But there were a series of nasty events - mostly injuries - that complicated and compounded the decision. Many of these happened during May and June's slower news cycle, so we're less inclined to remember them, but they had long-lasting effects. First of all, free agent guard Mackenzie Bernardeau suffered a hip injury that required surgery early in the offseason. Later, he needed minor knee surgery that further slowed his progress.
Then, just as Bernadeau was scheduled to return, Dallas endured an almost comical series of injuries to interior linemen. To wit: The Cowboys arrived in California without the services of Bernadeau and Kevin Kowalski, who was nursing a bum ankle. Then, Phil Costa and Bill Nagy went down with a tweaked lower-back and a high ankle sprain, respectively. They were were soon followed by Dallas' other free agent signee, Nate Livings. As it turned out, all three linemen missed the remainder of training camp; therefore, when Bernadeau returned to the lineup, his new linemates weren't there to greet him in the huddle.
The best offensive lines aren't necessarily those with the best athletes or most imposing specimens; rather, they are the ones that have played together long enough to develop a second sense about what their linemates are going to do. More than any other position, these guys play by "feel," especially when picking up stunts or passing a defensive lineman to the guy next to them. In short, continuity is key. Given the strategy to invest in low-round picks and have new offensive line coach Bill Callahan "coach 'em up," the only way to build a competent O-line was by developing that continuity.
Sadly, this proved impossible; Callahan might not have had any prospective All-Pros to work with along the interior OL, but he had a long list of viable options, which promised at the very least a heated summer-long competition. But the football gods reacted as if the Dallas lineman had violated an Indian burial ground; in the first ten days of camp, a deep depth chart became an empty table. Pause and consider this for a moment: in Oxnard, Callahan didn't have a single practice wherein his projected starters were all on the field at the same time. We'll never know whether this plan might have worked (watching Callahan in training camp gave me hope that it could), or what these players were capable of, because they simply never had a chance.
By season's end, the probable starting five (with Costa at center) had played a grand total of 126 snaps, out of a possible 1,136. That's just a hair over ten percent of regular season snaps; if we factor in the missed together-time throughout OTAs, mini-camps and training camp, we can get a picture of just how far behind the eightball Dallas was in the continuity game. By comparison, Washington started the same five offensive linemen in 15 of its 16 regular-season games, and the ability of that line to develop comfort and familiarity had a lot to do with the success of the Redskins' top-ranked run game, despite the fact that their right tackle, Tyler Polumbus, was a significant liability.
What started as merely one of training camp's leading narratives became the story of the season. And it's a nasty story, not one for the faint of heart. The Cowboys ran for fewer than 50 yards seven times (averaging 2.08 YPC in those games) and had 65 or fewer on nine occasions (for an average of 2.36 per). That's shocking. Certainly, some of these paltry totals were due to the ‘Boys disturbing tendency to fall behind early; still, on three of these occasions - Tampa Bay (23-38), Cleveland (21-63) and at Cincinnati (24-49) - they attempted to "establish the run" to no avail: 2.2 yards per. Yikes.
Because the running game couldn't mount the semblance of a threat, the entire offense was put on Tony Romo's narrow shoulders early in the season. By game four, a home tilt against the Bears, it was clear that, if Dallas was going to move the ball at all, it would be because Romo had gone into Romo-wan Kenobi mode. Exhibit A came just before halftime of that Bears game; after playing it close to the vest for the better part of the first frame, the contest threatened to get out of hand after Romo's initial interception, the much-ballyhooed pick six to Peanut Tillman. When the Cowboys got the ball back, Romo almost single-handedly engineered a scoring drive that got them in the end zone just before halftime. While this was a great series to behold at the time, it offered the team a negative lesson: to win games with this O-line, Romo was going to have to be exposed. And, as it turned out, an exposed Romo was a beat up Romo; although he was only sacked once, he was pressured incessantly, and had to peel himself off the Cowboys stadium turf on innumerable occasions.
The downside of putting it all on Romo came against Cleveland. We've already seen how moribund the Cowboys' running game was on that particularly gloomy Sunday, but the Dallas offensive line was an equal-opportunity bunch, acting with largess against both run and pass. The Browns amassed 7 Sacks on Romo, for 56 yards in losses (to this must be added an addition ten quarterback hits) and registered six tackles for loss. The sacks were distributed widely across the Cleveland defense; eight guys had at least half a sack. Clearly, the Browns, as a group, had very little trouble getting penetration and pressure, especially in the first half, and rarely had to send the house to do so.
What's disturbing about these totals is that, by the time they played Cleveland, the Cowboys had altered their game plan. Although they like Kyle Orton just fine, it was clear soon after the Chicago bloodbath that priority one had to be to protect Romo until such time as the offensive line could offer better protection. A good example is the late-October road game at Carolina. Romo completed his first nine passes, a perfection tempered by the fact that only two of them went for more than ten yards, with the longest being fourteen. For the game, he had what, at first glance, seemed a good game, finishing 24-34 with no interceptions. However, the Cowboys completed a grand total of one pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air.
Mid-season, Dallas rarely threw deep, probably believing that, because of a deficient line, longer passes would rarely, if ever, have time to develop. Indeed, some ugly statistical evidence supports this. One of several areas where the Cowboys' passing game failed to measure up to 2011's standards was in the completion percentage of passes 20 or more yards downfield. On passes that traveled from 21-30 yards, the completion percentage plummeted from 40.5% in 2011 to 15.4% this season; on passes from 31-40 yards, the dropoff was from 46.7% to 25%. Its hard to complete deep passes when they don't have time to develop.
As a result, the Cowboys were much less likely to convert second- and third-and-long situations. Recognizing this, the Cowboys' offensive braintrust clearly opted to avoid getting in such untenable down and distances by playing a higher percentage game. To protect both the ball and Tony Romo, the Cowboys decided that the best chance they had to win was to play smallball, mixing runs with short, underneath passes - all in the interests of getting to survivable, make-able third downs. The downside? With a paucity of explosive plays. Dallas would to grind out multiple third-down conversions to score points.
And grind them out they did, occasionally in record fashion. The Cowboys notched 30 first downs against both Baltimore and Cleveland (and 28 in the first game against the Giants). Amazingly, the last time the Dallas offense had 30 first downs was week one of the 2008 season, also against the Browns, in a dominant offensive performance when they had their way against an overmatched Cleveland defense. The time before that? The 1999 week one overtime thriller at Washington. Since it previously took nine years to twice collect 30 first downs, two games with 30 first downs in six weeks feels like a meaningful stat moreso than an historical anomaly. Indeed, one might argue that it the defining stat of the 2012 season.
In the season's final six weeks, Dallas totaled between 18 and 22 first downs. To my mind, this was largely the result of improved offensive line play; deep and medium-range passes returned to the Cowboys arsenal as Garrett was able to dial up calls that had heretofore been suicidally risky. The Cowboys offensive line performed at season;s end at a level that I figure they assumed they would to start the season--and that they'd grow from there. Sadly, they never got the chance, and another year in Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware's marvelous careers was wasted...as early as June.
Missed any of the other installments? Check them out here:
Part I: Tagging Anthony Spencer
Part II: Trading up for Mo
Part III: No replacement for 'Tellus
Part IV: Going thin up the defensive middle